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Immanuel Wallerstein on The Return of the Trade-Unions

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Immanuel Wallerstein

May Day: The Return of the Trade-Unions?

Commentary No. 328, May 1, 2012

Organizing trade unions was a quite radical idea as late as the first half of the nineteenth century. They were illegal almost everywhere. So when the laws prohibiting them were repealed in some European countries, North America, and Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was intended as a concession to the pressures of the workers, actually the urban workers, in the hope and expectation that the working classes would then be less radical in their demands.

In most countries, the trade unions worked closely with the socialist and labor political parties that were coming into existence at the same time. The trade unions were faced with many of the same issues of strategy as the socialist and labor parties. The most important of these issues was whether and in what way they would participate in the electoral processes. As we know, most of them decided they should participate and seek power within state structures.

In addition, the trade unions, just like the socialist and labor parties, decided that the only way they could become strong was for them to employ full-time organizers, which meant creating a bureaucracy that ran the organization. As in the case of all bureaucracies, those holding such posts came to have material and political interests that were not necessarily the same as those of the workers who were their members.

The trade unions became state-oriented, especially since their own organizations were defined as national organizations. They usually proclaimed a nominal internationalism – solidarity with trade unions in other countries. But the internationalism always took second place to protecting the interests of workers and the trade unions in their state.

Even though the trade unions toned down their most radical activities, employers were still resistant to the formation of trade unions in their enterprise. The trade unions had to struggle constantly to obtain the legislation that would permit them to organize, and to win favorable accords in negotiations with the employers. Slowly, slowly, trade unions grew stronger.

The 25-30 years following the end of the Second World War were exceptionally good ones for trade unions worldwide. Their membership numbers and percentages grew, and the benefits they could obtain from the employers grew considerably as well. The incredible expansion of the world-economy during this period created a significant growth in capitalist profits. This meant that, for many employers, work stoppages of any kind were more costly than acceding to trade union demands for greater benefits.

The very favorable situation for trade unions came at a price. Trade unions generally repudiated all remaining radical rhetoric and activities, replacing it with various modes of cooperation with the employers and governments. This often included no-strike pledges for the length of the contracts they had signed.

The trade unions in the wealthier states were therefore politically and psychologically unprepared for the post-1970 worldwide downturn in economic growth and stagnation in capital accumulation. The employers in the wealthiest countries (and more generally, the world right) ceased acceding to workers’ demands for improved benefits. Quite the contrary, they sought to reduce benefits, using the threat of job displacement as a major weapon. They promoted anti-union legislation.

Generally speaking, over the past forty years, this anti-union campaign was successful. Trade unions fought a difficult and often losing battle to retain benefits. Wage levels went down. And membership in trade unions went down sharply. The trade unions often reacted by becoming still more accommodating to employer demands. It didn’t seem to help very much.

Meanwhile, in the countries to which industrial production gravitated (which have recently been called “emerging” countries), initial repression of trade unions led to their radicalization, and they joined in efforts to overthrow oppressive regimes (as in South Korea, South Africa, and Brazil). The trade unions linked themselves to left-of-center parties, which eventually came to power in these countries. But once these parties were in power, the trade unions muted their more radical stances.

The so-called financial crisis since 2007 changed all this. The world saw the emergence of new kinds of radical movements such as Occupy, the indignados, Oxi, and others. And suddenly, we saw trade unions fighting back with a new vigor, and participating in the general uprisings of the working strata, especially since breaking the unions was one of the continuing efforts of rightwing political forces.

Now came the new dilemma. The cultures of the new radical movements and that of the trade unions were quite different. The new movements were “horizontalist” – that is, they believed in bottom-up movements that were not state-oriented, and eschewed the creation of organizational hierarchies. The trade unions were “verticalist” and emphasized planning, discipline, and balanced tactics, coordinated by the central structures.

Yet, clearly, it was in the interest of the trade unions and the new radical movements to work together, or so many of them thought. But what did working together mean? Which of the two cultures would prevail in any cooperation? This has become a matter of major debate on both sides – a debate in which there are some who are intransigent and others who are looking for modes of combining efforts.

The strength of the horizontalist forces is that they can engage the energies and efforts of persons who hitherto have remained passive, either out of a sense of political impotence or a lack of clarity about what was going on and what could be achieved. There is no question that the horizontalist movements have proved very successful so far in doing this. They have clearer long-term strategic vision than the trade unions.

The strength of the trade unions is that they can mobilize a relatively disciplined group of persons and a relatively significant amount of money to throw into the everyday battles that are being fought in communities across the world. They have clearer short-term tactical vision than the horizontalist movements.

May Day celebrates the historic struggle. During a trade-union rally for an eight-hour day in Haymarket Square in Chicago in May 1886, someone threw a bomb, after which some policemen and some civilians were killed. The state accused the “anarchists” and hanged some of them. Haymarket became a symbol for the nascent trade union movement worldwide, which proclaimed May Day to mark it (everywhere but in the United States itself). The “anarchists” were in fact falsely accused and history has exonerated them. But out of their “radical” demands for an eight-hour day, the trade unions were strengthened in their attempts to organize.

We shall see if May Day 2012 will have brought together again the horizontalist and verticalist wings of the struggle against inequalities in the existing world-system. It is only in the combination of a radicalized trade union movement and tactically disciplined horiontalist movements that either will achieve its objectives.


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