What Future for Trade Unionism?
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The Trade Unions were established essentially as ‘wages and conditions’ organisations in order to secure a greater share of the surplus value which living labour itself produces. They were never intended, nor could they have been intended, to form the organisational basis for overthrowing the rule of capital and its state power. They very rapidly became integrated into the whole hegemonic superstructure of the capitalist order. This is especially notable in Britain where the trade union bureaucracy threw in its lot with the ruling class during and subsequent to the period of Empire. Today the existence and development of the resources of the trade unions, e.g. pension funds, shares, etc, are so closely bound up financially with the operation of the capitalist order that the deepening of its crisis will inevitably bring an actual financial crisis for the trade unions themselves as corporate bodies. It is in the interests of these bureaucracies not to challenge the rule of capital never mind seek to overthrow it. The expression ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ comes to mind.
The expansion of the capitalist system throughout the last two centuries enabled gains to be made in terms of wages, conditions and social provision in general. The trade union bureaucracies grew fat and the corruption which concentrated power brings in its wake took different forms.
The unfolding crisis of the whole global capitalist order in the 21st century will undoubtedly reveal and demonstrate in practice in the course of this maturing crisis the complete inadequacy of trade unionism as an organ of proletarian struggle. And this not simply in its current bureaucratised organisational form and structure but even in any radicalised forms which may emerge.
The crisis for labour is a crisis of organisation imposed on it by the crisis of the unfolding capitalist order which demands solutions for the class as a whole and not simply for one ever-diminishing section of it, supposedly represented in its trade unions.
Trade Unionism has become totally unfit for purpose not simply for merely challenging the capitalist system itself. Even in terms of its original foundation purposes it has become outmoded. Rather than being the agency for challenging capital’s rule, its top ruling stratum has served as one of its most important props and loyal supports. If you’re a good boy you may even get a comfortable seat in the House of Lords or even a lucrative position on the governing board of the Bank of England.
Effectively, the age of trade unionism as a organisational form of proletarian struggle is now coming to an end. It is breathing its final gasps. The epoch of capital’s all-pervading structural crisis now demands that new adequate forms of organisation are absolutely necessary for the purpose of conducting the struggle to put an end to the epoch of the existence of capital.
Trade Unionism is dying on its feet. It is being slowly sucked under into the quicksand of history. What is now required is a real move forward in terms of organisation and consciousness; changes which will bring into being a type of organisation capable of conducting this global struggle to put an end to the existence of the capitalist order itself and therefore, necessarily, the state power which defends that order.
23 November 2012