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Trade Unions What are they for and how

do Marxists understand them?

Popular understandings of unions in society:
Popular understandings of unions in society tend to see them as one of a series of
agencies at work within something called the labour market, which is seen to be a
constant feature of modern economies. For instance, right wing free market economists
see unions as something that get in the way of the free operation of labour markets. From
this perspective, unions stop the labour market from working out Labour's 'natural price'
according to the laws of supply and demand. When the Tories attack unions, for example,
they attack them for distorting the economy and stopping it working efficiently, even
though their idea of efficiency means plunging working people into mass poverty and
condemning families to misery and destitution. For many, probably most trade unionists,
they are a defence mechanism in the same market something that defends their
interests against those of employers and enables them to get a fair deal at work. When
the TUC argues for the importance of trade unions, for example, it does so by
emphasising their role in creating more fairness in the workplace and limiting the worst
abuses of unscrupulous employers. There are elements of truth in both understandings.
Marxist understandings of the world of work
However, both perspectives miss a fundamental truth about the labour market that calls
for a different analysis. Labour markets are not natural, they havent been around for
ever and they are not playing fields in which the interests of different agents need to be
balanced to find a fair equilibrium. For most workers today, the world of work is
structured by an exploitative relationship in which they have to go to work or risk
destitution, and in which they only receive back a share of what they produce at work,
while the rest is turned into profit or surplus. The exploitative nature of this relationship is
also reinforced by the state and the law, which structurally favour the interests of business
and which reflect the real power relationships in the workplace.
In this situation, workers can attempt to shift this relationship more in their favour through
their ability to exercise collective power by threatening to withdraw their labour en masse.

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Marxist analysis offers a way of understanding this power that better reflects the reality of
the real relationships that structure the world of work.
Marxism and trade unions: defensive schools of struggle
Trade unions emerged historically as organic defensive organisations in response to the
development of the capitalist economy over the course of the eighteenth century, growing
out of friendly societies, temporary associations and guilds. Whereas in feudal economies
lords exploited peasants politically by forcing them to hand over a portion of their labour
under the threat of violent dispossession, capitalism exploits workers in a different way by
turning them into wage labourers. As wage labourers, workers are forced to sell their
labour power and skills in a market producing whatever capitalist businesses need to make
a profit. Their profits are based on returning to workers in the form of wages only a
portion of what they actually produce. Trade unions emerged as ways in which workers
could exercise some power within businesses by combining their forces and collectively
threatening to withdraw their labour. With the emergence of large-scale public sectors in
capitalist economies during the 20th century came extensive sections of the working class
who are not directly producing profits, but in capitalist economies, their employment
relationship is characterised by similar exploitative processes and the need for unions in
these sectors is just as great.
Marxists believe that trade unions are important because it is through the formation of
unions that workers learn to organise and struggle as they experience capitalist
exploitation and the appropriation of their labour by others. Just as the development of
complex large scale production in the form of big businesses gives workers an education
in how production could be liberated from capitalist control and run by workers, so trade
unions teach them to organise, struggle and make it possible to begin to understand
capitalist class relations. This is why Marx, Engels and Lenin characterised unions as
schools for the working class.
The limits of trade unions
But while trade unions represent a progressive development in enabling the germinal
emergence of class struggle at the point of production in the workplace, at the same time,
Marxists recognise that they are by their very nature limited in what they can achieve.
Unions emerge as defensive organisations that struggle over the terms of exploitation but
do not challenge the basis of that exploitation. They fight for higher wages and better
working conditions, or even more industrial democracy, but do not and cannot challenge
the system of exploitation as a whole which shapes their industries. To change defensive
struggles at the point of production into a challenge to the system as a whole, unions
need to be connected to a political party that explicitly challenges the power capitalists,
organised as a class, through their control of state power.
Marxism and the dual character of unions
Marxist writers have always emphasised that trade unions have this dual character, which
they carry as a result of their emergence from capitalist production. They have an
instrumental role through representing workers within the system but they can also play
an important part in developing class consciousness.

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How do unions contribute to the development of class struggle?

Through their activity in struggling to win or defend material things like wages, shorter
working weeks, better terms and conditions in the workplace, unions can teach workers
how to find and use their agency through organisation and struggles over everyday issues.
Struggle in and of itself does not necessarily result in raised consciousness. Winning
material gains is an important part of this process because it allows workers to see the
point of collective action. The process of raising demands, organising and exercising
collective power and winning material gains enables the development of greater trade
union consciousness.
But however militant a form it assumes, this consciousness does not automatically develop
into the kind of political consciousness that sees the necessity of challenging capitalist
exploitation as a whole what is called class consciousness. Workers consciousness can
and does remain dominated by trade union consciousness, whats sometimes called
economism, in which struggles remain limited by the horizons of enterprises and
industries and immediate struggles that dont challenge class power. While they can be
vehicles for developing and nurturing militant class consciousness, only a political party
organised for struggle over class power and connected to workers economic
organisations, can do this.
Yet under certain conditions, unions activity can contribute to developing the political
challenge to class power. For example, strike waves, including but not limited to general
strikes, can lead to a generalised class response organised through the apparatus of the
state, which in turn leads workers in struggle to see the need to tackle state power. Other
forms of mass action, organised by unions, can do the same thing. In Britain, the state
response to the general strike of 1926 raised class consciousness, as did the strike wave of
1968-1974. Both raised the question of who governed Britain and took place at a time
when the Communist Party and left social democrats offered working people an
understanding of capitalist state power. In these cases and many more, industrial
economic struggles taught workers to organise and fight, while interaction of these
struggles with the actions of political parties offering an analysis of political class power
meant that economic struggles could contribute toward generating the potential to
develop a wider challenge class power as a whole.
What is the role of Marxists in trade unions?
Marxists have a complex and difficult role in trade unions. Their key leadership role is to try
to raise the level of consciousness and organisational power within these schools for
struggle to the highest possible level. But its no good Marxists preaching from the
sidelines. Leadership is exercised by being one step, but only one step ahead of the
That means that Marxists have to be immersed in the everyday struggles of their
workforces, demonstrating their understanding of the core issues. But it also means
having a sound analysis of the potential for advance in order to help move workers
consciousness forward. What is the urgent priority for any section of workers? Building
trade union consciousness or developing class consciousness? How can this best be done
while maintaining the maximum unity?

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Marxists attempt to answer this question and work out their leadership position by
analysing each situation concretely. That means understanding the specific features of
each industry and the balance of power in each case and seeing this as part of the general
development of capitalism and the overall balance of class forces at national and global
This role can be played at all levels of the movement, from the shop steward to the official
and the general secretaries. Each role has specific features that shape what it can do but
there is no sharp cleavage between different trade union roles. The attempts to derive a
fundamental difference of interests between so-called rank and file and bureaucracy
ignores the complex interactions between different layers of union organisation. It is also
premised on a bankrupt theory of how revolutionary change happens in which
revolutionary insurrection is always imminent and is held back only by venal bureaucrats.
In reality, progressive advance and rising class consciousness in a union, as in any mass
organisation, is a complex dialectical process in which the whole organisation of a union
must move together.

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