Tuesday, July 30, 2013

More on the role of trade unions

Vanguard August 2013 p. 6

Commemorating 50 Years of Vanguard

In this issue we continue our occasional series of reprints from across the 50 years of Vanguard’s publication.  These articles help trace the origin and development of the ideological foundations of our Party.

More on the Role of Trade Unions[1]
(Vanguard Vol 5 No. 4 1968)

In the present period of sharpening class struggle more and more workers are beginning to question the role of trade unions in capitalist society.
Experience is revealing that the trade unions actually restrict class struggle.  The trade unions have become a part of the establishment.

Their very acceptance by the capitalist class means that they have been adapted to capitalism.
The capitalist class is very skilled at hiding the real issues of class struggle.

For many years the class struggle has been channelled into the parliamentary ballot box.  Parliament has been promoted as the centre of political struggle.  If sufficient votes can be mustered for candidates who allegedly represent the working masses, then social change will be achieved.
This illusion is carefully fostered by the capitalist class.  It is the main way in which the capitalist class gives “legitimacy” to exploitation.

It also gives “life” to the illusion of democracy, that is things can be changed through “legal processes”.
The capitalist class must take this illusion right down the line.

All the organisations of the people are carefully dovetailed into the “legal processes” of society.
Trade unions are the biggest mass organisations of the working people. They came into existence through struggle. The trade union movement has traditions of struggle.  All this is skilfully used by the capitalist class.  They say that the trade unions fought for their existence and won out. Likewise they can fight for a change in society; the struggle may be longer, but finally it will win, providing the processes of the “law” are observed. The idea is “to take things gradually”.

The capitalist class speaks thus with its tongue in its cheek for it knows full well that if the trade union movement can be contained “within the processes of the law” then these great mass organisations of the working class will remain harmless.  They will not become a real challenge to the capitalist system.
The capitalist class fears the trade unions.  It does not like any sort of working class organisation. It knows that it is a difficult job to keep the working class “within the processes of the law” when that law demands servile obedience to ever-more intense exploitation.

Therefore the capitalist class pays much attention to the trade unions.  It sees that it exercises control over them through the trade union bureaucracy.
This is the reality of today.

The capitalist class controls the trade union movement through its state apparatus.  It has tied the trade unions to the arbitration system and thereby has skilfully ensnared trade union officials in “the processes of the law”[2].
When workers in a factory or any other workplace take direct action against the exploiters they are immediately bogged down with trade union “procedures”.  Executives and trades and labor councils, and finally the ACTU executive has to be consulted.  There must be “unity of action”.  Inevitably compromise solutions are reached.  The recent postal dispute over the employment of scabs is a good example.  A compromise was worked out by the trade union bureaucracy and the government.

And this will continue to be the case because the trade union bureaucracy does not challenge the system of capitalism.  It works out “adjustments”, “compromises” WITHIN capitalism.
The trade unions have a leadership and a mass membership.  The leadership inevitably, and must inevitably, become caught up with the “legal processes” of capitalism.  Therefore it stands in contradiction to the membership.

The masses of trade unionists are all important.  It is here that revolutionary work must be carried out. The objective conditions are maturing for such revolutionary work.  The workers know by their own experience that negotiations with the boss, either through arbitration tribunals or even directly, do not fundamentally solve their problems.
It is impossible to solve the fundamental problem of exploitation through the “processes” of capitalist law.

The reality in Australia today is that the working people are being exploited more intensely. Large sections of the middle classes are being forced closer and closer to the proletariat. This is the fundamental reason for the expansion of the white collar union organisation and the growing cooperation between the masses of white collar workers and the blue collar workers.
This reality is an objective fact despite years and years of negotiations.

There must be a change.
And that change is gradually coming about. The Australian workers are very restive.  They are challenging old concepts. They are beginning to see through the false cries of “unity”. This was demonstrated by the Tram Union membership vote for disaffiliation from the Melbourne THC[3].

The hard reality of life overcomes habit and tradition which is used falsely.
The working people of Australia want revolutionary change.  They want to put an end to exploitation.  They are beginning to realise that they trade unions, important as they are, cannot bring about a revolutionary change. This can only be brought about by the millions of masses acting in the light of revolutionary theory.

Without a revolutionary theory there cannot be a revolutionary movement.  Once revolutionary theory is grasped by the masses it becomes an invincible material force.
The Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) is bringing revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung, to the Australian people. Trade union leaders can assist this development.  The masses of trade unionists can be a mighty force in the revolutionary movement.

The lifting of the political consciousness of the trade union members is the main task – not the winning of reforms, although this must be done.  The winning of reforms can be used to heighten revolutionary class consciousness.
Let us place the emphasis on revolutionary theory in the trade union movement.  A good practical step in this direction is to ensure the widest possible circulation of the booklet, “Looking Backward: Looking Forward” by E. F. Hill[4], which deals with the question of the struggle of revolutionary, socialist politics against trade union and parliamentary politics.

[1] For the newly formed CPA (M-L) the trade unions figured prominently in discussions about how to break ideologically, politically and organisationally from the revisionist policies and practices which had come to dominate the former Communist Party of Australia (CPA).  Some “left” mistakes were inevitably made in the process of drawing a clear line of demarcation between the CPA, where the capturing of union leadership positions and adhering to the “processes of the law” were the rule.  Nevertheless, some of the earliest publicly acknowledged leaders of the CPA (M-L) were themselves trade union leaders – Paddy Malone and Norm Gallagher (Builders Laborers Federation), Ted Bull (Waterside Workers Federation) and Clarrie O’Shea (Tramways Union). Over the years, the question of the relationship between the trade unions and the party of revolution continued to be a major focus of discussion within the CPA (M-L).
[2] Following the 1969 defeat of the penal powers of the Arbitration system, the ruling class turned to other legislation not originally designed to restrain unions –the Trade Practices Act for example – and then to new forms of industrial relations legislation including Howard’s WorkChoices and the ALP’s Fair Work Act to ensure the right to strike was restricted by “the processes of the law”. It is a simple fact of life that trade unions by and large comply with these “laws” and therefore contain any real possibility of a break-out of mass working class struggle.
[3] In all, 27 unions broke with the right wing leadership of the Melbourne Trades Hall. The CPA (M-L) assessment of the “restiveness” of the workers helped Hill, O’Shea and other Party leaders to decide that the time was ripe for a challenge to the penal powers. In 1969 these 27 “rebel unions” decided to support O’Shea if he was prosecuted for observing decisions by his members that fines imposed on their union not be paid. By deciding to lift the level of struggle against the penal powers, the Party led a movement away from opposition in words, but within the “processes of the law,” which had been the position of the revisionists and social democrats, to opposition in deeds that defied and challenged the “law” and which were carried through to success by relying on the mass actions of the working class.

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