Socialists and Trade Unions

In celebration of May Day the members of the Trade Union group at Anti*Capitalist Resistance offer a collaborative view on Socialists and Trade Unions.


1. Capitalism is not a harmonious system of equality. As workers, we are forced to work to pay for housing, food and other necessities of life, whilst the capitalists who own industry and control production live lives of luxury built on the exploitation of their workers. Work is not democratic, in fact, a workplace is a dictatorship: the bosses and managers have huge power over their workers.

2. Workers are not just people in factories; anyone who has to sell their labour in order to live is a worker. Workers have no real power over our working lives, we experience work as something that we have to undertake in exchange for money to live. You might enjoy or find satisfaction in some elements of your job, but work in general is often profoundly alienating and oppressive because of the never-ending demands to increase your workload, work longer hours or take home less pay. Managers often impose arbitrary rules on employees that are belittling and frustrating. They cut corners over health and safety or disregard regulations and laws in the pursuit of getting more work done. This is because in the end, people are just commodities, human resources. Early capitalism was after all synonymous with slavery, and child labour.

3. The main way that workers have tried to resist our exploitation is by joining together to challenge employers’ demands and to attempt to improve our conditions of employment. When faced with employers trying to squeeze greater and greater profits out of employees, workers have formed trade unions to organise ourselves collectively.

4. Trade unions are based on the simple and obvious reality that an individual worker has very little power, but organised together, the industrial strength of workers is much greater. One angry worker can make a complaint, a hundred angry workers can demand change. At their best trade unions empower workers and challenge the ‘right’ of the bosses and managers to control the workplace. They offer a glimpse into a different kind of world where workers have power. Trade Unionism exists in every country, sometimes clandestinely, often facing legal restrictions, but they are one of the most powerful weapons that workers have developed in our struggle against capital. Trade unions in Britain have been absolutely central in the fight for equal pay, adequate health and safety, ending child labour, holidays, the existence of the weekend, and many more rights we now take for granted.

5. As organisations that represent the interests of workers, trade unions are important areas of struggle for socialists. Many workers rely on socialist shop stewards and organisers to help organise fights against redundancies, attempts to undermine conditions and loss of pay.

6. But trade unions are not fundamentally socialist organisations. At their core they are workplace organisations designed to defend the working conditions of their members, not to overthrow the system that exploits and oppresses workers. Trade unions can resist, even win occasional gains, but the fight never ends because capital always remains ultimately in charge. This is the labour of Sisyphus that Rosa Luxemburg talked about, where the successes of the trade unions act as a pressure valve undermining the build-up of discontent amongst workers that might lead to revolution. Today, capital is on the offensive, rolling back the gains of the post-war era, always striving to increase exploitation and profits, not just in Britain but globally.

7. Trade unions fight for reforms and therefore fundamentally have a reformist outlook. When trade unions expanded massively in the late-19th century a layer of well-paid officials emerged, who ran the unions and became full-time leaders. This removed them from the workplace and combined with the significant salaries paid to senior union officials separated them from the members that were elected to represent. These officials, therefore, formed a bureaucratic caste who saw their role as negotiators and advocates, not to overthrow the system but to get the best possible deal from the bosses. Their position as advocates meant they had to keep their members under strict control. They had to prove to the bosses that they could call off strikes and get malcontent workers back on the job if they agreed with a deal. They began to target socialist and anarchist agitators who were ‘too militant’ or ‘trouble makers’ because they threatened to disrupt the schemes and plans of the leaders of the unions. This created a reformist consciousness among union leaders. While this is sometimes an individual failing, more often a leader is elected as a radical but ends up subsumed by the structures of deal and negotiation. General Secretaries and/or Presidents are able to keep control through ruthless control of structures combined with deals with owners and government that deliver something to appease members and convince them to return to the workplace.

8. This reformist viewpoint means that most trade union meetings focus on specific issues within a workplace: health and safety checks, a pay increase, working hours and so on. Since the 1970s in Britain, the vast majority of trade union industrial struggles have been defensive, not fighting to win improvements but struggling to defend what we once had.

9. As a result of this focus on specific workplaces or industries, unions are often sectional in their outlook – advancing the cause of a particular set of workers in a certain industry and not the cause of working people in general. During historic class battles like the miners in 1984-5 other unions were broadly sympathetic but refused to actively join the dispute as it didn’t directly impact their industries. Today some unions are pushing for airport expansion and more carbon-intensive industries to be expanded so that it can create more jobs, a clear example of focusing on a narrow sectional concern and not the interests of the wider class (or planet!).

10. This sectionalism also has other repercussions. Many trade unions have at times played a reactionary role in excluding women and black and migrant workers from white male-dominated workplaces, out of a fear of their own conditions being undermined. As a result, there is a tremendous history of marginalised workers organizing outside of and at times against trade unions in order to be heard, often being forced to wage a battle against their bosses and union leaders at the same time.

11. Today most unions and the TUC have structures for the self-organisation of different equalities groups which have been hard fought for by those members and their allies. How effective these are in making sure that those unions represent the real interests of those workers or make the structures accessible to them varies enormously, depending on the balance of forces at particular times or in particular unions. For example, women workers organised successfully to push the TUC to call a major demonstration in defence of abortion rights when they were under attack in 1979, and unions have been forced in other situations to back anti-deportation campaigns or anti-racist initiatives. Despite these successes it is still the case that cases like the current complaints of bullying and sexual harassment in the GMB are unlikely to be more than the tip of the iceberg. Equality structures have also at times been championed in a tokenistic way – as a means of building career paths, rather than improving the circumstances of working-class members.

12. As they see their role as reforming the existing system, trade unions can also be very legalistic. The anti-union laws imposed by Thatcher, kept in place by Blair and extended by the Tory government in 2016 make effective class struggle trade unionism almost impossible. The thresholds for strikes and other legal barriers are very hard to meet, judges can throw out strike ballots with ease, based on small technical complaints from the employers. Political strikes are banned. Solidarity strikes are banned. The closed shop when every worker had to be a member of the union is also forbidden. Trade union bureaucracies are compelled to obey and implement these laws because they see themselves as legal organisations that must respect the laws even when the laws are clearly designed to prevent any serious working-class resistance.

13. Alongside these legislative chains binding the movement, the Thatcherite ‘revolution’ saw the mass closure of traditional industrial work. This impacted directly on some of the best-organised sections of the working class. Huge battles were waged in the 1980s to slow down or prevent this process, like the miners and printworkers but these were defeated. The effect of this is that the union movement in Britain has been hollowed out. Not only has membership halved – which is people voting with their feet when unions don’t deliver the basic goods – but active participation has crashed almost to the point of non-existence.

14. Unions in the private sector have been the worst affected. The decline of some industries led to a push for more amalgamations, greater mega unions with huge memberships but an even more powerful layer of full-time officials who control the union. Instead of advocating for collective organisation and resistance, unions focus on providing services, from education to car insurance, administered by paid employees. Some small `industrial` unions such as RMT and FBU make regular use of strikes, but the bigger general unions, such as Unison, Unite and GMB are into `leverage` and recruitment to shore up their subscription payments.

15. But where this matters – for instance in the fight to stop the privatisation of the NHS – the unions might have significant membership but they sit on their hands, refusing to a ballot or push for effective industrial action and instead focusing on ‘lobbying’ Tory MPs who won’t have their minds changed with strongly worded letters. During the height of the austerity years from 2010-2015, the public sector unions organised only two one day strikes one over pay and one over pensions, both of which ended in defeat despite huge turnouts and enthusiasm from members. The dispute over fire and rehire in British Gas saw a lot of angry workers ready to take action but the GMB failed to rise to the challenge and organise meaningful action. When nurses were offered a derisory 1% pay increase during the COVID pandemic UNISON only called a ‘slow handclap protest’ even though rank and file nurses organisations wanted more action. And the unions run by more left-wing leaders like Unite let down their members at Grangemouth refinery in 2013 when the bosses announced a lockout taking Unite by surprise and leading to a total collapse in one of the countries best-organised workplaces. The list goes on.

Different left strategies

16. Faced with such defeats there are three main strategies that have been advocated on the left to rebuild union strength. Two operate within the current union structures; broad leftism, and rank and fileism. The third approach, gaining popularity in Britain is a ‘new union’ approach influenced by syndicalism.

17. Broad Leftism identifies the right-wing control of the unions’ apparatus as the main obstacle and organises to seize control of the apparatus electorally. This becomes a war of attrition, of winning places on committees and delegations. Because the Broad left strategy is primarily focused on left-wingers winning positions of power within the existing structures, at best this approach can have the benefit of seeing unions led by more outwardly radical leaders, but it also often traps the left in the existing structures of the union. This is similar to left-wing activists getting trapped in the labyrinths of power in the Labour Party. During the Blair eras, the broad left ‘awkward squad’ failed to put up any serious challenge, internally or externally, to Blair and his agenda. At worst, broad left leaders often end up integrated into the machinery of the union and turn on the membership who got them elected.

18. Rank and file strategy identifies the full-time apparatus of the trade union as an overly centralized bureaucracy that poses a fundamental risk to the work of the trade union movement. It, therefore, aims to confront and overthrow conservative moderation with separatist grassroots organisation and militancy. The rank and file strategy starts from the belief that the union structures themselves are part of the problem and that a disruptive and radical movement of ordinary members is necessary to win struggles and challenge both the bosses and the union leaders when they make compromises on their members’ behalf.

19. In response to the failures of the main unions, some smaller unions have emerged in recent years. Modelling themselves on the syndicalist unions of the early 20th century, like the Industrial Workers of the World, these very dynamic organisations are emerging because the old unions have become stuck in a model of organising established `traditional` workplaces. Syndicalist movements in the past have been built inside the major unions but today the closest related tendency is the smaller ‘grassroots’ unions like the IWGB and United Voices of the World (UVW).

20. Traditionally syndicalism seeks to establish ‘one big union’ of industrial unionism and rejects the political struggle and political parties in favour of radical workers action through unions, whereas the new unions focus on precarious workers like cleaners and security guards or gig-economy delivery drivers. While there is awareness of the awful situation of the ‘new precariat’ by the mainstream unions not much effort is going into organising there. Some of the major unions don’t even print recruitment material in different languages to aid in reaching migrant workers. There is therefore a space for more consistent workplace organising by these new unions, and they have won important local disputes over in-sourcing or for sick pay for sections of workers often ignored by the ‘big beast’ unions.

There is, of course, a danger is that as the smaller unions grow their full-time organiser apparatus grows and begins to replicate the same power structures as the bigger unions with union members increasingly disempowered from decision making. The question always comes back to one of the relationships between structure and politics and how the inevitable nature of bureaucracy can be challenged.

The Labour Party

21. During the twentieth-century trade unions played a central role in creating the Labour Party. Originally an organisation of affiliated socialist parties and trade unions, it only became an individual membership party in 1918. In the British workers’ movement, the division of labour between the trade unions and the Labour party was intended to allow the unions to focus on specific workplaces, and delegate the broader political struggle to Labour. This means that Labour has from its beginning reflected the reformist outlook of the trade union leaders who set it up. This is why founders like Keir Hardie rejected socialism and Marxism as being too radical, arguing instead the party should focus on Labourism, advocating for workers’ rights within the structures and limits of capitalism.

22. The mainstream unions have a huge role in Labour as many of them are affiliated and integrated into every level of the party from the Constituency Labour Parties up to the National Executive Committee and the party conference. Historically speaking, the trade union bureaucracies have played a very conservative role within the Labour Party, wedded to the status quo and unwilling to pursue radical change. It has often been the alliance of MPs on the right of the party, who dominated the Parliamentary Labour Party, and trade union leaders that defeated left-wing motions at party conferences. More recently even left-wing union leaders like Len McCluksey in Unite opposed proposals for a more democratic Labour Party with mandatory reselection of MPs when it came to the vote at a conference.

Objectives for socialists

23. As we have outlined above, trade union activity is not the same as socialist consciousness. Socialists want to overthrow capitalism and create a society of economic democracy and workers’ control. We argue for the interests of the whole working class, not the limited horizons of isolated different groups of employees.

24. Socialists today should have two overriding parallel objectives in trade unions: first to build their capacity and willingness to fight for their members` interests; second to convince workers that capitalism has to be overthrown to end their exploitation.

25. We need to find tactics that can rebuild participation, organisation and militancy at the same time as confronting bureaucracy and fighting for control of the unions. We cannot leave day-to-day organising to paid officials, nor can we abandon the union structures to their control. In recent years the left has been able to strengthen its position inside the structures of some unions without this resulting in great progress – this is essentially a product of union weakness on the ground. The passivity and immobility of trade unions breed demoralisation among the membership. When trade union functionaries claim that the members “aren’t up for a fight” we have to ask what role the leadership of these unions have played in reinforcing a culture of defeat within the movement.

26. A big recruitment drive across the economy is essential, focusing on bringing people into unions who have never been members. A massive influx of younger workers and migrant workers would transform the dynamic within many union branches for the better. We must also work to re-enfranchise those workers who have come, quite reasonably, to view the role of the trade union as that of service-provider, rather than a means of organizing ourselves.

27. Women members, in particular, must be more actively engaged and acknowledged, so that we see trade union activism as a means of fighting for our concerns, rather than as a separate activity. Most unions now recognise that they need to make constitutional provisions to break away from white male ascendency. There have been some changes of attitude and, particularly, women are now much more visible in the ranks of leaders, officials and delegations, but there is a great deal more work to do to ensure that marginalised workers both are and feel ourselves to be genuinely recognised and included in the trade union movement.

28. This means a fight to democratise unions and empower trade union members, to shift the balance of power away from the full-time officials and towards rank and file members and stewards. It also means a clear campaign against the anti-union laws, and for full rights for trade unions to organise and take action. Without unions or union activists willing to challenge these laws, even break them, then the unions will simply be unable to play any serious or meaningful role in the coming struggles. The current mass movement against the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which includes an extraordinary array of attacks on the right to protest is a clear indication that there is an appetite for this if the trade unions are prepared to take it up.

29. Increasingly, trade unions recognise the ecological crisis. The Million Climate Jobs and Green New Deal initiatives have played a big role in this. However, the primacy of defending members’ jobs has resulted in some prevarication in practice or even outright pursuing expansions of industries that are huge carbon emitters like air travel. Alternative production schemes such as ‘A Green New Deal for Gatwick’ or the Lucas Plan need to become both policy and the focus of militant workplace action if serious progress is to be made. In the workplace, employers must be held to account for the climate implications of all business decisions.

30. Likewise there is an increasing push for unions to take on broader social questions, including housing, childcare and other issues across both civil society and the collective needs of people outside of the workplace. Reaching out across community campaigns, turning industrial disputes over closures of public services into community campaigns can have a real impact. Turning narrow workplace issues into political and social issues helps broaden the terrain of resistance, bringing in unorganised people. It is notable that organisations like ACORN and other tenants rights organisations deploy trade union tactics to win concessions from landlords.

31. Some of the more successful battles like the teachers strike in Chicago in 2012 were forged through actively building links with the community. The bosses want to keep strikes and industrial action focused on narrow ‘economic’ issues like employment terms and conditions, but unions can win broad-based support by making the case for a different vision of society based on solidarity. Some trade unions, like the National Education Union (NEU), have tried to learn from the Chicago teachers strike and developed what they refer to as an ‘organising agenda’ – that is to try and shift the emphasis of lay officers and officials away from the day-to-day of casework and negotiations and more into the campaigning work of the trade union. Along with this is the recognition that if a union is to be successful in its campaigns and struggles then it has to construct alliances with forces outside itself. This has led the NEU to work with a range of unions and organisations in various campaigns and struggles.

32. Working alliances of trade union branches, caucuses and networks of shop stewards that are up for more radical campaigns need to be established. Links need to be made between militants in the bigger unions and activists in the smaller ‘grassroots unions’. All serious struggles need to be turned outwards to mobilise wider forces across society and the political dimension of the struggle needs to be emphasised at all times. Promoting international solidarity and political action is crucial. Most struggles today are defensive, but workers still have power, as the unions that shut down schools in January 2021 showed. Green ban strikes by Australian trade unions where workers refuse to work on environmentally damaging projects show also another way that workers can use their power to resist environmental degradation.

General conclusions

33. Under capitalism trade unions are essential instruments for working-class organisation and resistance. They are a global movement and can be found in one form or another in every country. Having an internationalist approach and supporting workers in action across the world is crucial for socialists.

34. Workers actions under capitalism are a glimmer of a future, better world where we have got rid of capitalism and built a society based on solidarity and collective power, not on the diktats of the capitalist and their politicians.

35. At their best unions promote unity among workers, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Advocating for unions to consistently fight for the oppressed on their own terms is central to an emancipatory agenda.

36. Socialists should be active in trade unions wherever possible but also guard against the service model of trade unions that wears people down. Likewise, the radicalism of workers is often frustrated by union structures and leaderships who appear complacent. As such socialists should promote workers’ control not only of workplaces but also their own trade unions. We are critical of the inherently conservative nature of bureaucracy and support action from below by workers.

37. Socialists support working-class resistance and organisation and challenge narrow sectionalism, making the case for a class-wide viewpoint and response. The unions in Britain are bound by the chains of the anti-union laws so a political and industrial fight against these laws is essential to free our unions.

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