The Big Three and the False Union Perspective

We share here our translation into English of a stellar article by the comrades of Barbaria, a group based in Spain. This article goes over last fall’s strike in the “Big Three” auto-manufacturing giants in the US: General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford. While examining this strike involving nearly 50,000 workers, the comrades from Barbaria cover how it comes in the context of capitalism’s deteriorating crisis caused by the fall in the rate of profit and the rise in the organic composition of capital; the breaking up of the auto-manufacturing sector in the US as capital turned to more easily exploitable labor in China and the periphery; and the function of the unions and the left-wing of capital (and in particular the current administration, whose war preparations have involved a heavily advertised unionization campaign in key sectors) for the system, in sapping and neutralizing the combativity of the proletariat. We have already written on the strike in the Big Three with this leaflet, and with this larger analysis; you can access the article on Barbaria’s website here.

to obtain the exclusive right in the negotiation of collective agreements and conflicts with capital, in the name of the working class, in the interest of "the national economy", supreme interest it goes without saying. All demands are thus strictly subordinated to the best realization of the Plan, it is a demand for the Plan, in no way for the working class. The improvements obtained by the latter, if any, will be to the greater benefit of the national economy, that is, of the expanded accumulation of capital. The unions appear, therefore, not as a representation of the working class, but as an organic and legalized delegation of capital to its producers.

The Unions Against the Revolution - G. Munis

One of the recurring themes within the leftist sphere is that of the unions. Rivers of ink have flowed over what role they play, or could play; arguments have been twisted and arguments have been made about such and such potentials and possibilities, in an attempt to parse out every aspect of the union; incapable of assuming the crude simplicity of the question. It is not possible, no matter how many twists, turns or fusses they want to make, for an organ whose ultimate function is to negotiate the sale of labor-power to find in itself the slightest revolutionary quality. In other words, it is not viable to use capitalist structures against themselves. No matter how much opportunist demagogy tries to sell the goodness of the union, it will never be able to avoid this ineluctable fact; clarity in this respect must be pristine and leave no hint of doubt as to what its authentic function is. We must learn from history and the sacrifice of thousands of workers, for it has only been with blood that our class has clarified the consequences of the capitalist nature of the unions. And if the unions were, in the beginnings of the workers' movement, a positive factor 一 but never revolutionary(1) 一 for the organization of the proletariat, as the proletariat matured in its struggle and as capitalism developed, the unions ended up refining their function until they expressed themselves clearly as negotiating apparatuses for capital. This became evident as early as 1914 with their support for the First World War, and since then the trade union crusade against the revolution has not ceased to confirm itself.

And the fact is that, beyond its historical confirmation, the nature of trade unions is imprinted in its very structure; and let us remember that the essence 一 its content一 is invariable, determining its function no matter how much the form seeks to try to hide it. From its origins the mediating role of the unions has been useful to capitalism. As a tool of negotiation, of contact between the bourgeois classes and the workers, they have acted as a chain of transmission from top to bottom, enabling capitalists from all over the world to organize their production and to study with precision the game between capitals - variable and constant - in such a way that it would be advantageous for them to the maximum degree to obtain profitability from their investments. This is how trade unionism is part of the capitalist framework since 一 as a negotiator of labor power 一 it owes its existence to wage labor itself. Its position as mediator between the wage-earner and the capitalist makes its function of great utility for the interests of the national economy, containing the autonomous activity of the proletariat and orienting it towards favorable results for that economy. Thus, we can safely say that the trade union is defined as a permanent structure, separate from the proletariat, however much it may advocate its representation.

This is our starting point when speaking of the unions, and it will be essential to start from it if we want to study the subject with real rigor and avoid getting drunk with illusory speeches or vitriolic promises; attending, on the contrary, to its objective materiality within the capitalist structure, and on the basis of this articulating a progressive strategy for the class. Yesterday, today and tomorrow we will be embroiled in hostile reactions where the spokespeople of capital preach in favor of the unions, tempting us with high-sounding speeches and poisoned gifts.

In order to ground these ideas - simple in appearance but of enormous complexity when we stop to study them - we believe it is useful to take a concrete example, that of the last strike campaign organized in the United States against the so-called Big Three (Ford, General Motors and Stellantis).

US Context

To understand the relevance of these mobilizations, it is first necessary to outline the historic importance of the automotive sector for the country and the consequences that the terminal crisis affecting the entire world has had on it.

The automobile industry has been, since Ford, the backbone of American capitalism, positioning itself as the world’s great producer of vehicles and reaching the point of producing, in 1950, 76% of the world’s total in that great productive leap experienced during the postwar period and which would soon begin to decline. As a result, those years were impregnated by the idyll of the middle classes and capitalist abundance, a myth aspired today by all the left-wing of capital. Already by 1980, in an increasingly competitive sector(2), the American automobile industry was already enormously contracted — reducing its production to 21.2% of the world total — and its difficulty to produce profit was deepening. In Michigan, home of the Big Three, 83,000 jobs were lost in the period from 1993 to 2008, associated with the impossibility of maintaining previous profit levels and, therefore, the inability to maintain the high labor costs of the post-war period.

Back in 2007 the Big Three reached an agreement with the Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) to maintain the old contracts with pension and health insurance benefits, while the new contracts had worse working conditions; an agreement from which only 30% of the workers ended up benefiting. It is at this point that this two-tier contracting system that has been talked about so much during last summer's strike began.

We see then that during the last few years the United States, as one of the leading epicenters of global capitalism, has suffered with the utmost worry the challenges that have followed one after another as a result of the structural crisis of an increasingly senile productive system. The North American country has seen how the increase in foreign competitiveness — especially Asian and led by China; the collapse of profitability or inflation endangered the stability of the system and its position as a hegemonic power. A phenomenon that has had a particularly virulent impact on the automotive sector, which since 2008 has really seen the consequences of the increase in the organic composition of capital — of the exponential increase in automation in the sector — and of the consequent reduction in the number of workers needed to maintain production, which in turn limits the capacity to extract surplus value, feeding back into an infernal circle in which capitalism has been trapped for decades. For all these reasons, the bursting of the bubble in 2008 left the Big Three with a major problem of profitability that had been dragging on for years; reducing what was once the central axis of US economic development to an unstable, highly precarious branch with less and less capacity to absorb workers.

Faced with this situation, the unions did not remain on the sidelines and positioned themselves as pacifying agents for the workers. And this was not surprising because, as was to be expected, the main consequences were to be suffered by the workers, who until then had enjoyed advantageous working conditions, the result of the stability sought by the automobile companies. Thus, the UAW, the historic and largest union in the sector, called on the workers to grant a grace period to allow the companies to recover from the impact. This generated a great pauperization of the working class, translated into layoffs, work intensification, wage freezes, etc. Meanwhile, the UAW became a majority partner in Chrysler, acquiring 55% of the company's shares in exchange for suspending wage adjustments, limiting overtime pay and reducing the contributions to the benefit fund for medical coverage for workers and pensioners agreed, as mentioned above, in the agreement signed with the Big Three in 2007.(3)

The Strike of the Big Three

This was the breeding ground in which the latest great automobile strike seen last summer was prepared. In an attempt to reverse the impact of the terminal crisis engulfing the world, it is not surprising that many have decided to organize. It is then that the trade union machinery — as a capitalist transmission belt — comes into play.

Taking advantage of the need to sign a new agreement, the UAW decided to launch a campaign to temper this climate of workplace antagonism. The union, which has been severely disqualified by its track record over the past decades, and especially by its role in the 2008 crisis, uses the new profile of Shawn Fain(4), recently appointed president, to revitalize its image. What would be the strategy of this renewed UAW? Opting for a staggered strategy — viable for productive schemes — remaining limited to a few simultaneous plants that have been rotating, and involving (at the peak of the conflict) only a third of its members.(5) Among the demands, and in addition to measures which tried to recover what had been lost during the last fifteen years — wage increases, reduction of working hours, benefits in pension plans, restrictions on temporary employment, etc. — was the introduction of training programs which would allow workers to adapt to the new needs of the industry, allowing a part of them to be recycled into a more attractive and profitable commodity for capital. The latter will allow the sector to justify future layoffs, defending through technical and individual pretexts (lack of initiative) what in reality is a global productive necessity (increase in the organic composition of capital).

In this way, the recovery of some old conditions is presented as new conquests, and the renewal of the UAW union bureaucracy as the resurgence of the class struggle.

The President of the United States, Joe Biden, joined the spectacle, appearing on one of the picket lines in September to campaign and support the workers' demands. In the course of his campaign spiel — let us keep in mind the closeness of the presidential elections — he pleaded in favor of the workers, considering that although “no one wants a strike"(6), the frustration of the workers was "just", that they had made enough with the "extraordinary sacrifice" of the last few years and urged an agreement that would be "a win-win” for both parties. Nor was there any lack of Donald Trump, who a day after the president's visit, criticized the demands, saying that they were being deceived by their leaders and assuring that the thousands of workers would lose their jobs because of the absorption of Chinese production. It might seem that both are irreconcilable positions; however, neither differs in the essential, that is, in the defense of the national economy. The former sells the increase in labor conditions as a possibility for growth and development of the sector, while the latter considers them harmful to it, arguing that they will make it less competitive in the world market. Carrot and stick, both instruments for capitalist production and the development of its respective national economies.

And just as divisions appear between the different bourgeoisies, the trade union is also added as a discordant factor — albeit a fundamental one — between them and the domestication of the labor force. Thus, ideas of workers’ well-being, fair work, workplace conciliation, etc. are associated with the highest aspirations, when in reality they are nothing but the delights for the increase of productivity and, with it, of profits. Thus we arrive at the quote that opens the text: "[...] in the negotiation of collective agreements and conflicts with capital, in the name of the working class, in the interest of "the national economy", supreme interest it goes without saying. All demands are thus strictly subordinated to the best realization of the Plan, it is a demand for the Plan, in no way for the working class. The improvements obtained by the latter, if any, will be to the greater benefit of the national economy, that is, of the expanded accumulation of capital. The unions appear, therefore, not as a representation of the working class, but rather as an organic and legalized delegation of capital to its producers." That is to say, any improvement in the wage-earning condition must be irreducibly accompanied, preceded rather, by an increase in the expectations of profit for capital. It will therefore be profitable for the workers only indirectly.

From this will follow, as a logical continuation, the inverse conclusion. That in times of necessity, of crisis, working women should pitch in, accepting the situation and postponing their demands for more propitious times, as we have seen happened in 2008. In other words, in times of economic tension the proletariat should not go around stirring up the hornet's nest, lest they be stung. That is why it is no coincidence that it is now when the bourgeois sectors are advocating the need to bring back the unions; not only from the media — which publicizes the latest wave of strikes as a new awakening for the USA — but also from government institutions themselves. If we retrieve the figures offered by the Treasury Department, we will notice that the rate of union membership barely reaches 10.1% of workers(7) — the lowest since records have been kept. And all this is no coincidence because, at a time of growing social polarization, the low proportion of unionization can become a problem when it comes to controlling future conflicts.

Thus, our example was settled with the signing of a new agreement, ratified by a slim margin of 55% of the workers. Among the achievements stands out a palatable wage increase of between 25 and 30% for the next few years; a feeble victory when compared to galloping inflation and the increase in profits — which grew by 92% between 2013 and 2022, valued at a total amount of 250 billion dollars(8). Other concessions include modifying the vacation choice system, increasing the number of contracts, the pension multiplier for workers hired before 2007 and the right to strike(9). Thus, a pact is sealed which compromises the possibilities of struggle in the immediate future, conforming the aspirations of the workers with ever more meager handouts. As meager as they are beneficial for the capitalists, because, as is well revealed by the statements offered — in another recent but equally enlightening conflict — after the controversial signing of the new contract for UPS carriers by its executive director: "we can put together plans to mitigate that cost, plans to drive productivity inside of our business through automation"(10).

Against the Unions

We believe that the example of the strike with the Big Three is important because it exemplifies with overwhelming clarity the role of the unions in the national economy and how they operate as a capitalist transmission belt. Then, it remains to ask ourselves, if the unions are not a desirable option, what are our possibilities of struggle, what alternatives can we put forward.

Of course, we do not deny at any time the infinity of difficulties that plague the working class. The difference lies in the fact that, faced with the partial and limited nature of the trade union strategy, we defend that the only way in which workers can really fight for their interests is through independent organization; that is to say, from their own assemblies, where there is no separation between unionized and non-unionized workers, staff or subcontracted workers, where we try to extend the struggle to the maximum number of workplaces and organize in the territory itself, outside the walls of the factory; linking the struggle to more general demands against the general misery to which capital is subjecting us.

It is already a proven historical truth — and therefore reflected in a programmatic way — that the unions play a fundamental role within the capitalist economy and that, therefore, they will never be part of the revolutionary perspective. It is not only that the working class has lost confidence in the unions, it is that never through them has it been possible to confront any capitalist crisis. In the words of Munis: "The unions no longer serve even to improve the situation of the working class within capitalism, since their demands are directly inspired by expanded accumulation. Strictly speaking, they are not demands, but accommodations of the proletariat to the requirements of the capitalist economy. Every strike raised or resolved by the unions aggravates the subjection of the workers to exploitation". This is why, faced with the union structures that separate the workers by cards and keep the conflict within reasonable channels for the bosses, we defend the real self-organization of the workers in assemblies created on the occasion of the struggle. Only if these assemblies maintain the reins of the struggle, if they try to extend it beyond the borders of the factory to other enterprises and to the territory itself, can they become a propitious place to link the struggle for immediate conditions to the more general battle for the definitive abolition of exploitation, for the communist society.

For this it is necessary a unified organization, no longer by trades, parties or nations, but as a world class; breaking and overcoming the illusory barrier imposed by the bourgeois logic, replacing it with the undoubted superiority of the international and revolutionary perspective. Self-organization from the very dynamics of the class struggle, territorial extension and political generalization of the struggle are fundamental elements for the growth and development of the struggle. A class struggle that must imply the overcoming of the separation between economic and political struggle, that is to say, to generalize; something that occurs through the constitution of the proletariat as a class and, therefore, as a political party. As our historical current says since its founding Manifesto in 1848: only the development of a class struggle, in which the proletariat is constituted as a party, allows us to really oppose the society of capital and overcome it from a communist perspective. In this way, all the strength of the proletariat will be united in a single great struggle, the class struggle. And on the rubble of the old world we will build a new society, a community based no longer on value, but on necessity. A gemeinwesen, a human community which will overcome all the contradictions of past class societies, in which the formula of from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, will prevail.



Image: Adam Schultz (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED),

(1) “Even when trade unionism adopted the principle of class struggle, it never set out, in daily combat, to overthrow society; on the contrary, it limited itself to grouping workers in order to defend their economic interests within capitalist society”, Munis in The Unions Against the Revolution, available in Spanish here.

(2) The incorporation of new players such as China, which went from producing only 5,000 cars in 1980 to become the second largest market in the world by 2008, which would complicate the crisis that broke out at that time, stands out. Read more here.

(3) This article enters into greater detail.

(4) The figure of Fain came from a critical branch of the UAW, which together with other colleagues would form the UAWD (Unite All Workers for Democracy) that sought to purge the union leadership. Thus, he would end up being elected president of the UAW in a controversial vote.

(5) A strategy that allowed the companies to organize the response and resulted in the dismissal of 600 Ford workers in September. Read more here.

(6) The entire appearance is tremendously revealing of the conciliatory tone characteristic of capital's left wing. Read it here.



(9) It is worth noting that the companies will be obliged to pay the strikers $110 per day and another $500 per week, which will be charged to the union for the strike.


Tuesday, March 12, 2024