The Trade Union Bureaucracy
The upper ranks of the trade unions are not simply controlled by individual misleaders. The full-time officials constitute a conservative caste – a distinct social formation with its own interests separate and opposed to those of the majority of union members. Instead of being under the control of the members, the officials control the apparatus and through them control the members. This is what the very word bureaucracy means: the rule of the office-holder.
The bureaucrats derive privileges from their role as negotiators with the capitalists. They earn more than the average wage of the members – they gain entry into the charmed circles of the bourgeoisie and public life. As a result this bureaucracy tends everywhere to accommodate itself politically to the capitalist system and is frequently incorporated into the lower echelons of the capitalist state. It acts as the labour lieutenant of capital inside the working class.
To the workers it preaches a reformist policy that leaves the fundamental levers of exploitation and control in the hands of the bourgeois. When workers’ discontent breaks out the bureaucrats try to calm things down and avoid militant action.
When the patience of the workers is exhausted, the union leaders may reluctantly allow action so as not to lose support. Then they speak out, sometimes with radical phrases. At the same time, they limit action to symbolic protests, to one-day strikes or series of stoppages. The effect is to exhaust and demoralise the activists, preparing the way for a negotiated settlement falling far short of the workers’ demands.
In response militant workers will seek to replace these leaders, electing officials who promise a more sustained challenge to the employers. Even where left wing officials espouse anticapitalist policies or promote unlimited strike action, they tend everywhere to leave the caste power of the bureaucracy itself intact. The workers are left relying on the courage and incorruptibility of just one individual – moreover an individual who will of necessity come under the most tremendous pressure from the employers and bourgeois society as a whole. Examples abound of such left wing officials collapsing in the heat of struggle.
Even where they are forced to fight they refrain from appealing over the heads of the leaders of other unions for workers in other industries to take solidarity action. Replacing right wing bureaucrats with left wing bureaucrats – while representing a step forward – is therefore cruelly insufficient. Unless the roots of bureaucracy are ripped out, we cannot regain control of our unions and pursue union struggles to victory.
The bureaucracy is no accidental phenomenon, no mere alien imposition on the trade unions. Its social basis lies in the emergence of a skilled aristocracy of labour. In many countries trade unions still mainly organise the skilled workers and the better off sections of the working class with less precarious conditions of life. This is because these workers have stronger bargaining power because of their concentration in large workplaces and their high levels of education and training. But these strengths are often combined with sectionalism, craft consciousness and a lack of concern for the working class as a whole. These influences can lead to the unions pursuing only their specific interests, to sectionalism and narrow craft consciousness. These practices and attitudes form a secure basis for the privileges of the trade union bureaucracy.
This bureaucracy will not disappear overnight, but it can be overthrown – by organising the rank and file to assert control, by mobilising not only the skilled layers but the poor, low-paid and downtrodden sections of the workers, and by a sustained political challenge.
The bureaucratic caste is not only bereft of fighting spirit – it is also bereft of theory. Lacking any analysis of capitalism as a system, it cannot understand or explain why the capitalists should continually attack the workers’ living standards, why every reform we secure immediately comes under attack by the bourgeoisie who are determined to reverse it, why the employers’ imperatives of profit accumulation demand that they drive down the workers’ share of the social product.
Therefore when the bosses claim that the workers’ demands would destroy an enterprise by rendering it unprofitable, the bureaucrats can only plead helplessly or warn the workers to restrain themselves. When the bosses cite globalisation as a reason to shift production abroad where labour is cheaper, the bureaucrats all too often slip into nationalist demagogy rather than promoting the international solidarity of the workers.
Without a theory of capitalism, the union bureaucrats quickly and unthinkingly espouse … the theory of the capitalists.
By contrast, the rank and file of the unions have no objective interest in maintaining the system of capitalist exploitation. On the contrary: to escape the treadmill of constant battles over wage and working conditions, the exploitative system of wage-labour and capital has to be abolished.
Union bureaucrats are agents of the capitalists – but they are agents operating inside the working class movement. The exceptionally dangerous role they play demands in response an exceptionally serious and sustained challenge from the workers.
In section three of this manifesto, we will examine what form this challenge might take. For now we will restrict ourselves to summarising its aims: reconquest of the trade unions as instruments of workers’ struggle; the organisation into trade unions of the unorganised masses through a policy of militant class struggle; replacement of pliant union officials with proven class fighters; globalisation of trade union organisation through reciprocal bonds of solidarity; the democratisation of trade unions so that they can serve only the workers, and not as instruments of discipline in the hands of the employers.
These goals can be expressed in the single slogan: dissolution of the trade union bureaucracy.