Outside and Against the Existing Trade Unions
(from Il Partito Comunista, no. 64, 1979)
Although written in 1979, the title of this article still remains our watchword in Italy. Should this also be the case in Great Britain? The official unions in Great Britain are, after all, also more or less integrated into the State, and perhaps bound even more tightly to it through their links with the Labour Party. But if the end result will have to be the same in both countries – a rebuilding of a union of the working class, which fights on behalf of its members and puts the need to confront capitalism at the heart of its strategy – it would be premature and over prescriptive of us to say that the building of a class union in Great Britain will necessarily follow exactly the same path as in Italy: the history of their trade union movements is, after all, in many respects different.
In Great Britain the class union may, somehow or other, emerge from the old Union Jack trade unions (although it is difficult to see how); or maybe the smaller and more militant of the trade unions will take the lead and form some kind of new federation, perhaps in conjunction with a mass disaffiliation from the Labour Party, and a clear declaration of independence regarding the other pro-capitalist parties. But the most likely scenario, we believe, is that the predominant components of the future class union in Great Britain will be composed, as seems to be on the way to happening in Italy, of breakaway unions, who have been forced to form ‘outside and against the existing trade unions’ due to the sheer impossibility of expressing working class resistance within them. Indeed, breakaway unions have already figured in the history of the working class in Britain, namely the Blue Stevedores’ Union to name but one, and it is likely that such unions will eventually form the core of the class union over here as well.
The reader will note the article refers to the ‘delega’ – the direct deduction of union subscriptions via pay packets. Why do we view this as marking a watershed in the integration of the Italian trade unions into the State? It is because it marks a definitive separation between the trade unions and their members. Over the years trade union members, especially in the smaller workplaces, have tended to have less and less actual contact with their union; when it finally reached the stage of not even having their subs collected by the union, but having them collected by their firm’s HR department instead, a line really had been crossed. No wonder that the trade union is now mostly perceived as an anonymous head office, which periodically sends out magazines packed with pro-Labour Party and pro-democracy propaganda, and masses of adverts, and that’s about it. And perhaps the fact that the British version of the ‘delega’ has been portrayed by the leaders of the establishment unions over here as a victory, is evidence that the watershed, the point of no return, really has also been reached in Great Britain…
In any case, it is in the spirit of international solidarity that our party presents this article to the working class of Great Britain; as a record, and as an interpretation, from a communist class perspective, of the experience, and class battles, of the vanguard of the Italian working class.
* * *
Our current watchword regarding the trade unions – outside and against the regime’s trade unions – isn’t an eleventh hour discovery, or an adjustment made to fit in with what the workers are thinking. Rather it arises out of a consistent reading of the facts on the basis of our long tradition. In fact, ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ form no part of our doctrinal, programmatic and tactical baggage: Marxism jettisoned them ages ago. Our doctrine is merely “the description of a real process unfolding before our eyes”. Our programme, our tactics represent the mapping out of the route the working class must take to liberate itself, and humanity as a whole, from exploitation and tyranny.
Therefore it is in the realm of facts, in the ongoing, real historical process that we expect to find the answers to our current problems and our theses confirmed, and not through intellectual lucubration. And this is precisely because our doctrine is a scientific one and not a collection of ideas. Indeed if even only one of our theorems were to be contradicted by reality, by the facts, Marxism would no longer be a science but an ideology. However, given we are militants and not coldly objective students, that won’t, of course, stop us from fighting to bring down capitalism.
As far as the party is concerned, the questions that need to be asked about the trade unions in the post Second World War period are these: how do we characterise today’s unions? Can they still be won back to a classist orientation?
We have no trouble answering the first question: the big trade union confederations in Italy, the CGIL, CISL and the UIL, are cut from the same cloth as Mussolini’s fascist corporations, that is, they are firmly linked to national solidarity and the State.
But to answer the second question we have to take into account a number
of different factors:
1) After the split in 1948, the General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) ‘took over’ the glorious red tradition of the Chambers of Labour, which the most combative part of the Italian proletariat believed in.
2) Membership of the unions was still direct and non-obligatory and the delega method was yet to be introduced.
3) The CGIL was forced, under pressure from the workers, to take in hand powerful strikes; in other words the workers, during the phase of reconstruction and economic expansion, were able to utilise the CGIL’s structures in their defensive struggles against the bosses.
4) During all of these strikes, even in the most difficult phases, the workers were never forced to organise outside the CGIL.
5) The process was irreversible that would eventually lead to the open incorporation of the present trade unions into the state machinery, and yet it wasn’t complete, and our duty was to oppose it in the same way the most combative workers were ‘instinctively’ opposing it already.
6) The most combative part of the Italian proletariat, the sound element within the working class, was still militating in the CGIL and leading a genuine struggle against the bosses.
On the basis of these considerations we couldn’t rule out the possibility that one day, during a new wave of workers’ struggles, it might be possible to roll back the CGIL’s policy, alter its structure and win it back (all or in part) to a class political line. Thus we used to talk about “reconquista a legnate” – beating it back into shape. If that didn’t happen, we said back then, new classist organisations would be needed, which were free – that is not tied to the State and the parties supporting it – clearly anti-capitalist, and open to all proletarians.
To that end our militants fought a battle inside the CGIL. Hence our slogans, “For the Red CGIL against Tricolore Unification” and “Against the Delega”, and so on. We used to work both inside and outside the CGIL, working always with both possibilities in mind: either the union would be beaten back into shape, or new organisations would arise. Our general watchword, however, would include both possibilities, putting forward the need for the rebuilding of class trade unions.
Today, 30 years later, we have no such reservations and state quite categorically that the CGIL can not be won back. This means that the rebirth of class trade unions can only occur if new workers organisations arise, with a corresponding emptying of the present tricolore unions.
This isn’t a change of line but a reaffirmation of our old positions. The real process, the facts not our opinions, have led us to the conclusion that the road that leads to working within the CGIL is now barred for ever. The only road that remains open is the road that leads to new proletarian organisations. Today, therefore, this is the road we are duty-bound to recommend to workers, for there is no other. So, rebirth of the proletarian organisations outside and against today’s regime trade unions: what was it that led us to this conclusion?
1) The CGIL’s organisational structure has become increasingly impenetrable and resistant to working class positions. The direct deduction of union dues via the employer, the delega, is now a practice that has spread to all categories. After the EUR agreement, the trade unions confederations have now formally accepted the postulates of the capitalist economy; the Chambers of Labour have been abolished and replaced with inter-classist area councils (consigli di zona); the trade union confederations are now firmly committed to increasing production and reducing the costs of labour; self-regulation (autoregolamentazione) has meant that strikes have been reduced to the level of mere demonstrations; union members are asked to formally submit to the State.
2) Since 1975 the worst paid workers – hospital workers, railway workers, flight attendants, school workers – have taken part in various struggles, including some major strikes with no time limits set on them – real strikes in other words. In all these episodes the trade union – across its various structures, including those based in the factories – has consistently sabotaged them, denounced them, appealed to the State to repress them, and been openly involved in blacklegging. These all-out strikes, in which there has been massive participation, have made not the tiniest dent in the trade union structure, not even in its factory organisations. Over the same period there have been massive strikes on the international scene too: in Poland, in Egypt, in Tunisia. In every case the workers have been forced to break ranks with the trade union leadership and disobey their directives.
3) The one episode inside the trade union structures has been the “Lirico” demonstration, which produced nothing in terms of struggle but was monopolised by the trade union left. And where were the Lirico organisers at the time of the unanimously supported hospital workers strike? They, too, were contributing to the tightening of the cordon sanitaire which would isolate that workers’ struggle.
4) Numerous other limited episodes as well, including partial and very minor struggles, have shown it is now an incontestable fact that only outside and against these unions can proletarians defend their living and working conditions.
5) Co-ordinations and committees arising outside the union structures have now been an effective reality for years and are tending to crop up in every sector: now they are even appearing at the very centre of the working class, amongst the metal workers.
These considerations have for us the value of a sampling, a survey. It is not about opinions or ideas but about taking stock of reality. If in the 1950s we could say that the best part of the proletariat was organised inside the CGIL and wanted (and were able) to use it to fight their battles, today we have to say that the tendency is for the most combative and conscious part of the proletariat to abandon the present trade unions, and bring new organisations into existence. It will be a long, hard and difficult process but that is the direction in which things are already moving.
It is a trend that still only involves small minorities, true, but that doesn’t lessen the relevance of our analysis in the slightest. Those small minorities that are getting organised ‘outside and against’ are right, and the millions of workers who still think the official unions will defend them are wrong. Tomorrow those small minorities will become millions, and there will be a mass desertion of the patriotic tricolore trade unions. Our tried and tested method of reading the facts convinces us of all this; and we are duty-bound to communicate it to the workers.
Certainly, we shouldn’t raise the issue of the stance to be taken towards the trade unions in the middle of a strike which may also be supported by workers, either voluntarily or because they have to, who have no definite ideas about it, or aren’t even interested in the issue.
But when we do pose the practical problem of how to define the main
features of a workers’ organisation, which acts and has to continue to
act beyond a single episode of struggle or single demand-which must become
permanent, because there is no other way forward-then we have the historic
duty of being absolutely categorical about it: outside and against the
regime’s unions; for the rebirth of the class organisation!
1. The deepening of capitalism’s economic crisis is driving the bosses to offload the painful consequences onto the workers. Now that the cycle of enormous profits for the well-off classes, which allowed some minor and ephemeral wage rises and certain regulatory improvements – although not without bitter struggles which cost dozens of lives in battles between the strikers and police – has drawn to a close, capital and its State suddenly want to plunge the workers into the most abject poverty and insecurity. This attack by the various States on the workers is happening at the same time throughout the world, inside and outside Europe, in the East and the West, in the poor countries and in the so-called “rich” ones.
2. The forces of the bourgeois regime – government and police, television and press – have all lined up to hinder the workers’ spontaneous reaction. They will resort to any violence, intimidation and distortion to defend the privileges of the capitalists, even if it means reducing the working class to desperation and hunger.
3. Indispensable instruments for opposing the mobilisation of the exploited masses are the trade unions officially recognised by the State, whether confederated or non-confederated. Their actions are such that, in practice, they may now be considered as a special police force deployed against the workers.
The Italian General Confederation of Labour, which was formed after the 2nd World War, inherited from the fascist unions the corporative ideology which holds that workers should submit themselves to the national interest. Over the last few decades, the CGIL has become increasingly deaf to the workers demands that the union should defend its members and fight back. More and more often the workers are compelled either to relinquish any demands and put up with the bosses’ harassment, sackings etc, or to organise themselves, and strike, outside the union. This progressive uselessness of the CGIL (whilst the CISL and UIL have been useless from the start) is confirmed today as total and irreversible: the unanimous protest in the piazzas by millions of workers of all categories hasn’t caused the CGIL to budge one inch; indeed it has shown itself to be resistant to even the mildest of compromises with positions based on class struggle. The union leaders even call on the police to stop the microphone being taken off them! It is clear to all: the CGIL-CISL-UIL and the bourgeois regime are one and the same thing.
4. What is needed today, therefore, is for the exploited to reconstruct their own strong, loyal and combative CLASS UNION as a permanent expression of the hatred of the oppressed toward their condition, and as a vehicle for their resistance struggles against the boundless greed of the capitalists. It must be an organisation which emanates from the working class and which responds to it alone; which assumes no responsibility for the battles between the bourgeois classes, for their economy and for their nation, and whose declared aim is defending the workers against its class enemy.
Confronted with a capitalist attack which is coordinated and united, the workers are divided, into factories, trades and regions: only within a Class Union which is broad and spontaneously disciplined in its actions will it be possible for them to enter the struggle united.
In order to achieve the greatest mobilisation the Class Union has always recruited not on the basis of such and such an ideology, but anyone who finds themselves in the objective position of being a worker, whatever their political sympathies might be. The class needs both trade unions and its political party, which even if different are nevertheless complementary and require separate organisations. To hypothesise the formation of a trade union which is composed solely of communists, or a hybrid organisation halfway between a union and a party, would be to condemn it to impotence from the outset, and mean abandoning the majority of the proletariat to itself, in other words, to the regime’s trade-unionism. On the other hand, to demand “independence from the parties”, in the sense of the preventing party militants from joining and putting their message across, would mean consigning the union to the “diffused party” of dominant bourgeois ideology which infiltrates itself in a thousand and one ways amongst the workers as well.
5. The so-called “trade-union left”, manipulated from within the union hierarchies, try to convince the workers with ambiguous and superficially combative statements that they should still place their trust in the regime’s unions. Their real aim is to sow confusion so as to delay the genuine reorganisation and general mobilisation. The trade-union left, which typically demands “democracy in the unions”, is deceiving the workers. It isn’t the case that the union has sold out to the bosses because it isn’t responsive enough to the membership; on the contrary, it can’t obey the workers because it has gone over, once and for all, to the bosses. To persuade the workers, therefore, that they should concentrate on getting a hearing from these leaders is only a delaying tactic.
6. THE AIM of the class union is to protect the standard of living and working conditions of the working class. The latter term is to be understood in its widest sense to include all employees, not proprietors of their instruments of labour, whatever their form of retribution may be: it therefore includes those engaged in manual and intellectual work, productive and unproductive work, employees of an individual boss, of a cooperative of bosses, or of the State. Excluded from it are members of the other classes, that is, all capitalists, including extremely minor ones (artisans and peasants) and those strata which straddle class boundaries (tenants, students etc). On the other hand, pensioners and the unemployed are organised in the union, not separately, but within the professional category they were originally part of.
THE WORKERS’ DEMANDS which the class union traditionally takes up are the protection of wages with special consideration for those on the lowest incomes; the reduction of working hours; and the defence of pensioners and the unemployed along with the demand for a living wage for them and their families.
7. THE MEANS that the class union is prepared to use to impose its demands on the employers and their State can be summed up as direct action by the workers involving untrammelled strike initiatives, adjustable according to the harshness of the bourgeois resistance. To be rejected on principle would be the entrusting of workers’ conditions to the results of referendums which include all classes as participants, such as votes in the bourgeois parliaments and court and tribunal rulings. The best way the class can deploy its forces is through the general all-out mobilisation of all crafts and professional categories, and by rejecting the regulations and control today imposed by the bourgeoisie and accepted by the regime’s trade unions: from limitations imposed in terms of time and space, to the obligation to give notice; from the obligation to provide minimum services, to the suspension of strikes during negotiations.
For the class union a territorial organisation which is outside the workplace (in the tradition of the chambers of labour) is absolutely indispensable. It is here that representatives from the factories, and individual workers dispersed over small and very small units of production, can meet regularly, draw strength from each other and coordinate their initiatives.
The Factory Council necessarily cling to a vision which is limited by the in-plant environment and which can be very one-sided, if not actually in conflict with the requirements of the general movement: this is why it is a mistake to raise them to the same level as the class union and predict a network of councils organised separately, in parallel, or as an alternative, to the union. It is by being organised in the union that workers overcome the narrowness of the factory, of the sector and of the category, such as to arrive at the stage of mobilising themselves, as a class, in defence of common interests.
8. There are no organisational recipes which can guarantee a correct class line. That is why we say that invoking the principals of trade-union democracy (deliberative assemblies, consultations and referendums) will not resolve the problem of the reconstruction of the classist trade-union organisation. In periods of reaction the base can respond in ways which are very controversial and out of synch, if not downright opposed to the class’s interests. Nevertheless, you cannot place on the same level workers who are involved in a struggle and blacklegs, layers of the working class which are prepared to fight and workers’ aristocracies or white-collar workers who may try to divide the movement in order to defend their particular interests. Furthermore, it is to be expected that the bourgeois State, when it is faced with a resolute movement aimed at class reorganisation, will resort to its typical tried and tested use of provocation and violent repression. Such a process of reorganisation will not, therefore, develop within a peaceful or legalistic climate, but in a setting of open State repression and of bitter social struggle; which may entail it taking on forms which are appropriate to ensure its own protection.
9. PRINCIPLES of the class union:
a) To aim for solidarity amongst workers of every category in order to oppose the disadvantageous divisions imposed on workers by bourgeois society;
b) It isn’t the job of the class union to defend the national economy or finances of the bourgeois State, nor to propose alternative solutions to their crisis such as a “fair taxation system”, which in this society is unimaginable. If the State is constrained to attack the petty bourgeoisie, let IT take the blame: the position on which class union lines up is the intransigent defence of the working class;
c) Struggle for normative and wage equality for the same job, regardless of age, race, sex, nationality, religion or language;
d) its objective is international workers’ solidarity, understood not in a sentimental or abstract sense, but as a prospect based on common goals, struggles and organisation;
e) It considers that the de facto capacity to strike and organise derives not from rights enshrined in laws or constitutions, but depends on which way the balance of power between the classes is tipped: a legal strike being forbidden is just as likely to happen as an illegal trade union establishing itself. To accept strike-limiting laws in order to obtain recognition by the State is a serious mistake since the bosses and the State will never recognise a truly combative union unless constrained to do so by force; the union will only be able acquire true representation when it is backed by the workers and is able to mobilise them around an intransigent class line;
f) The trade-union organisation must be separate from, and opposed to, the various forms of organisation and internal structures set in place by the employers within the workplace and must be funded by workers alone. The delegating of the collection of dues to the bosses is to be decisively rejected since it involves the handing over of a list of members to the class enemy and transferring the means of financing the union into their hands;
g) In its best tradition, militating in the union is carried out by ordinary workers, after work and at their own expense. The excessive use of paid officials, of official absence from work for union reasons, of meetings in working hours, conducted under the eye of the boss and his spies, only make things easier for the organisation in a superficial way, and are often used as a form of corruption, of intimidation and blackmail;
h) The class union, having rejected prejudices and erroneous explanations of the causes of the degeneration of the regime unions, must aim to eventually become a centralised unitary organism, organised on a national scale, which proletarians join voluntarily with a view to taking part in coordinated actions in pursuit of common objectives. In order to function properly, permanent executive organs are an indispensable requirement since only these can ensure the requisite speed and unity of decision-making when it comes to taking practical action. The necessary monitoring of the leaders to ensure they are firm in their commitment to the class interest, and selecting the best political line for the trade union, is a capacity which the class will need to develop. They are problems which cannot be sidestepped by adopting the suicidal conclusion that the class can do without its indispensable organisational instruments;
i) The class union holds on to the fact that the exploited will experience
real and lasting relief from suffering only by fully emancipating itself
from the condition of wage labour, and this is the general objective which