Marxism at Work: What are Trade Unions?

Submitted by Tubeworker on 18 November, 2014 - 9:25

In the day to day functioning of capitalist society, workers are exploited. On an individual basis workers are weak and cannot fight back against the bosses so we have formed trades unions – organisations where workers combine together to fight for better conditions.  

Workers have common interests – better pay, better working conditions – around which we can unite in trades unions.  The only power we have is in our numbers, we are strong together.

The purpose of trades unions is to fight for the betterment of workers within the system and many unions fall into an acceptance of the capitalist order. Trades unions also build up a bureaucracy - a layer of officials, often unelected, which can act as a brake on struggle, and see their role as perpetuating the union as a set of structures (offices, finances, etc.), rather than as a weapon in the hands of its members.

So how we fight better for the working class is not simply a case of electing better leaders (although of course we should do that) but of organising the rank and file workers from the bottom up.
Off The Rails supporters in the unions campaign to make them fight more effectively for their members – and to make their decision making processes more democratic.

But, by themselves, unions cannot overthrow capitalism. As organisations based at the centre of capitalist exploitation, the workplace, they are the basic and fundamental organisations of working-class self-defence and counter-offence. But class struggle takes place on political and ideological terrains as well as on the industrial front. Ultimately in order to change society we need political action as well as economic class struggle.

Workers need political organisations as well as industrial ones. Socialists who believe that unions can be both industrial organisations and the bodies through which workers can fight for political power are called “syndicalists”. Off The Rails admires and is inspired by the legacy of many syndicalists, including Jim Larkin, Tom Mann, Victor Griffuehles, Bill Haywood, and others (look them up!). But we believe history shows us that workers are at our most effective and powerful when we can organise through political groups as well as unions.

 “Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Marx, Wages, Price and Profit)