The Central Role of Unions for Socialists
Marx and Engels, and the revolutionaries organizing within the First International correctly stated that it was absolutely necessary for any socialist organization to develop deep roots in the labor movement for unions are the first organs of the working class. Very early on, Marx and Engels combatted the sectors of utopian socialism, like the one led by Proudhon, who refused to support workers strikes, or the sectarian socialists like Lassalle who did not want to actively intervene in labor unions. Since then, the role of union activity in socialist organizations has been a point of constant debate and elaboration.
Traditionally, revolutionary socialists have sought to avoid two opposing dangers: first, to ignore or not get invested in the intervention in the labor movement, assuming that it is too “basic” to just fight for economic rights, leaving those “lower” tasks to the unions; second, to reduce the party activity to union intervention (to be a mere syndicalist party) or to reduce our intervention in the union to fight for wages and bread and butter issues (to have an economicist intervention). The role of unions and their huge potential for the class struggle is not just to fight for better working conditions, it is also to develop workers’ power and control, at the site of production and in society at large. This is why unions cannot be abandoned to union bureaucrats and need to be led by socialist workers. Furthermore, we know that unless we intervene and organize workers from below, union leaders will not even win good economic demands, they will end up making compromises with the employers on the back of workers and carrying out regressive reforms.
For Marx and Engels, the unions were to be the first “schools of communism,” teaching workers the nuts and bolts of the class struggle and political organizing. But the union struggle itself does not question the framework of capitalist exploitation: it will always result in a new contract agreement within capitalism. Socialists, on the contrary, not only question the degree and methods of exploitation, but exploitation and oppression altogether. Therefore, our role in the labor movement requires also to develop a socialist base, to build a socialist political consciousness among workers, and to put as a goal the elimination of exploitation altogether.
The Labor Movement in the U.S.
Today in the United States we have an added and qualitative consideration to take into account regarding our union intervention: workers have no collective bargaining rights at the national level unlike in the majority of industrial countries, they can only engage in collective bargaining at the local/workplace level where a union exists, and only 11% of workers have a union – an historic low.
Unions are under attack and on the verge of disappearance. We know that having a union is better than not having one. However, the labor movement as a whole led by the AFL-CIO cannot be defended as it is. There is a need to reform the unions with a radical program of struggle, workers’ democracy, independence from the corporate parties and a real internationalist and anti-oppression stances.
Our Program for Union Reform
Our program to reform the unions consist of three main points:
1) Democratization of union organizations;
2) Create fighting and independent unions,
3) Develop the unity of struggles, solidarity, and build socialist consciousness through union fights. As unions are the primary organs of the working class, we need to ensure that workers have a say, and control over their own organizations.
In order to democratize unions, we need to develop and share strategies and practices of how democratic unions operate among and across the various sectors and unions in which we intervene. We need to identify the most class-conscious workers from the rank-and-file and support them to fight for leadership. Our members should consistently push for rank-and-file participation in the decision-making processes of the union. But democratization of the unions is not an end in and of itself. Democratization processes allows rank-and-file workers to engage in political discussions among the membership, to organize reform caucuses to fight for leadership, to establish strike committees etc. and when the conditions allow it, to oust the most conservative, reactionary and bureaucratic elements among union leaderships. Democratization also allows the most conscious elements of the rank-and-file to push the union leadership to strike or take other forms of collective action; to fight for and win the demands of the workers, in particular for the demands of oppressed sectors, like women, immigrant or Black workers.
Our program centers the power on workers themselves. We reject the notion that we require experts, or Democratic politicians to solve the problems we face. We also reject the idea that workers have anything to gain by collaborating with management. We need independent unions, independent from the bosses and managers at the workplace, but also of those who advocate and receive money from corporations at the state and national level. Finally, through reforming and democratizing the unions, we can develop socialist consciousness in the every-day work within the unions. We can discuss politically with our co-workers on the importance of collective actions and decision-making, independence from the bosses and the capitalist parties, solidarity with other workers and oppressed sectors, and the importance and meaning of internationalism. For us the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia/transphobia is a union struggle.
Additionally, as we build for struggle within our unions, and take collective actions in our worksites, we raise the consciousness of the workers by demonstrating, through action and democratic decision making, how we ourselves can win the things we need through our own collective strength, and that ultimately, we can not only run society, but build our power from the bottom up, through a vision of revolutionary socialism, to defeat the capitalist state and create a workers’ government to build a new socialist society.
The Central Role of Unions for Socialists