A trade union is a mass organisation of the working class and other strata of the working population for protection of their political and economic interests. Trade unions were organised in the capitalist countries of Europe and America when the industrial proletariat formed and its class struggle against the bourgeoisie began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time, trade unions acted as mutual help societies; gradually their functions expanded, they became more stable and stronger; the first national unions of industrial sectors and trades and then the first national centres were set up. In the colonial and dependent countries of America, Africa, and Asia trade unions were organised later. Thus, in Africa the trade union movement did not acquire mass support until after World War II.
Marx wrote of the historical legitimacy of trade unions, their contribution to the class struggle of the proletariat, and of the conditions for their success:
"The ultimate object of the political movement of the working class is, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires that the organisation of the working class, an organisation which arises from its economic struggles, should previously reach a certain level of development"The collective struggle of the workers against the employers for favourable conditions for selling their labour, for improving living standards is of necessity professional, because the working conditions are quite different for different trades. On the other hand, as Lenin emphasised, trade unions should not confine themselves to protecting the economic interests of the workers. They can mould the class consciousness of the proletariat and become a very important channel of political agitation and revolutionary organisation. For this, however, trade unions should be directed by a revolutionary party.
In Russia, trade unions were first set up during the 1905–07 revolution, when a political party of the proletariat, a party of a new type, had been established. This is why trade unions adopted a militant proletarian position in the class struggle. In Western Europe and the USA, trade unions had existed before the revolutionary parties of the working class were created and had confined their activities, as a rule, to the economic struggle. In many countries, the theory and practice of trade unionism were widespread whereby the working-class movement was kept within the framework of the struggle for better sales conditions for labour. The late 19th century saw the formation of a wide stratum of paid trade union bureaucracy whose members were recruited by the bourgeoisie to participate in political organisations, such as parliaments, local self-government bodies, etc.
Protection of workers
The goals of a trade union, as a defensive organization, are generally confined to the following areas:
- Issues of Respect: Workers are often mistreated by the boss through verbal or physical abuse: from constantly degrading remarks to sexual harrasment and assualt to a complete lack of empowerment: never listening to workers suggestions, advice, comments, etc.
- Wage & Benefits: The vast majority of workers are not paid according to the full value of what they produce — if all workers in a workplace were paid this full value, then the boss would have nothing to survive on, since labour is the source of all value! Further, as inflation eats into the value of their wage, workers are constantly having to fight for increases in pay and benefits. Workers who don't get these annual raises are in fact being paid less money (even though their wage remains the same) since the value of money is continually decreasing.
- Hours Worked: The vast majority of workers in the world are over-worked: required to put in more hours than is socially necessary in order to create profits. Unions can force the boss to hire more workers, instead of constantly increasing the burdens on existing employees. The union can also ensure that in emergency cases where someone must work overtime, they are fairly compensated (contrary to popular understanding — overtime compensation is compulsory only for unskilled workers in a handful of countries). Further, if the union can grow strong enough to command a role in society, they can take the next step in limiting the amount of wasteful labour — work for the military industrial complex, for example.
- Working Conditions: Many workers do not work in a healthy or safe work place environment. There is sometimes little prevention of potential dangers, protective gear is often old and ragged, there can be various factors (high stress) leading to psychological problems, etc. Occupational health and safety is the most unifying issue a union can pursue: even the most conservative worker can get totally irate if they believe their health and safety is being threatened. Legally binding standards can often result from such struggles, which means that when they are enforced, a union delivers real benefits for their members while winning to its ranks people who would otherwise never join a union.
- Job Security: A few countries have laws against firing workers without due cause, and some countries don't allow firing to take place based on discrimination or union organising – but that doesn't stop the boss from firing that same worker for any other "reason". With a union, any disciplinary action taken against a worker may be subject to a procedure negotiated with the union, which guarantees a level of natural justice through union representation.
Organizing the class struggle
A Union is capable of greater victories than simply winning concessions from the boss for a particular group of workers who have bargaining power. While the immediacy of the workers' own needs are the real basis for creating the union, strong unions can achieve greater victories for the working class.
- Spreading the solidarity: Unions can spread the word about their victories, inspire, teach, and lead other workers to similar victories in their work places. Solidarity cannot be taken for granted; it has to be built in struggle. Building this means effectively using things like publicity, public statements, embarrassment, acts of defiance or humorous demonstrations. All these things are mostly harmless and communicate the issue without being too confrontational: who isn't tired by those who scream bloody murder at this or that offence? You have to convince people to listen, and usually that won't happen when all you have to talk about is awful misery and despair.
- Organizing the unorganised: Unions can help create a more militant working class; they help foster class consciousness and establish pride in labour. This creates politically active workers; a necessity for revolution. This is a necessity for unions because no organised workplace is safe so long as there are non-unionised workers ready to work for worse conditions. Organising new workplaces ensures that the bosses' supply of non-organized labourers is shut-off and raises the general standard of living for everyone.
- Hiring Halls: Unions can create a situation where the employer must post all job openings to the union; thus making the jobs available only to unionised workers. This can go as far as forcing the boss to agree to a "closed shop", where the boss agrees to never employ someone unless they join the union. The union can even win the right to hire new employees, though this is very rare at the outset of the 21st century.
- Firing the Boss: Unions can create an organisation that is capable of running an industry by the workers, from the bottom up, without the need for the bosses. Unions can use their model of democratic operation not only for the defence of the workers, but for the progress of the workplace itself — so that union democracy, not top-down appointments by the board of directors, is the order of the day. Naturally, this sort of arrangement requires a revolution.
- Legal Reform: Unions can lobby government organisations and intervene in election campaigns for better labour laws, put union members into parliament to represent the interests of union members, pressure for anti-discrimination laws, public health and education and other social changes which benefit the whole working class.
Today, the trade unions in the capitalist countries become increasingly left-oriented. The struggle between the progressive and reformist tendencies is intensifying. Communists play a significant part in strengthening the progressive trend in the world trade union movement. In socialist countries, trade unions, ideologically guided by Communist and Workers’ Parties, become a school of communism, an organisation where the working people acquire management and economic skills. Trade unions organise the people for increasing the productivity of labour, participating in drawing up and implementing socio–economic plans, run socialist emulation, help all working people in the development of know-how in management of state and social affairs. Trade unions work to improve living standards, cultural and communal services, and protect the rights and interests of the working people. In the context of building developed socialism the role of the trade unions, their rights and functions expand.
The trade unions in the countries of the world socialist community take part in the world trade union movement as the vanguard in the struggle for peace, democracy, and social progress.
In advanced capitalist countries, trade unions have scored certain successes in improving the economic position of the working people. In many countries the working week has been reduced, the duration of paid holidays extended, etc. The trade unions have become more active in the political sphere and increasingly resolute in defence of democracy and peace and in the struggle to abolish racial segregation, etc.
In the countries that have been liberated from colonial dependence, the working class and its organisations are expanding. Trade unions have a growing say in the choice of the country’s development course, which, in turn, largely determines the conditions of the activities and functions of the trade unions The basic purpose of trade unions is to protect the vital interests of the working people. At the same time, the struggle against the remnants of colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism, racism, and apartheid is very important. These general tasks create an objective basis for the unity of trade unions of regions and continents.
The largest and most authoritative international trade union organisation is the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) established in 1945. This is the only centre where the trade unions of countries with different social systems and levels of development, socialist, advanced capitalist, and developing, are represented. The main goal of the WFTU is to struggle against exploitation, for satisfaction of socio–economic demands of the working people, for unity of the international trade union movement, for world peace, for democracy and liberation of peoples.
The Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (ATUU) joined by almost all trade union centres of Africa, was founded in 1973; the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), a regional trade union association of Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, appeared in 1956; and the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity of Latin American Workers was organised in 1964.
The opportunities for contacts between the various trade union centres’ organisations are increasing as a result of the growth of the international working-class movement. To unite the trade union movement in countries where it is split and on an international scale is of paramount importance for successfully defending the political and economic interests of the working people.
- K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 254.
- Bernstein, Aaron. "Why America Needs Unions But Not the Kind It Has Now", May 23, 1994.