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Newsletter (in English)

Theses on trade union work

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With this document we, the Revolutionary Internationalist Organization (RIO), want to present general theses about the state of trade unions today and the work of revolutionaries within them. We are aware that these theses are very abstract – they must be, since they are based more on theoretical and historical considerations than on concrete experience (and they are focused on the trade unions in Germany in particular). Accordingly, this document represents the stand of the discussion within our organization, even though we believe that many of the insights can be generalized.

I. The state of the trade unions

Trade unions are essential organs of struggle for workers. They allow workers to overcome the competition amongst themselves and to defend at least their basic economic interests within capitalism.

In addition, they provide a basis for the effective organization and mobilization of the working class against the prevailing conditions. Accordingly, the state of the trade unions is an important factor in the struggle against capitalism.

Necessary is a broad revolutionary consciousness amongst the workers – their self-recognition as a revolutionary subject. This consciousness does not emerge automatically, but instead involves many conflicts, leaps, regressions etc. In this process, revolutionary forces need to establish themselves especially in the workplaces and factories to promote this consciousness with continuous political work and agitation. (And thus transform the unions into organs of class struggle.)

1a. Bureaucracy

From the beginning, trade unions have had a necessary administrative apparatus – however, this apparatus easily develops a life of its own. Especially in the rich imperialist countries such as Germany, an independent bureaucracy has developed which also has access to the resources of the bourgeoisie and their state. (In economically weaker countries there are similar links between the bourgeoisie and the trade union bureaucracy – the resources, however, are more limited.) But this bureaucracy is essentially based on the organized working class, obliging them to lead some (bureaucratically organized) struggles and achieve some successes so they will be perceived by both the workers and by the capitalists as necessary mediators. The bureaucracy pursues above all its own interests instead of standing up for those of the workers.

Especially in the case of Germany, this is anything but a coincidence: After the complete destruction of the labor movement by fascism, the trade unions after 1945 were consciously built up in a “top-down” way, under the guidance of the Allies. They were formed in the spirit of corporatist integration into the prevailing conditions: strong links between the state and the trade union apparatus are normal; trade union representatives sit on government committees and company boards. Some of them, after their bureaucratic career, openly go into high economic positions.

Such trade unionists will of course be careful when it comes to seriously fighting against the capitalists to whom they owe their posts. They are interested primarily in their own material existence within capitalist society. Therefore they have no motivation to overcome it.

Instead, the existing trade unions in Germany are based on the model of “social partnership” which was formed on the basis of the so-called “economic miracle” of the post-war period in order to keep the working class quiet. The ideology of social partnership promotes nothing more than a policy of class collaboration between workers and capitalists. The former should avoid defending themselves against “necessary” cuts as much as possible, to allow the capitalists smooth and profitable production. This is supposed to benefit the “Place of Production Germany”, which should in turn enable reforms and improvements that will, in the end, serve the interests of the workers.

But capitalism cannot be not reformed. Maintaining this false consciousness only serves to safeguard the capitalist system, to stabilize it and ultimately to prepare new attacks against the working class.

Sometimes the anger about these attacks explodes in wildcat strikes and other offensive actions by the workers. In this case, even the most adapted trade union leadership cannot avoid some fighting rhetoric and the controlled mobilization of their base. Thus, they prevent their lack of will (and their lack of ability) to stand up for workers’ interests from being fully exposed. They give themselves a reason to exist and allow their base to “blow off some steam”.

Thus, struggles led by the trade unions primarily have the function to preserve the bureaucratic apparatus of the unions, to consolidate their control over the workers and not to fight for the interests of the working class.

1b. Consciousness

Trade unions can and should be schools for the class struggle – especially because the class consciousness of the workers is formed more forcefully and more penetratingly by experience than by any abstract propaganda. Collective struggles for wage increases, improved working conditions and the defense of jobs can help workers recognize their common interests and get a feeling for the potential of their united forces.

However, the leadership of the reformist bureaucracy has damaged this consciousness in a long-term sense. On the one hand because they limit workers’ struggles to a minimum and always try to prevent a radicalization of the base. On the other hand because they keep even the smallest conflict under their control. This has led to a passivity of the workers that is hard to overcome. Whether or not struggles take place hardly depends on the will of the majority of the base, but rather on the discretion of the functionaries. If workers start their own initiatives they are quickly confronted with comprehensive disciplinary measures.

This goes so far that trade unions are sometimes seen by workers as an external institution that recruits members in order to collect dues but otherwise is of no use. Workers realize (because it is abundantly clear) that the trade unions in their current state do not represent their interests – they have almost degenerated to an end unto themselves. Fatally, this recognition can also lead to a rejection of a trade union per se – which makes workers less open for meaningful forms of organization.

The passivity of the base, which is reproduced by the bureaucratic functioning of the trade unions, is presented by the functionaries as the justification for the passive policy of the unions. Despite the treacherous policy of the trade union bureaucracy, this leadership still enjoys the trust of certain, mostly better-off, layers of the working class. This trust exists for different reasons: a lack of perspectives, subjective feelings of well-being, faith in the promises of the bureaucracy and the inexperience in political struggles are the foundations of the confidence in the trade union bureaucracy. Precisely for this reason, it is crucial that revolutionaries permanently call on trade union leaders to carry out class-struggle actions so that all parts of the working class can have their experiences with them and overcome all illusions in them.

The consciousness of the workers is usually different from the historical interest of the working class, so the working class also contains reactionary ideas. The workers can discard such ideas very quickly in times of struggle – but for this, revolutionary political work must be carried out, which should have started beforehand.

II. Revolutionary trade union policy

It is the duty of revolutionaries to fight against the harmful influence of the trade union bureaucracy in order to overcome the passivity of the base. Only then is it possible to create powerful unions that are effective instruments of class struggle.

2a. Implantation

For a revolutionary organization, it is not enough to refer to the working class as a revolutionary subject in theory and general propaganda. This basic orientation must also find expression in the practical work of the organization – and, from a certain size, also in its membership structure.

It is therefore an important goal to implant the organization in the workplaces and factories. This is the only way to win influence over the trade unions (and, in the long term, over larger sections of the working class). Moreover, it is the only way to put the organization’s political ideas into practice.

The important thing is to be perceived by the workers as a serious political force which offers more radical, but ultimately also more useful and more effective, solutions to their problems.

To gain access to a workplace, it does not make sense to focus only on conflicts that quickly come to a boil and then calm down, or on workers’ struggles that are perceptible from the outside. Such exceptional situations can indeed be useful to make first contacts with workers. But these opportunities are few and far between and, additionally, such an intervention by itself has no lasting impact.

Instead, long-term construction and persuasion is needed as a continuous part of the organization’s politics. Revolutionaries can contribute to implantation with simple means such as regular factory bulletins and discussions with workers. (And thus present their own ideas of trade union work.)

It must be demonstrated in practice that revolutionary views are superior to the reformist mainstream. For this, it is necessary to relate not only to the “big questions” but also to formulate positions about and give answers to the everyday problems of the workers.

However, the revolutionary perspective (including the plan to build a communist society) must always be connected to the day-to-day interventions in the workplaces. Not doing so would be just as harmful as the opportunistic adaptation to reformist or reactionary ideas amongst the workers in order to reap their short-term agreement. A way to combine the day-to-day demands with a revolutionary perspective is the method of transitional demands, as was systematized by Trotsky in the Transitional Program of the Fourth International in 1938.

In the workplaces in which revolutionaries have an implantation, it is important to discuss political issues such as the mobilization to a demonstration against Nazis, the oppression of women, war and racism. Revolutionary politics means linking up the different issues – including in the workplaces, the factories, etc. An attitude which from the beginning is limited to the politics of the workplace is basically just economism. Workers’ politics must be political work and vice versa.

2b. Shop councils

Participation in official trade union bodies is not the first choice for revolutionaries in order to gain influence over workers and their struggles. In specific cases, the candidacy for a shop council can be a useful addition to an existing intervention in a workplace (but by no means a replacement for it). Namely, when it leads to practical advantages that support the ongoing intervention: for example, the possibility to gain access to confidential information which can be useful in conflicts or access to larger parts of the workforce. However, it must always be considered whether these advantages really justify the extra effort and the risks involved.

The pressure to adapt in such a post should not be underestimated. On the one hand, the daily tasks, the paperwork and the organizational efforts can take up so much time that revolutionary politics are simply pushed aside. On the other hand, the material benefits such as job security, additional compensation and the like can lead to accepting “realpolitik” in order to not lose the post. Such an undertaking should only be trusted to more experienced comrades who can cope with the extra effort and subordinate the workplace intervention to the policy of the organization.

If the group collectively decides to accept a trade union post, it must be clear that it is not possible to impose revolutionary politics “from above”. Instead of patronizing the base (as bureaucrats usually do), the newly won possibilities should be used to activate the workers and encourage their initiative.

2c. Democracy

The democratic self-organization and initiative of the workers and their control over their own struggles are basic requirements to make a trade union a truly effective representative body and ultimately an organ of class struggle. Communists have the task to support these things.

The sham democracy of the trade union apparatus must be replaced by a true democracy of the workers. This includes not only the direct election of functionaries, but also broad discussions about the problems of the workforce and the goals and methods of the union. Such discussions must involve as many workers as possible in order to activate them and to allow their inclusion in democratic processes. The open competition of all ideas and proposals increases the chance that more radical measures will be seriously considered and implemented.

Revolutionaries call for the direct election of all functionaries by membership meetings and the right to recall them at any time. If revolutionaries take on functions themselves, they should also try to put such principles into practice in their own work. The privileges of the apparatus mean that even lower functionaries enjoy considerable privileges and earn significantly more money than most trade union members they represent. So revolutionaries advocate that functionaries should not earn more than an average skilled worker.

During negotiations that affect the entire workforce, it must be continuously propagated that in all discussions with the bosses, the workers’ representatives should be accountable to all the workers. The workers can also employ technical means and have such important meetings displayed on a big screen.

2d. Self-organization

Open debates are meaningless, however, if no consequences follow – for example, if the workers decide on a new policy but the current shop council does not support their decision. Instead of reformist representatives who belong to the established apparatus, the workers need their own organs that can react flexibly to the will of the majority and can implement its decisions. These in turn provide a platform for the revolutionary left, which must struggle for a majority in these organs with the goal of establishing a revolutionary current in the trade union and the workplace.

One of the most important organs of this kind is the strike committee, which decides on the measures for acute conflicts with the management. There should be no difference made between trade union members and non-members – instead the cooperation of all forces supporting the strike should be sought.

In addition, even in quieter times there should be regular meetings of the workers in order to break away from the paternalism of the trade union bureaucracy and gain valuable experience in smaller struggles.

2e. Unity

Revolutionaries advocate the unity of all workers in principle – and also the unity of the trade unions. That means there should only be one union for all employees of a company, or even better for all workers in an industry – and all political currents should be able to participate in this union.

However, we should recognize that a divided trade union movement – as in France – under certain conditions can be beneficial to the working class: if the unions must compete with each other for members, they cannot orient themselves as openly to the needs of capital as the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) does. The professional unions in Germany that were formed and strengthened in recent years by more privileged strata of the working class (Cockpit for pilots, the GDL for train drivers, the Marburger Bund for physicians, etc.) are, from an abstract perspective, a negative phenomenon because they divide workforce in each industry among different unions. But concretely, the resulting competition can actually lead to all trade unions acting more militantly (such as the train company union Transnet during the GDL strike of 2007). Instead of an abstract call for unity, a flexible attitude and concrete positions are required in relation to workers’ struggles. Nevertheless, revolutionaries must fight to ensure that the privileged sectors of the working class represent the other parts of the class in their demands.

A similar position applies to the formation of alternative lists in individual companies, competing in shop council elections against the official trade union lists. If the bureaucracy makes it impossible for militant workers to stand on the official lists, even as they work against the interests of the workforce, then the presentation of an alternative list is completely acceptable. This also applies to those that are constituted independently of the existing trade unions – for example, if the repression and ignorance of the social democratic trade union apparatus does not allow any meaningful cooperation.

In such cases, it is only logical that the most advanced workers look for other opportunities. It would be fatal to condemn these initiatives because of the danger to the abstract concept of trade union unity. Instead, revolutionaries should support them. They can exercise pressure on the reformist apparatus and force an opening for radical policies. In the long term, this makes the goal of a strong, unitary trade union attainable again.

Against any bureaucratic maneuvers in the unions, we must be ready to defend ourselves so we are not disconnected from the organized working class. We agitate against the reformists’ attempts to separate the vanguard of the working class from the rest. (Of course, the vanguard of the working class is not a static entity and is subject to constant change.)

The unity of the workers can only be attained on the basis of the historical interests of the entire class. The demands that are proven to push struggles forward can be taken up quickly by workers in struggle. Unity is not to be sought on the basis of the reformist and passive majority of the working class, but on the basis of the demands of militant and progressive parts of it.

Revolutionary Marxists are not trade union fetishists. We are not interested in trade union unity in itself; we are interested in unity of action. We defend the trade unions as long as the working class is organized in them – but when the workers begin to organize not in trade unions but in workers’ councils, we will defend the councils.

2f. Independence

The idea of syndicalism, which aims for the formation of new, “independent” and revolutionary trade unions, is a dead end. The construction of such a structure requires a mass base. But the masses of workers today have a deeply adapted and reformist consciousness. This can only change through continuous work in the existing trade unions.

Necessary is a core of revolutionaries that is truly independent of the bureaucracy (because it is based on a revolutionary program and makes its own decisions) but still works within the existing mass organizations. This core should be based on the same principles and criteria as the revolutionary organization itself. At the same time, a broad network of supporters should be built up as a class-struggle movement of the base, in order to reach as many workers as possible. From this position, revolutionaries can intervene in larger movements and under particularly favorable conditions win their leadership. Of course, this work must be accompanied by a steady and unvarnished criticism of the bureaucratic leadership.

2g. Transitional demands

For a revolutionary group that wants to establish itself as a political force in a workplace, the challenge is to present demands and slogans which are linked to the experiences and views of the workforce without adapting to reformist thought patterns or scaring off workers with abstract class-struggle-wisdoms.

Useful for this is an orientation to transitional demands in the style of the Transitional Program of the Fourth International. This is not so much about what demands are taken up, but how they are formulated and thought through. In large and small struggles alike, demands must be sharpened so that their fulfillment goes beyond the framework of capitalism and leads to a revolutionary perspective.

What does that mean concretely? If a factory is threatened with closure, a strike committee must be set up to organize the strike and the occupation of the factory. It must raise the question: What is the capitalist good for? Why is the factory controlled by one person and not by all the workers?

Seemingly “unimportant” demands such as against uncomfortable work clothes etc. can also be sharpened. Here, too, the question can be raised: Why does some manager decide that the workers have to wear cheap shoes? Why shouldn’t the people who have to wear them eight hours a day decide themselves?

If the workforce is given the power to decide in such a small question, this of course does not disempower the management and hardly shakes the foundations of capitalism. But it shows the workers but that it is worthwhile to question the existing power structure and to fight to change it – provided that the demand was actually fought for and not privately negotiated by the shop council.

The self-confidence that is won can, in the course of further struggles and experiences, be translated into real class consciousness. To get such a development rolling, even limited struggles offer useful starting points for revolutionaries.

A very good and by now famous example of a successful factory occupation is the Argentinean ceramics factory Zanon. Its workers occupied the factory in 2001 and have produced under their own control since then. Through democratic self-management, they were able to not only pay the entire workforce good wages, but also hire new colleagues – and this despite the boycott by some government agencies and many private companies. More than that – they defended the plant against attacks by the official owner. For the event that the police or private security attempted evictions, they had armed themselves with slingshots and self-made ceramic balls.

This shows intense workers’ struggle can lead not only to councils and assemblies as the basis of genuine workers’ democracy, but – because of the need for self-defense – also to starting points for militias.

The questioning of bourgeois ownership (by the occupation of a factory) can soon lead to a questioning the state monopoly of force: Why can the police attack striking workers with truncheons, tear gas or worse, if they are only there to defend the “rights” of the owners?

Transitional demands should be selected according to concrete circumstances. The demands should be oriented to the consciousness of the working class. This starting point must be connected with the theoretical insights of historical materialism. For example, even if there is no tendency towards factory occupations or councils, it is our responsibility to argue for such goals.

There is no transitional demand which leads the working class to socialism – transitional demands are not magic formulas. The power of transitional demands is that the working class sees its interests formulated in them. Transitional demands must always be seen as part of a program of world socialist revolution.

The transitional program is the pillar of a Marxist organization. Transitional demands can be designed in one workplace so that the workers’ power advances in these workplaces. Transitional demands which aim to overcome capitalist society should be written in the context of the existing relationship of forces. In preparation for future struggles, the transitional program should be designed on the basis of the assessment of the political situation in the country and internationally.

2h. Solidarity

In the case of Zanon, the police, however, were never able to seriously attempt an eviction because the occupiers were prepared for militant resistance – and they also had many allies. Not only from the province of Neuquén but also from other parts of the country, people came to protest for the preservation of workers’ control. Parts of the official trade unions, teachers’ and unemployed workers’ associations and prominent human rights organizations defended the Zanon workers. The pressure was so great that the state and had to abandon the plans for an eviction and eventually expropriate the former factory owner after eight years of struggle.

A struggle in one workplace can go beyond the trade union structures and lead to nationwide campaigns and strikes – i.e. to political struggles. A current example is the strike of TEKEL workers in Turkey, which developed from a trade union struggle intto a general strike.

Networking with other protests plays an important role in trade union struggles. Especially effective is the solidarity of other workers (including from different industries) – for example, a strike at various plants in order to prevent a plant closure. The solidarity of other oppressed groups can also be an important base of support – and these groups can benefit massively from the workers’ potential to create economic pressure.

There are also possibilities to develop concrete solidarity work outside of the workplaces. Solidarity with striking workers in a workplace can help revolutionaries make new contacts, gain experience and introduce their positions into the discussions. In a solidarity committee, all parties of the working class should be represented. The workers need to have their own experiences with these parties. Our task is to formulate concrete demands in the interests of the workers’ struggles and call on other parties to take up these demands. If they do this, it is in the interest of the workers; if they do not, it is easier for us to expose them. Therefore, it is not our task to establish solidarity committees for “revolutionary organizations,” but for the broad masses of the working class and its organizations.

Revolutionaries should always work to link up different progressive protest movements – even if prejudices or lack of interest on both sides need to be overcome. School and university students have difficulties in networking amongst themselves for education protests. To connect these protests with workers’ struggles is a much more difficult task – but it is possible and worthwhile. It must be clear that solidarity cannot be a one-sided affair and cannot be limited to lip service, but must take the form of practical actions.

  • – For international workers’ solidarity!
  • – For the democratization of the trade unions!
  • – For the implantation of revolutionaries in the workplaces and factories!
  • – For revolutionary fractions in the mass trade unions! For a class struggle movement at the base!
  • – For the connection of workers’ struggles with other struggles of the workers and oppressed!
  • – For a revolutionary perspective in every workers’ struggle!

passed by the first conference of RIO DE, May 2010, based on a draft by Tom Hirschfeld

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