Socialists and trade unions

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By Ben Petersen (Fightback – Wellington)

Socialists have a long relationship with trade unions. There are exciting chapters of history where socialists have led important working class battles, such as the fight for the eight-hour working day. Today, socialists will often meet in union offices and often will seek to involve unions in our campaigns.

This is not just a coincidence. The socialist movement has important contributions to make to the trade union movement, and needs to consider these organisations to achieve radical change.

Common ground

The socialist movement is a project for revolutionary change. Socialists want to overthrow today’s society based on exploitation, and build a new world where ordinary people have control over their lives and communities. The agent for this change is the working people themselves.

Trade unions are organisations for working people. Trade unions seek to organise workers in a particular industry (such as teachers, construction workers, or dairy workers). A trade union should then represent workers and their interests. Unions fight on the job for better pay and conditions, or for better legislation from government to protect workers or strengthen their bargaining position.

The overlap is obvious. Socialists seek to empower working people to change the world and trade unions are organisations for working people to defend their interests. Socialists participate in trade unions because they provide an important space to build an alternative.

Unionism is a living question

Often socialists talk about trade unions as a question of the past. Historical events are remembered and eulogised, but can be presented in a way that is divided from the present. It is important to remember the important events in union history, such as the great strikes in 1913 or the lockout of the waterside workers in 1951, but this is not to rote learn a historical narrative. Socialists study the radical past to learn lessons to build from today.

Radical unionism is not an identity. Radical unionism is not confined to particular historical periods or militant industries. Unionism is not confined to white men in overalls. The first strike in New Zealand was by Maori forestry workers who demanded to be paid in money or gunpowder, instead of in rations.

Some industries have long traditions of unionism, such as waterside workers and the West Coast miners. But today’s economy is much broader than these industries. There are thousands of workers in education and health care, or in service industries.

For socialist unionists, it is important to be part of building the unions in these areas. Capitalism is a system that serves to exploit. This exploitation changes and develops over time. Capitalism in Aotearoa today has important education industries, and a vast civil service that administers capitalism as a whole. To challenge capitalist exploitation, it is important for trade unions to be in all sectors of the economy.

When workers are organised they can exercise their collective power. A unionised workforce can therefore dictate the terms of their exploitation by going on strike or refusing to work for shit pay, work long hours, or in unsafe conditions. This process is a challenge to the authority of the capitalist system.

Reforms for revolution

Of course, socialists have a vision that looks much further than limiting the forms of exploitation that working people submit to. Any radical that is true to their ideals dreams of overthrowing capitalism and building a new world based on co-operation and social ownership. So for some, this can seem contradictory – if unions are fighting to reform and limit exploitation, is it really a place for revolutionaries?

Fighting for socialism will be a long and complicated process. Achieving a revolution will not be by simply convincing a majority of people that change is necessary, but by building a movement that makes change possible.

One of the challenges in fighting for revolutionary change will be a question of confidence. If working people do not have the confidence in their ability to fight and win a pay rise, do we think that working people can have the confidence to fight for fundamental social change? Winning these small gains can help to show oppressed people their collective strength, and only this strength can open the road to more fundamental change.

Even to be aware of this collective strength is not enough. The power of working people has to be organised and developed. To enable a world where working people run their own communities will need organisation. A socialist future will be built on participatory democracy. To make this democracy possible, working people will need the experience of participating in and organising their workplaces and communities. If working people don’t yet have the organisation to win a pay rise, it won’t be possible to have the organisation to run an alternative society and an economy to support it.

If socialists are serious about working class power, we need to understand that this will not just fall into place. It will need to be built.

Problems of unions

Part of the challenge is that this is not a simple task. The existence of unions is not enough. Many unions today are run by bureaucrats that are more interested in a cushy job than in working class power. Proportionally, wages have decreased for decades, but unions have failed to resist the slide. Failing to protect working people, the union movement has struggled to make itself relevant for working people today. Union membership has decreased to the point were as few as 7% of workers in the private sector are union members.

In many unions, the leaders are divorced from the workers that they are supposed to represent. Union officials often haven’t worked in the industries they nominally represent, and are on wages that are well above that of the industry they organise. Spaces for union members to democratically engage in their union are weak or non-existent. Unions have become ‘professionalised’, where the services of union officials replaces the activity of activists in workplaces.

Socialists support trade unions as organisation for workers to fight for their interests. Therefore, socialists do not support practices that undermine unions, and seek to challenge them.

The militant minority

Socialists support unions because we believe in the power of ordinary people. The role of a socialist in a union can be varied. Socialists will always try to be good unionists at their work, but this can take different paths, depending on a range of factors.

Being a union radical can mean assisting with initiatives in the union and building organisation for the next fight with the boss. It could mean opposing a rotten leadership and building rank and file networks to challenge entrenched bureaucrats. Sometimes socialists may work for unions to contribute to building the organisation as an official.

But always, radical unionists seek to build the capacity for the working class to fight against their oppression.

See also

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