Where is Trade Unionism Going?
Trade Unionism in the Epoch of Capital’s Structural Crisis
The formation of the traditional political organisations of workers took place under different conditions in a different epoch to those which are now emerging with capital’s unfolding structural crisis. In Britain we are referring to trade unionism and social democratic reformism. The trajectory of the Labour Party and the prostration of official trade unionism to capital over the past quarter of a century has very definite roots in the transition to an epoch in which the capital order has no more room for compromise with labour because its own space for manoeuvre is rapidly diminishing as its structural crisis deepens. Capital demands absolute subservience and, if it does not get it, will adopt the necessary measures to enforce it.
These new relations correspond to the new epoch of capital’s structural crisis. It is an age which demands, at the same time, new forms of workers’ organisation which can take to the offensive against global capital and its state powers. Hence the urgency of the question of the form and structure of trade unions which needs to be addressed under emerging conditions which are qualitatively different from those of the past under which workers formed their organisations to fight for their class interests.
Up to the present, trade unions – formed under defensive historical circumstances – have adopted a wholly inadequate, defensive posture in relation to capital’s structural crisis. These methods of struggle are anchored to the old conditions and cannot serve workers in the emerging struggles. Trade unionism – if it continues in its presently defensive, bureaucratised organisational and structural form – will gradually sink and disappear into the quicksand of history.
Socialist strategy badly needs restructuring in accordance with the new conditions
[Meszaros, Beyond Capital, p.673] 
These ‘defensively structured’ strategies continue to determine the ‘margins of action’ of non-unionised as well as trade unionised workers which highly circumscribe their activity in the unfolding structural crisis of capital. It is within the context of the evolving conditions of this structural crisis that the trade union bureaucracy itself becomes increasingly articulated as a body which opposes the historic interests of labour because the existence and interests of that bureaucracy are tied to the continuation of the capitalist system itself, standing as a proxy of capital in the class movement of workers. Trade unionism itself (not necessarily identical with its bureaucratic structures) is one (not the only possible one) of the historically central instruments which is available to workers to fight for their class interests. With this in mind, the need to embark on…
the socialist offensive under the conditions of its new historical actuality…..implies also the necessity to face up to the major challenge of being compelled to embark on such an offensive within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class, which happened to be defensively constituted, under very different historical conditions, in the past. Both going beyond capital and envisaging a socialist offensive are paradigm issues of a transition to socialism. [Beyond Capital, pp.937-38].
But ‘to embark on such an offensive within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class’ means rank-and-file trade unionists coming into collision with that ‘defensively constituted framework’. In concrete terms, it means, in trade unionism, a struggle to transform and de-bureaucratise it and hand it over to its members in a sort of ‘reclaim our unions’ movement. It means the whole structure, organisation and procedures of trade unionism being transformed to fight for the class interests of the proletariat and the overturning of its bureaucratically governed character as a proxy of capital in the workers’ movement. It means opposing capital and its state power as the principal enemy and not trying to accommodate interests to it which are utterly opposed to it. This accommodation is the path which the TUC is following and will continue to do so regardless of closures, job losses, pay cuts, attacks on public provision, pensions, etc. The TUC is capital’s best friend in the workers’ movement.
Inevitably, the historic unfolding of capital’s structural crisis will be accompanied by a growing crisis in the established bureaucratic structuralisation and forms of trade union organisation. Indeed, it is already manifesting itself not only in the falling membership of trade unions (April 2014 = approx 6 million members. Winter 1979 = approx 14 million members) but also in the growing and widespread disenchantment of workers with their traditional party; a party which workers formed through the agency of their trade unions and co-operative organisations at the beginning of the last century. This has flowed over into a generalised disaffection with the graft-ridden parliamentary political system of capital’s governance as a whole. The disaffection and disappointment with trade unionism in some sections of the proletariat as a whole does not simply arise out of defeat (e.g. the miners strike in 1984-85) but also out of the very way in which trade unionism is structured and organised, its established bureaucratic procedures and alienating mechanisms. Many trade unionists would agree that ‘their’ trade union does not really belong to them but rather that they belong to ‘their’ trade union. The distinction may seem to be oversubtle but it is real and critically important nevertheless.
Trade unionism and social democracy served to defend gains made in social provision since the end of the last world war under conditions in which global capital had temporarily displaced its contradictions as it underwent a final period of global expansion (1945-75) prior to the onset of its structural crisis. Trade unions could operate, under such conditions, where concessions made by capital actually were not so much sacrificial but rather simultaneously served the purpose of augmenting capital’s process of expansion and development in this post-war period. For example, much of the state spending on the NHS has gone directly into the coffers of the capitalist transnational corporations or their subsidiaries. And, of course, the salaries of workers in the ‘public sector’ have been ploughed back into consumption in its various forms, further filling the coffers of capital. The Keynesian inflationary expansion after the second world war served the needs of capital. And this was reflected in the expansion of public provision. It was not a ‘retreat’ by capital as some assert but a strategic means of displacing its post-war contradictions and stabilising and expanding the post-war global capital order.
However, since the 1970’s, we have witnessed the emergence of, and the steady intensification in, the structural crisis of global capital. The trade union militancy in Britain in the 1970’s and 80’s can be traced as an active, though usually unconscious, response to this growing crisis as articulated in the defensive struggles against the attempts of the capitalist state to impose the consequences of this crisis on the shoulders of labour. Thatcherism and the ‘mission’ of New Labour (Blairite Thatcherism) have developed this political course of capital in the process of privatisations, casualisations, precarisation, anti-labour legislation, etc, because such actions correspond to the needs of capital as it struggles for breath in its structural crisis.
New Labour has, accordingly, openly shed any pretensions to be a ‘party of labour’ and the trade union bureaucracy has, on the whole, followed. The left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy has attempted but completely failed to establish more radical versions of the old social democracy. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party is the archetype, or prototype, in this regard but lately we have had other attempted configurations as well and more are and will be in the offing. From its inception, democratic discussion in Scargill’s group, openness and transparency were rapidly constricted and closed down. A constitution was drafted and imposed on members by Arthur, his cabal and his lawyers before the founding conference in London without discussion and vote.There was uproar in the ranks from those who had joined hoping for something different from a party of doting, subservient, clap-happy yesmen told what to do by a politburo North Korean style. Anybody who failed to tow the party line or sign up to the pre-fabricated party constitution was sent letters and expelled. It reached the point of absurdity of a Moliere farce where the total number of people expelled was greater than its registered membership. These were Stalinistic political methods which served the needs of capital, however contradictory it may seem in a party (now diminished to a fanclub) led by one of the so-called ‘heroes of organised labour’.
In relation to the rest of the trade union bureaucracy, we only have to witness how frictionless it has become for a trade union leader to readily make the profitable transition to the post of government minister (e.g. ex-CWU general secretary Alan Johnson who is now opposed to public sector workers striking against the cuts), peerage (many self-serving examples too nauseating to go through) or even a governor on the board of the Bank of England (e.g. Bill Morris of the now superseded TGWU who did nothing to support the Liverpool Dockers but must have done considerably more to get onto the board of the national bank). As the late, great, jailed UCATT member, Des Warren, once observed : “To get a lordship, a trade union leader must have been a real bastard”. During his incarceration in prison for his trade union activities (policed by ‘trade unionist’ members of the POA – Prison Officers Association), Des was given the so-called ‘liquid cosh’ by the prison authorities. It has been shown that the drugs administered to keep him quiet have been implicated in the onset of Parkinson’s Disease from which he suffered later on.
The interests of the trade union bureaucracy are so closely interwoven with the continuation of the capital system that it will be impossible for organised labour to take to the offensive against capital and its state power without simultaneously coming into direct conflict with this bureaucracy.
Trade unions in their present structure and form, with their ‘conservative’ bureaucratic structures and well-paid and pensioned, elected-for-life general secretaries and top officials, are completely inadequate to deal with the demands to be placed on millions by the depth and severity of this intensifying crisis. Trade unionism – in order to be fit to deal with this unfolding crisis – needs to undergo a complete transformation and become refounded on the basis of workers democracy – direct and participatory – and an integrated system of revocable delegation rather than having officials and ‘representatives’ either elected once in a blue moon or even appointed for life on featherbedded salaries. What’s wrong with any trade union leader being paid the average wage, or even less, of their members? And any legitimate expenses to be covered and published by the given union? And no expenses into the GS’s private bank account because they will not have come out of his modest average wage but out of union funds? If the average wage of the union member is, say, £23,000, then that would be the GS’s remuneration. The possibility of pecuniary interest being a driving motivation for seeking election to trade union positions would thereby be excluded by this measure.
It is not in the interests of the top stratum of the trade unions (TUC) to carry forwards a struggle against capital to its historic conclusion. And that conclusion is Socialism. It would mean beyond doubt the end of their privileges. That is why it would always betray. The ex-miners and their now decaying, drug-infested, communities know all about the ‘solidarity’ and ‘support’ of the TUC in the year long strike of 1984-85. It was the inaction of the TUC that was pivotal in the defeat of the miners and their communities. Whilst paying lip-service to it, (some of us remember the noose dangling in front of the terrified face of the then general secretary of the TUC, Norman Willis) they conspired with the Labour Party bureaucracy (the loquacious Kinnock and Co) to abandon the struggle of the miners and their communities to the hyenas and wolves of capital, its national state power, overpaid uniformed thugs without number IDs on their uniforms and the reactionary press and news editor mouthpieces in the broadcasting media of the capitalist state.
The interests of this bureaucracy (TUC) in the workers’ movement are inextricably tied to the continuation of the capital order and its state power. How can we expect them to behave any differently as this global crisis of the whole capital order broadens and deepens? Lessons must be learnt and taken on board. In the struggles to come, therefore, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. We know what the TUC will do. And because of this, a ‘revolution’ itself within trade unionism is rendered necessary. Without it, trade unions will become vestigial and begin to die away.
And what form might this re-organisation and re-structuring take?
The fundamental principles would have to be delegation, democracy and accountability. In the following context, to delegate is understood to mean the assigning of responsibility and authority to a subordinate of the union. It is not the same as the appointment of a representative as, for example, where the well-paid, elected-for-life general secretary is the representative of the union. The delegation we speak of here is something totally different. Indeed the complete opposite. It would mean that those who hold the highest positions in the union are those who are most subordinate and most accountable in their work.
The process of delegation confers sufficient authority on delegates for them to be able to make decisions in the absence of the assembly of the union at branch, regional or national level i.e discretion to act during intermittent periods. Obligations on delegates therefore come with the rights and means to fulfill tasks decided by the union and by decisions made by the delegate in the absence of its assembly. The decisions of the delegate are subject to approval or reprimand by the union. Accordingly, delegates are given authority by and remain accountable to the union as a whole. The decisions of the union always stand higher than and supersede the decisions of the delegate. Any disputes are therefore ultimately decided by the democracy of the union which is supreme.
The union would decide by democratic process who it should elect as delegates. It would work out and confirm by vote a process of nomination of candidates to be put forward for election by the assemblies of the union at branch, regional and national levels. The responsibilities and authorities of delegates must be generalised, circumscribed and understood by the union and the delegate. The delegate would be subject to a process of mandatory re-election annually in which the delegate can be re-affirmed or dismissed in his/her duties. Discretionary dismissal or re-election (re-affirmation) could take place on successful recall. The present system where the top stratum is elected by a one-off single vote of the membership, then sits enthroned until pensioned off and is not subject to recall and dismissal at any time would be abolished and replaced with a more democratic ongoing system of revocable delegation.
For example, an outline of the delegational process might be 1. Nomination of candidates 2. election 3. Continuous monitoring of the appointee in his/her duties/role as delegate by the union 4. Recall at any time (procedure to be determined by union) 5. Accountability process by means of a quorate branch, regional or national assembly of the union 6. Dismissal and replacement by election or re-affirmation as delegate by the assembly.
A more detailed picture of the democratic principles and procedures might be 1. delegates to be elected by simple majority at a quorate assembly meeting of the union (whose number shall be determined by the union) and empowered to work for the union in a specified capacity as determined by the union 2. All delegates to be subject to recall at any time. The recall of delegates must afford a period of notice to the delegate so he/she has time to prepare a defence, if wishing to do so, against any charges made prior to the accountability process of the assembly. 3. At the aforesaid assembly, the recalled delegate to be subjected to a process of accountability as determined by the union. 4. The assembly of the union – by simple majority vote – to either dismiss the recalled delegate or re-affirm him/her in his/her position as delegate of the union. 5. If dismissed, new nominees for vacant positions to be put forward as candidates and elected by simple majority vote at a quorate meeting, etc. With the development and improvement of general information technology and internet communications, this process of delegational democracy would today be rendered easier, more accessible and participative than it would in the past, even the recent past.
The democracy and authority of the union is paramount. Procedures would serve as the basis for the union to monitor the work of delegates and safeguard against the possibility of bureaucratic power and imposition on the democracy of the union, which is an attack against the union and its movement as a whole. Accordingly, the activities of delegates would be subject to the democracy, decisions and will of the union as a whole i.e in the finality of matters, delegates would generally serve as conduits for the decisions and activities of the union as a whole.
Thus, the social power of the union, with this system of revocable delegational democracy, flows from the union upwards to the elected delegates and always returns to that power base, arising out of its democracy, decisions and resolution. Therefore, all empowerment, authorisation and disempowerment resides with the union as a whole i.e. under its political control. The highest body is the general assembly of the union which is the highest expression of the decision-making process of the union. The emphasis is to safeguard against the re-trenchment of bureaucratic imposition, power being usurped and concentrated in the hands of individual/groups which cannot be shifted out of their posts/positions and thereby flouting the open, transparent and popular democracy of the union. This must be avoided at all costs.
In the present set up, if members wish to immediately remove a regional or general secretary after misleading a struggle, how do we get rid of him/her? When the TUC betrayed the miners in 1984-85, where were the mechanisms for dismissing them for their treachery? At most/best, these mechanisms existed in name only. The TUC is a bureaucracy linked to the continuation of the established system. And in the maelstrom of the oncoming crisis of the capital order, it will deliver trade unionism to its grave if trade unionism does not rid itself of it and re-structure and re-organise to make itself fit and prepared to deal with this emerging crisis of unprecedented historic magnitude and proportions. It is a crisis coming into being the likes of which humanity has never witnessed before in its entire history. It is a crisis of the whole global capital order – economic, social, political, moral, etc – and will require a global response from many millions. The conception of ‘socialism or barbarism’ now resolves itself into the survival or destruction of humanity itself and its natural pre-conditions and basis of existence. The continuation of the capital order is an ongoing and unfolding historic trajectory towards the destruction and annihilation of Nature, humanity and culture. The only way to halt and reverse this unfolding catastrophe is the uprooting and eradication of the capital relation from the social metabolism and the overthrow and break up of the state power which defends it. Even more so today than in the times of Rosa Luxembourg, it is not just a case of ‘socialism or barbarism’ but rather a case of ‘barbarism if we’re lucky’.
This structural crisis of capital therefore brings in its wake a very deep and profound crisis for labour as regards the old defensive forms of organisation. They – the old ways of organising trade unionism – are fundamentally unfit for purpose in their present structure and organisation and this will become increasingly evident as capital’s crisis matures and its assault on public welfare provision opens up and develops. The need to throw off the old defensive form and replace it with the new offensive form directed uncompromisingly against capital and its state power will increasingly assert itself. This, of course, is no guarantee that the required historic metamorphosis will actually take place.
Even such a new ‘radicalised’ trade unionism would only be adequate if integrated within the context of the formation of a ‘broader front’ of the proletariat as a whole which will form the bulwark and provide the historical forces for the prosecution of such an offensive against global capital. Without this, and despite any aberrant and temporary ‘victories’ in strikes, etc, the historical trajectory for trade unionism will continue to be downwards towards vestigiality and a totally integrated corporatism in which the trade union bureaucracy acts more directly and increasingly as capital’s police force in the proletariat. Of course, counter tendencies moving upwards from the struggles of the proletariat will assert themselves but, taken as a totality, the tendency will be increasingly towards a more pronounced prostration before the historical requirements of capital if the present structure and organisation of trade unionism remains in place.
Historically, the trade unions and social democratic parties established themselves…
in opposition to capitalism (not to capital as such) and in a fundamentally defensive way…..
[Beyond Capital, pp.940-41].
In their origins and development, trade unionism and social democracy always took for granted – either explicitly or implicitly – the continuing existence of that which they sought to reform. They always accepted the notion that capitalism could be reformed, made more humane, but that the capital relation itself – the cube root of capital-ism – had to remain the fundamental, controlling social relationship of production and distribution. Marx did not title his great work ‘Capitalism’ or ‘The Capitalists’ or ‘The Capitalist State’. For very good reason he gave it the title ‘Capital’. The capital relation is the quintessential problem. How to eradicate it from the social metabolism. The capitalist state can be overthrown. But if the capital relation remains after that overthrow and is not uprooted and eradicated, then restoration of the state power of capital is always possible and all the old ‘muck of ages’ follows on and comes flying back into our faces. The capital relation does not disappear overnight with the state power that has had, in England anyway, the 500 year old job of defending it. Once that state power is beaten and dissolved politically, then begins the social revolution of transcending the capital relation itself, of going beyond it and beyond commodification, both of which are historically much older than capitalism itself, that is, of freeing human life from its degrading and dehumanising presence.
This conception of a reformable capitalism without going beyond capital itself was the ideal articulation of the interests of the trade union bureaucracy in the age of its birth and subsequent development. It arose in a definite historical phase of development where the structural crisis of capital was in the future and the integration of the interests of the trade union and labour bureaucracy with those of the structures of imperialist capitalism was taking place. In Britain, this process of ‘integration’ has deep nationalistic roots which reach downwards into the substratum of the history of British capitalism at a time when it still ‘ruled the waves’, lived on the bloody fruits of colonialism, the exploitation of slave labour and the first forms of organised labour to be established were the craft unions of the skilled ‘aristocracy’ of labour. This ‘aristocracy’ of labour carved out a position for itself within capitalist society which placed itself ‘above’ unskilled, non-unionised labour. This has profoundly influenced the historic structure and organisation of British trade unionism. It was only later that the unionisation of unskilled labour arrived, in the latter half of the nineteeth and early twentieth century. The ideological legacies of this division between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour remain and are refracted within trade unionism itself today despite the tendency towards ‘de-skilling’ (the worker as a superintendant of the production process based on a continuously increasing component of constant capital (machinery and materials) in this process) and the widespread levelling of wages and conditions.
However, the epoch where this labour bureaucracy (TUC/Labour Party bureaucracy) could feed off the fruits of labour and imperialist exploitation is now rapidly passing through the hour glass of history. We are now entering an epoch where
the increasing difficulty and ultimate impossibility of obtaining defensive gains – on the model of the past – through the existing defensive institutions (…..) and the objective pressure for radically restructuring the existing institutions of socialist struggle so as to be able to meet the new historical challenge on an organisational basis which proves itself adequate to the growing need for a strategic offensive
[p.941, Beyond Capital]….
increasingly and imperatively assert themselves. Fundamentally…
What is at stake, then, is the constitution of an organisational framework capable not only of negating the ruling order but simultaneously also of exercising the vital positive functions of control, in the new form of self-activity and self-management, if the socialist forces are to break the vicious circle of capital’s social control and their own negative/defensive dependency on it
Mesazaros is not simply referring here to the need to ‘revolutionise’ trade unionism but also to the absolute necessity to establish fundamentally new types of organisation which will be comprehensively adequate and equipped in the widest possible social sense to take on and defeat capital and its state power on its own ground.
Labour’s growing crisis of organisation therefore arises out of the unfolding and intensifying structural crisis of global capital itself.
For trade unionists and for the proletariat as a whole, therefore, the emphasis must be on the perspective that the deepening of the structural crisis – where ‘even the bare maintenance of the acquired standard of living’ as well as defence of past gains and any attempts to acquire new ones – will necessitate major changes in strategy and organisation. Indeed…
There will be no advance whatsoever until the working class movement, the socialist movement, is re-articulated in the form of becoming capable of offensive action, through its appropriate organisations and through this extra-parliamentary force
The introduction of anti-labour legislation and its maintenance by New Labour demonstrates the necessity for such changes in strategy and organisation. And the continued prostration of the trade union bureaucracy to New Labour’s refusal to remove the anti-union laws from the statute book (30 years of abject subservience and refusal to mobilise against these laws which have even illegalised general strikes) must mean that both this bureaucracy and New Labour must be thrown overboard and forced under. Trade unionism needs to go onto the offensive against capital. But its present organisation and structure shackles it, tethers it to the capital order itself. Those fetters must be thrown off. Otherwise trade unionism itself as a whole will begin to perish.
For the moment, the question of whether or not the capital order will outlive trade unionism itself or the latter will engage that order in struggle for its transcendence has to be left in the balance. What is truly required now is a ‘radical re-structuring of politics itself’ including, especially, trade unionism.
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 Meszaros, Istvan. Beyond Capital. Towards A Theory of Transition. Merlin Press, London, 1995. (approx 1000pp.)
Meszaros’s work represents a fundamental, ground-breaking and important development for socialism. It is an essential study for all those who want to see an end to the age of the rule of capital.
More accessible works by Meszaros, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time : Socialism in the 21st Century (2008) and The Structural Crisis of Capital (2010). Also of note is his seminal work Marx’s Theory of Alienation (1975, 4th Edition)which is a demanding read but well worth the intellectual effort to understand it.
See also my contribution, The Structural Crisis of Capital and the Question of Agency on this wordpress site.