The woes of the radical union activist Ruthless Criticism

The woes of the radical union activist:
Why do the workers again and again accept the “sellouts” of their unions and watch their condition keep getting worse?

Let's start with a few tough theses. Then you will grasp the difference between the way a radical union activist argues and our approach. For instance, debates with titles asking “Cooperation or Class Struggle?” are almost trivial in today's situation. Everyone knows that unions today are socially-oriented partnerships that see class struggle as absurd and part of a long forgotten past. This “or” is not a real question, but the desire of radicals to put class struggle instead of cooperation back on the agenda. From this starting point, it is terribly easy to accuse the unions, as they exist these days, of accepting too many economically “sound” reasons when they are in conflict with capital over contracts and wages, for their own representatives co-operating with management, and for acting like management themselves. The union boss is a good model for this moaning and groaning and accusations that there is not enough justice. Everyone can easily see that the unions subordinate the interests of those they represent to the requirements, needs and interests of the opposing side, to capital.

Secondly, it is also easy and standard practice for the left to recommend or urge unions to represent the interests of the workers more consistently. They accuse them of not sticking to their guns, and demand that they show more determination. This is wrong. Leftist groups and parties always say, when a union demands a wage increase of 5%: no, they should demand 7% more! And when a union calls a symbolic strike, the radical left chimes in: no, we want a real fight! Outdoing the unions with higher demands and a greater willingness to fight than whatever the unions actually do is the usual criticism that the left makes of the unions. It demands that the unions should champion the workers' interests more aggressively.

This demand is wrong. Workers' interests can't be be fought for in a better way! Or formulated differently: of course it is true that the unions do not have to be the way they currently are, but the interest of wage workers in this society is such a tricky business that it can't be more reasonably and consistently pursued. The common way this problem is addressed by radicals is: yes, unions have the task of organizing the defense of the interests of the workers in capitalism and that is far too little; a different, system-transitional perspective needs to be added, the perspective of setting up a socialist society. They may think that the unions do what is proper and necessary in capitalism – or maybe they don't do what is necessary and possible in capitalism – but the missing ingredient is a perspective subversive of capitalism. And in this way, peace could almost be made between the radicals and the unions as they now exist by adopting the tone: maybe you are doing what can be done in your defined field, but seen from our far broader perspective, this is not enough.

Instead of participating in this sort of peace-making, it would be better to attack it and say: No, it's the other way around: Because the unions defend and want to make use of the workers' source of income in this society, because they have a good opinion of it, because this is the basis from which they start – they do everything wrong in capitalism! Hence it is not that they more or less do something right, but lack a socialist perspective. Rather, because they don't criticize this source of income, they already totally fuck it up!

The reason why unions have to exist and the purpose for which they exist – one would think they would be one and the same – do not fit together

In principle, unions were once based on the experience that when a worker offers his ability and willingness to work, searches for a buyer, goes to work, and the employer has his way, it then turns out that he can't even live from the work. This is the experience that forming a union is based on in each case. The workers have to join forces to be able to force consideration for the thing they are working for: they need some source of money in order to live, but on their own they find that no consideration for this source takes place. On the contrary: the business of the company consists in making profit, and the profit consists of the difference it can bring about between the costs it has and the prices it can get. And in the struggle for this difference, the wage is the decisive means in two ways: the entrepreneur wants to get as much labor as possible for the money that he spends on it, and for this reason alone he wants to pay the workers as little as possible. For the labor performed, this means long working hours, intensified labor, higher performance standards, and – especially relevant today – an enormous flexibility of labor, so that the workers, regardless of when they are at work and when not, are basically always available to a company and their free time becomes a variable of the company's needs. That's the side of efficiency.

For the money that is paid, the livelihoods of working people are an annoying cost of doing business: The wage is more advantageous for employers the less they have to pay to get its results. That's why for business the tendency is clear: push the wage further and further down whenever possible. This has to be taken seriously: every slave owner was more interested in his living working tools getting enough to eat and staying healthy than is the modern free employer who buys labor power for a certain time period on the labor market. The slave owner has property to lose if a slave keels over. The employer merely has to make sure that the supply on the labor market is big enough. That might sound extreme and like nineteenth century capitalism, but none of that is outdated, as the debate in the US about the working poor shows: ten million people are employed in low wage jobs at wages which can't finance a livelihood or support a family.

The second insight that every union is based on is: when an employer hires people, a worker as an individual is absolutely helpless in the setting of the price and conditions of work. What happens to him is entirely decided by the interest of the other side. Workers have to join forces to exert pressure so that they may be able to say no as a collective and create anything like a negotiating position.

Why, when they find work, are they so absolutely at the mercy of the employer's offer? Because in this society somebody who wants to work (Marx calls him the doubly free wage laborer) is not in a position to work at his own pace and on his own account. Somebody may need work because he has to earn money so that he can live, but he can't work just because he needs work and says he wants it. This is because the means of production that ensure a level of productivity for which money can be earned on the market for goods and services belong to others. Maybe anybody can buy a mop and call it a means of production, but in today's world one can see where this leads for someone without a lot of wealth next to an automated factory. This can also be seen in the efforts of unemployed people to set up their own businesses, when they end up detailing cars or other such hopeless forms of trying to find an income without an employer. The truth is that in this society a real income is possible only via an employer. That creates an absolute dependence. The people really do absolutely depend on the offer of business because they are in the helpless position of needing work, and they do not own the means of work because they are the property of others. This is the second insight that the historic formation of unions was based on.

The conclusion that is not made by any union, but which should be made, is not that far off. If the condition for work is that others own the means of production and all the conditions of work, and you yourself merely have a willingness to work and are powerless, since you do not own the means – if that is the basis for the contractual relationship which both sides agree on, then it is clear that it is not two more or less equal parties who argue over the output (or, because this is capitalism, prices). Entrepreneurs also argue with each other over prices; everyone wants to pay as little as possible and get as much as possible. Formally, the employee is no different: he too wants to give as little labor as possible and, on the other hand, get as high a wage as possible. But this analogy to all other dealers is a delusion. This is because, in this case, it's not two independent economic subjects who face each other and then compete over the amount in the contract, but one side who desires to make a living from work facing another side whose economic means is the ownership of the means of production. The exclusive possession of the means of production makes the entrepreneur's interest the condition of the contract. There is no gross domestic product about which, after it is produced, the other side says: now how much do I get from it? The GDP only comes into existence when the interest of the entrepreneur is met. The interest of the entrepreneur is not an interest next to or in addition to others, but is the condition for the existence of the others' interest. Does that make sense?

It should be clear: in the representation of the interest of workers to also get something, the main issue is that the employer's interest enjoys precedence, that the profit must be high enough, otherwise there is no production, no jobs, and no dispute over wages. This precedence of the employer's interest is the condition for the whole contractual relationship and not something that is argued about in the contractual relationship. Workers can join together as much as they like and demand higher wages, but whatever wage they end up with always has profit as its precondition or else there is no wage. This is not a relationship that can be corrected! That's a conclusion that could be made from the reasons (which are still somehow known) why there are and needs to be unions.

Now here's the other part: The reasons unions exist do not fit the purpose for which they exist. The reason they exist are the two fundamental elements of what is called exploitation: the first was that one can not live from work if employers are left to set wages, and the second was that an employee as an individual is completely at the employer's mercy. In other words, unions are needed because of the relations of exploitation in this society, and the purpose for which unions exist is the desire to cope with them. If they would think through the reasons, then the idea would arise to want not to cope with them. One wants to get rid of something like that; one wants to fight and destroy something that is hostile to oneself. That would be the correct conclusion from the experiences that underlie the establishment of unions.

Once unions are established and pursue their purpose, then their purpose is suddenly reversed: From these relations of exploitation, we'll make something for ourselves! One has to bear in mind the absurdity of this project. One could express it this way: We will use the exploiters' interest in exploiting us to position ourselves better. Not: We reject that! We will get rid of that! No, we will use the exploiters' interest in exploiting us to be better off. What can the result of this be? Unions are organizations that are partisans for the source of income of the wage laborers in capitalism. And that's why they are as contradictory and as wrong as the source of income itself.

Here the working class is really taken in by the formalism of freedom: that they are also free subjects, that they can also go crazy with the price of their commodity, as can anyone in a market economy. They can negotiate and even decide not to close a deal. They are virtually dealers in their own commodity, like vendors in others things, such as oil or grain. The formalism of freedom totally extracts from the content of what they bargain with. They act as if, because they are free, because they are permitted to bargain over the price of their commodity, they actually determine its price and could raise it to a level which would make them well off.

In fact, the whole business takes place on the basis of the subordination of labor to capital, and this is never going to be rectified, revoked, someday somehow materially balanced or compensated for. From the standpoint that this source of income should work for them, unions adopt all the requirements of this source of income. They defend jobs and the national economy, and with what? Always with their own sacrifices!

What union demands and their assertion look like on this basis

There is a necessity for why the representation of workers' interests always ends so miserably. If one does not want to let this count – and of course one doesn't want to let it – then abandoning the workers' interest itself is necessary. The source of income itself must be criticized. Union activists, by the way, even the more radical ones, take an affirmative position towards it. This “our work is our means” is the great error of the working class! And if its logic is followed, then it ends just like we now see.

First, a point about wage demands in relation to the types of slogans that radicals wish the unions would write on their banners; for example, a real living wage, one that really ensures people a secure livelihood, so that even when they are unemployed they don't fall into dire straits. It needs to be clear: unions, in their determination to make the best that is possible out of wage labor, see their opponents in a completely wrong light, and are therefore on a completely different level than radicals when they make their demands. They are rational enough that they would say: well, of course, we would also like to get more wages and we need more, but we must not harm capital. That's already the limit to their demands, but they do not even use arguments like this. In that case, the incombatibility of capital's calculations with one's own demands would actually be the topic to discuss.

When unions demand wages, this is the basic principle that they want to get more money. But what do they say? They justify it. And not by saying: we must take something away from the capitalists since they won't give it willingly, so let's see what we can take ... They don't say things like like that. They refer to a communal effort; as if a capitalist economy would be a kind of collaboration for the benefit of all. And then they issue their own demands by pointing out how useful they have been for the results of this communal effort.

This starts with how wage demands are justified. First, unions want to participate in productivity advances. This already presumes the whole subordination of labor to capital. Growth in productivity is nothing but companies applying new technologies in order to reduce the cost of labor. They throw out the workers they don't need so they don't have to pay them any more, and they make the workers they still pay work more intensely, faster, and more productively, so that the wage cost per unit decreases. Productivity growth is nothing but one big anti-labor measure! Unions do not say that they want to prevent this; they say: we want it too and we will run it, but we want to take part in the impoverishment that we will suffer in monetary terms. If one wants to participate in productivity growth at a certain percentage, one has already swallowed one's own impoverishment, as that is included in this growth.

The other argument why they deserve more wages is inflation; they demand adjustments for inflation. What is that? It is the recognition that the workers will automatically be poorer over the course of the year. And who causes inflation? The entrepreneurs, of course, who demand higher prices for their commodities, thus increasing their profits by their ability to sell their product at a higher price while their costs remain the same or decrease. Then workers want compensation for inflation. They bring attention to the fact that the other side has already had the opportunity to get richer, and they want that, but (and this conclusion is never drawn) they want to be as badly off again as they were last year!

The reason they make wage demands like this is ignored. The reason – that workers must live on wages – lies in the background, but it is not in the substance of their wage demands. In other words, wage demands all have the following nature: this year you made more profit, we approved it for you, we made it happen, so you can pay without it being a problem for you. And this is the point at which they become critical of the greed of the entrepreneurs. Then they become critical of maximum profits. And when maximum profit is the object of criticism, normal profit is swallowed. So all union demands, wherever they appear, recognize their subordination to the priority of the purposes of the opposing side.

The different way radicals argue for union demands

Radical unionists use phrases like: unions, as we could imagine them, should ... unions, as we know them, do ... The latter is not deniable. The question is whether one should get involved in the former: Unions should! Instead, it is better to insist on the necessary reasons that these associations are such lousy clubs.

Take another possible demand that radicals often set for unions. They point out that unions demand a minimum wage that is so low that nobody could live on it anyway, but it always makes sure of one thing: that it prevents foreign competitors from undercutting the level here. That's ultimately the side of union demands that the government listens to: yes, foreign workers should not be able to offer themselves cheaper than us so that we are unemployed and the jobs go to foreign workers. The government understands that. And here the radicals say: unions should not be nationalistic; they should not pose demands that exclude others. But unions as unions are inherently about competition for jobs. And even if unions don't all do it the same way as in the US or England, every union always has an aspect of pursuing a “union shop” policy: we represent our members and our service to our members is that we eliminate applicants from non-organized operations. Unions and workers compete for jobs and any position inside this competition always has the character, on the one hand, of excluding outsiders and, on the other, solidarity internally.

Each union insists that its workers are more capable, more indispensable than the others. Unions and professional groups compete with the view they could muster more power to assert themselves against the competition. And this relation of exclusion and internal solidarity always means we are the better workers! And therefore unions have a tendency to say: we do it better. This relation is characteristic of the standpoint of wanting to make something out of wage labor as a source of income! It won't work without it!

In other words – and a radical union activist will agree with this – only in the will to abolish this whole system could one have such a thing as a positive united will! Otherwise, workers are always competitors with each other. And the demand to drop your competitive interest and show solidarity always requires that the competing workers give up one of their interests for the other, because solidarity means to stop making use of one's labor via competition. Competition and solidarity are two contradictory aspects of the worker's interest: on the one side, he just has the interest in fully making use of his labor, because he wants to get the most out of his job, and to do that he really has to compete; and the other side is: by trying to make as much money from his work as he can by competing, the situation follows that the price of his labor continually falls. So he has to be organised in a union. But organizing into a union at the same time means saying no to competition, to using his source of income as he could. Union activities objectively exist in this contradiction – not just because they think in terms of competition and not solidarity. It doesn't depend on thinking. The contradiction is more objective than merely bad opinions. Unions as a whole organize the competitive interests of the workers, and this has its exclusionary side.

It is always in the nature of this interest that its represention has such grim consequences. This criticism is already a recommendation for what could be done differently in practical terms. It is not complicated: the critique of capitalism and the will to abolish it are needed. Then the workers can impose anything. But the unions under capitalism, as they exist, fear their own power! Sometimes they even intuitively know it, like when the rank and file are stirred up, and they then have the problem that they must squelch it at the next opportunity.

The workers can paralyze everything and they can enforce anything, but they have to know what the consequences of this are. Then capital really no longer grows, then the competitiveness of their own nation's capital is actually worse than the Japanese or British or wherever else. Then there really are no more categories like less or more more jobs, and you must want that with open eyes, then you no longer carry around the inhibition that you don't want to destroy something you want to milk. Anyone who wants that with open eyes can also improve conditions for workers here and now in this society, because he no longer fears that he destroys the growth of capital on which jobs depend. And so far nobody is advancing this consciousness, including radicals.

Recall the radical saying, “we must push at the limits of the possible.” That's a phrase which still struggles with the contradiction. If you want to break with the limits of what's possible, then you also must know you will face workers who have the standpoint that they have to defend their source of income; then the anti-communism of the wage-laborers comes into play. They consider radical unionists – or anyone who fights radically for improvements – to be their enemies because they will destroy what they want to live on. The Italian unions are now experiencing this in the fight over the Fiat factories, where they have been given their papers to totally submit, and when one union always says no, it thereby is completely in the minority because the view is also pushed through in that country that the all important thing is that the worker's source of income functions, i.e. that above all there is work.

This necessity for why unions are such miserable organizations does not mean that the current situation is necessary, but points to what it takes to abolish these necessities. And that can't be done with formulations like: couldn't we have different organizations, organizations with more solidarity, organizations in which real debates take place? These recipes simply do not pose this point. The necessity is that these modes of appearance of the represention of workers' interests correspond to this interest. We need to argue and convince the workers to no longer desire their source of income. They must no longer want their freedom! This is the front where the fight must take place. And this is not accomplished by saying: there must be solidarity, or something like that.

Facing the toughness of this insight

requires that one takes notice that it contradicts the unions, and not think that this could be done by unions, only by better ones. That's the difficulty. It is a fight with the workers to reject their source of income! Of course, nobody wants this source of income in the sense that it is the nicest thing in the world. Everybody knows that it is nicer to inherit a factory than to work in one. But this is, after all, their means, and even though it is an interest that is forced on them, it must be taken seriously that it actually is their interest and they follow it with the help of the union and – don't forget – by their willingness to work without a union.

This necessity should not be understood as merely a description of the existing situation and something that has to be submitted to. The disconsolation of this society is that the people in it who are its victims really have an interest in it. And they must reject this interest. This requires the criticism of capitalism, but the tone that the unions do not do the good they possibly could do, is a mistake.

[Adapted from remarks by a GegenStandpunkt editor on a panel with a labornet activist in Berlin, May 2011, titled “60 years of the DGB: Cooperation or class struggle?”]