Communist Work and the Trades Unions Today

In the present period of decadence of capitalist society, the union is called upon to be an essential tool in the politics of conserving capitalism, and therefore to assume the precise functions of a State organ.

P.C.Internazionalista Conference on the Trades Unions, 1947.

Thesis 1

It is an accomplished and irreversible fact that the trades unions are subjected and incorporated into the capitalist state. Since the first decades of this century working class experience has fully confirmed our analysis and predictions. As an integral part of the state apparatus, reduced to an essential tool for the support of the national economy and to an organic factor in the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production (operating in accordance with its laws), the trade union has completely lost even the last trappings of an intermediary and apolitical organism which, during the first years of the Third International of Lenin, still made it possible for the Party to use it as an instrument for the revolution.

The trade union arose as a tool of the working class by its bargaining over the price and conditions of employment of labour power. However, at the same time as it regulated the relationship between wage labour and capital it was inevitably destined to preserve it. The task of administering this relationship, which fundamentally supports capital's economic base, has completely absorbed both the union organisations and the people involved in them. If, in the period of capitalism's ascendancy there existed objective conditions and leeway to justify the union's specific task of making contractual demands, that leeway has been progressively reduced in the imperialist monopoly epoch - to the point of having been annulled by today's general economic crisis.

The possibility of concessions somehow favourable to the class of wage earners is definitively exhausted. Today each reform is synonymous with bourgeois attacks on the working class. The trade union could do nothing other than develop a mediating role in accordance with the survival of capital, and the passive acceptance of the workers.

Thesis 2

In this historical context it is more idealist than ever to mechanically reassert perspectives and tactics - in the name of a claimed coherence with the past - which are based on the recuperation of a particular form of class organisation, without any consideration for the substance of its role and function.

So long as acknowledgment of the degeneration of the unions is restricted to the supposed treachery of the bureaucrats (individuals) or the political forces which control them, then it loses all validity from a Marxist standpoint. In fact why such bureaucracies and/or political organisations take over the leadership of a “class organ” that remains impermeable to communist propaganda and tactical direction would remain to be explained. And it remains to be explained how and why revolutionary positions should or could be applied to the union leadership.

The abolition of wage labour, the rupturing of the relationship between capital and labour, this is the principal aim of the revolutionary movement and of the communist programme. Exactly the opposite is true for the union: the maintenance of the relationship between labour and capital is the terrain upon which it operates and its raison d'etre.

Thesis 3

Neither the idea of the Party conquering the union leadership nor that of the transformation of the union into an instrument for leading the proletariat in a revolutionary assault has any real historical validity, not even in the most favourable circumstances (including the October Revolution).

It could not be otherwise, in view of the reality of the total domination of capital and the manifestation on a world scale of the most deep and incurable contradictions. Amongst the institutions of the capitalist society, the union has definitely taken a position of open support for capitalism. Any possible ideological misunderstanding about trade unionism being somehow revolutionary and anti-capitalist has been liquidated.

Between the blows and the counterblows of the economic crisis, the attacks of capital on the working and living conditions of the working class not only annul each preceding “gain”, they make even the formulation of such demands illusory, since they are based on the practice of bargaining in defence of the interests of the national economy, of capitalist development, of the extension of the market.

In capitalism's cyclical accumulation crisis, which is steadily worsening, the unions accept the economic limits of capital. They impose these on the working class to such an extent that it is the unions themselves which are the main obstacle in the day-to-day struggle of the class.

Thesis 4

As a consequence of large-scale restructuring of the capitalist production process, and following this logic, the tendency of the big industrial complexes to break up has asserted itself. As a consequence the way workers collectively come together has changed. At the same time labour power has been devalued through cuts in real wages in the metropoles, achieved by blackmail about the lower costs of labour power elsewhere in the global marketplace and the threat of moving out investment for some stages or the whole of the productive process. All these phenomena constitute the main motor for the tendency to create precarious and individual work patterns.

The new international division of labour, the fundamental industrial restructuring over recent years, the passage from producing uniformly in bulk to more and more diversified products destined for an extremely changeable and uncertain market; all this has drastically changed the structure of production both in terms of size and organisation.

Many big industrial complexes have been completely reorganised, many industries have moved their own productive plants to areas where production costs are lower - from manpower to raw materials etc. Others have diversified production or have moved abroad or contracted out part or all of the planning, assembly or publicity and marketing.

Thesis 5

There is only an apparent contradiction between the widespread existence of small and medium enterprises and the decentralisation of production, accompanied by an ever more accentuated concentration of property, and by the control of the means of production in a few hands.

The unions have not opposed this, nor could they have done, since there was no alternative for capital in this phase of the crisis in its cycle of accumulation. Nor could they have altered or opposed the consequences for the workforce: lack of job security and individualisation of labour relations. They could only somehow oversee what was happening amongst the working class. And that is exactly what they have done in all metropolitan countries. The agreements in Italy on payment for high quality work and 'performance' related pay are the most remarkable steps in this formal transformation of the role of the union.

Thesis 6

The transformation of the productive landscape and its fragmentation into small and medium entities on the one hand, plus the tendency for the terms of the labour contract to become insecure and individualised on the other, have greatly modified the unions' frame of reference. In 1985 we argued that the unions would dedicate themselves almost exclusively to wage policies at the macroeconomic level. This has proved decisively to be the case. Thus the unions find themselves organisationally outside most small and medium enterprises, and largely without the faith and trust of the workers.

As we wrote in The Union In The Third Cycle Of Accumulation in 1985, and today it is truer than ever:

The union has become a hated “public institution” it has reached the lowest depths.

This turning into an official institution that is involved in the central bargaining process of the above mentioned contracts, also reflects the tightening of the general rules concerning work relations. From at least 1992 onwards any agreement with a minimum of general applicability (including those concerning job flexibility) has systematically become law, thus avoiding any possible further bargaining. The national contracts - which exclude any other bargaining on the same matter - have in fact eliminated bargaining within the factory and at the same time imposed on the workers rigid limits within which work relations are regulated, all to the advantage of capital which has the strength of the law to individually quash the worker.

Thesis 7

There can therefore be no real defence of the interests of the workers, no matter how immediate, except outside of and against the union line and any type of contractual mediation, which always ends by losing rights and control. Faced with the attacks of capitalism in crisis, the concrete defence of workers' interests clashes immediately with the capital's survival. In this sense the distinction between defensive and offensive struggles is only really decided by the political content of the struggles.

When they arise from the real struggles of the class - and not from the radical reformist fantasies of ex-Stalinist political sects which are now in the process of renewal - the demands for a shorter working week and equal wages are defensive. Similarly, the demand of the unemployed and marginalised masses for a guaranteed minimum wage is a defensive struggle. Both these demands (which today seem to constitute the political programme of radical-reformism) in reality represent a vital necessity of the proletarian masses, brutally denied the necessities of life by capital. Wherever they are presented as genuine demands, they express the proletariat's will to defend itself and at the same time the necessity to demolish the capitalist mode of production. The acceptance of this necessity alone would define their potential for success, independently of whether they are regarded as defensive or offensive struggles.

Thesis 8

Given that it is not the task of the revolutionary political party to advance any demands other than the demand for proletarian political power and since the economic struggle of the workers, even if it is only defensive, remains a necessity besides being a precondition for the development of the struggle for emancipation from the rule of capital, the problem for the communist advance guard, their tasks and their activities are posed in these terms:

  • Communists participate in the economic struggles of the class in their capacity as vanguard of the same class.
  • They distinguish themselves by agitating for and publicising the revolutionary programme, for putting an end to and transcending wage labour.
  • To the extent that they fulfil these tasks and condemn the limits of the pure demand struggle, they enter into open antagonism with the union organisations.

And it is this relationship between the tasks of the party and the activities of militants inside workers' struggles which makes it practically possible for those same economic struggles to develop in a political direction towards the struggle for power.

Thesis 9

The supposed building of “conscious and permanent” alternative organs of economic struggle has been ruined by the chaos of a multitude of base unions, many of which are following in the steps of the official unions and seeking legal, institutionalised contractual powers.

Autonomous, self organised micro-unions more or less self managed, have ended up reducing their critique to matters of forms and structures, limiting themselves to criticising the union for its “neo-corporatist drift” or for its “hierarchical bureaucratic degeneration”.

In order for them to continue to be unions, they do not stray beyond and cannot leave the framework of what is compatible with capitalism, and consequently the conditions imposed by capitalism. That is to say, even in the case of a fracture in the social equilibrium and of a sharpening of material class struggles, this is turned into an attempt to direct workers' anger towards more contractual initiatives and new union moves for greater democracy.

In this sense the organisational forms of radical reformism in the work context are so much more dangerous the more their slogans are taken up in struggles. On the one hand this shows the contradictory nature of social processes. On the other, it demonstrates the necessity for the intransigent defence of the revolutionary programme of demolition of the bourgeois regime and the capitalist mode of production.

Thesis 10

As the most significant, and rare, episodes of struggle of the working class in recent decades have shown, the most effective organisational instruments - once more originating from the workers themselves - have assumed the form of the collective assembly: agitation and strike committees or councils, which always come into being in the initial rupture with the existing union structures.

These base organs inevitably come to an end when the struggles themselves are over, although they are not always replaced by authentic union structures in the final, “negotiated” phase of the struggle. It is by involving themselves in these base organs that communists can introduce their agitational slogans and revolutionary propaganda: not by bargaining with capital, which cannot change the fundamental relationship between the classes; but rather by linking the original cause of the struggle to the general attack on capital.

In revolutionary terms maintaining the continuity of the concrete political outcome of these particular experiences of the class does not mean using union techniques and turning the workers' economic organisms into permanent bodies. It means winning over the most conscious workers to the programme and to revolutionary politics, bringing them into the organised revolutionary militia.

Thesis 11

The maturation of the revolutionary situation will be signalled by the expressly anti-capitalist and revolutionary orientation of such organisms, which will assume the character of workers' councils, with the capacity to develop from anti-capitalist organs of struggle into organs of proletarian power.

An anti-capitalist and revolutionary orientation does not assert itself spontaneously, without the active and organised intervention of revolutionary activists. And this is how the individual experiences of the organs of struggle can contribute towards the advance of a revolutionary strategy: to the extent that they can accumulate forces that will give direction and leadership to the councils in the offensive period.

The long decades of counter-revolution and the process of material disintegration that the class has suffered in the course of the recent technological revolution, have wiped out the most elementary class consciousness. Such a situation demands starting again from the beginning, once more introducing and spreading the ABC of communism, and pointing the class towards a subjective (political) reconstitution, characterised by the denial of any compatibility with the logic of capital.

Thesis 12

So that the revolutionary political organisation, (the Party) can concretely establish itself as a firm reference point for the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses - i.e. be in a position to develop the functions of political and organisational leadership that belong to it - the constitution of a network of territorial organs inside and outside the factories is of fundamental importance. These organs must encompass the whole reality and all aspects of the proletarian condition. (Employed, unemployed, young people, retired.) They therefore are unmistakably on class terrain, if not immediately identifiable with the Party.

Thus the policy of communist factory groups, by now a tradition in our party, finds its complement and is adapted to the new situation and the new composition of the proletariat.

Thesis 13

These organs, emanations of the party, are its operational arms in the class (superseding the old and by now ambiguous term of 'transmission belt'). Their origins and function distinguish them from the class-wide organs and the bodies arising from them. They are the instruments for winning revolutionary political leadership of what are initially simply working class organs of struggle and which will later become the means for holding power.

The emphasis on territorial organisation implies the formation of groups, committees, communist circles independent of the workplace or economic sector. It takes account of the changed situation.

In the past the most significant class struggles arose where there were large concentrations of workers. Today, however, the dispersion of the working class into small productive units, and the even greater dispersion of the whole proletariat over an entire territory, on the one hand favours, and on the other obliges advanced workers to come together on a territorial level. This is also because it is highly likely that the most meaningful struggles of the future will depart from the territorial forms of uniting advanced workers, outside of, and against the union jail.

Thesis 14

Communist factory and territorial groups are distinguished by:

  • Their condemnation of the ever-present pseudo-left exponents of bourgeois ideology amongst the worker masses. Their counter-posing this with the positions developed and defended by the party as it faces the reality of events.
  • Their sharp elucidation of all those objectives of struggle which can be realised only through the revolutionary conquest of political power and the overthrow of the capitalist system.
  • Their pressing for proletarian solidarity and the unification of struggles on the international field.
  • Their unity with migrant proletarians of every country, against the exploitation and unemployment that dominate the world market for labour power.