Why trade unions, history
Unions and capitalism
Trade union bureaucracy
Where to for unions?
Three view of unions and union officials (nb there are others, eg revolutionary syndicalism) •
Production is inherently harmonious. Conflict is in no-one’s interest and so has to be explained exogenously in terms of monopoly, outside agitators, poor human relations management, special pleading or pathological behaviour. The elimination of these can restore harmony. Unions are dominated by union officials who simply pursue their selfish interests in cushy jobs by extracting monopoly rents for themselves (or themselves and their members) at the expense of non-unionists, especially those in other industries, who are deprived of work. This is sometimes expressed in references to the ‘industrial relations club’, by people such as Gerard Henderson and others associated with the H. R. Nichols Society. Contemporary formulations of this perspective draw on Friedrich Hayek. •
Conflict arises over the distribution of income between classes/different factors of production. Different groups may benefit in the struggle for income, but this struggle may reduce total income. It is therefore preferable to find non-conflictual means to resolve disputes. Unions have a legitimate role and represent the interests of their memberships. Union officials may be better or worse at achieving this depending on their competence and/or politics. Overall their attitudes are as diverse as those of their memberships. Union officials, of course, generally adhere to this position. It is expressed in a particularly worked out way in John Kelly Trade unions and socialist politics Verson. London 1988 pp147-183. •
Conflict is inherent in capitalist society. Efforts to eliminate it are to the detriment of the working class as collective struggle is its only means for responding to the power the capitalist class derives from its control of the means of production. Unions are important defencive organisations for workers, within the confines of capitalism. The behaviour of union officials has to be understood in terms of their class position, as a layer distinct from the working class which specialises in mediating between capital and labour. This position is associated with revolutionary Marxists such as Cliff and Gluckstein, Callinicos and Bramble. Why trade unions?
We have already discussed the weakness of individual workers in the face of the power of their employers, based on their control of capital and the fact that they are therefore in a position to purchase labour power. The most important institution that enables workers to even up the terms on which they negotiate over the price of their labour power and the conditions under which they work is the trade union. Where workers are enthusiastic about improving their conditions or about defending them, trade unions can generate a tremendous commitment and loyalty. This is not only because unions can promote workers’ greedy economic interests, which they often do (and a good thing too!), but also because they express workers economic and other interests. This expression may be a matter of the internal structures of unions. So, in Australia, unions are formally very democratic institutions and democratic mechanisms help ensure unions do what members want. But the expression of workers’ interests has also occurred where democratic structures are primitive or even non-existent, where the policies of union leaders have struck a chord with members ie reflected their attitudes and desires. What is more, unions and the feelings of solidarity they can promote can give workers a sense of power and hence self-respect at work. With social life increasingly atomised by the breakdown of traditional communities and social contacts, trade unions still constitute the most common form of social involvement (even if it is often fairly passive) for...
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