The Bounds of Proletarian Emancipation - A Contribution to the Critique of Unions

10. Dez 2012

Translation from Article «Schranken proletarischer Emanzipation – Zur Kritik der Gewerkschaften» of Kosmoprolet #3

Everybody who is involved in one of the current labour struggles – who watches them or tries to intervene in them – has to deal with the issue of unions. Whether acting as mediators or supporters, drivers or procrastinators, you meet them almost every time on the scenes of struggles. In workers' consciousness they are still important institutions, whether they are seen as leading the fight or playing some other role. And for those advocating class struggle, the unions have their fixed place: mostly as institutions in which the workers learn how to struggle, and as organisations that may indeed have corrupt leaders, but stand up for worker’s interests. Less frequently one encounters the opinion that unions are agents of capital that inhibit the working class and enchain it again and again.
Both opinions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what unions really are. No matter if the proletariat is fooled by corrupt functionaries or if it is enchained by agents of capital, the proletariat – as the class to be exploited – remains an integral part of capitalism. Without the proletariat, there’s no capital; without capital, there’s no proletariat. This text tries to show that this is the key to understanding the essence of unions, both their substance and their organisational form. This is how our text has to be read: not as a critique of bureaucratic degeneracy, but as an examination of the subject matter that forms the basis of unionism. In the text we refer to developments and circumstances in Switzerland, but we believe that these descriptions are representative of tendencies that can often be seen in other countries as well.


A critique of the bureaucratisation of unions and of their structural separation from the working class is not categorically wrong, but it is a simplification that is often morally charged. For the sake of completeness it shall be outlined here nonetheless.
With the development of capitalism unions grew enormously as well. They became organisations with tens of thousands of members, organisations with paid functionaries and with their own interests distinct from those of the working class. The functionaries have to handle all of the problems with which the union, as an enterprise, is confronted. These functionaries become “important people“ in their own right and sit with the capitalists at the same bargaining table. So unions are not just simple groups of workers, but corporations with the interest of a service company in continuing to exist and in creating the conditions under which the exploitation of labour can be performed smoothly. The apparatus has its own tradition, its own functions and is often financed by government-sanctioned dues from workers. Union leaders are the advocates of those specific interests of unions and constitute a new social player. But unions also have a great number of low-level functionaries who appear to be militant and show solidarity during struggles, and who act against the interests of the union apparatus. Those functionaries at a grass-roots level are normally strongly involved on an individual basis and really support workers in struggle, but objectively the apparatus needs them to stay in contact with workers, and to give the unions the necessary legitimation among workers. If unions consisted only of top-level functionaries, it would ruin their image with the workers. But as long as there are honest and anxious unionists who care for workers, unions enjoy a relatively stable legitimacy, even as their membership plummets.
Unions, as specialised organisations of struggle, are not an integral part of the resistance, but superior experts separated from the militants. Only from this position can they fulfil their role as mediators between the two antagonistic class interests. The divergent interests between the union apparatus and the militants are revealed in the sporadic struggles that took place recently. In Reconvilier1, where workers decided to fight on their own, they were stopped by UNIA, the biggest Swiss union. After the Bellinzona strike2 – noted well beyond Swiss borders – members of the strike committee were removed from the board of the local UNIA section and one UNIA functionary who showed solidarity with the strikers was moved from the region. In many struggles the discrepancy between workers and unions becomes obvious when the unions speak of victory, referring to some half-hearted accommodations or even a mere social compensation plan. Often there is a huge disillusionment on the side of workers, when they feel betrayed by “their” unions. But unions, as enterprises, need compromises: they need compromises between the interests of workers and the interests of capitalists, and they need struggles to take place under controlled conditions. Furthermore, the police function of unions asserts itself. This is already visible in their regulative behaviour and stifling of labour struggles. But unions show their repressive side fully, in direct opposition to the interests of the working class, any time the working class starts to fight against capitalism and against its existence as variable capital.


A critique that only concerns the form of unions as a self-contained enterprise is not enough to uncover the real character of unions. In left-wing milieus such a critique amounts to no more than moral indignation about unions supposedly being corrupt and decoupled from the interests of workers. In the following we will try to develop a critique that takes the structural function of unions in capitalism and the specific content of their approach to organisation as its object. It will be shown that the reason for the decoupling of unions from workers lies in their function within capitalism and not in a mere betrayal of their originally noble intentions.
The history of unions' origins is the history of proletarians fighting against the impositions of capital. Unions fulfilled an important function in struggles for workers' collective interests within capitalism. In and with the unions, workers struggled in strikes for higher wages, more free time, more participation. So the collective interests of workers in different sectors and enterprises became apparent and in struggles workers demonstrated their power and their abilities.
But union struggles were not and are not a form in which the working class struggles as a whole. Three things catch the eye when one regards unions from this point of view. Firstly, with their organisation they intensify the fragmentation of the working class between companies and individual sectors. Secondly, unions grew into their role as a “social partner” within the framework of the nation and depend on this framework. They can be integrated in a supranational framework – like the EU – but as a social partner they cannot step beyond this framework in which they function and are accepted. So “international unions” in reality only have the function of a moral admonisher pointing out violations of applicable law and things like that. But that normally happens in a context of international competition. Thus, the division of the class into nations is also mirrored by unions. Thirdly, and finally, it is apparent that unions – because they have to remain within the framework of capitalism – are forced to bring their strategy in line with the possibilities permitted by the economic cycle.
To understand this, one has to recognise that the “schools of class struggle” were at the same time the universities of integration into the status quo. This is not because they betrayed the working class or because the bureaucrats were bought. As previously mentioned, unions historically formed as negotiators to enforce workers' demands for higher wages or shorter working hours. But a negotiator loses his right to exist when he abolishes the basis of his demands. The basis of wages and working hours is capitalism. Representing workers within the system and not against the system is part of the inner logic of unions. Due to this fact, unions become managers of workers as variable capital – labour as a commodity. They are an organisational manifestation of the constant struggle surrounding the distribution of socially produced wealth, a struggle for a decrease in the rate of exploitation. In this function they are co-organisers of the accumulation of capital – they play their part in keeping the capitalist game going. By securing reproduction, that is the continued existence of the working class, unions, much like the state, represent the interests of capital as a whole, which can only exist as long as there is a working class to be exploited. Concretely, this means that they resist the interests of individual capitals, of individual companies trying to keep the costs of variable capital as low as possible, and the working time as long as possible. For the actual worker this reproduction of the variable part of capital is the same as his or her own reproduction. So this is not mere wretchedness or betrayal by unions, but it expresses the inner contradictions of this institution: on the one hand, the manager of labour as variable capital, on the other representing the material interests of workers within capitalism. In practice, unions always have to resolve this conflict by keeping labour in the state of variable capital, following the logic of the accumulation of capital, and not against this logic. As organisations within capitalism, unions depend on the form of variable capital.


Unions are often said to have a “dual character”: this is the notion that unions fight both within and against capitalism simultaneously. In reality, however, only the former turns out to be true. As they grew to become a socially relevant force, unions were integrated more and more into capitalist society and increasingly became accepted negotiating partners of state and capital. Historically, there have been moments that were particularly conducive to the integration of unions. In such times, both the economic and political dimensions were essential. Toward the end of World War I, for example, there were mass movements in various European countries. Many governments thought giving in to the demand for the 48-hour-week, which was taken up again by unions after the end of the war, to be a suitable social reform in order to curb these movements. In Switzerland, too, the 48-hour-week became an everyday demand, during the general strike in 1918, for example. Facing rising workers' militancy, the issue of a shorter work week became quite explosive for the government. It heeded unions' warnings. It put pressure on employers to agree to fewer working hours (the principal sectors of the economy bowed to this pressure in 1919). Some agreed as a result of compromises: employers were looking to grant shorter working hours in return for a free hand in rationalizing the labour process. This combination of pressure and concessions helped to enforce the integration of unions into the economic order. After the general strike, many employers or their associations sat at the bargaining table with the unions for the first time. At that time, government acted as a regulator, as it generally does nowadays. Today, government still intervenes from time to time as a mediator when no agreement is found. The state has an interest in enterprises providing stable conditions of exploitation, while unions provide efficient and disciplined workers in return. Together, both secure the continuity of society in its current form. However, for the opposing interests to be reconcilable, capital needs a certain economic scope, which disappears in times of crisis. Nowadays, rationalisations and outsourcing almost always lead directly to job losses. So, it is now also quite common for enterprises to provide, instead of stable conditions of exploitation, social compensation plans to coordinate the job losses. Unions adapted themselves to this by only asking for half-baked social compensation plans in case of imminent job losses. We will come back to this issue later.
1937 marks another important year in labour organisations’ integration into the organisational structure of liberal society. Against the backdrop of crisis and imminent class struggles, the leaders of the machine industry’s union and of the employer’s association decided on a truce. Under this agreement, unions and employers had to solve future conflicts by negotiations or with the help of a mediating body, and to refrain from any militant actions.
Meanwhile, a strike for a pay raise was about to take place at Sulzer, in Winterthur (in the canton of Zurich). The union cooperated closely with management to prevent the strike, using every possible propagandistic and legal resource. A close vote of the workers against a strike in the third strike ballot had a signalling effect: it founded the historical myth of social partnership in Switzerland, having been glorified as the “Rütli of the 20th century”. But, contrary to this myth, this social partnership did not emerge in a friendly way as a mutual agreement between workers and capital. Rather, there were different causes that led to its implementation. Repression played an important part. In 1941, any communist activities were prohibited. In the course of the geistige Landesverteidigung, the proletariat became aligned to Switzerland; the German Volksgemeinschaft was contrasted with a Swiss Volksgemeinschaft. Unions were also interested in the institutionalisation of social partnership. That way, they were eventually accepted as a negotiating partner of state and capital. The working class rebelled now and then, but, having lost its autonomy, was too weak to stop this process. So, the social partnership was enforced by repression and ideology in Switzerland. At first, workers did not gain anything materially from it, because there was not enough economical scope for such gains. This changed when a time of prosperity began after World War II. Then, the social partnership revealed itself to be beneficial and became generally accepted.
After the loss of economic scope for capital, and with the increase of class struggles beginning in the seventies, cracks appeared in the social partnership. But the integration of unions through the social partnership continues, despite the fact that the generous economic scope allowing this integration is disappearing as a result of the crisis. This often leads to the curious situation of unions insisting on their right to negotiate while the opposite side is unable to make any concessions. So unions are forced from time to time to use strikes as a last resort, though only when negotiations prove ineffective. This is the reason unions in Switzerland are more militant today, as well as the increasing discontent among union members and the decreasing number of members.
Now, a short excursus about striking, unions' main weapon. When negotiations break down, unions mobilise their members, allowing them to let off steam. But a strike orchestrated by unions – unlike a wildcat strike – is always aimed at finding an acceptable solution for both negotiating partners. Unions never voluntarily hand over the reins, and always direct their members’ anger towards compromises within the social partnership. So, a strike is always about hurting the enemy – the corporations – in a limited way in order to show that a “reasonable” compromise is cheaper than the damage caused by a strike. So a union’s strike is always something like a warning strike, trying to force the enemy to compromise, and nothing more.


Unions are not only bound to capitalism, they depend on it functioning well: where there is prosperity, higher wages and better working conditions can be attained, allowing for satisfied union members. That is the reason unions always adapt their activities to existing economic conditions and to the interests of the national economy, and why they employ their own – mostly Keynesian – economic experts. When capital gets into crisis, only very small achievements are possible, and the conditions of struggle become harsh. This is not solely a phenomenon in unions' most recent history. Such action, tied closely to the economic situation, has already been seen in the turbulent times around World War I: while unions reduced their demands for better conditions of work at the beginning of the war – in the context of wartime economy and war of economy – they refreshed their old demands for the forty-eight-hour week during the short period of prosperity in 1919/20. But, because of the great number of wildcat strikes between 1917 and 1920, unions were also obliged to do so, so as to avoid leaving the field to more radical forces. Conversely, when prosperity was succeeded by deflation in 1920/21 and the exporting industry tried to save itself through cost reductions, unions were officially against wage reductions, but did little to fight them. It lies in the nature of unions that they cannot act counter to the economic trend without changing the way they function entirely. They negotiate only within a certain scope, determined by the development of the economy. They can indeed go beyond this scope temporarily, only to be ultimately forced back. On the one hand unions determine the limits of a struggle, on the other they are an expression of the limits of the autonomy of those in the struggle in two ways: firstly, formally, workers let unions act as their representatives instead of organizing themselves, and, secondly, that means, with regards to content, that workers restrict their demands to the possibilities given by the scope of capitalist development. Real autonomy in this dual sense - breaking with the formal usurpation as much as with the limitation in content to a capitalist scope - would counter any attempt of integration.
As the crisis unfolds, the contradiction unions find themselves in is becoming increasingly obvious. Trying to prevent or at least to reduce losses for the labour force they organise, and at the same time trying to make allowance for the survival of the employer, unions are losing room to mediate. In such a situation, a redundancy programme or halving the number of lay-offs quickly appears as a victory. If unions stopped playing this game and pulled the rug out from under employers' feet – that is, if they really represented the working class – they would hurt themselves in the long run. If production was no longer profitable for the employer, unions would in the long term, as almost everything in capitalism depends on successfully increasing capital, send their members into unemployment in much greater numbers than they are already, losing their jobs under the current “victories”. At the same time they would lose the state’s confidence in them as an accepted peacekeeper in class struggle. Union functionaries are definitely aware of their relative weakness – they cannot inflict damage on their opponents without hurting themselves, both as a partner in the negotiation circus and as a company that depends on selling reasonably tolerable working conditions to its clients.
Workers in struggle are confronted with the same problem: they cannot strike their own employers into bankruptcy without hurting themselves. It would require an unconditional struggle to advance working class interests to reveal a path out of capitalism and the possibility of a society beyond wage and profit. The solution is not be found through a merely theoretical anticipation of a new society. Only in a communist movement that practically anticipates forms of a future society, can the working class abandon all constraints of capital. Until then, workers and their conditions of reproduction remain within the logic of capitalist accumulation; well-intentioned elucidation by Marxist agitators is of little help.


Syndicalist organisations find themselves torn between capitalist reality on the one hand, and a perspective transcending this reality on the other. The fact that syndicalist organisations like to see themselves as the better unions from time to time is not an operational accident as much as simply being the result of the logic of this organisational approach. They advocate and have always advocated overcoming capitalism. Yet, the more they try to become the institutional manifestation of daily conflicts in the workplace, the more they move their focus from their revolutionary practice in favour of pragmatic reformism. When they act as a union, syndicalist organisations have to be reliable negotiation partners working out deals with their counterparts. But those deals have, as every deal has, consequences for both negotiating partners. That’s the reason why syndicalist organisations also generally have to acknowledge the fact that capital only makes allowances for somebody who offers disciplined workers in return. Even revolutionary syndicalist organisations cannot escape from that logic.
Of course that should not lead to the conclusion that one shall not take part in the necessary labour struggles. But one does have to ask the question whether it is at all possible to act as a revolutionary syndicalist organisation in an institutionalised manner over an extended period of time. Historically, workers organised in revolutionary-syndicalist groups only in those short periods when social conflict escalated. In times when class struggle ebbed – from a revolutionary point of view – syndicalist organisations played a more marginal role.
This can be explained by the fundamental difference between syndicalist organisations and conventional unions on a programmatic level. The former aim to overcome capitalism. Therefore, they are most popular in times when the masses question capitalist production. But are not those just the moments when the syndicalist focus on individual companies and industries becomes obsolete? They are the moments when capitalism as a whole – as the reduction of humans to their function as workers to be exploited – is called into question. One has to ask, at least, whether organisation should remain at the level of unions, when struggles take place on a totally different level – on a political level, where everything is being questioned.


What perspective are we left with, having come to the conclusion that unions and syndicalist organisations are not adequate for the struggle against capitalism? The rejection of any kind of permanent organisations not arising directly from real conflicts – a position motivated by one's own weakness – is not an option. On the one hand, revolutionaries always have to organise amongst each other, in order to avoid total isolation. On the other hand, the idea of self-organisation of existing production by workers’ councils does not seem all too bright either, in a world where production is organised strictly according to the rules of capitalist accumulation. We have to reorganise production from scratch, rather than merely trying to manage existing production plants ourselves. Today, we have to focus on negating the status quo, on the destruction of the old world, to build a new world from the ruins, a world that satisfies human needs and wants. In times when revolutionary movements are reduced to a marginal note to world affairs, such words express our own weakness. It would be foolhardy to try and predict the concrete form of organisation such a society would take: one is left with nothing but negation until - in a possible generalisation of the struggle against this world – structures become apparent that anticipate a future society.
It is a must for revolutionaries to participate and intervene in the struggles now becoming increasingly frequent. At the same time there is still the question of the perspectives that will arise from such struggles. In fact, most of the struggles are defensive and their results mostly seem insignificant from a revolutionary point of view and cannot – on an ideological level – challenge the prevailing social harmony. Indeed, at least in Switzerland, the more successful struggles are those that are waged mostly independently of unions. But, in fact, this autonomy does not mean much more than workers in struggles insisting more forcefully on their demands. The only results of these sporadic successes are improvements to living and working conditions under the existing conditions. Nothing beyond that comes of this autonomy automatically: collective interests and real power do indeed become clearer in such struggles and autonomy of class appears on the horizon - at least a little bit. But a communist revolution only becomes possible when workers start to recognise that they have to fight against, and not within the system, to abolish the recurring misery. Looking at it objectively, today there is no other way out left: the demands of those in struggle often conflict with the possibilities within the conditions of exploitation given to capital in a crisis. This is most apparent when workers protest against the closure of unprofitable factories or business locations. However, when struggles against capital’s plans and necessities are won, a gleam of workers’ power can be seen in seemingly unwinnable struggles – a power transcending the very negotiation with the opposite side. This happened, for example, at the strike in the railway maintenance plant in Bellinzona, generating hands-on experience relevant beyond Ticino. But when a company is no longer competitive, and when even the most militant spirit cannot save jobs, a communist must honestly admit that there are no prospects within capitalism.


  • 1. In 2006 a strike took place at Swissmetal in Reconvilier for more than 30 days. By occupying the workplace the employees fought against the factory’s restructuring plans. The labor action was self-organized and thereby a thorn in the side of the trade union UNIA which preferred to mediate between business owner, governmental institutions and workers than to take direct action. UNIA called the strike a hopeless endeavor and enforced the resumption of work at a works assembly by threatening to stop their support in case the strike would continue. So the workers obeyed the trade union’s decision.
  • 2. The 2008 strike at Bellinzona’s industrial plant was successful, and all jobs were saved. This strike began spontaneously as well. As the workers had a great amount of autonomy (the highest authority for all decisions was the daily strike assembly) and as they were – thanks to a lot of donations from the people of Ticino – financially quite independent, unions like UNIA and SEV influenced the strike only on a low level. But the protagonists of the strike were punished a year later. Members of the strike committee were voted out of the local UNIA section during a veritable putsch. Also, one militant UNIA functionary supporting the strike was transferred from Ticino to Bern.