Trade Unions, Class Struggle and Socialism

Falling Trade union Membership

Trade unions have experienced the biggest fall in membership since formal government records began in 1995. In 2016 trade unions lost 275,000 members. British trade union membership is now 6.2 million. Union membership fell in the private sector by 66,000 to 2.6 million and in the public sector by 209,000, to 3.6 million (GUARDIAN 1st June 2017).

This problem is not unique to the United Kingdom but is also found in other European countries and the US. World-wide, trade union membership continues to decline.

Socialists support workers in forming trade unions. In its early years the Socialist Party of Great Britain rendered valuable service to the workers by showing the possibilities and limitations of trade unions, and their inability to challenge successfully the dominant power of those who control the machinery of government, including the armed forces. When employers, backed by government, decide to fight an issue to the bitter end the employers are bound to win.

In their own interst it is essential that the workers should be effectively organised so that the employers know that when the members decide to strike it is a threat that has to be treated seriously. Long experience shows that when profits are high and rising employers will make concessions to avoid strikes. At such timers strikes are few and short. When profits are falling the employers will successfully resist claims notwithstanding frequent and prolonged strikes.

Trade unions take part in the economic sphere of the class struggle over wages and conditions of work. Trade unions, under certain favourable circumstance, in periods of economic boom and high employment, can prise higher wages and salaries from employers. However, the same cannot be said for in periods of economic crisis and trade depression when there is high unemployment. Capitalism has a profound effect on what trade unions can and cannot do.

Trade union membership, though, is better than going it alone. When and where workers are unorganised the employer can impose excessive hours and intensity of work, and drive wages down to the bare subsistence level. With trade union organisation, workers can defend themselves against unrestricted exploitation; but always subject to the over-riding condition that production remains profitable to the employers.

Karl Marx, who studied the workings of capitalism in some detail, gave this considered view of the relationship between profits and wages over which the class struggle rotates:

"As to profits, there exists no law which determines their minimum. We cannot say what is the ultimate limit of their decrease ... Because, although we can fix the minimum of wages, we cannot fix their maximum. We can only say that, the limits of the working day being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to the physical minimum of wages; and that wages being given, the maximum of profit corresponds to such a prolongation of the working day as is compatible with the physical forces of the labourer.

The maximum of profit is therefore limited by the physical minimum of wages and the physical maximum of the working day.

It is evident that between the two limits of this maximum rate of profit an immense scale of variations is possible. The fixation of its actual degree is only settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labour, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction.

The matter resolves' itself into a question of the respective powers of the combatants."


Problems Facing Trade Unions

Trade unions, though, suffer a number of problems under capitalism, some of their own making.

First, trade unions cannot ultimately win against determined resistance of employers and their state. This was shown by the failures of the General strike of 1926 and the Miner’s strike of 1984. Also the Docks strike when the post-war Attlee Labour government used army conscripts to break the strike. Firefighters’ strikes were later also broken by the Army used as blackleg labour.

Second, the economic field on which the class struggle takes place is always tilted in favour of the employers because the capitalist class own and control the means of production and distribution.

Third, trade unions have erroneously followed capitalist politics by appointing trade union leaders which have a tendency to prevent the membership from having any real say in issues like the terms of a deal with employers, overall trade union strategy and tactics. Individual member’s engagement in trade union affairs is marginal.

Fourth, trends take place within capitalism over which trade unions have no control such as the gig economy, capitalists moving production aboard, the introduction of labour-saving machinery, robotics and artificial intelligence, part-time isolated working patterns, obsolescence or unprofitability of certain industrial and commercial sectors like ship building and coal mining and steel manufacture where production has been re-located to low-wage and non-trade union countries and a working class fragmented and blaming each other and trade unions for the problems they face rather than blaming capitalism.

With regards the negative effect of trade union leadership we can recall the late Tom Jackson, leader of the Postal Workers Union. At the end of the 1971 postal strike, he insisted on balloting being done in such a way that London postal workers (more committed to strike action than the rural ones) were effectively excluded from the ballot.

Many London postmen did not live in the City but out in the suburbs or further. The ballot was carried out at their place of work, with very short notice, and striking post office workers who could not come in due to lack of funds or time, could not cast their votes and Jackson got the majority he wanted to call off the strike.

Democracy in trade union affairs is just as important as it is within the organisation of a socialist party. The trade union should be controlled by its membership not by leaders and officials when strike action takes place a majority should be in favour of the strike and a majority in favour of the deal done to end it.

Fifth, the trade union leadership, through the TUC, have aligned themselves with the reformist politics of the anti-working class Labour Party. The trade unions not only give funds to the Labour Party, but also help draft policy. The trade unions then get bitterly disappointed when the Labour Party forms a government and introduces policies favouring the employers – particularly capping wage increases - and using the police or armed forces of the state to break strikes. Trade unionists forget that the Labour government, like the Tories, can only run capitalism in the interest of the capitalist class not trade union members.

Sixth, trade unions not only support capitalism, favouring nationalisation and Keynesian economic policies - they have also supported British capitalism’s wars, notably the First and Second World War This flies in the face of the interest of the working class in not getting involved in the periodic quarrels of the capitalist class and their politicians either at home or abroad. Workers have no interest fighting or supporting capitalism’s wars.

There are advantages of being in a trade union, not least class solidarity and unity of purpose against the intensity and extent of exploitation. Trades unions teach workers to think as a unified group rather than as a powerless individual. It is harder for management to bully a trade union; in fact, a lot of trade union work is around victimisation, health and safety as well as securing more wages. Nevertheless there is a spectrum of anti-socialist political views held by the trade union membership.

It would be a mistake to assume that workers joining a trade union necessarily mean a better understanding of their class position. Under New Labour the unions were almost forced to portray themselves as 'partners' with business. The unions offered their members technical training, health, accident and legal insurance, etc.

As employers were cutting back on apprenticeships, company pension schemes, insurance, as well as other benefits, the unions found that - to compensate for their perceived unpopularity - they needed something to persuade workers to join up, so they took on what in the past had been done by employers. In the past being post-1945 to the late 1960s, when jobs were a-plenty, and employers were forced to offer attractive 'packages', not just pay but good perks.

Trade Unions and British Capitalism

The problem though, with or without trade unions, is that workers are very divided, particularly around questions of immigration/racism, and “welfare”. The key reason for this is poverty and, competition for jobs, housing and so on.

All this has been aggravated, especially since about the 1970s, due to the declining state of the economy which has forced cuts in the NHS, the Right to Buy policy which has meant over the last few decades a continuing decline in the amount of 'social housing', cuts in Local Authority budgets and social services. And it is not the result of policies associated just with the ‘evil’ Tories. The problems of the capitalist economy have led to aggressive policies by both Tory and labour governments to ensure a profitable environment for British capitalism to complete on the world market. This has left its mark on the effectiveness of trade unions and the number of workers prepared to join. A Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would not halt this trend. If in power Corbyn would have to look to the interest of British capitalism first. He would have no alternative.

During Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s each year the headlines were screaming about a balance of trade deficit, and fears of devaluation of the pound, which culminated in the IMF crisis when Callaghan's government had to accept IMF terms and policies, i.e. cuts to the NHS, social services, government spending etc. The government also tried to put a limit on trade union pay increases. That was the beginning of the austerity which seems to have been government policy forever!

Looking at the issue long-term, there was a long post-war boom, when unemployment was well below half a million. This figure started to creep up to over a million (headline news!), then over 1.5 million, and so on, always rising. Employers were assisted by first the Thatcher government and later John Major’s administration in their dealings with trade unions with the passing of a number of anti-trade union legislation during the 1980s and early 1990s.

By the time Blair and New Labour got to power in 1997, their Manifesto and Blair's speeches and articles all declared their intention of reducing the amount spent by government on supporting the sick, disabled and unemployed - a policy currently being pursued with the Tories Universal Credit policy. The Blair government also failed to repeal the anti-trade union legislation of the previous Tory governments.

Socialists are not surprised by all of this. This is what governments have to do. There is very little trade union action can do to prevent this. Look at the countless strikes by teachers, nurses and doctors. Trade unions spent a great deal of time fighting privatisation as though being a state employer was somehow different and commendable.

The capitalist Left used to claim that, with a crisis, increased hardship and poverty, discontent would increase and so produce a REVOLUTION! They look at every strike as an opportunity to lead workers into street confrontation with the state. Nothing of the sort ever happens. Political opportunism always leads to political failure.

What, then, can be said about the potentialities and limitations of trade union action? Something Marx wrote about it is as true now as it was a hundred years ago:

"The working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects ... that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady" (WAGES, PRICE AND PROFIT).

Marx went on to conclude that the only way to further the interest of the working class is politically; with the abolition of the wages system and the establishment of socialism- the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society..

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.