Wholesaler of the supply of labor power, originally created by the workers themselves to defend their working conditions in a framework of class conciliation and affirmation of their own existence within the institutions of the national state. With the monopolistic development of national capital and the universalization of state capitalism, the trade union is recognized as one more monopolist and absorbed like all of them into the structures of the national state.
Origins and development
The unions are not, by any means, the first organizations of the working class, nor are they the inventors of the strike. The first forms of modern workers’ struggle by means of strikes appeared in the 16th century in France and the 17th century in Spain, organized through confraternities and guilds of salaried workers within the artisan regime, and were later replaced by the “mutuals” first and by the “resistance funds”, the direct predecessor of the trade union.
The modern trade unions were born from 1860 onwards from a fraction of the proletariat that was still mainly linked to artisanal production, in a framework of small-scale production in which the tendency, characteristic of the still weak proletariat in small workshops, to harmonize classes, was reinforced by the general conditions that rising capitalism made possible: sustained improvements in wages (as productivity surged) and the conquest of an autonomous space for class representation and organization. A framework in which the big unions will train and grease their function as “wholesalers” of labor power, improving not only the immediate conditions of the workers but also equalizing the conditions of competition of the capitalists and balancing the rate of profit among the different sectors (uses of capital) in a more effective way than individual competition among workers.
The first trade union did not appear until 1864. Any idea of class struggle was foreign to it, since it presented itself as proposing, on the contrary, to reconcile the interests of the workers and the bosses. Tolain himself [a member of the First International] had no other goal in mind. It should also be noted that the trade union movement was by no means started by the most exploited members of the working class – the emerging industrial proletariat – but rather by workers in the crafts. It therefore directly reflects the specific needs and ideological tendencies of these working classes. While the shoemakers and the printers, artisans par excellence, set up their unions in 1864 and 1867 respectively, the miners, who constituted the most heavily exploited proletariat, did not set up their first union until 1876 in the Loire (in 1882 in the North and in the Pas-de-Calais), and in textiles, where working conditions were particularly dreadful, they did not feel the need for a union for the first time until 1877.
Where does the fermentation of spirits come from at that time when socialist ideas (and anarchist ideas that will only later be differentiated) were propagated throughout the working class of the big cities, when the most exploited workers so manifestly reject trade union organization while those with a better standard of living seek it out?
First of all, we must remember that the first unions created by workers in the craft professions are only bodies for conciliation and not for class struggle. They will only become so later. On the other hand, they represent the form of organization best suited to professions that, among multiple workshops, bring together a fairly small number of workers in the same trade. It was the best means of bringing together workers of the same trade scattered in the workshops of the same city. of giving them a cohesion that the conditions of work tended to prevent. It should also be remembered that the artisan character of a trade often leads to employers and workers working side by side and leading the same kind of life. Even if the economic situation of the employer is much higher than that of the worker, the human contact he often maintains with the latter prevents the emergence of the gulf separating workers and employers from the big industries. Among the bosses and workers in the artisan trades there is also a minimum of familiarity with the trade, which is completely absent and inconceivable in big industry. All these reasons were more often than not conducive to conciliation than to struggle… The situation of workers in the textile and mining industries (for instance) was completely different. Among the miners as well as among the textile workers, great masses of workers of various professions were crowded together in factories and pits, subjected to inhuman working conditions.
If the workers in the handicraft enterprises were the first to organize themselves to discuss their interests with the bosses, those in the big industries, under the most relentless pressure of capital, were the first to perceive what irreducibly opposed them to the bosses, to rebel against the situation imposed on them, to practice direct action, to claim their right to life, arms in hand; the first, in short, to lead the social revolution. The revolt of the Lyon “canuts” in 1831 and the miners’ strike in 1844 clearly indicate this. Whereas, between 1830 and 1845, the printing presses, for example, did not appear once on a list of the trades that were the subject of the greatest number of convictions, the miners were listed three times (the mining industry was then in full swing) and the textile workers almost every year.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the workers in the big industries did not show any interest in a form of organization that proposed conciliation (which they felt was impossible) between adverse classes. They only came to it later and, so to speak, reluctantly, since by their very situation they were pushed into forms of open struggle with the bosses that the union did not take into consideration, at least at first. In fact, the workers in the big industries do not join the trade union organization until it inscribes at the head of its statutes the principles of class struggle. It was they, moreover, who promoted the most violent struggles between 1880 and 1914. Through this concession to their aspirations, they resigned themselves to joining the union, but also for various other reasons. First, because no other form of organization was conceivable at the time. Furthermore, the perspective of a broad progressive development of capitalism was then in the forefront, from which the need to tighten the cohesion of the working class, in order to wrest from the bosses more satisfactory conditions of existence, which would allow better preparation of the workers to make the final assault on property.
From its beginnings, the trade union appears to the workers of the big industries as a mere bureaucratic tool. It was, however, acceptable at the time because of the survival of the craft industry. It was a positive solution at that time of continuous development of the capitalist economy that was accompanied by a constant growth of freedom and culture. Its recognition by the State and, through it, the right of association and the press, constituted a considerable acquisition.
However, even when trade unionism adopted the principle of class struggle, it never set out, in its daily struggle, to overthrow society; on the contrary, it merely brought together the workers with a view to defending their economic interests within capitalist society. Sometimes the defense takes on the appearance of a fierce struggle, but it never carries the purpose, either implicitly or explicitly, of transforming working conditions through revolution. None of the struggles of the time, even the most violent ones, point to such an objective. What is more, the trade union allows the workers to glimpse, in an undetermined future, which takes on the significance of the donkey’s thistle, the suppression of the bosses and the wage labor. And as a consequence, the suppression of the capitalist society which engenders them. But the trade union will never take any action in that direction.
Benjamin Peret, “The Unions and the Class Struggle” in “The Unions against Revolution”, 1954
Trade unions, monopoly and state capitalism
With the development of imperialism and the entry of capitalism into its phase of decadence, the trade unions are gradually moving from being wholesalers to monopolists of labor power. In exactly the same way as the coal and steel cartels -the first unions of capitalists- their relationship with banking capital and the state is consolidating a new form of organization of the bourgeoisie in the face of the new conditions suffered by national capital: state capitalism.
They are in the process of moving from the “free” competition between supply and demand of labor power to the phase of regimentation of supply by demand, that is, of the working class by monopoly or state capital, exclusive monopoly. […] [Unions] are as far from being modifiable in a revolutionary sense, as any other section of the society of exploitation. In the image of the latter, they use the working class for their own ends, while men will never find a way to adapt them to their revolutionary demands; they can only destroy them.
G. Munis in “Trade Unions against the Revolution”, 1960
The transition will become noticeable in the evolution of the Second International: the reformist and opportunist tendency will be supported and pushed by the social democratic trade union bureaucracy at all times, until it culminates in the enthusiastic defense of the state, the call for inclusion and enlistment in the army and, finally, the denial of the most basic internationalism, the real class boundary.
In the period preceding the First World War, the trade union leaders were not the legitimate representatives of the working class, but only to the extent that they had to assume that role in order to increase their credit in the capitalist state. At the decisive moment, when it was necessary to choose between the risk of compromising an acquired situation by calling on the masses to reject the war and the regime that engendered it, they strengthened their position, chose the second term of the alternative by opting for the regime and put themselves at the service of capitalism. This was not only the case in France, since the trade union leaders of the countries involved in the war adopted the same attitude everywhere. If the union leaders betrayed, was it not because the very structure of the union and its place in society made such betrayal possible from the outset and then inevitable in 1914?
Benjamin Peret, “The Unions and the Class Struggle” in “The Unions Against Revolution,” 1954
The 1905 revolution, however, had introduced new forms and means of class struggle that would prove as opposed to the trade unions as they were fundamental to the whole open revolutionary wave in 1917: the mass strike and the workers’ committees and councils. These new means:
The factory committees or councils democratically elected by the workers in the workplaces, whose members, under the immediate and constant control of their constituents, are revocable at any time. Such committees are obviously a direct emanation of the will of the moving masses and facilitate their evolution. That is why, as soon as they appear, even in the provisional form of strike committees, they come into conflict both with the union leaders, whose power they threaten, and with the bosses. Both feel equally threatened, and so much so that the trade union leaders generally intercede between the bosses and the workers to bring the strike to an end. I am convinced that no worker who has participated in a strike committee will contradict me, especially when it comes to the strikes of recent years. For the rest, it is normal that this should happen. Strike committees represent a new body of struggle, the most democratic one imaginable. It tends, consciously or not, to replace the union, which in this case defends the privileges acquired by trying to restrict the powers agreed upon by the strike committee. Imagine then the hostility of the unions to a permanent committee, called by the very logic of things to subordinate and replace them!
G. Munis, “The Factory Committees, the Engine of Social Revolution” in “The Unions against the Revolution”, 1960