Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trade Unions and Socialism

J. T. Murphy

Trade Unions and Socialism

Date: 1936
Publisher: The Hereford Times, Ltd., London
Source: Pamphlet
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


is an organisation of convinced Socialists, fulfilling the conditions of membership of the Labour Movement laid down below, who believe that Socialism can come only through the conscious and determined action of the working-class movement in this and other countries and who believe further that only through such action can the dangers of Fascism and reaction in every country be averted.
Its members, accordingly, are pledged as units within their Labour Parties, Trade Unions and Co-operative Societies, to do everything in their power to further the promotion and ultimate realisation of a militant Socialist programme and policy.
They are linked together in the Socialist League in order to equip themselves more effectively for the work of Socialist education and propaganda.
The Socialist League runs Socialist Forums, Study Groups, Discussion Circles, etc., for the discussion of practical Socialist problems.
It organises Week-end Conferences and Summer Schools for longer and more detailed discussion.
It publishes books and pamphlets in order to stimulate opinion and action throughout the Movement.


Membership of the Socialist League is open to all Socialists who are either individual or politically affiliated members of the Labour Party and who accept the League’s constitution, rules and policy.
Members of the League must, if eligible, be members of their Trade Unions; and, if possible, be members of the Co-operative Movement. All members are expected to become individual members of their Constituency Labour Parties.
Applications for membership, and all inquiries should be addressed to the:—

Trade Unions and Socialism

FOR nearly one hundred and fifty years the workers of Britain have struggled to build Trade Unions. Long before there was a political party of the workers there were Trade Unions. Their history is an amazing record of valiant workers who fought the laws which prohibited the existence of the Unions, who dared imprisonment, deportation, victimisation and persecution in order that their Unions could become strong and powerful. One generation succeeded another in continuous effort, in great strikes, massive demonstrations, political struggles, until to-day millions of workers are organised in Trade Unions.
Have you ever stopped to ask why and for what these organisations have been built? Of course you are familiar with what the Trade Unions do. You know they defend the wages and conditions of the workers, insure them against unemployment, sickness and old age, provide legal defence in their claims against employers. And all these things you will agree are good things. But why was and is it necessary to fight for them? The answer to this question is important because it goes to the foundations of Trade Unionism and Socialism too.
You will undoubtedly say that the workers had to fight for these things because the employers and governments were not prepared to give them until they were forced. That is true and the force which they used was based upon their power to stop work, in other words in their power to strike. Hence Trade Unionists have always aimed at one hundred per cent. organisation, and have regarded the non-unionist as a danger and the strike breaker as a “blackleg”.
There still remains a further question: Why have the workers had to rely upon their power to strike? Now it is certain you will answer— “Because they have no other power than their labour power”. And again you will be right, for even the workers’ right to vote in Parliamentary and municipal elections only came when the Trade Unions had become a power in the land.
Nor has the right to vote taken away the necessity for the development of the power to strike. This has been demonstrated time and again throughout the history of the labour movement. In fact our history proves the need for the ballot box to be supported by the economic power of the workers. This organisation of the workers’ economic power is expressed in the trade unions.
The working class in society holds a special position. It has no property. It is a propertyless class—dependent upon the class which owns property—the land, the factories, mills, mines, railways, transport. But the land cannot give forth its fullness unless workers plough and sow and reap. The earth cannot deliver its mineral wealth unless workers dig it. Factories, mills, mines, railways, etc., cannot work unless workers are employed to make them serve their purpose in the transformation of nature’s wealth into social wealth. It is this fact which compels the owners of the means of producing wealth to employ labour. They need that labour or their ownership ceases to be of value. That is why the withdrawal of labour by the workers can be so powerful a weapon when used on a large scale.
Trade Unions were formed by the workers because they possessed no means of production of their own, i.e. they were propertyless and their labour power which is inseparable from them could only be withdrawn from production in sufficient strength when it was organised.
Now we know why Trade Unions were formed, in what consists their power, and why the fight for a hundred per cent. trade unionism continues in a society where there is a class owning the means of production and a working class owning nothing but its power to labour.
It may be asked “Will the Trade Unions disappear when the working class ceases to be selling its labour power to the private owners of the means of production?” That is an all important question. It raises the issue of the relations of Trade Unionism to Socialism. The roots of Socialism lie in precisely those conditions which give rise to Trade Unionism.
Socialism is, first, the name given to that form of society in which there is no such thing as a propertyless class, but in which the whole community has become a working community owning the means of production—the land, factories, mills, mines, banks, transport and all the means whereby wealth is created and distributed to the community. Socialism is also the name given to a body of scientific and philosophic thought which explains why the Socialist form of society is now a necessity, the forces upon which its achievement depends, the conditions under which and the methods whereby it can be achieved.
It will be obvious at once that the basic principles of Socialist society are diametrically opposite to those of Capitalist society in which we live. Socialism stands for social or community property. Capitalism stands for private property. Socialism is a society without classes. Capitalism is divided into classes—the class owning property and the propertyless working class.
We can easily understand, therefore, why the great majority of landlords, employers of labour, financiers and the like are opposed to Socialism. Their very existence as the receivers of rent, interest and profit is at stake. They do not merely reject the theory of Socialism, but actively and bitterly fight every movement which is in any way associated with the struggle for Socialism.
Whilst there are individual capitalists and landlords who through moral and intellectual conviction are ready to abandon the private property system when society is ready to make the change, and openly advocate and support the struggle for Socialism, the landlord and Capitalist class as a class cannot be the force in society which fights for Socialism.
On the contrary, it is to the individual and social interest of the propertyless class to fight against the private property system and for Socialism. They do it every day, though as yet only a minority do it consciously for Socialism. When Trade Unionists fight the employers on wages questions and the conditions of labour they are really fighting against consequences of the private property system. The existence of the private ownership of the means of production means also the private ownership of the things produced and their sale as commodities in competition one with another. Labour also is a commodity and those who sell their labour power, the members of the working class, manual and brain-worker alike, also compete like other commodities.
Trade Unionism really represents in one sense an attempt to organise monopolies of labour power in order to break down the competition between the workers who in the labour market are commodities for sale and to establish monopoly prices for labour. The more Trade Unionism advances in this direction the more difficult it becomes for the Capitalists to make profit. Hence the everlasting cry of the Capitalists for “lower production costs” and its opposite the workers’ struggle for higher wages and improved conditions. This is the fundamental contradiction of Capitalist economy—a struggle between the two classes, the propertied class and the propertyless—which is inevitable so long as the private ownership of the means of production exists.
From this the Socialist draws the conclusion, therefore, that the class primarily interested in the change from private property to social property is the working class. The goal of Socialism as the classless society has its starting point in the propertyless condition of the working class which is also precisely the starting point of Trade Unionism. The Trade Unions represent the first weapons of the working class in the struggle against Capitalist interests; the Socialist’s goal represents the consummation of the struggle of the working class—its emancipation from the system which gives rise to that struggle.
Trade Unionism and Socialism have thus a common origin and the aim of Socialism is only possible of achievement by the working class becoming victorious in the struggle against Capitalism. Why then is it that Trade Unionists are not always Socialists?
People do not start their lives with fully developed theories about systems of society. Nor were Trade Unions formed to fight for Socialism. The workers formed them to defend and improve their immediate conditions of employment, their wages, their hours of labour and so on. This is clearly revealed by the way in which the Trade Unions have grown.
In the early days of Trade Unions, all concerned with the particular needs of occupations—miners, engineers, carpenters and so forth—were on a much narrower basis than to-day. Almost each craft or trade had its own particular union and their members were drawn from easily traversed localities. Only with the growth of industry, the development of transport and communications between cities and towns and villages did the unions become on the one hand national unions and on the other Trade Unions, combining various trades within an industry. Later still, when the unskilled workers began to organise, there were formed general labour unions which include workers of various industries. Whatever the general form of the unions, all are directly related to occupations, but the more industry develops the more the divisions by industry become apparent, and to-day, for example, in the railway industry there are now only three principal unions; in the mining industry there is a Mine Workers’ Federation of Great Britain formed of County Federations which cater for all the workers in and around the mines; the many cotton workers’ unions combine in federations covering the whole cotton manufacturing industry; and in the woollen industry the process of industrial consolidation is at work.
Throughout the history of the Trade Unions there have been three marked tendencies, first the break up of the crafts and trades into more simple forms of labour which brought in its trail the widening of Craft Unions into Trade Unions tending towards Industrial Unions; second, local and national combinations of all the unions into Trades Councils locally and the Trades Union Congress nationally, representing the merging of the many sectional interests into the common interests of all the Trade Unions—the gathering together of the working class; third, the political development of the workers’ movement, the formation of the Labour Party and Socialist parties and groups representing the growing consciousness of the working class of its independent interests and aims—in short, its approach to the Socialist conclusions arising from a recognition of the class divisions in society and the conflict arising therefrom. What was in its first stage an unconscious class struggle of the workers becomes increasingly a conscious class struggle.
An important hindrance to this development springs, however, from the limited character of the Trade Unions’ activities in relation to the occupations of the workers. The fact that the Trade Unions limited their industrial activities to measures on behalf of particular sections of workers meant that they adopted the method of striking bargains with particular groups of employers. To this has been given the name collective bargaining, the setting up of agreements between employers’ associations and groups of Trade Unions for limited objectives. There can, of course, be no complaint against such a procedure providing it does not become an end in itself but is regarded by the workers as a part of a continuous process in the developing of sufficient power and will to conquer the Capitalists when the time is ripe.
When, however, collective bargaining is accepted as a permanent procedure and becomes the first principle of action for the working class movement, then it involves the acceptance of Capitalism as a permanent form of society; and the unions will have to take just what the Capitalists can afford to give them. Here lies a central point of difference between Socialists and those Trade Unionists who regard Capitalism as permanent and the Trade Unions as permanent bargain-makers.
The greatest danger for Trade Unionists and Trade Unions to-day arises precisely from the fact that Trade Union policy is too exclusively confined to bargain making and not directed to the Socialist aim of abolishing the economic system which gives rise to the struggle between workers and employers. Especially is this danger most apparent when the world has entered the period of history when Capitalism is breaking down. Already a sixth part of the earth has become Socialist and there, in the U.S.S.R., the Trade Unions have new functions, new tasks, and an entirely new outlook on society. For example, they are completely responsible for the administration of the social welfare of the members in sickness and in health. In co-operation with the Workers’ State they regulate the wages and hours of labour and control the condition and administration of industry. In the rest of the world there are chaos, unemployment, wage struggles, the lengthening of working hours, the smashing of Trade Unionism. Here in Britain itself there are over two million unemployed, intense competition between those who are fortunate enough to get work and a mad race of Capitalism towards another devastating war. All the signs in countries where Capitalism reigns reveal the increasing strains and stresses to which it is subjected, and the failure to find, save at the expense of the workers, any sure temporary stabilities.
And yet it is a fact that the bargain-making outlook is in command of the unions. So much is this the case that wage struggles are unco-ordinated, the Trades Union Congress is committed to all kinds of plans for re-constructing Capitalism, “Roosevelt Plan for Britain,” and so on.
How much this is the case was clearly demonstrated recently by the General Council of the T.U.C.’s rejection of the resolution of the Margate Trades Union Congress calling for the co-ordination of the wage struggles of the Trade Unions. The General Council stated that the Trade Unions had so many agreements terminating at different times; that the profitableness of industries varied so much, co-ordination was not deemed practical. Hence when the miners were demanding an improvement of their conditions the rest of the Trade Unions looked on and there was no preparation made to give support in the event of the miners being forced into strike action. The same applies to the many separate efforts of other Trade Unions at the present time.
The Socialist declares that such a policy, especially in the present period, is disastrous for the unions and the workers. The Socialist is not anti-trade union. On the contrary, he is the most ardent of Trade Unionists. Socialists want their fellow Trade Unionists to recognise the cause of the struggle their Trade Unions are compelled to wage. Recognising the cause as rooted in the private ownership of the means of production and the propertyless conditions of the working class, Socialists want all the struggles of the unions to be co-ordinated, so that behind every national or industry conflict there will be available the appropriate power of the working class. Socialists want sectionalism to be superseded by a united working class army of the unions led by a general staff which directs the struggles of the workers to one end—the securing of the victory of the working class over the Capitalists.
This means that the Trade Unions should recognise that all the efforts of the working class must be directed to the goal of the conquest of political power. Their fight in the industrial field must be linked with the fight to obtain a Socialist Government which, backed by the might of the working class, would transfer the ownership of the means of production and distribution from private hands to social ownership.
The Socialist wants the Trade Unions to be instruments of struggle for this power and this aim, and not instruments for the retarding of the workers’ struggle, as some bargain-makers would seem to desire. Trade Unions should become transformed into industrial unions, i.e. one union for each industry, for the longer the delay in such a transformation the greater the impediments in the way of the conquest of power. To hasten this development Socialists call for the organisation of the workers at “the point of production” in shop stewards and workshop committees, mill committees and pit committees. It is there where the divisions between workers are most fatal; it is there where they can be most quickly overcome; “unity on the job” is the key to the development of the solidarity of the working class in the struggle against Capitalism. And that solidarity is the basis of class action in politics.
Upon the spread of these ideas among the workers inside and outside the Trade Unions depends the future of the working class. The greater the crisis of Capitalism, the more desperate the Capitalists become, the more certainly will they take issue with the Trade Unions on every question. Trade Unionists must face the fact that the conditions of labour they seek to maintain and establish become increasingly inimical to the existence of Capitalism. Hence the struggle must be joined unless the unions are prepared by accepting the limitations of capitalism to suffer the fate of the Trade Unions in Germany and Italy, where the Fascist regime with its terror—itself but an extension of Capitalism—has broken them to pieces. To prevent this fate the Socialist ideas of reorganisation must take root, become widespread, and inspire the working class to struggle for power.
Given this the Trade Unions will face a newer and greater future. No longer a movement of protesting wage slaves, they will become, when transformed into industrial unions, when power has been gained, part of the administrative machinery of industry, the means whereby the workers control the conditions and processes of industry.
A living example of this transformation, this enlargement, is now before us in the U.S.S.R. There the unions have complete responsibility for the administration of social welfare; there the unions in co-operation with the party of the workers and the workers’ state, regulate and control every phase of the productive and distributive processes; there is no “dilution problem”, no “apprenticeship problem”; there the struggle for wages with private Capitalism has ended. In the U.S.S.R. society has become a working community, owning and controlling the means of production, and no class conflict, no rival interests of employers and workers divide and impede. The old basis of struggle which characterises the position of the unions under capitalism has vanished in the triumph of Socialism. A new basis of common ownership has given the transformed unions new functions of self-government and administration.
This is the path of working class emancipation. To inspire the working class of Britain so to transform the spirit and purpose of their Trade Unions that they too may become mighty weapons for working class emancipation through Socialism is the purpose of Socialist activity.
To this end the Socialist League advocates the following programme of action within the Trade Unions and Labour Movement:—
1. All workers eligible for membership of Trade Unions to become members of the union catering for his or her trade or occupation.
2. The amalgamation of the Trade Unions in each industry into one union.
3. The activities of all the Unions to be co-ordinated by a single General Council functioning as a general staff of the workers’ industrial army.
4. The democratisation of the Trade Unions by securing that (a) all executive positions are subject to ballot vote at intervals of not more than three years; (b) all major decisions on wages and conditions, etc., arising from disputes with employers are submitted to ballot vote of the members; (c) delegates to Trades Union Congresses are elected by ballot vote and the majority of delegates to any Congress are non-executive members; (d) all Trade Union branches are affiliated to the industrial section of the local Labour Council.
5. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress, the Labour Party Executive, the Executive of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Executive of the Cooperative Union to form a National Labour Council for the co-ordination of the activities of all sections of the working class movement and to secure the co-ordination nationally of the economic and political struggles of the workers.
6. The organisation of Trade Union branches, local Labour Parties and sections of the Co-operative political councils into local Councils of Labour corresponding to the National Council of Labour co-ordinating the economic and political activities and struggles of the workers in every locality.
7. The organisation of workshop, factory, mill and pit committees, etc., composed of delegates or shop stewards elected by the workers on the job, the local central committees of the delegates or shop stewards in each industry in the locality to be represented on the Local Council of Labour.
8. The affiliation of the national centres of every section of the organised working class—trade union, political and co-operative—to their respective international bodies and the establishment of one international of trade unionism, one workers’ political international and one co-operative international, governed by the principle of waging the international class struggle for Socialism and linked together in an International Council of Labour.
With such a democratically controlled organisation, guided by leaders who are animated with the spirit of the Class Struggle and the Socialist purpose we have outlined, the working class of this country will be able to play its part effectively in the fight for that victory over Capitalism and the establishment of Socialism and Peace on which the permanent improvement in the conditions of the workers without question depends.

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