Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

No.4 SPGB & The Unions


No 4 in our series –Questions of the Day-deals with the Trade Unions and their role in the class struggle.

“The basis of the action the trade unions must be a clear recognition of the position of the workers under capitalism, and the class struggle necessarily arising therefrom; in other words, they must adopt the Socialist position, if they are going to justify their existence at all. That will depend on the unions themselves. All actions of the unions in support of capitalism, or tending to sidetrack the workers from the only path that can lead to their emancipation, should be strongly opposed; but on the other hand trade unions being a necessity under capitalism, any action on their part upon sound lines should be heartily supported

Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (First edition, 1905)

May 1993

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and Trade Unions

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the trade unions have a common origin in the class struggle. The former is the organised expression on the political field of the recognition of that struggle by the workers. Its growth is the measure of their determination to end the struggle by converting the means of living into common property, this enabling a harmony of interests within society.

The class struggle, however, does not begin with the conscious recognition of this conflict in the day to day existence of the working class. “In the beginning was the deed” (FAUST) wrote, Goethe, a line often quoted by Marx with approval (see CAPITAL VOL. 1 Ch.2 Exchange).

The idea of the class struggle in the minds of workers follows in the wake of the struggle actually taking place between capital and labour. Long before the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain the class struggle was in progress. Strikes and lockouts, machine smashing by the Luddites, and penal legislation against them testified top the antagonism of interests in modern society for over a century.

With the rise of the factory system the workers found themselves involved in the struggle in grim earnest. It was no choice of theirs but thrust itself upon them with relentless and increasing force with every step forward in industrial evolution.

At first the workers acted instinctively rather than rationally. The Luddite machine-smashers in the early 19th century were typical of this phase of the conflict, but with further experience and time for reflection, the need for some form of organisation impressed itself upon the workers and the trade unions were formed.

The workers began to realise that the machines had come to stay; that henceforward the workers were condemned to lives of toil for the profit of the factory owners and that the former independence the workers had enjoyed while still often working in their own homes under the old system, had gone forever. Hence the trade unions arose, uniting workers in similar or allied occupations in order to get from the capitalists the best terms obtainable.

From the first the strike was their most important weapon. Under the handi-craft system, in its closing stages, workers sold the articles they produced to merchants and had to bargain with them about the price, but then all this was changed. The price of the workers’ own labour-power became the subject of dispute. They sold their energies piecemeal, by the hour, day or week, and the system of piecework, which was retained here and there, disguised but did not alter that fact.

The individual worker had lost all substantial freedom, since his only alternative to working on the terms of the employers was starvation. Hence the right to withhold his labour-power in conjunction with his fellows became an essential means of resistance. Without it the workers would have been crushed beyond the power of recovery and would have become, as Marx argued in his pamphlet “VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT”, quite incapable of “initiating any large movement”.

From the outset, however, the unions found arrayed against them, not only the individual employers or groups with whom they were directly struggling, but the forces of the entire capitalist class, as represented by the State. For long enough the unions were subject to legal persecution as unlawful conspiracies and monopolies and only by dint of considerable perseverance were these obstacles overcome. The workers indeed had their backs to the wall and only the fact that the unions were rooted in the new conditions saved them from annihilation.

By degrees, however, the capitalist class saw the error of trying to destroy the new organisations and the unions were granted legal status.

Foremost in the improvements in workers conditions aimed at by the unions are wage increases and reduced hours of work. In 1865, in the address published as the pamphlet “VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT”, Marx took a very pessimistic view of the union’s future. He said;

the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production, is not to raise but to sink the average standard of wages or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit”.

Events soon proved Marx to have underestimated the effect of the formation of trade unions. Engels, who had, no doubt, shared Marx’s pessimism in 1865, had quite changed his view twenty-seven years later in his 1892 Preface to his “CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND” in 1844”. Referring to “the great mass” of the workers, Engels noted that their conditions had improved while capitalist industry was expanding. It was however only temporarily, because of the increase of unemployment during trade depressions.

Engels made exception for two groups of workers. First, the factory workers who had their maximum hours of work fixed by Act of parliament and were: “undoubtedly better off than before 1848”.

His other exception was the workers (engineers, carpenters, joiners and bricklayers) organised in “the great trade unions”. Of them he said: “That their condition has remarkably improved since 1848 there can be no doubt”.

This was confirmed by Professor Bowley whose index of wages and prices in his book WAGES AND INCOME IN THE UNITED KINGDOM SINCE 1860 (1900) showed that between 1850 and 1865 average real wages of all workers had risen by 19 per cent. In spite of some relatively short periods of falling wages (as for example a 13 per cent fall between 1899 and 1912), the level of average real wages of all workers in 1913 was 83 per cent above the level of 1850.

The earlier pattern of average wage and price increases has been repeated since 1945, that is to say, real wages rising in most but not all periods. That this was possible is of course due to the small but more or less continuous increase in the average output per worker per annum. In 1990 average real prices of all workers (that is to say money wages reduced to allow for price increases) was more than double the level of 1945. From 1995 to 2005 average real earnings in the private sector rose on average 2.755 per year and in the public sector this was between 2.25 and 2.5% (http//

With the advent of the Tory government in 1979, laws were passed aimed at hampering the unions but on the whole experienced trade unions have managed to get round most of them as the trade unions had often been able to do with respect to earlier trade union legislation. Quite often the employers, knowing that they have to live with the unions choose not to take advantage of the law.

Owing mostly to the increase of unemployment the unions have lost about a third of their membership. Loss of members has happened before. After the First World War they lost half their members and it took many years to recover the loss and go on to still higher membership. Union membership only started to increase in 2003 but since 2005 it has started to gradually fall again (Office for National Statistics 2006).

In the prolonged depression of the early 1990’s an increasing number of companies imposed wage increases below the rise of prices. The Confederation of British Industry reported that in the last quarter of 1992 one in three manufacturers, in their pay settlements, gave no increase at all but froze pay at its previous level (FINANCIAL TIMES 5th February 1993).

In the current depression real wages have begun to fall as wage settlements are increasingly being fixed below the rate of inflation. Many workers have had to take pay cuts, seen their pay frozen or forced into part-time work. The Office for National Statistics recently released figures showing that real wages will fall over the next three years (DAILY TELEGRAPH 13th July 2010).

Organisations in unions has long been of value to the workers and will remain so, but it is an illusion to suppose, as some workers do, that the unions can end exploitation and overthrow the capitalist system. Two factors decide that issue. In the first place the employers have much larger finances at their disposal than have the unions and can afford to stand out longer if the unions seek to prolong the strike. Furthermore the employers can always count on the backing of government in such a dispute. It follows that: “a stoppage must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely. If it does not effect its purpose in a short sharp action, then it will have failed and the men must accept the inevitable for the present” (SOCIALIST STANDARD April 1922).

Failure to recognise these facts of the situation has always been disastrous for the unions, as for example the strike of the miners in 1926 from May to November when, in addition to having lost seven moths pay they had to accept worse terms than they could have had at the outset. And the miners strike in 1984 against pit closures which lasted for nearly a year achieved nothing except that 100,000 strikers lost £900 million in pay.

That strike bought about another issue. Although the National Union of Mineworkers was trying to prevent the closing down by the Coal Board of unprofitable pits it was in substance action against their fellow workers because the National union of mineworkers was seeking to create jobs for miners by demanding the closing down of nuclear power stations and the conversion of gas and oil fired stations to coal firing. At the trade union congress at Brighton in 1985 nuclear power and electrical workers were demonstrating for the protection of their jobs against the National Union of Mineworkers’ claims.

The Clapham-based Socialist Party showed its failure to understand the socialist case by declaring its support for the National Union of Mineworkers in that 1984 strike (see SOCIALIST STANDARD September 1984).

An article on the strike declared support for the National Union of Mineworkers in the following terms:

In any strike between robbers and robbed (with the exception of political strikes such as when the dockers opposed immigration or the Labourites ran their phoney day of action) the Socialist Party is unequivocally on the side of the robbed”.

There was no offer of support to protect the jobs of the nuclear power workers and gas and oil workers.

No matter what policies the unions may adopt they offer no solution to the problems of the working class in capitalism and no progression into Socialist Society. For this the working class must act in accordance with the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s BJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES.

[This pamphlet has been reproduced with minor alterations, corrections and updating of some statistics from one of six pamphlets written by our late Comrade Hardy (E. Hardcastle) in 1993 who along with other comrades was expelled in May 1991 from the Clapham based Socialist Party for carrying out political propaganda in the full name of the Party as required by clause 8 of the Object and Declaration of Principles of The Socialist Party of Great Britain to which we adhere. Editorial Committee August 2010]

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