What Socialists want in the Trade Unions

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 3:06

Trade unions are first formed to achieve simple aims: to win higher wages, to seek shorter hours, to improve working conditions. But these simple goals are only the beginning. As unions become stronger, as the working class becomes
larger, new and far more complicated tasks are forced upon them.

In common with all thinking militants in the labor movement, socialists try to understand the connection between the original basic aims of the trade unions and the broader problems which concern organized labor. Historically, socialists have always been among the most active organizers of the trade union movement. There have been quaint cases of misguided socialistic sects who viewed the active role of other socialists in the unions with misgivings or outright hostility. But this was a queer aberration in the main line of socialist development. In some countries, powerful socialist parties existed before the appearance of strong trade unions; there, socialists took the lead as the founders of trade unionism.

Socialism and unionism are the two main interflowing streams that form the modern labor movement. Only in the United States, distinct in this respect from every other democratic nation, is the labor movement confined exclusively to the union movement.

A Driving, Unifying Force

Socialists are not merely sympathizers or mild supporters of the labor movement. They look to the organized working class as the class that will lead society to peace and freedom, a not unambitious view! In organizing the working class, unions perform a task that no other institution can accomplish as fully. On the job, at the machine, or bench they organize the working class to defend its most basic, elementary and continuing interests. The worker rises early in the morning to rush to work. He returns toward evening. The best part of his mature life is spent at the job. The union is as important as the work-day; through it, the worker fights to live through these long days in human dignity; and he stands with his union to examine and oversee the conditions under which he works. This is the common concern of all workers and cuts through every distinction and difference. It is a driving, unifying force that brings the working class together, regardless of race, regardless of politics, regardless of religion.

The best unions have always tried to organize the broadest sections of the working class and in the socialist view, the labor movement as a whole must try to bring in the vast majority of the class. The closer the union movement becomes identified with the majority of the working class, the more it tends to become a class, labor movement. Socialists have always fought for the formation of industrial unions to organize the mass production industries because they want the broadest and most powerful form of union organization.

Today, this principle is a mere commonplace. But before the rise of the CIO, it was the socialists together with sympathizing union activists who carried on the task of educating the union ranks to the need for industrial organization. And oft times, they were vilified, expelled, and fired for standing up for industrial unionism. In the end, their view proved correct.

Against Discrimination!

And because they view the unions as an organizing backbone for the whole working class, socialists seek to eradicate every last vestige of race discrimination and prejudice in the labor movement. Negroes and other minorities must be admitted to full and equal membership in every trade and every industry; they must receive every chance to be promoted into the skilled trades and to receive apprenticeships; and they are entitled to equal pay for equal work, equality in seniority and other job rights. And the unions, in unifying the working-class, must strive to eradicate discrimination not only within its own house, and on the job, but everywhere in society. The white worker will remain enslaved so long as the Negro is an object of discrimination.

On this count, the labor movement has made many strides forward. The CIO has always outlawed discrimination; now the united labor movement proposes to move in the same direction. Socialists stand for the most thoroughgoing enforcement of the union position against discrimination and support the formation of special Fair Employment Committees inside the unions to carry it out. If the union movement is to organize and unify the working class with all its divergencies, with its differing national origins, differences in race and religion and politics, it must be deeply and sincerely democratic.

Democracy permits the voluntary coexistence of all tendencies in the working class on a free, voluntary basis. Socialists, as consistent defenders of democracy, oppose every and all racial, religious, or political qualification for union membership. It is easy to be a democrat in theory but a little harder in practice. Socialists detest the program and principles of the Communist Party. We were the first to warn the labor movement against Stalinism, even when America's leading labor officials were collaborating with it in the unions.

But, however much we hate their views, we defend their democratic right to maintain, them, and oppose disabilities against members of the CP in the unions; we defend their democratic right to speak, to maintain membership, and to hold office. At the same time, socialists campaign against their political views and seek everywhere to defeat them in elections. Democracy is a need of all society. But in the unions it is indispensable if they are to remain loyal to the working class and dedicated to its interests.

With the best will in the world, union officials (like officials everywhere) tend to rise above the working class, to climb into higher pay brackets, to win status and security denied the average worker, to escape from the strain and monotony of factory life, and to form a closed machine-corporation in the union with common bureaucratic interests. Democracy acts as a counter-weight to this tendency; but not just democracy as a system of formal, constitutional rules, but living, spirited, fighting democracy.

Socialists stand for democracy inside the unions, for real democracy; for the right to form organized caucuses and groups to press for changes in policy and program or to change the union leadership. The biggest shortcoming of American unionism is its lack of full democracy. Only a few unions tolerate organized dissent; most labor officials expel opposition groups out of hand.

Against Racketeering!

Racketeering is recognized as a deadly cancer on the body of organized labor. Naturally, socialists like all good unionists want to destroy corruption and keep unions clean. Nothing can be more despicable than those who would turn the union from a noble, liberating institution into an organized grafting machine. The best antidote to racketeering is democracy; a membership that defends and retains its democratic rights against every attempt to infringe upon them. Such a membership will be able to fight off racketeering.

But where democracy is destroyed or turned into a shallow form, the union is helpless before every bureaucracy, honest and dishonest. To keep the unions clean, Socialists propose to keep them democratic. Those who are afraid of democracy argue that the unions cannot tolerate caucuses within them because they must remain "united" against the bosses. But unity does not mean unanimity. If a union is to remain in the hands of the membership and not become the plaything of a clique it must allow full democracy. The significance of democracy becomes more marked when we consider the deeper meaning of unionism, as examined from the socialist view and as revealed in actual life. So far, we have mentioned the unions in two aspects:

1. As fighting organizations of the working class.
2. As a democratic assembly of the working class, representing all its wings and varieties.

Pure and Simple Unionism

The unions begin by fighting for wages, hours, and conditions. But is that all there is to unionism? One philosophy, now almost obsolete if not extinct, came to be known as "pure and simple trade unionism." It held that unions should concentrate solely and exclusively on the problems of the job and trade; it sneered at long range goals; it minimized politics; above all it opposed support to any party, least of all to a labor party. In the socialist view, such "pure and simple" unionism is not only shortsighted and narrow; it would render unions incapable of facing reality. Socialists advocate the most active participation of unions in politics; labor needs unions but it also needs its own political party.

Of course, socialists want labor to form a socialist party but at the very least, the unions should found their own labor party. And of course, once labor has its own party it must adopt a platform dealing with all the issues of the day and seek to win the people to its side so that it can win the majority.

The arguments that raged between these two points of view in the past can be ignored because real life has so effectively exploded "pure and simple" unionism. AFL and CIO alike are deep in politics. They have not formed a party but they have set up their own political organizations, the PAC and LLPE. And these political organizations are compelled to speak out on every question; and they must try to get the support of all the people. The CIO and AFL remain tied to capitalist politics and support capitalist candidates. But the issue is no longer: politics or no-politics. It is bourgeois politics or working class politics.

For Social Democracy!

Unions today stand for political democracy; socialists propose that they go further and fight for social democracy, as well. Society cannot be truly democratic when a small minority of capitalists monopolizes ownership and control of industry and grasps the lion's share of wealth and industry. Political democracy and industrial autocracy are incompatible.

Toward the great ideal of social democracy, the extension of democracy into every sphere of life especially into industry, the trade unions have an inspiring role to play. Even within everyday capitalist society, they have won for the workers a share in control over industry. Through unions, shop committees, plant elections and grievance procedures one gets a glimpse into the rudiments of controlling industry. The union can become the most effective instrument in preparing the working class to run industry.

The socialist view on unions can be summarized as follows:

1. For the formation of free and independent unions to fight to raise the standards of the working class.
2. For organization of the whole class without discrimination.
3. For full democracy including the right to form democratic caucuses.
4. For equal rights to Negroes and all minorities inside the unions and for defense of their rights in society.
5. For political action through the formation of a labor party.
6. For full democracy in society; for democracy in industry by the socialization of industry under workers' control.