The Role of the Unions Part 15: Sander to IDN

I don’t think anybody in this debate disagrees with the fact that unions at times have negotiated improvements in the workers’ conditions, have opposed attacks on them, have provided services useful to individual workers. How could it be otherwise since their power, the share of the surplus value flowing to them, is dependent on their membership and influence. They must compete, they must do things to defend their brand, their place on the market. Otherwise they’d be like the unions overtly integrated in the state, such as in China or Mubarak’s Egypt: with no credibility, no influence over the working class and thus of no use for capital. Yet they must balance their advocacy-role with the global interests of the national capital of which they are an integral part. This balancing act shapes the particular policies which the unions defend within the intra-capitalist debate (protectionism against foreign competition etc) and to which they try to canalize the workers’ anger and frustrations. Even when they condone a strike, it is to suck the lifeblood out of it, to send the workers home or let them vent their frustrations in ‘a safe way’,to take the struggle away and hand it to the professionals.

If the fact that the unions sometimes defend improvements in the conditions of the workers makes them organisations of the working class, or proves that their class nature is ‘hybrid’ or ‘contradictory’, then the same must be true for the Democratic party. Yet probably noone on this list would deny that this party is part and parcel of capital. If a right wing regime came to power and wanted to curtail the bargaining rights of Democrats in the state, nobody on this list would advocate their defense. Why is this different in regard to the unions?

To say that the unions are against the working class is not a popular position because the working class is still so weak. Because it feels weak, it seeks support, it looks for stronger allies, for institutions with power in this society. It identifies with them when their power is attacked.

This position is also not popular because it seems to deny the need for the workers to organize collectively (while in fact, it is advocating just that). The unions seem to fulfill the obvious need for workers to come together, to unify, in order not to face capital as powerless individuals. Unions did indeed originate in response to this need. But over time, the law of value swallowed civil society, all its institutions became part of the fabric of capital. Unlike the PTAs, to which Gifford compares them, the unions play an essential political function in the management of the production process. Managing capital without the unions is like driving a car without shock absorbers. Fasten your seatbelt, Mubarak. Oops, there you go through the front window.

Today, capitalism is in crisis. Not a cyclical crisis, with a new boom around the corner, but a structural crisis that drags the world deeper and deeper into barbarism. The question is whether unions are obstacles to the attacks on the working class that this crisis imposes, or facilitators of it.

Let’s look at the events in Wisconsin. What began as an expansive workers struggle against draconic austerity-measures, with wildcat-strikes and mass mobilisations, was cunningly diverted into a dispute over unions’ bargaining rights. It ended with a big mass meeting where Democratic legislators were the heroes, after which what remained of the energy of the struggle was canalized to recall campaigns. Meanwhile, other states impose similar harsh measures but they get a free pass because they don’t touch on bargaining rights. Walker made them look good.

All in all, a very successful operation for capital. The austerity-measures are passed, the strikes have stopped, the streets are quiet and the shock absorbers are repaired: the seriously damaged credibility of the unions shot upwards. Everybody won, except the working class.

To defend their interests, workers more than ever need to act and organize collectively. To do so, they need to go beyond and against the unions. What we can realistically hope for from the working class struggle is not that it will stop the crisis, prevent the further degradation of living and working conditions. What we can hope for is that the collective experience of struggle, the experience of overcoming fear and divisions, informs the self-image of the proletariat, expands its self-awareness and self-confidence, the dreams it dares to dream, the content of the struggle.

Overcoming the grip of the unions will be part of that. We need to be unambiguous about that, however unpopular that may be. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. It is not because they are being attacked that the unions are on our side.

Why are unions under attack?

Because the working class seems so weak, shaken to its roots by globalisation and other restructurings, some drivers see a smooth road ahead and think they can dispend with shock absorbers. It’s cost-advantageous to do without, so they get rid of them. The absence of shock-absorbers becomes a rude disadvantage when the road gets rocky. An experienced ruling class like the American knows that it needs them and wants their credibility intact. Both factors played in Wisconsin and will do so elsewhere. Let’s not be hoodwinked.


April 8, 2011

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