Unions Ruthless Criticism

Some truths about the representation of the working class

Capital takes for granted a remarkable paradox: its methods of exploitation destroy the wage laborers, the source of its existence and growth; this contradiction – as becomes clear from its struggle – is taken on by the labor union movement. It fights against the ruinous – in its eyes “unfair” – consequences of wage labor in order to endure wage labor in its appearance as “fair” and, even after it succeeds, is always confronted again by the need to continue its fight: an endless story, but one that has never disturbed the labor unions. With their objective of getting what the wage laborers deserve in a fair manner, they have taken on a permanent task; that is their starting point and they are used to it. Their struggle is the constructive response to the unpleasant situation that the exploiters and profiteers of wage labor do not treat their human material with care, but destroy it; if that is the way it is, then the workers must care for themselves as best as possible; they must extract from their adversary their ability to survive and reproduce themselves – for the next round of wage labor.

The essential weakness of the union struggle follows from this goal. Organized wage laborers have no other choice than occasional work stoppages, but only to earn better pay under better conditions – not to end the employer-employee relation. By acting in unity, they indeed put a halt to both their mutual competition (in regards to the productivity and cheapness of their labor) and the calculations that are forced on them (namely, to work harder to earn more money for the employer, to produce as much value as possible). However, as labor unionists, they do this not from the insight that they gain nothing but misery from this, therefore with the aim of getting rid of their harmful dependence; on the contrary, if they act as a militant collective, it is only to sporadically improve the conditions in which they want to then individually resume their disconsolate work as useful and cheap workers for capital. Their extortion tactics therefore lack in principle the ruthlessness specific to the entrepreneur who employs others’ labor. In his bourgeois existence, he really can afford to be indifferent to the wage laborers; he can always find others and, in the worst-case scenario, incurs only business damage; he can therefore be absolutely credible when he threatens striking workers with their economic destruction. It is precisely against this threat that striking union members cannot aim against; they want to return to work and can therefore under no circumstances ruin their employer; even in their strike, they must ensure that the business interests of their opponent is not irreversibly damaged.

Of course, this “logic” of the union struggle was anything but clear to labor movement activists in their wild early years. Full of deep anger about their living conditions, they often conducted bitter and quite ruthless strikes; some even thought of the general strike as the first step towards proletarian revolution; some were attracted to anarchism. With their radicalism, however, they ultimately only suffered defeats – not because it makes it impossible in principle to take up and even win the contradictory objectives of the union struggle, but because the majority of members who were prepared to strike, and especially the union leadership, would not take such a step into consideration. In its place stepped the “forces of reasonableness” and its followers questioned how far the union fight could generally go if there had to be work afterwards nevertheless. They set up the criterion their actions had to meet: functional radicalism or moderate militancy with the aim of better surviving wage labor – which is in direct contradiction to the need to lead these campaigns successfully. The workers who they called on to participate were thus faced with the question of how much union resistance they found generally necessary for themselves, for their private deliberations and individual calculations – which goes directly against the intention of mobilizing them for an effective resistance. (In the USA, the brilliant idea was come upon of resolving the self-invented contradiction between class solidarity and mutual competition so that the results of negotiations apply only to labor unionists). Collective resistance was thus deprived of its power – by the protagonists of the union struggle itself.

On this basis, the labor unions gradually grew into their capitalism-conforming function as regulators of the proletarian discontent which they organize. Already in the preparation of demands they correct “excessive” demands, by very soberly assessing what is feasible and what is not when one takes “circumstances” into account, i.e. under the premise that the interests of the capitalists remain permanent and uncontested. They declare the absolute validity of “reality”; not in the critical sense that in the best of all economic systems only the weight of capital is real, but in the normative sense: as an established criterion for everything that one can expect as a wage worker and that one can therefore not demand without being labeled a “dreamer” or, even worse, having lost one's grip on “reality.” The unions now always pay special attention to giving the appearance of not “going to extremes,” of searching for the outer limits of what’s “feasible” and capitulating exclusively to the superior force of capital. But such statements only make it clear that they make the “perception of reality,” namely unconditional acknowledgement of the economic power relations, their program: they commit themselves and the members to containing any form of opposition to their own dependence on the business success of the employer, go from there and therefore accept that there is and always will be no alternative to this dependence. The capitalists can always bring poverty and misery upon their workforce, and they have no scruples about it as soon as their business interests require it; and conversely, no wage struggle can be lead that endangers the interest in exploitation and gives the capitalist state of affairs real difficulties: this is an uncontroversial fundamental principle of the union struggle. A “realistic” representation of the workers has no choice other than to reach an agreement in consultation with the adversary. Employers do not hesitate to use the private power of their property as ruthlessly as they deem necessary for their demands for reductions in pay and benefits or increases in work performance – the unions can, in no case, pay them back in the same currency. What one may (but also must) press on the “employer camp” concerns a consensus; even when the opponents rightfully make it clear that they attach no value to it, the union tirelessly promotes itself to the capitalists as an accountable and conscientious bargaining partner; it stages measurements of strength with the employer which it sees as lost in advance – and in this way realizes the absurdity of a class struggle that does not want to damage its opponent.

The acceptance of the wage as a source of income includes an affirmative attitude towards the state, the guaranteeing power for the bourgeois order in which all classes, positions and people have the right to use their respective resources and their respective labor. The labor unions therefore expect that a fair “compensation” for their legal status as representatives of the working class will be guaranteed. However, this is not a reservation in the sense that they make their civic loyalty contingent upon pro-worker and pro-union policies by the government. Although the union movement fought for a long time against the power of the state (and its picket lines are still often enough dispersed by the “strong arm” of the law), it never had the aim of abolishing the force apparatus that holds class society together – in the program of serious unionists, political strikes are viewed just as negatively as the “strike breaking” of the employers – but its objective was unrestricted equality with all other important organizations; it wanted to carry out its struggle without obstruction by the force apparatus. That such a demand involves the recognition of class society with its many interests and its supervisory authority was, of course, no problem for the unions: this was and is exactly what it intended. Because labor unions insist on public and political recognition, they also want to emphasize how unconditionally they appreciate the big picture of the nation, in which the cause of the proletariat has its just rights; their criticisms of the responsible directors of the society all derive from the union ideal according to which the interests of the nation and those of the proletariat actually coincide; their federations imperturbably try to persuade the government to show a proletarian bias in its pursuit of the national public interest – even if those in power think completely differently about the proletariat.

The labor union movement carries out its struggle for recognition as a constructive force against two opponents, the capitalist class and the state authority. It develops over time into an organization which appears as a legal entity and demands respect for its leadership and members in a specific relationship characterized by bureaucratic efficiency, i.e. a division of labor between officials and rank and file. A willingness to sacrifice is demanded of members that produces nothing more than the prolongation of wage labor with all its adverse consequences; it must bring about their willingness to pay dues and, if necessary, completely compensate themselves, because no one earns wages if there is a strike – with no other aim and without necessarily leading to anything other than subjugation to all the business calculations of the entrepreneurs which they have to defend themselves against once again. This extremely limited protection of interests obliges them to abide by a political stipulation which is guaranteed to have no benefit for the rank and file: it is precisely the propertyless proletarians who are to be unconditionally answerable to the laws and trust of the nation. So, on the one hand, they are mobilized by their union for the inevitable fight against the employers and the state, and on the other hand, made enthusiastic for social partnership and allegiance to the state; and thirdly, the workers constantly weigh at the same time how much they can individually persist in dragging out their wages, therefore how much solidarity and union struggle is generally worthwhile. In addition, when there is a strike, the union often has members who want the fight against the capitalists' interests to be conducted ruthlessly (and perhaps even consider the abolition of the system of exploitation) and in any case do not meekly consider the politics of the union to be the only form of struggle. Shutting up and excluding this type of radical member is therefore also an integral part of the labor union tradition; they will let nobody and nothing take away from the lie of their existence that wages are a useful means of support for the workers, not because of a look at the social conditions, not because of the state and capital, and not because of communists.

The union

- leads a necessary struggle over wages against the power of capital

- wants to enforce fair wages for its members, so it looks for compatibility of interests with the class enemy

- is recognized by the state as a social partner and equipped with the right to strike in order to protect the social peace

- replaces the wage struggle by begging for jobs when national responsibility to strengthen the American capital location comes up

- offers sacrifices from its members so that jobs are taken away in other countries instead of at home.

So what does one get from the red white and blue union?