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Newsletter (in English)


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 nor can it be extended to the whole working class under the conditions of capitalism.

Instead, the ruling ideology is always an ideology for the ruling classes. This ideology is historically specific and can change according to the concrete circumstances in which it is applied, but the common denominator of any of these ideologies is the goal to destroy or prevent the construction of revolutionary consciousness in the working class, in different ways. For instance, social partnership, nationalism, religion, individualism, racism, sexism and women’s oppression lead to the division of the international working class.

The development of proletarian class consciousness therefore involves many conflicts, leaps, regressions etc. To push this process forward, it is necessary that Marxist theory finds a practical application in the class struggle, so it can be developed on the basis of concrete successes and failures. Revolutionary forces need to establish themselves especially in the workplaces and factories to promote 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, 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 a necessary mediator. The bureaucracy, however, pursues its own interests (i.e. maintaining its privileges like extra compensation, job security, etc.), rather than standing up for those of the workers.

Most existing trade unions in Europe are based on the model of “social partnership” which was established on the basis of the economic boom after the Second World War 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 “national economy”, 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. Even if in the framework of social partnership, there are real concessions, this can only happen at the cost of workers of other countries, leading to an international ‘race to the bottom’ against the global 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, 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 lastingly 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.

The bureaucratic functioning of the trade unions leads in many cases to resignation and passivity in the base. Despite their treacherous policies, this leadership still enjoys the trust of certain, mostly better-off, layers of the working class. This trust exists for different reasons: the lack of alternatives, 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 create the conditions for this as soon as possible.

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 enough 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.

A detailed analysis and knowledge of the company and the trade union policy is absolutely necessary for this work to be successful. Without using this kind of knowledge, revolutionaries cannot put a foot in the door. A first step to begin this work can be research about the collective bargain, the situation of the company and the structures of the union One of the first goals of work in the company should be to get information from ‘insiders’.

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.

Additionally, in the workplaces in which revolutionaries have an implantation, it is important to discuss political issues. Revolutionary politics means linking up the different issues – including in the workplaces, the factories, etc. An position which is limited exclusively to the politics of the workplace is basically just economism – i.e. is based on the idea that the workers will develop a revolutionary consciousness through the dynamic of economic struggles.

Without the intervention of revolutionaries with a clear political program showing a concrete orientation in these struggles, it is near impossible that revolutionary consciousness arises, due to all the ideological and material counter-tendencies that exist in capitalist societies. Thus, the task of revolutionary organizations must be to intervene in workers’ struggles with a clear political program in order to initiate and strengthen revolutionary consciousness. This doesn’t imply, however, that revolutionary consciousness can only be brought into the working class from outside – a correct Marxist program can only exist in a dialectical interaction between theoretical reflection and practical application by the vanguard of the working class.

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 or a similar body 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 work as a trade unionist to the policy of the organization.

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.

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 and permanent recallability of functionaries, but also general assemblies, in which all workers – including non-trade union members – can participate, to debate about their problems and the goals and methods of the union. 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.

During negotiations that affect the entire workforce, it must always be 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 for the entire workforce.

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 and Independence

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.

In many countries, there are large industrial unions and umbrella organizations that include the majority of the organized workers – for example in Germany. 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 large, bureaucratic industrial unions and umbrella organizations do.

Craft unions, for example for pilots or doctors, 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. 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.

Our goal must always be the united front of all workers’ organizations. Especially in a divided trade union landscape, it is necessary to call on all organizations to carry out joint actions. On the one hand, because the workers can only use their full strength if they are united; on the other hand, because the treacherous role of the reformist leaderships becomes particularly clear when they refuse common actions.

We should also have a flexible position to 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 of a social democratic trade union apparatus does not allow any meaningful cooperation.

As revolutionaries, we must be ready to defend ourselves against any bureaucratic maneuvers in the unions, so we are not disconnected from the organized working class. We cannot allow the reformists to separate the vanguard of the working class from the rest. (Of course, the vanguard of the working class is not a static entity; it is subject to constant change.)

The unity of the workers cannot be attained under capitalism. This goal can only be realized on the basis of the historical interest of the class in a socialist revolution. The starting point for unity is therefore not the reformist and passive majority of the working class, but the demands of the most militant and progressive sectors. Our task as Marxists is to develop such demands together with the vanguard and help them be implemented. If this is possible, broader layers of workers can be won for a militant program. The condition for this, however, is that we organize the vanguard inside the trade unions.

The idea of syndicalism, which aims for the formation of completely new, “independent” and revolutionary trade unions outside of the existing structures, 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.

2f. 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, to present a revolutionary perspective and push the organization of the workers forward.

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.

If a militant consciousness develops, sooner or later important struggles will follow. These need to be pushed forward so that councils and assemblies can emerge as the basis of genuine workers’ democracy.

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? In this way – because of the need for self-defense – also the starting points for militias can emerge.

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 they represent the immediate interests of the workers and simultaneously form part of the program for the 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

A struggle in one workplace can go beyond the trade union structures and lead to nationwide campaigns and strikes – i.e. to political struggles.

Networking with other protests therefore 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 (including reformists and bureaucrats). 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 all 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 International Conference of RIO, December 2010, Munich

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