Loren's account of the "minimal protection" afforded to Harvard workers by a union, despite its "class collaborationist" activity, does not seem to me to speak to the issue of the class nature of unions in this epoch. Indeed it is precisely "considerations of the historical epoch," which in this post Loren excludes, that are crucial here, especially for revolutionaries. Many workers can provide accounts of how the union prevented an arbitrary firing, and just as many can probably point to the failure of the union to protect them, especially if they were involved in wildcat activity or challenges to the union leadership or the shop stewards. But it is not there that the basis for determining the class nature of unions can really be decided. It is the role of unions in the political economy of capitalism in a specific epoch, and especially the action of unions in the midst of a massive class confrontation, when the power of capital is potentially directly challenged by the working class, that both permits and compels revolutionaries to draw the class line.
This list is not the place to provide a detailed analysis of the role of unions in the present epoch, either in terms of the political economy of capitalism in its epoch of the real subsumption of labor to capital or the action of unions in the midst of class confrontations that potentially threaten the rule of capital -- though clearly such analyses are critical. But let me briefly point to three moments in the history of class struggle iin France over the past 75 years that are examples of the role of unions as the indispensable defenders of capitalist class rule; of the counter-revolutionary role of unions in the present epoch. In May-June 1936, in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections, workers spontaneously launched a wave of mass strikes that went far beyond the reformist program of the Popular Front, and which the CGT had difficulty in containing, despite its best efforts. Thorez, the Stalinist leader, and the CGT, worked tirelessly to limit the struggles, to bring them under control, and to end them. It was Thorez who famously said: "One must know how to end a strike." The Matignon Accords finally achieved that goal. In the Spring of 1947, as French capital faced the challenge of post-war reconstruction, a wave of strikes that began at Renault Boulogne-Billancourt erupted in protest against food shortages, rationing and wage freezes, and rapidly spread throughout heavy industry, escaping the control of the CGT. This time Thorez gave the marching orders to the unions with his infamous declaration that "strikes are the weapon of the trusts," and once again in a moment of peril for capital the unions -- in the name of patriotism -- brought the mass movement under control, and defeated it. In May-June 1968, mass strikes erupted, in the wake of the student protests, and the wildcats quickly spread throughout the industrial belt, and once again the unions swung into action to contain and finally crush them, saving the Fifth Republic.
Do such examples, on their own, "prove" the counter-revolutionary role of unions? In the face of those who would claim that what was lacking was a revolutionary party to lead and direct the struggles, or that the unions were themselves not the problem, it was just "bad" leadership, much more is needed to establish the link between unions as organizations and capital and its political apparatus. That said, though, isn't the action of unions at such critical moments of mass struggles by workers, where we should begin any inquiry into the class nature of unions today? Isn't it there that revolutionaries can begin to access whether we face a crisis of leadership or the incorporation of the unions as organizations into the political apparatus of capital? The implications for revolutionary intervention are enormous.
April 6, 2011
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