Editorial & Opinion

Trade Union Consciousness and Amazon’s Satanic Mill

“In our effort to unionize the country’s labor force, we must keep in mind that the goal is not unions-in-and-of themselves, but the formation of a strong and conscious vanguard of workers, otherwise what’s the purpose?”
Photo for Trade Union Consciousness and Amazon’s Satanic Mill

Published on September 20, 2021
By Providence Leftist Radio Podcast

One might think that history offers only a tangential link to understanding the present, but in fact many of the struggles leftists face today have historical precedent. One that’s recently come up is the announcement that Rhode Island’s Building and Construction Trades Council (RIBCTC) supports construction of the Amazon distribution center in Johnston. Does this not belie the very aims of revolutionary practice? How is it that an institution that seems to embody the working class supports its own satanic mill?

The answer is historical. Unions have always championed their own immediate interests at the expense of each other and revolutionary politics. This doesn’t mean that unions are not potentially revolutionary, but it does suggest that they are not the end-all-be-all of empowering the working class.

For a deeper dive into the history of the antagonism between labor and revolutionary politics, become a patreon subscriber and unlock a 5-part series on German Social Democracy.

A casual look at major left-leaning websites and journals brings up a plethora of articles that extoll the benefits of unionization and union organizing. Go to the Jacobin’s website to witness an enormous list of articles claiming unions are “essential for building working-class power ” or describe the effort to organize in some factory in Anywhere, USA with destitute working conditions. Entire podcasts are dedicated to the union struggle, and organizations like the IWW are being resuscitated to empower union organizing in everything from coffee shops to graduate schools. To be clear, I’m not doubting the importance of unions in the worker’s struggle against their employer. They provide an enormous amount of leverage through bargaining power: the eight-hour working day, five-day work week, pensions, and workman’s compensation are all examples of tangible benefits won by unions throughout the years. They’re also all examples of benefits being slowly chipped away.

Without taking you back to history class, suffice it to say that revolutionaries have recognized the potential counter-revolutionary tendencies of unions for a long time. Before World War One, labor unions in Germany often opposed the German Social Democratic Party’s (the world’s largest Socialist party at the time) radical platform because they feared radical politics would alienate their lower-ranking members. In the interest of maintaining a steady stream of union dues and winning immediate concessions from capital, unions categorically avoided radicalism. In fact, leading up to the war, Germany’s labor unions threw their weight behind liberal forces in the vote for war credits, leaving the radical social democrats as the only force opposing war. Moderate social democrats were forced to acquiesce to war credits for fear of losing constituents who were both party and union members. The same problem exists today in our vertically organized labor organizations, where the leadership at the top often avoids engaging in real class politics, cloistering instead to the narrow interests of their immediate working conditions.

The history of American unions fairs little better. Not only did American unions not lock hands with the Communist Party of the United States, but they also excluded non-white male workers, forcing Black Americans and Women to create their own workers’ collectives. American unions became a bastion for xenophobia in the late 19th century. During World War Two, American unions were subject to the exigencies of wartime production and forbidden to strike, and after the war, with the signing of the Taft-Hartley Act, the United States government forced union officials to swear an oath that they were not communists. During the Civil Rights era, union membership revived, reaching a peak in 1979 that brought most of the workers benefits that we know and associate with unions today: equal pay for equal work, outlawing child labor, and limited protection under the federal government. At the same time, union leadership was consolidated vertically, stripping the average member of power, and subjecting them to a subordinate role in the hierarchy. Top-ranking members were required to report to the federal government through the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, an effort to democratize union leadership that actually made elected officials stagnate. Again, to get elected, would-be leaders couldn’t be too radical. Today, the largest unions are in government, police, firefighters, and teachers, all public sector jobs heavily dependent on the state and federal government. This is why politicians strive to court union endorsements, but it’s also why unions don’t have working class consciousness, but what Lenin called “trade union consciousness.” 

Even if the progenitor of the USSR is a little too radical for you, his point about unions still rings true today. In probably his most famous text, What is To Be Done, Lenin wrote that “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.” He understood that without linking the laborer’s struggle to broader economic and social conditions, without contextualizing the worker’s plight within the existing means of production, labor unions were incapable of extending their fight to truly revolutionary levels. Concessions won by trade unions were always reversible, but revolution added permanency. Worker’s strikes and picket lines embody not working-class consciousness, but class struggle “in embryo.”

This isn’t to say that Lenin thought the workers were dumb. Quite the contrary, it meant that, as Marx points out in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, workers will always vote for what they perceive is their best immediate economic interests. Without political agitation, they fail to see how their fight connects to a much broader class antagonism inherent in capitalism as a system where, in isolation, they are less than a cog in the machine.

Lenin wasn’t alone in his understanding of labor unions. Rosa Luxemburg, writing about the Mass Strike, noted that “The trade unions represent only the group interests and only one stage of development of the labor movement. Social democracy represents the working class and the cause of its liberation as a whole.” Hence, group interest of a particular union can and often does diverge from class interest because the temptation of immediate benefit, a temporary bump in pay or a short-term construction project guaranteeing employment, is too tantalizing to forego.

Rather than addressing the fact that their politics contradict wider working-class interests, individual unions have taken to scape-goating “intellectuals” for not sufficiently understanding “what’s best for the working people.” One doesn’t have to be an intellectual to know that relying on one hundred atomized unions for lasting transformation is a losing strategy that does not advance the interests of the working class as a whole above capital. Take the Rhode Island Painter’s Union for example:

What we’re left with is a historical recognition and painful reminder that labor unions are not always the best pathway toward revolutionary politics, and that our labor struggle  must be supplemented by agitation and politicking as a class. In our effort to unionize the country’s labor force, we must keep in mind that the goal is not unions-in-and-of themselves, but the formation of a strong and conscious vanguard of workers, otherwise what’s the purpose? The history of American labor is one of boom and bust, where the successes of one generation are undone by the following generation at a political level. As is the case in Johnston, the workers see an immediate benefit in the construction of Amazon’s facility, but they don’t recognize the long-term effects on labor, or the destitute conditions that their satanic mill promises to engender. The stated goal is the myopic creation of low-paid jobs with paltry benefits (if any) and the generation of tax revenue for the town, with a blatant dismissal of how the facility will negatively affect working families– people of their same class. It is the culmination of practice ignoring theory. Vulgar utopian socialism.

It would serve the RIBCTC to consider that, while union contracts offer them potential benefits for constructing the facility, Amazon workers have no collective bargaining agreement, and in fact their company punishes those seeking to form a union. Where is your class solidarity? Where is your recognition that in the grand scheme of corporate America, your immediate benefits don’t even dent Amazon’s potential profits that come at the expense of people not dissimilar to you. We’re all pawns in the game, so why not help each other by demanding that Amazon cannot come to Rhode Island without a powerful union in place? Likewise for the Painter’s Union: your  sign says that “the IUPAT fights for working people” but aren’t you really only fighting for yourselves?

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