Unions have forever been a socialists friend, often at the centre of exciting periods of revolutionary activity such as Red Clydeside or the Spanish revolution. However today’s unions seem a far cry from the revolutionary militancy of yesteryear and so it is worth asking the question, why should socialists and radicals today care about unions?
One reason to care is numbers. At 6.5 million members the trade union movement is the largest organised body of the working class in existence. What’s more the trade unions constituency incorporates nearly the entirety of our class, as being a worker is an experience, unlike going to university for example, which almost all of us will share. Now clearly size alone wont cut, after all the largest political party is the labour party and most of the socialist left is to be found (quite rightly) outside of it, but the sheer capacity of the unions must be acknowledged.
This capacity is at its greatest when trade unions mobilise their members collectively to improve their lot. Such a mass experience of collective action, and hopefully a collective victory can not only serve as the basis for further strengthening the organisation and power of our class but also carries within it the seeds of our new society.
If or future society is to be a collective, socialistic one, it should follow that bringing it about must also be a collective effort. Were socialism to be installed by coup or some other individualistic, minority-based strategy then you would expect to find any new collective structures swiftly being corrupted or abandoned as has been borne out by various historical examples. This is partly because people are creatures of habit, and are not very good at going outside their comfort zones. If people have not been socialised into collective ways of working, if they have not experienced for themselves the possible pitfalls such as corruption and how best to deal with them, then it would seem that any collective experiment is doomed to failure. Consequently it would seem that the processes of attaining socialism must in itself be collective and socialistic, building the new world in the shell of the old.
Trade unions can serve to facilitate this collectivism but they can also play an important role in the building process. A revolutionary change in society, especially one involving massive numbers of people is difficult to pull off. It needs organisation and the self-confidence of all those involved. Through building up organisational size and capacity through small victories, increasing the confidence of the members and the reputation of the union bit by bit we have the potential to create powerful fighting machines, just like the unions of yesteryear.
Sadly as we all know unions are presently ill-suited to this task. Density is in decline and the sort of union activity that builds confidence and wins victories is seemingly rare. What’s more large sections of the population, especially young casualised workers have never had any experience of trade unionism. Clearly these workers need to be organised, need to be part of our collective solution to the problems of capitalism, and so the question is then, how is this best achieved?
Ultimately this is a tactical decision. Some, such as the IWW, advocate setting up new radical labour unions and this approach has met with a limited degree of success, for example organising Starbucks workers. Other socialists, noting the huge capacity of the existing movement, feel its better to intervene within those unions that exist and argue for them to extend unionisation to those whom it is presently unavailable.
There are arguments for either approach, what is clear is that one way or another collective action and organisation must be extended to the entirety of the working class. This is why as a socialist I have been drawn towards syndicalism, with its focus on the potential of labour unions as transformative agents in society. But whichever socialist creed you adhere to we should acknowledge that unions, though frequently inadequate and inaccessible, have the potential to play a huge role in changing society for the better.