By Jocelyn Cohn of Unity and Struggle and James Frey
Authors’ Note: This piece represents one perspective in Unity and Struggle, and is intended to be part of the ongoing discussion on unions, particularly in response to Advance the Struggle. The authors are concerned with the role of revolutionaries in unions. A second piece will be released by two other Unity and Struggle members in the next week that may represent divergent views from this piece. By posting both pieces, we are hoping to clarify our own positions as well as contribute to the ongoing discussion outside of our organization.
As communist workplace organizers serious about praxis, the authors find ourselves debating the strategic importance and political composition of trade unions in the United States. We find what could be called “the union question” to be in fact a number of questions surrounding the composition of capital in general, capital in its in its present incarnation, as well as the composition of trade unions and their relationship to capital and the state. Most immediate to our investigation is the question of how this arrangement can be interpreted by revolutionaries, in the workplace and outside of it. After engaging these questions it is our finding that working explicitly within the existing trade union structure to defend, change, or strengthen them is not a compliment to working toward consolidating class-wide organizations capable of effective revolutionary struggle, but rather that these two objectives stand in irreducible antagonism.
I. The Historical Context
The use of rebellion, for the purpose of developing capital with ‘renewed energy and vitality’ is not new and not confined to women. For capitalism to co-opt every aspect of struggle, to renew itself with our energy and our vitality, and with the active help of a minority of the exploited, is central to its nature.
Selma James, “Women, the Unions, and Work” 1972
We understand that this debate is re-emerging from the relative torpor it has enjoyed since the 1970s due to the ongoing transformation of the processes of production and reproduction in the United States. This shift is alternatively referred to as “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, but these terms are emblematic of a deep-seated shift in the relations of production, the novelty of which is done no justice by comfortable buzzwords which claim its content as already definable.
Historically speaking, we find the roots of the transformation which comprises our present epoch in the 1950s and 1960s. In this period the state took on the role of regulating the value of labor power through public welfare and unemployment programs which kept unemployed people from uniting with the rest of the working class and allowed for a flexible workforce that could work seasonally and in many jobs, as well as through certain wage and benefit protections provided through Collective Bargaining Agreements and shifts in labor law, which simultaneously coerced workers into de-skilled, repetitive, and unrewarding factory jobs, and kept a caste of workers slightly above another while styming at least some labor unrest. Most importantly, it kept worker activity contained by union bosses at least as much as by company bosses.
These provisions were possible, as all welfare state policies, due to a high rate of exploitation and the enjoyment of massive profits by the bourgeoisie which contributed to a steady tax flow and mass of surplus value for the state to work with.
While this arrangement doubtless improved the material situation for many workers and surely angered many bosses, these effects were only incidental to the primary necessities of capital: a stable market for the purchase of the commodities produced by capitalists engaged in production of means of consumption, and the guarantee of a stable supply of labor-powers at relatively low costs to individual capitals. The state was to carry the cost of this investment in the means of consumption, but as is typical of the the social democratic dream, not only was the well being of the working class secondary to the interest of optimizing its role in capital, but this relative prosperity was only a temporary lacunae from the raging storm of the anarchic cycle of crisis which perennially looms on the horizon.
Additionally, these benefits served primarily a rising class of white working class men and a much smaller number of the black working class; this provided enough symbolic shifts in the racial division of labor for the ruling class to claim victory in civil rights, further dividing and exploiting the majority of the people of color working class. Women were mostly employed in non-union workplaces or working unwaged at home; and in fact their transition into trade unions by the 1980s and ‘90s represented a huge step backwards for the revolutionary feminist tendency of the 1960s and 70s, especially since this transition had little to no effect on patriarchy as a whole. The division of labor in workplaces was mimicked and enforced by division of rights in unions, which allowed new workers into the same shops at varying rates and benefits, or kept some workers out of unions while still working in the same workplaces. Splits along race and gender that still exist in the working class today were entrenched in these moments.
The social welfare programs that emerged in this period were deliberately formulated against the menace of US communist labor organizing that had its heyday in the 1930s. We can understand the struggle of certain communists, black militants, and feminists against the trade unions in the 1960s as a response to this attempt to alleviate the inherent contradictions between labor and capital, and combat the patriarchal and white supremacist aspects of capitalism that remained strong throughout the “Golden Age” of capital. From the perspective of the capitalist state, it was clear that the mediating role of these institutions so instrumental to rescuing American capitalism in the preceding decades was not assured when workers began to strike back against the welfare state and unions.
To this period we can trace the faint murmurings of the present moment, when capital began to transform itself to new forms of exploitation and new forms of production in response to these uprisings, as well as in the general pursuit of its necessity to expand in more creative and brutal ways.
More broadly, over the last fifty years heavy industry and production of means of consumption have increasingly left the US to be produced more cheaply by highly exploited labor overseas, the conditions of which are maintained by large international finance apparatuses and ongoing wars (allowing for a decrease in the value of labor-power here as well). Likewise commodity production in the US occurs more and more in the category of luxury goods and services for the capitalist class, within which the process of production looks very different from the large scale industry that dominated the mid-20th Century. Additionally, capital increasingly finds new forms of accumulation in those industries previously monopolized by the state, perhaps typified in the massive non-profit complex, in which private capitalists compete to provide services previously incumbent on the welfare state, and capture many well-meaning crusaders for “social justice” in the mechanisms of capitalist social reproduction.
This change in the composition and mode of domination of capital has lead to the subsumption of prior forms of maintenance of the working class, including trade unions and the welfare state, to new forms such as increased policing and imprisonment.
Despite the role of trade unions in managing the sale and purchase of labor power, the role of the welfare state in driving down wages, and the role they share in neutralizing collective struggles, the loss of these institutions certainly concerns the US working class.
Because of the near monopoly by unions on halfway decent working conditions and healthcare (largely unavailable to non-unionized workers then and now), non-unionized workplaces face harsher conditions and are ground zero for new strategies to devalue labor-power. Because unions were are not class struggle organizations, but organizations for the protection of some workers over others, the loss of those unionized positions and of the unions themselves means the loss of the promise of job protections and healthcare for many in the working class, who relate to unions merely as the possible agents of improving their individual material situation.
This is especially the case since through their divisive nature, these same trade unions helped prevent the kinds of broad-based struggle throughout the working class which is now being called upon to save them. It is the very limits of the trade unions to begin with, their structural incapacity to perform any function other than capitalist protectionism of certain workers, which has led to their destruction in the face of a rapidly changing social relations of production.
The loss of unionized workplaces and the general weakening of legal protections for workers, as well as the strengthening of the disciplinary aspects of welfare provisions for the class, have undoubtedly caused a general decrease in the living conditions for the class, and a corresponding decrease in the value of labor power for the capitalists. The working class as a whole, and revolutionaries in particular certainly are left asking: “What is to be done?”
II. What Is Meant By “Exploitation”? What Is The Contradiction Inherent In Capitalist Society?
In order to understand the historic and contemporary role of unions, as well as the current composition of capital today, we must begin by laying out a clear understanding of the relationship between labor and capital.
The relationship between labor and capital is a contradictory one. Naturally the capitalist class seeks to minimize pay and maximize the use of labor power, and the working class seeks the opposite. However, the capitalist class also needs the working class to constantly reproduce itself, in order to repeat its role in the process of production. And what’s more, the consumption of the working class is required to circulate capital, outside the narrow realm of luxury commodities. Although the health, welfare, and wages of workers may be opposed to the interests of individual capitalists, it is necessary for the movement of capitalism itself. Contradictions between the ruling class and the reproduction of capitalism itself are a historical mainstay of the capitalist mode of production.
This contradiction plays itself out every day in capitalism: The capitalist needs to produce a use-value that is also an exchange value; therefore he needs labor-power which has a use-value, but one that has as low an exchange value as is possible. It is not in the capitalist’s best interest to reduce to nothing the capacity of the use-value of labor power in the interest of increasing its exchange value, although they attempt to do so, through mechanization and so forth. Nor is it in the capitalist’s interest to spurn forth disruptive strike actions unnecessarily. The union form was seen as a resolution to this. Just like the struggle for the working day was a struggle between the classes that allowed for capitalism to continue at the same time that it materially improved the lives of workers, the struggle to keep workers organized in unions with collective bargaining agreements allowed for a period of relatively peaceful harmonization between workers and bosses in some sectors. But this is not necessarily the same as creating harmony between labor and capital.
“Capital” is not simply the actions of its individual personification in the form of a capitalist. Instead, capital dominates the capitalist. This is a point Marx makes consistently throughout the volumes Capital and is a methodological point without which the texts are misunderstood. Capital describes the alienated form of labor in all its stages of production and exchange. Capital encompasses labor power itself and all institutions which aim at the regulation or negotiation of its sale, if they are not oriented toward eradicating its alienated form and ending the extraction of surplus value. Adjusting the terms of the sale of labor power is perfectly consistent with capital. And negotiating with the capitalist over the terms of this sale is not inherently anti-capitalist, although it has its place in the class struggle.
Capital is powerful because it is reproduced daily through workers’ activity. The more we work, the more we are enslaved. This is the basis of the capitalist mode of production. At times control over capital in the form of means of production and the ability to purchase labor power has been spread out more or less among the classes over time, but the fundamental fact that capital in the form of dead labor dominates living labor has not changed. Selling labor for a higher wage or lower wage does not impact this fact.
Like any commodity, the value of labor power is determined by the amount of labor time it takes to produce—this includes the labor-power embodied in all the commodities that workers consume to go back to work, which also include services like care, cleaning, sex, and childbirth (the cost of which is constantly driven down by the assumption that this work should be done for free and is “natural”).
Like any other commodity, capitalists are forced to pay more or less the value for the commodity labor-power; but this always evens out, as with any other commodity, either through social measures, steps taken by employers’ organizations or the state, or steps taken by employees’ organizations. The source of exploitation is not that labor-power is paid for at less than it is worth, but that the competitive nature of capitalism and the necessity for capital to expand constantly drives down the value of labor power. This is accomplished in two ways: 1) by driving down the actual value of means of subsistence by forcing workers to produce more value in less time by changing the process of production and 2) by driving down the quality of life for workers and increasing divisions within the class.
The former is accomplished through a variety of changes in the production process itself, and ranges from Taylorization, to mechanization, to isolation, and while the latter is similarly done in a variety of ways, it is particularly maintained through white supremacy, patriarchy, policing, imprisonment, and the general degradation of the working class on a social level.
Therefore, we see the site of struggle in the process of production and reproduction of labor power itself. Capitalism itself is comprised of the struggle between the classes. Attempts to continue to force capitalists to pay workers the ever-diminishing value of their labor-power are not fighting exploitation, whether they come from the union, the state, or from the forces of crisis of falling rates of profit. They are another day in the life of capitalism. We must not confuse the contradiction between different poles of the ruling class, or the contradiction between bosses and workers with the contradiction between labor and capital.
It is for these reasons that we reject the notion supported by free-trade economists, presidents, and at times our own comrades that “Rising tides lift all ships”. It is not those at the top of the working class (for example, the somewhat mythologized “unionized public sector worker”) who determine the value of labor-power for the rest of us, but rather the other way around. The standard for the lives of the working class will consistently be driven down to meet those at the lowest level of subsistence, and the level of subsistence will continually be driven down. Today, as in previous generations those at the lowest level of subsistence remain women, black and brown people, and undocumented immigrants. They include women of all races performing unwaged reproductive labor at home and then doing it for a low wage for someone else in the same day; undocumented immigrants working construction, textiles, agriculture or in restaurants at rates half the legal wage; low-waged disposal workers on “unionized” job sites doing the jobs that nobody else will touch; college students working for free in “internships”, and even paying for the pleasure.
The role of revolutionaries, then, is to develop themselves in the class to seize on contradictions and expand them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class, especially the parts of the class that face the most serious depression of conditions. Our role is not to celebrate every move that allows for the harmonious march of capitalism for one more day; there are entire paid institutions, non-profits, think tanks, and union staffs to do this!
III. The Structure And Role Of Unions
It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self- organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.
National Labor Relations Act Section 1.[§151.]
Over the more than 100 years of debates over the role of unions in revolutionary struggles, or the role of revolutionaries in union struggles, there has been much focus on the role of the union bureaucracy in stifling worker struggles, and the possibility of dismantling this bureaucracy. Attempts to “democratize” trade unions have been at the center of left organizing, especially by certain Trotskyist groups, as well as by independent workers. While these are good-hearted attempts which accurately acknowledge the repressive nature of the structure of unions toward effective class struggle, efforts to change these structures from within represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the form of unions and the political content through which they developed and are maintained.
We must understand that contemporary trade unions, defined as those that are recognized by the NLRB, have the explicit purpose of restricting worker organizing that if left unchecked, can lead to obstructions in commerce. Legally speaking, these unions are steam valves for class struggle, and they allow the contradictions between labor and capital space in which they can move without rupturing violently. Collective activity is limited in favor of individualized, legalistic, and representative mitigation of any interruption to the process of creation of surplus value through the exploitation of waged and non-waged workers. The goal of every union struggle, whether “won” or “lost”, is for the workers to go back to work.
The NLRA recognizes this as such:
The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest, which have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce by (a) impairing the efficiency, safety, or operation of the instrumentalities of commerce; (b) occurring in the current of commerce; (c) materially affecting, restraining, or controlling the flow of raw materials or manufactured or processed goods from or into the channels of commerce, or the prices of such materials or goods in commerce; or (d) causing diminution of employment and wages in such volume as substantially to impair or disrupt the market for goods flowing from or into the channels of commerce.
The role of unions is therefore to ensure the circulation of commodities, especially the commodity of labor power and the social reproduction it requires: health care, wages enough to purchase means of subsistence, and time.
In fact, unions are not collective organs of struggle at all, but instead are the institutions that maintain legal agreements between workers and bosses. Unions do not exist on a social basis, nor do they form “fighting organization” against bosses. They are instead the representative force that maintains equilibrium between workers and bosses, necessary for the continuation of capital. They exist to maintain the conditions defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), most often through closed door negotiations, and sometimes through strikes, the goal of which is always make sure the CBA remains intact and workers go back to work.
Throughout their history, unions have existed as companies in and of themselves, with investment interests, employees, and a necessity to produce value through the exploitation of their own workers and the workers they “represent”, who pay a significant amount of their wages in union dues. These interests far out way concerns over actual workers who make up the shop, and this is proven by any close investigation into the changes in union structure organized workshops over time (a great example being the expansion of the UAW to organize academic and legal labor following the shuttering of much of the auto industry).
The development of unions as companies in and for themselves that are run through bureaucratic mechanisms is not due to subjective failures on the parts of those individuals building unions, but rather due the structural development inherent in the union form itself. Well-meaning organizers who attempt to change these mechanisms through the sheer force of their personal commitment to revolutionary struggle will discover, like countless others before them, the more they work to change the union, the more the union will work to change them.
As stated in the first section of this piece, unions are institutions that emerged historically to protect certain workers in either individual workplaces or specific trades. In the US, three different basic kinds of unions emerged in the early 20th century: craft unions, the role of which was to protect skilled work from being de-skilled and therefore comprised a smaller number of iron workers, textile workers, masons, and others; industrial unions which organized workers in the growing factory and large industrial workplaces of the early 20th century into the same union, regardless of skill level but based on industry; and class-wide unions of the IWW for example, which attempted to organize the entire class into one organization, but which after internal debates eventually abandoned openly pushing communist politics.
The CIO was the largest workers’ organization in the US that attempted to struggle on the basis of production, rather than consumption. Early actions fought againstlegal formalization and long labor contracts, working instead for control of production by workers themselves, the logical conclusion of which would be a subversion of the capitalist system of domination as living labor took control over dead labor. However, capital outpaced the struggles of the CIO, and by the 1950’s, the AFL-CIO had merged, communists were purged from the institution, and the focus of the institution became purely the consumption of the working class: wages, benefits, pensions, education. With the triumph of the new phase of capitalist production, Fordism, over its corollary of struggle in the working class, the trade unions developed with the grain of capitalist accumulation instead of against it, and became thoroughly enmeshed in capital.
The meaning of all this for revolutionaries seeking organize in unionized shops is twofold: First, because unions themselves are institutions that work under a certain set of agreements with the state, and have a structure that reflects this (shops or “chapters” are part of locals, locals function as parts of large international unions, internationals are parts of federations…and so on), attempting to change the form of individual shops, locals, or even unions to something more “democratic” is impossible and those activities will be subsumed either through direct discipline of the union bosses, or through the capitalist structure of unions themselves which would not allow anything diverging from the above structure to exist as a union.
Second, because unions act as the representative agents for provisions of certain means of subsistence for some workers in some workplaces, they are not organs of struggle themselves, and in fact serve to divide the working class, especially in this period of their demise. By maintaining a competition with the rest of the working class, unions are able to ensure some basic means of subsistence for some of the workers they represent; but this is only at the expense of others. The call to expand unions is similarly a faulty argument. Revolutionaries struggling for the benefits of unionized workers, and to preserve industries and workplaces that are unionized, will find themselves necessarily in competition with the rest of the class.
To reiterate, the divisions which unions instill within the class emanate from within their very structures. According to a 2008 report, twenty-five percent of unions in the United States operate on a two-tiered pay structure, which fosters an underclass within a workplace. The bottom tier languishes in a sort of purgatory, receiving lower wages and awaiting benefits while after watching contract after contract (if they work at the company long enough) they only see their ranks increasing, their dues piling up, and their wages and benefits diminishing.
While this is quite common in the private sector, and perhaps most reported in the auto industry (see Insurgent Notes: “The Sky is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn” for the 2011 agreement between UAW and Chrystler-GM), it also occurs in the much lauded “public sector”, which faces the same if not even more intense repression of value. A widespread example of this is adjunct professors in public colleges, who make up well over 60% of teaching faculty, and are either outside of faculty unions or are the lower tier in these unions.
The same is true for many workers in the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), where, for example, mostly immigrant custodians are in the same local as mostly white skilled trades but have drastically lowered rates. It is also the case for health care workers organized by shop but divided by gender, education, race, and job. And as the “bottom rung” of two-tiered labor is pressed down further and further, new standards for treatment of workers emerge, and the total value of labor power decreases—usually on the shoulders of people of color, immigrants, and women.
IV. How Do We Organize In Unionized Shops
There are many who argue that the best way to organize in a unionized shop is to defend the union, and work to change its structure, or that working independently of the union and within the union are not contradictory. But given our above findings, it is clear that any threat to the hierarchical, alienating, and bureaucratic structure of unions is a threat to unions as a whole, whether it is from the “right” or the “left”. Their political content—as counter-revolutionary, representative, and liberal—is indistinct from their form, and no amount of goodwill, ink spilled, or cries for democracy will change this.
Workers attempting to take over power with caucuses will find themselves defeated, or if they win, repeating more or less the activities of the old union bureaucracy, or at least caught in the same exact contract negotiations, in a matter of months. For those trying to both reform the union from within, and change their conditions from without, they will find their activity inside co-opted, and their activity outside squashed; they will either be alienated by the union officials they thought were their friends, or see their own literature and slogans being used to make concessions with management while appeasing the agitated shop members. We cannot emphasize enough that this is in no way a subjective failure of union officials, or of the militants attempting change. This is inherent in the union structure, and their political content can only be adjusted by small degrees and never broken in the union form.
The contradiction faced by the union form is that the very benefits they seek to defend have in fact primarily been won by fights that often occur outside their jurisdiction: wildcat strikes, illegal slowdowns, direct action against bosses that bypasses the union. In these situations, unions have to make the choice to co-opt and calm down the independent worker activity, full-out put an end to it, or most often some combination of the two. As they continue to restrain working class activity, the basis for their existence disappears.
Those of us who have attempted to organize in our unionized workplaces, whether through the mechanism of the union or without it, have had these points driven home to us again and again. Any attempt to fight collectively against management with other workers, without going through a lengthy and alienating grievance process or seeking out mediation, is met with at best indifference and at worst admonishment. Meanwhile union officials, paid and “voluntary”, negotiate “for” us without us ever knowing, putting our jobs in danger without our knowledge or consent.
We have found that to organize in unionized shops we must build workplace groups that focus on the most highly exploited members of our shop, and if we are in a multi-shop workplace (or one with both unionized and non-unionized workers), we must build organizations that include as equal and full members of our organizations others not in our shop. We must create demands that go beyond our contract (which is not difficult to do, since the demands we need most are most often not included in our contracts) both in terms of scope, and job description. We must be able to act autonomously against management, even if management is in the same union as us.
We must do this by taking direct action: slowing down work, work stoppages, occupations, and activities that build camaraderie, analysis, and capacity. We must always assert our autonomy, even if we demand legal protection from our union (which we are entitled to, even if organizing independently from them). We can, if its prudent, make demands on the union; to take control of the capital we invested in it, because it is our own. This may mean taking over the union hall, taking back our strike funds, and/or taking over closed door negotiations. But we must never be alluded by the power this might afford us. Our activity must lead to our continued independence, or we will just repeat the politics we are fighting against.
The primary goal of unions and CBAs is to maintain peaceable relationships between bosses and workers through legal means, and since the law is developed as a mechanism to exploit and coerce people into alienating their labor power, any negotiations made through a union will only be within these parameters. As the dynamic between labor and capital continually forces changes in the relationship between workers and bosses, the processes of production, and especially reproduction, the form and content of unions is no longer acceptable. Their failure is not that they are not strong enough or lack the right members in rank in file or leadership, but is encompassed within their very form.
Capitalism will expand, dissolving institutions which are no longer useful to it, and thus setting the grounds for the new terrain of class struggle. We must recognize this new terrain and struggle accordingly.
V. Labor In The Present
Once industrial development has attained its highest possible point and capitalism has entered its descending phase on the world market, the trade-union struggle will become doubly difficult… Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defense of already realized gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult.
Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution
The antagonism between labor and capital is nonetheless the relationship between a total social process, capital, and one of its components, the labor-power of the proletariat. To understand labor as standing against capital with no remainder is to imagine the revolution accomplished. In the present, however, the two are necessarily intertwined, and the possibilities for revolutionary activity on the part of labor are found precisely within process of capital—in which the contradictions between labor and capital, the motor for capitalist development, are given relative space to move. This is the terrain on which we fight.
We find statistical data to be a problematic form of representation of knowledge due to its inability to understand the nuances of social relations contained in its own figures, and often force us to rely on the bourgeois state or private companies for our information. However, we found the following recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics striking:
While 14 million people in the United States are members of unions, 20 million are reported unemployed (unreported unemployment estimates are around twice that).
While 13.5 percent of black people are unionized, as opposed to 11.3 percent of white people, only 2 million black people are unionized as opposed to 11 million whites. Furthermore the unemployment rate for black people is 14.4 percent, and the number of black people not in the labor force is over 11 million, not including incarcerated people.
In 2012 there were 102 million full time workers and 24 million (documented) part time employed people. Of these, 12 million full time workers were union members while only 1.4 million part time workers were union members. Both of these numbers have decreased since 2011. This means while approximately 1/5 of all workers are part time, only 1/12 of these workers are union members.
In the preceding decades, with the transition from welfare state policies to what is called “neoliberalism”, and vast deskilling of many trades in the United States, capital has won many victories in the battle to remake the labor force in its own image. Driven by the abstraction from all particularities in the name of general exchangeability, capital bristles impatiently when confronted with skilled labor-power, even more so the laborer in a position to bargain, and not just because of the strategic power this affords to workers who can not be immediately and seamlessly replaced should they begin to agitate. To ensure the optimum circulation of capital, labor should be as abstract and exchangeable as exchange value itself, and though this has yet to be accomplished in practice, it is a principle of operation that bears on labor like a patient daily tide, slowly but incessantly smoothing its particularities.
This is by no means a new process. It echoes the destruction of the guilds and the transition to large-scale industry and agriculture. Just as then, the political task facing the working class is not to cling to old forms, demanding the protection of forms of production fast becoming archaic, and waging defensive battles vainly against the tide of history. We find that the disappearing trade union form does not correspond to the nature of labor in the present, and still less does it correspond to the direction in which labor is heading. Against this claim will be sounded the rally cries of defensive struggles, but in these we hear only denials of the reality in which we must struggle.
Capitalism has reached a stage where it no longer needs to regulate the activity of workers through unions. The coercive nature of capital is strong enough that worker organizing is at an extreme low, and capital can maintain order in other ways: prison, immigration laws, the limiting of health care, and repression of access reproductive options for women to name a few. The discipline that made welfare necessary is similarly carried out in other forms and institutions that can more deftly accumulate capital than the state: non profits, churches, and charities specifically.
Understood in this way, it is no mystery that we are facing the demise of unions all over the world. As they consistently move within capital, they disappear as they become unnecessary. Since they explicitly limit the activity of the workers who may be capable of defending the benefits provided by them, they also work towards their own destruction. Institutions outside the class but supposedly for it will always fail in this way to do anything other than push the march of capital forward.
As it continues to decline and its very structure prevents it from becoming general to the class, the trade union form is increasingly inconceivable for a growing number of Americans forced to juggle multiple part time jobs which make each other difficult or impossible, work on a freelance basis with no job security, return to school or stay in school indefinitely due to a dismal job market, cobble together public assistance programs to make ends meet, depend on their parents as un/deremployed adult children, work unwaged as interns in the off chance of landing wage labor, or otherwise provide unwaged labor toward the reproduction of the working class. This final item, including housework, childcare, care for the elderly and the disabled, and so forth, is increasingly balanced with one or more waged occupations in fields which may be similar or completely different, quite arbitrarily.
The workshop or the office as the site of the singular career, in which one is invested sufficient to wage long-term struggles for better conditions, benefits, gradual wage increases, and so forth, is disappearing in nearly every sector, from production, to education, to reproductive work. And beyond the diminished desire to wage struggle in these particular job sites, these jobs are so exchangeable that workers can be terminated at the slightest hint of agitation, or in the increasingly pervasive paradigm of precarious work, not terminated, but simply not called back to work again. No legislation or union protection can even comprehend this phenomenon, which runs common throughout many “freelance” trades.
Circulating constantly between multiple sources of income, some short-term, some even one-time, some retained only for benefits, others cherished for paying “off the books” so as to simultaneously draw state benefits, the modern precariat bares little resemblance to the centralized industrial proletariat or the “skilled professionals” on which the trade union system was built.
Regardless of trade or wage the work site is increasingly fragmented and isolated, with the virtual realm of the Internet being perhaps the apotheosis of this stage of alienation and literal radical separation. Thanks to networks for precarious employment like Craig’s List, the workforce of the 21st Century increasingly resembles a digital shape-up more than a shop floor of career manufacturers. It is not uncommon for a worker to know few if any of their co-workers, or to have never met their boss in person. Even in giant sites of cooperative work like Wal Mart, increasingly the model for the sphere of working class consumption, workers are deliberately kept on a part-time basis and their schedules are rotated endlessly.
This terrain taken in total poses an unpleasant reality for those of us who believe the site of value production to therefore be the primary site for the struggle of the proletariat against capital. The disintegration of the centralized workplace, the disappearance of the single paycheck, and the death of the career for a growing number of the working class creates a situation of aporia for those of us seeking to assist in the formation of revolutionary organizations of the working class rooted in its relations of production. The question is certainly legitimate: What is to be done?
But for the reasons outlined above, we cannot agree with the sentiment of many of our comrades, that the fate of the revolutionary in the present is bound up with that of the trade union. To the contrary, our work is to be done outside the restrictions of this moribund form, irrelevant to a vast and growing majority of the working class, and inimical to the aims of class-wide struggle.
The union is nothing more than the legislative body which upholds the concessions made by capitalists in order to keep the status quo, and maintain capitalist order. We see debates in the ruling class play out that effect our material lives, but our strategy is not to convince one side or the other that they are correct. We do not wish to destroy “the union” more or less than we wish to destroy the supreme court, which currently maintains our legal rights to abortions, freedom of speech and assembly, and ensures due process. But just as we see our constitutional rights being eroded away and our solution is not to defend the supreme court, but rather to build a fighting working class; as we see our benefits being diminished, our primary response is to build analysis and organization of the working class that can fight directly against capital itself.
To this end, we do not believe the “correct form” for contemporary working class struggle has yet been discovered. But we know that whatever forms emerge must be the dialectical response to the current mode of capitalism, not a flat opposition that attempts to bring back the old days, impossible to resurrect anyway, instead of confronting the new. The current working class faces a new kind of “double freedom”: we work many jobs at once, we stay at jobs for short periods of time, we work under the table to get health benefits and food stamps from the state, we seek diminishing housing subsidies. We are so “free” that each day of work could be our last through no fault of our own. This is not a condition which the trade union form can comprehend.
The lives of the working class are thus simultaneously more isolated and more connected than ever before. No longer organized by the massive cooperation of the industrial factory, whether the factory of GM or the factory of the steno pool, we work for ourselves, by ourselves, on our bosses’ schedules. We work from our own cars or our tiny apartments, we purchase our own cleaning supplies to clean someone else’s office or apartment, we rent our own trucks to move someone’s furniture. We discover that the comfortable-sounding notion of “working at home” is instead the reality of a world in which we are always at work in some form or another.
We feel so isolated, so particular, so endlessly individualized. But when we meet one another in the welfare office, on the bus, or passing in the hallway of the company building we work, we find our experiences are almost identical. We work on a rotating basis for the same bosses or the same kinds of bosses, and when we confront the similarities of our situations, the particularities fade into the background. This is the basis for collective struggle.
There are more of us, the lowest rung of the working class, than perhaps any other time in the last fifty years, and we are directly involved with the production and reproduction of capitalism. It is this that we must seize on; not the protection of an institution that is itself dying. We will fight tooth and nail to hold on to health insurance, for those few who have it, and wage and security benefits, for those few who have it, but we will not do this from the isolation of our jobs. We will do this as a class, and for the class, not to demand simply a better price for the sale of our labor power, but to force a change in the entire mode of production itself.
At times, we may decide this means holding a union sign, and other times, it may mean holding our own picket signs in protest to the union. Most of the time, and for 86% of us who are not in unions, the over 10% of us who are unemployed, and the several million of us who are living on disability, or barely living at all, we will fight directly against capital, recognizing our own conditions and pushing the struggle forward, on the terrain of class struggle furnished by the present and the future.