What is the Role of Unionism?


The People
May 13, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 3


A recent leaflet, headlined "The Role of the Union," distributed by the New Directions reform movement within the United Auto Workers union illustrates the need of those who seek to build better unions to first analyze the weakness that plagues the existing unions.

The concept of the role of the labor union is central to the character of unionism and its effectiveness in protecting and advancing the interests of workers. Wrong concepts lead workers and unions into bankruptcy at best and catastrophe at worst. Workers must be clear on the mission of unionism if the unions they join are to be capable of defending and advancing their interests.

There is today a sprinkling of reform groups inside and outside the existing unions that are struggling to redefine the "role" of unionism. In its leaflet on the role of unions, New Directions expresses sentiments commonly found among these groups. The leaflet takes the position, implicitly at times, that the existing unions have "sold out" the workers, that the bureaucrats who lead them are not truthful with or respectful of the rank and file, that they have set up undemocratic procedures that lock the rank and file out of any meaningful control over what are ostensibly their own unions, and that they have "gone over to the other side," often promoting the interests of the employers over the interests of their own members. The solution, says the leaflet, is to make sure unions act toward their members as lawyers do toward their clients -- militantly defend their interests, cut no secret deals, keep no information from them, compromise none too easily and fight for the best deal possible, and never act as if its job is to cooperate with the other side.

What reform movements like New Directions fail to recognize is that this is the conception of unionism that the existing unions started out with, and that the corrupt, bureaucratic and accommodating practices into which the existing unions have fallen are the logical result of this conception. The "mission" of the existing unions IS to get the best deal possible for their members -- it's just that this "mission" accepts as irrevocable a system that dictates an ever-worsening "deal" for workers: it accepts the capitalist system.

The instant that unionism accepts capitalism it is reduced to a mere labor-merchandising business that serves the interest of the capitalist class by bartering control of a disciplined labor force for control of jobs and occasional crumbs for workers, AS PROFITS ALLOW. Since capitalism's inherent economic laws of operation work to continually increase unemployment and decrease wages in the long run, the procapitalist unions are sellers of labor power in what is an ever-stronger buyers' market.

Bureaucracy and corruption in the unions follow as a matter of course. Even if honest in the beginning, procapitalist union officials eventually become demoralized because they can do very little for the membership of their unions. Subject to constant offers of bribes and other perks from the capitalist class, unable to perform as the best of them thought they might in the service of their members' interests, they almost invariably become mere labor lieutenants for the capitalist class, begin feathering their own nests, and eventually institute antidemocratic procedures to protect their positions of power and privilege. The history of reform movements within the existing unions is replete with many an example of this process.

The crux of the matter is this: If the "role of unionism" is to defend and advance union members' interests, there is only one way to do it. Unions must act in the interests of the whole working class, and work to abolish the capitalist source of workers' problems. Unionism cannot accept an economic system that condemns more and more workers to joblessness and poverty.

In short, only a rank and file conscious of the historic mission of unionism -- the emancipation of the working class from wage slavery -- can build a unionism that will not be rife with bureaucracy, corruption and class-collaborationist practices. Imbued with the purpose of abolishing capitalism and establishing a new social system based on social ownership of the means of wealth production and democratic workers' control of industry, workers organized into socialist industrial unions would not permit aspiring bureaucrats to seize control of their unions.

Such a classconscious rank and file would be constantly mobilized, and actively involved, in debating and democratically determining all major decisions of the union. The union would no longer be seen as an entity separate from the workers themselves, as is the case with the procapitalist unions, including reform movements like New Directions. With further safeguards, such as the right to immediately recall union representatives and workers' wages for all officers, bureaucracy and corruption would be things of the past.

Only a classconscious rank and file can ensure union democracy and build the kind of union that will conduct an uncompromising fight for workers' economic security and eventual emancipation from wage slavery. The rank and file must be clear on the real "role" -- the real mission -- of unionism: to organize workers on a class basis to enable them to resist the constant encroachments of the capitalist class; to drill workers in the necessary self- discipline and organizational unity to enable them to control and administer their industrywide unions democratically and to act in harmony whenever their interests are threatened; to build and support a political party of their class dedicated to the abolition of capitalism; and to consolidate the workers' industrial power and enable them to assume control of the economy and administer it democratically in the interests of all society.

The present unions do not perform any of these essential functions. "Reforming" them is useless if the reformers also fail to acknowledge the class struggle and the need to abolish capitalism. New unions are needed. However, workers can begin to build them only when they realize that the continued existence of capitalism is not only completely contrary to workers' interests, but a menace to the welfare of all society. And they can only gain the knowledge needed to build such a movement by investigating the socialist industrial union program of the SLP.