Trotsky on trade union unity

Leon Trotsky wrote an article for the US Militant in 1931 on ‘The Question of Trade Union Unity’. The article is attached.

The article is about the attitude of the French communist trade union federation (CGTU) towards the reformist trade union federation (CGT). Unlike in Britain, in several countries – including France – trade union federations have been (and still are) organised along political lines, rather than having one federation for all trade unions.

Trotsky argues against those communists who don’t want to dirty their hands by uniting with reformists – and his argument is therefore relevant to modern-day proposed union mergers (such as between RMT and TSSA), where some RMT activists may feel that the union should not merge with the more right-wing and less militant TSSA.

Here are some key quotes:

General points:

“The question of the unity of the workers’ organizations is not subject to a single solution suitable for all forms of organization and for all conditions.”

“unity of action cannot be postponed until the unification of the trade union organizations.”

“we make no fetish of trade union unity ... It is not a question for us of a panacea”

We should want unity:

“Communists do not want the trade unions to be split but, on the contrary, are ready at many moment to re-establish trade union unity.”

“In the face of the ebb of the movement in recent years, people have accustomed themselves to the split; very often it has simply been forgotten. However, one could foresee that the revival in the ranks of the working class would inevitably revive the slogan of the unity of the trade union organizations.”

“The policy of the united front is one of the means of liberating the workers from reformist influence and even, in the last analysis, of moving towards the genuine unity of the working class.”

“The unity of the confederations would bring in its train a great influx of new members.”

“it is not we but the reformists who should fear trade union unity.”

Should a ‘left-wing’ union unite with a ‘right-wing’ union?

“up to now, Communists have never and nowhere motivated the splitting of the trade unions by the inadmissibility in principle of working with the reformists in the organizations of the proletarian masses.”

“To advance, under these conditions, the idea of the inadmissibility of working with the reformists in the mass organizations would be one of the most disastrous forms of sectarianism.”

Trotsky advocates saying to non-revolutionary workers: “Today you still believe in the reformist leaders whom we consider to be traitors. We cannot and we do not wish to impose our point of view upon you by force. We want to convince you. Let us then endeavour to fight together and to examine the methods and the results of these fights.”

“The unity of the two trade union organizations, even if the revolutionary wing remains in the minority for a time, would show itself in a short period of time to be favourable precisely to communism and only to communism.”

“A sure majority in a narrow and isolated trade union confederation, rather than oppositional work in a broad and real mass organization, can be preferred only by sectarians or officials but not by proletarian revolutionists.”

Conditions for unity:

“The task does not consist of each time proposing the united front formally to the reformists, but of imposing conditions upon them which correspond as best as possible to this situation.”

“The only conditions that we set have the character of organizational guarantees of trade union democracy, first of all the freedom of criticism for the minority, naturally on the condition that it submits to trade union discipline.”

Unity requires: “full freedom of groupings within the united trade unions where trade union discipline exists for all.”

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