Tuesday, 4 March 2014
Social Change And The Limits Of Trade Unionism
In the wake of the revolts that swept through Nigeria last year, “civil society” and youth activists have lamented over the trade unions “betrayal” of the struggle. Indeed, before the protests led to a general strike of historic proportions, many had warned against the likelihood of “betrayal” by the trade union movement’s leadership, based on such “betrayals” over the years. In the recent days, calling off the National Pensions Rally have faced similar, and definitely not unwarranted criticisms of the trade unions’ leadership.
As activists committed to bringing about a better society, it is not enough for us to laugh or to cry, but to better understand the dynamics of the revolutionary struggle. Such understanding is necessary for us to be well equipped to intervene as decisively as possible, in the various battles of working people, and deepen these towards the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. In depth analyses of the contending classes in society, and their key components is crucial in this direction. This is particularly so, of the social forces that comprise the labour movement.
Trade unions are primary forms of workers’ organisation, with the aim of winning concessions from the bosses. It is a fundamental component of the labour movement. The labour movement is a broader concept, which encompasses the collective organisation of working people (workers, poor farmers, urban artisans, etc), committed to achieving improvements in the working conditions and living standards of the labouring masses, by mobilising their combinational strength against the established power of the bosses which includes governments with their armies, police, law courts and prisons.
Revolutionary socialists defend reforms that the labouring masses win through struggle. But they point out the fact that, without overthrowing the exploitative system of capitalism, what is given with one hand would most likely be taken back a thousand fold with the other. As part of the labour movement, they point out how our different struggles are intertwined with the overall aim of fundamentally changing society.
In capitalist society, workers create the wealth which the bosses appropriate. The bosses do not work, but they rule over us, because they own the means of production and back this up with the state power of their governments which they present to us, as “our”supposedly neutral means of governance, which is necessary to avoid “anarchy”.
Trade unions emerged over two hundred years ago, to curb the inhuman hardships faced by workers in the hands of the bosses. This meant limiting the unilateral powers of the capitalists and their governments. For many years, trade unions were illegal and trade unionists faced utmost persecution. But, first in Britain and subsequently in countries around the world, including in Nigeria by 1938, the bosses realised that it was more costly for the system if trade unions were outside the range of the law.
With trade unions as legal entities, the ideology of collective bargaining becomes central to the activities, of their machineries. At the heart of this ideology is deference tonegotiations. And implicit in this deference is a “give and take” understanding of compromise. Gradually, trade unions took on a contradictory nature. On one hand, they represent workers, who have irreconcilable antagonism with the bosses. On the other hand, to win concessions from these same bosses, they have to reach “collective agreements”.
Similarly, “grievances” and “disputes” become part of a broader system in which “we disagree to agree”. The fundamental “grievance” of workers i.e. their being cast away from the wealth they produce and then being exploited by the bosses who keep this wealth so as to produce more, cannot be addressed by trade unions. This is because the ideology of collective bargaining underlines “social dialogue” with employers and governments. Trade union leaders, while actually representing workers, equally become social partners with the bosses and governments.
This is not to suggest that trade union leaders are, as individuals, bankrupt. Quite a number of these are men (and women) genuinely committed to improving the lot of workers. But the structural dynamics of trade union organisation as a collective bargaining platform incorporates them into the capitalist system. These structural pressures increase, the higher you go in the trade union organisation. It is worsened where socialist ideas are weak in the trade union movement and broader “civil society”.
The tendency for “partnership” of union leaders with the bosses and governments however runs into the brick wall of deprivation of the rank and file workers, whose pressures from below push the union organisation into confrontation with employers at the workplace and governments in the broader society.. This is what leads to strikes, for example. But sooner or later, such “disputes” have to be “resolved”, in a manner or the other that allows for subsequent collaboration.
Considering this two-faced reality of trade unions and particularly their leaderships, which is not unlike the Roman god Janus in the picture above; how should socialists and other activists genuinely committed to social change relate to the trade unions? Are we to simply accept their reformist nature without criticism or continue ranting over the leopard’s spots not washing away even under thunderous rainfalls of revolts?
None of these two approaches advances the cause of revolutionary struggle in any significant way. We have to orient our politics more towards rank and file workers and criticise both the objective and subjective shortcomings of trade unions leaderships. But such criticisms should not be blind, or expressed in ways that throw the baby away with the bath water. Relations with the vacillator union bureaucracy still have to be maintained, while not calling yellow, red.
Our tactics must be subordinated to our strategy. We must not lose sight of the fact that the emancipation of the working class is a task that the working class alone can win. But for it to do this, socialist ideas must be rooted in the minds of workers. Relations with the trade union leaderships, which despite their limitations still represent and are often respected by the mass of workers, cannot be wished away in this direction. In practical terms, this calls for building the Joint Action Front (JAF), as both an independent forceand the civil society leg of Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) tripod, across the length and breadth of Nigeria NOW.
Head, Education, Planning, Research & Statistics Department
Medical and Health Workers' Union of Nigeria
Medical and Health Workers' House
12 Aba Close, Area 8, Abuja
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters