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Should Communists Work with Unions?: An English Translation of "Precarious Workers, Organization, and Unions"

April 30, 2019


Introduction by Workers’ Offensive:


We in Workers’ Offensive understand that unions, although they played a progressive role in the history of the workers’ movement when capitalism was on its ascendant phase, have become organs of the capitalist state and, therefore, can no longer be "treated" as though they are unitary organizations of the working class. Similarly, we believe that "for Marxists, parliamentarianism was always a question of tactics, not strategy or principles. The socialist parliamentarians only voted for the extension of political rights for the class, they did not enter into the discussion or voting for budgets, for example. Electoral participation was first and foremost a tool for the organization and political mobilization of the class. Like participation in trade unions, it was about developing the capacity and presence of the class as a political subject in bourgeois society while it offered such an opportunity".


We also wrote that "the progressive role of trade unions, during the period when capitalism was expanding, was always limited to what the labor movement could achieve within the limits of capitalism".


Our articles on the workers’ movement in the United States, since they cover the period when unions still played a progressive role, don’t go into how our tasks today as communists are different when it comes to the unions and elections. They point out that, during the progressive phase, it was the position of the communists, in contrast with the lassalleans, to work with the trade unions. Marxists also participated, unlike the anarchists, in parliamentary activity.


We haven’t talked in detail, however, about what our tasks are today in respect to elections and unions.


We hope that by publishing this translation that we have made of Nuevo Curso’s Precarios, organización, y sindicatos, an excellent article that was the fruit of a discussion between comrades, that we’ll clarify what our tasks are today as communist militants and how this relates to how we deal with the "union question".


This discussion centered around the question of whether we are justified in working with unions, despite the fact that unions are now organs of the state.


WO says that "No!", our tasks as militants requires us to look outside of the unions and to confront them, not merely as "non-revolutionary" organizations, but as antagonistic towards class struggle and revolution.




Precarious Workers, Organization and Unions by Nuevo Curso


Implicit errors


1. We are told that "demands for working conditions and wages are union struggles", that although "unions are not a vehicle for class struggle", "there are real benefits for workers in the struggle for better working conditions and wages" [therefore working in unions is justified].


A fine mess? Of course, the struggle to improve living and working conditions is always the starting point. And of course we have a lot to gain... a whole world! And of course unions are not tools for workers in the class struggle. So, why then do those that rightfully assert that unions are not a vehicle for class struggle still arrive at the conclusion that some of these struggles would take place in the unions?

The error arises from internalizing the idea that the function of revolutionaries in struggles is exclusively limited to spreading the communist objective. Taken to the limit, this error implies that in reality, the fight for concrete objectives, by themselves, is not true class struggle. But of course, these individuals cannot fail to recognize the necessity and materiality of the fight for concrete objectives. So they find value in them, value that is immediately transmitted... to the unions that aspire to control them and channel them through the state, usually by breaking up those struggles.

This fundamental misunderstanding is based on the idea that the struggle of the proletariat is nothing but the material struggle for human needs and that communism, "the real movement that nullifies and surpasses the present state of things," is precisely what appears in these struggles. This misunderstanding is reinforced with that moralizing conception of communist intervention that rejects the participation of revolutionaries in the elaboration of the concrete slogans of the struggles. The problem is that...

“If we internalize that our function is to promote the diffusion of the communist objective without participating in the development of the necessary means and measures to achieve it, we will end up concluding that the abolition of wage work can be achieved on a "one by one" basis…but we would never be able to stop planting the conditions for its abolition. We would have become "utopians". The thing is that the conditions that make possible the abolition of capitalism are all those measures that the struggles must take in order to develop, all those demands whose realization the workers are taking into their own hands. What’s worse, once the link between the concrete struggle and its objective is broken, we would end up losing the capacity to distinguish the expression of class from its control by the state. Our center accordingly would no longer be in the struggles, but in any place where the workers are grouped, not to carry out actions - a program - that transforms and rebels against their situation, but to represent themselves, in the best of cases, as an inoperative "workers identity": from a union procession to a feminist demonstration or a nationalist "fake strike"". 


2. And that is the conclusion of the argument. Can the class be organized as such into a monopoly that is part of the state? The answer seems obvious: no. The wholesaler of labor power organizes workers, but it is not a class organization, just as the promoter who organizes a social housing cooperative is not.


Where does this idea come from in the comrades with whom we debate? First of all, a weak moral that is barely hidden: if at heart we think that the class cannot organize itself, it is natural to think that it has to be organized. This feeds a deeper error. Since one starts from the conception that the struggle for immediate conditions is not that real movement which abolishes the present state of things, one does not see the communist program in concrete demands. Result: the "real" program is only in "the party". The organization of the class and its program become two different and opposite things. And as a result, any workers' organization becomes a class organization, regardless of its program. Everything that has workers is an expression of the class because everything that moves is potentially red, only and exclusively because "the party" can use it for propaganda. Once again, demoralization and opportunism go hand in hand.



Erroneous Conclusions


1. "We have to call on the unions to organize union sections in our workplaces because winning victories outside the union victories is difficult”.


Victories are difficult. Period. The concessions in working conditions and wages that are obtained in a struggle are, in this phase of capitalism, always transitory. The durability of these concessions depends on the moments in which the economic crises are found. In the most acute moments, concessions are immediately devoured by inflation and general precariousness, but, in the moments of economic bubbles and fleeing by credit expansion, they can become sustainable during two or three years on average.

What can we call victory? First of all, the experience of self-organization. Secondly, those concessions. The minimum: a concession that does not harm the possibility of continuing to fight in the future. That is why a defeat by our own means, which does not gain concessions but gives us an experience of self-organization, is preferable to a union victory that sterilizes the future and disarms us for the next battle.

The bourgeoisie also knows this. And it is precisely for this reason that concessions increasingly have the objective of stopping the maturation of these struggles in their tracks and preventing the workers from stepping out of the union line. We saw it recently with the "yellow vests" but above all we have seen it in Mexico, in the mass strikes in Matamoros, where the massive confrontation with the unions ended with an employer giving 100% wage increases in order to prevent the self-organization of the workers from dismantling the entire union apparatus.


2. If by victory is meant only compliance with labor law, usually made a mockery of in precarious conditions, then the labor inspectorate would be a class organism that achieves "victories" for the workers. If the state has inspectors of labor conditions and concerns itself with the unions in order to homogenize the conditions of exploitation, it is not because of any "conquest" of the workers, but because in this way it equalizes and regulates the conditions of competition facilitating the circulation and optimal placement of capital. If today it is more "lax" and insists less on the homogeneity of conditions of exploitation, encouraging "company agreements" in favor of agreements reached on a sector or province-wide basis, it is because this way it tries to save its weakest parts at the expense of the workers it exploits in them... but without breaking from the framework of state capitalism. Labor inspection, the suppression of "transgressions" and the legal departments of the unions all serve to discipline those who try to go beyond the terrain that they are allowed to tread. These things do not form any part of the class struggle but are rather the mechanisms of cohesion and "fair play" of the ruling class itself.


3. "The strategy to be followed will depend on the company and the degree of commitment of the co-workers", "it is necessary to go case by case".


Marxism is not a method in the usual sense of the bourgeois dream and its science, but a permanent and continuous weapon of whatever ideology stands in the way of an understanding of reality from the perspective of the program of the exploited and revolutionary class. When Marx calls his main texts "critiques," we must understand that by "critiques" is meant "demolition". The critiques have an overwhelming coherence because they reflect a singular class perspective. Moreover, if one were to, using case-based reasoning, conclude that there is a conflict between the interests of a group of workers and those of the class as a whole, the Manifesto would remind all of us that communists "in the various stages of development which the struggle between the working class against bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole".

Why is that? Because capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. There is no capitalism in a single factory, nor in a single region. Capitalism is a "system", it requires a complex "double" circulatory structure: that of the commodity -including labor-power- and that of capital. That is why exploitation can only be questioned as a whole, when the class struggles massively as such - as a class for itself - and not when it struggles atomized in different companies, when only the bourgeoisie is aware of what its facing - where the proletariat is a class in relation to capital, a class in itself that is not yet aware of the universal character of its situation and its immediate or global tasks.

What does it mean for a Marxist to go case by case? It means doubting once again the possibility of the constitution of the class as a political subject, thinking of it as a laborious sum of parts; visualizing exploitation as the sum of particular situations, of company identities. And from there, where do we go?



4. "It's true, to place oneself under the umbrella of the unions is a mistake, but maybe the communists will have to set up a union of their own."

The hard years of the midnight of the century touched the morale of a good part of the communist left. The bordigist delirium that the class is actually reduced to il partito, the Franco-Italian idea that communists should not put forward concrete slogans that respond to the concrete problems that mobilize the workers, the councilist fear of party substitutionism... is all based on the same idea: that communists are not part of the class -or the class is us alone, which is the same thing-, as if by being a communist you lost your status as a worker... and even as a human with concrete needs!

The reality is that revolution is not an act, it is a process in which the struggle for human needs is affirmed without losing concreteness in a single instant. There wouldn’t even be anything like a decree saying "abolish wage labor!"; the very heart of the communist program will be the result of a progression of measures taken by the class as a whole organized in committees and soviets.


Where does it all begin? Where it always began: in the concrete but collective need that is common and universal to the class. What is the function of communists? To serve that transition that makes the struggle of the workers the real movement that annuls and surpasses the current state of things. The function of the communists is not to hand over the organization of the workers to that monopolist of labor power that is part of the state (unions), but neither is it to organize the workers as if we were not workers ourselves, as if we were observers fallen from Mars. We are communists because we are part of that process of self-organization. Studying, discussing and getting to know the history of the class and its struggles is no merit in of itself, it is only the way in which we gain the tools to be able to serve, as best as possible, as catalysts to that process.

In practice that generally means acting in the semiclandestinity that precarious workers have in every company, building bridges, opening conversations, facilitating trust between comrades... creating a nucleus based on the most combative positions, perhaps even around more far-reaching conversations, a group that would be part of the party in becoming. And continue, and continue, and continue... until we are able to organize a committee and convene an assembly with sufficient force.

Is that group the same as a union? Is it a union with a different name? No, because it does not pretend to be the subject of the struggle, nor to become the necessary mediator for capital in determining the price of the hour of work, but to constitute the assembly that has to lead and carry on the struggle. In addition, first of all, the union in many countries make demands only for its members, while the assembly does so for all the staff. Secondly, the assembly elects revocable committees to coordinate the strike, the union convenes assemblies to inform the workers, take over the strike committee and refrain from submitting itself to the control of the committee. The union represents the workers, the assembly is the workers.



Four Ideas


"If the communist revolution were proposed, even it that proposal was backed up by the abolition of wage labour, it cannot anything more than a blurred notion, even supposing it -a vain hope in the present world- was something that the majority agreed with. Because the elimination of wage labor as a direct objective once power has been taken from capital is far from being a single act, just like the abolition of its laws or the dismantling of its state apparatus. It is broken down or subdivided into a series of measures, the immediate and median effects of which will result in the elimination of wage labor and lay the foundations of communist society. The main measures, the most transcendent ones, are derived from the current situation of the class, from its maximum possibilities in contrast to a crushing and decadent capitalism that is longer entitled to existence. Where, if not in the formulation and defense of those measures, can the consciousness of a revolutionary organization appear? The tendencies that avoid doing so, whatever their numerical amount, are condemned to innocuous chatter, if not charlatanism". 

- Acendremos Camaradas, 1975.


1. It is not as though there is one way to defend our needs as workers in the company and another way to defend them as a class in society. The same thing applies to both. The class can only become a political subject in the struggle and that struggle does not come out of nowhere: it matures and develops from material and concrete needs to which it never fails to respond. Socialism itself is but that same process from a certain moment of its development.


2. Nothing is more harmful than disrupting the unitary organization, the assembly, of the workers by handing over their assemblies to a union, be it an established union, or a union created "ad hoc", which will in any case deprive the workers of the experience of their own struggle.


3. Communists are not external observers, part of an alien body that moralizes with a communist perspective that - necessarily - for many comrades is apparently unattainable in the early stages of struggle. We are part of the staff that works where we work and part of their struggles. And of course, we contribute in every place from the perspective of the general needs of the class and its movement. That means, before anything else, to struggle so that we, the workers ourselves, are the one ones who will lead and organize in the struggle and secondly to make it so that, at every moment of the struggle's development, the concrete slogans and demands being made allow it to advance. 


4. Serving the development of class consciousness does not stop there, it is obvious that we have to group the most combative comrades, develop with them the battle to win and convince others to go further, to understand the meaning of what has been achieved - or lost - in each moment of the clashes with the company, to extend the struggle if possible. That is the core of the real process of party organization. The party is that most advanced sector of the class, it is formed and consolidated in the struggles, not through a "MasterChef" of Marxism, a tournament of discussions and debates for the "initiated" in the art of book-worming. The result has to crystallize into groups of workers in the companies and in the neighborhoods. How are these groups different from rank and file unions? First of all, they do not understand the class as a sum of exploitations in different jobs. Second, they do not intend to replace the strike assemblies, to be a strike committee "by right", to entrust themselves to the "works councils" of the state's labor structure nor to have "liberated" union officials. And above all, their vision of the future does not end with the struggles and eventual concessions that are won in the workplace. These groups understand that "in the various stages of development which the struggle between the working class against bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole". 




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