Sunday, 19 April 2015

Why We Need One Big Union

I'd been watching the Channel 4 News reports last week, about the plight of exploited migrants in Southern Spain. It didn't have to be Spain, of course. The same phenomena can be seen in Britain, and other European countries, like the plight of the Chinese cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay a few years ago. Its a plight that is not helped by the restrictive immigration laws that exist, which force many immigrants underground. But, its also a plight that is not assisted by other laws that make exploitative practices illegal either. Labour is to be applauded for saying it will go after the bad, exploitative employers, but if such laws are to have any effect, they will also have to get rid of the Thatcher era anti union laws, so that workers can create the means by which the exploiting employers can be brought to book.

A look at Spain illustrates the point in other ways. Spain undoubtedly has the same kind of Health and Safety laws that Britain and other European countries have, yet go to a lot of resorts in Spain, and you will see little regard for health or safety. That is manifest not just in working practices for construction workers, but its apparent just by looking at the number of large holes left in roads and pavements, just waiting for someone to fall into and break a leg. Simply having laws against something does not automatically prevent it from happening. Just look at the fact that Britain introduced Equal Pay and Opportunity laws back in the mid 1970's, and yet forty years later, we are far from having either equal pay or opportunities!

As Marx recognised, such laws only have any significance if they form a basis for workers to be able to utilise their own strength and organisation to police and enforce them. They are useful to workers only to the extent that they enable workers to establish an agreement with employers as a whole, rather than having to negotiate with them at an individual enterprise level. But, in Capital Volume I, Marx outlines why, even after various Factory Acts were established, they were observed in the exception rather than the rule. The ability to enforce the conditions of any of the acts, in the end came down to whether the workers in any enterprise or industry were well organised, and, therefore, able to enforce the regulations.

Marx outlines the way the Factory legislation was introduced due to a number of factors. One factor was that the early industrial capital had been so rapacious that it was simply destroying its most valuable resource – labour-power. Generations of workers were being destroyed and crippled at such a rate that their future supply was endangered, and without labour there could be no creation of value and profits. That view had been put forward in Parliament by people like William Ferrand MP. But, big industrial capitalists had also put it forward. Marx quotes Josiah Wedgwood, in a submission to the Children's Employment Commission.

““We, therefore, find, e.g., that in the beginning of 1863, 26 firms owning extensive potteries in Staffordshire, amongst others, Josiah Wedgwood, & Sons, petition in a memorial for “some legislative enactment.” Competition with other capitalists permits them no voluntary limitation of working-time for children, &c. “Much as we deplore the evils before mentioned, it would not be possible to prevent them by any scheme of agreement between the manufacturers. ... Taking all these points into consideration, we have come to the conviction that some legislative enactment is wanted.” (“Children’s Employment Comm.” Rep. I, 1863, p. 322.)”

Its an example, of the state acting as the executive committee of the ruling class, because, as Marx says, what the capitalists need is a level playing field, and here the state intervenes to introduce rules in the interests of capital as a whole, by placing limits on the interests of individual capitals. The extent to which the state was acting as this executive committee is illustrated by the numerous reports from state officials, such as Leonard Horner, and other factory inspectors, quoted by Marx. But, its only when those sections of capital – usually the big industrial capitals – for whom these regulations are important and affordable, become sufficiently dominant, that these regulations are given any meaning.

Often, insufficient inspectors were provided to enforce the regulations, and even when they did, they faced the effective opposition of individual employers. So, for example, Marx quotes Horner, who wrote,

“Having endeavoured to enforce the Act ... by ten prosecutions in seven magisterial divisions, and having been supported by the magistrates in one case only ... I considered it useless to prosecute more for this evasion of the law. That part of the Act of 1848 which was framed for securing uniformity in the hours of work, ... is thus no longer in force in my district (Lancashire). Neither have the sub-inspectors or myself any means of satisfying ourselves, when we inspect a mill working by shifts, that the young persons and women are not working more than 10 hours a-day”

(Capital I, p 274) 

By the late 1840's, after a strong recovery had arisen following the financial crisis of 1847, workers were getting better organised, and their economic position was strengthened by the long wave boom, despite the failure of Chartism. When employers tried to cut wages along with the reduction in hours, workers still opted for the reduced hours. But, the fact that different conditions applied in different areas was also a problem for capital itself. As Marx writes,

“Some of the masters themselves murmured: 

“On account of the contradictory decisions of the magistrates, a condition of things altogether abnormal and anarchical obtains. One law holds in Yorkshire, another in Lancashire, one law in one parish of Lancashire, another in its immediate neighbourhood. The manufacturer in large towns could evade the law, the manufacturer in country districts could not find the people necessary for the relay system, still less for the shifting of hands from one factory to another,” &c.

And the first birthright of capital is equal exploitation of labour-power by all capitalists.”

(Capital I, p 276)

Its why capital today that operates in a global economy and global market, similarly requires the conditions for “equal exploitation”, and why it requires a single European state to enforce standard regulations across the EU. But, workers have to understand that when the capitalist state introduces such regulations and laws, it does not do so in THEIR interests, but in the more general interests of capital, as against the particular interests of individual capitals. Such laws and regulations are useful for workers, only in so far as they provide them with a legal framework to utilise, but they do not change the fundamental requirement for workers themselves to organise, and to thereby oppose their interests to those of capital.

But, the problem for workers, as Marx and Engels set out, is that so long as capitalist property relations continue – and that includes state capitalist property relations as the miners discovered in 1984, and other workers employed by state capitalist industries have found – they will always be at a disadvantage in enforcing their interests against those of capital, particularly at those times of the economic cycle when their interests come most under attack. The only answer to that is for workers to organise themselves in such a way as to begin to change those property relations.

One of the problems faced by the workers in Spain, but it is a problem faced by all casual workers, is that they were employed by employment agencies, rather than directly by an employer. That has immediate implications for employment rights in general, but it also means that the agency takes a share of the workers wages and so on. Yet, the existence of the agency presents workers with an opportunity. It presents the opportunity that workers should create their own agency, as a monopoly supplier of labour-power, just as the capitalists have their own large trusts and monopolies. The most effective means of organising such a monopoly of the supply of labour-power would be the creation of one big union.

The idea goes back to the early 1830's, and took its most developed form, at that time, in the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, developed by Robert Owen. As Marx describes in the Communist Manifesto, the communist ideals, put forward by Owen and others, were utopian, because, given the time they were writing, they could not yet recognise the decisive role that the working class played in the historical process, a role that could only be undertaken in opposition to the interests of capital, and not in harmony with it. But, Marx says that, setting that aside, the general vision that these “Utopians” presented was correct. Their error was not in the goal they set themselves of establishing worker owned co-operative property, but the means they adopted to achieve it.

A single union, expanding over an ever wide area, could act as both the employer of all labour-power, and the monopoly supplier of that labour-power. It could dictate to employers the price they would have to pay for all labour-power supplied to them, and the minimum conditions they would have to provide during its employment. The one big union could utilise its own members to ensure, via their own employment, that these conditions were being met, and bring to bear the power of the entire union where they were not.

It would require that, in addition to workers current contributions to their union, that increasingly their social insurance and tax contributions, now handed over to the capitalist state, which oppresses them, were also handed over to the one big union, so that, through it, they could not only provide the funds required to hold out against any employers refusing to pay the necessary levels of wages, but with which they could provide for their own periods of sickness, retirement and so on.

Such action currently, in Britain, would be illegal. It would not only breach the anti union laws on secondary action, if workers in general came out to support any groups of workers facing a recalcitrant employer, but the creation of such a monopoly supplier of labour-power, would conflict with the laws on monopoly. It is necessary to have those laws removed, but their existence should not prevent workers from attempting to protect their rights by these means anyway, just as previously the existence of laws restricting the actions of capital in relation to the length of working day etc. did not stop capitalists from acting to further their interests.

But, one reason Owen's GNCTU failed, as Marx and Engels describe in relation to the weakness of all trades unions, is that they are weakest at the time they need to be strongest, and strongest at the time when they least require that strength. At times of prolonged economic weakness, the demand for labour-power undermines the ability even to defend wages at existing levels, whilst in boom times, the demand for labour-power causes competition between capitals to raise wages anyway. In the US, at the moment, the large anti union companies like Wal-Mart have increased their minimum wage levels, not because of pressure from unions, but because the economic growth in the US has caused a sharp increase in the demand for labour-power, and these companies are using their economic muscle to ensure that they are able to recruit and retain workers at the expense of the weaker companies.

If one big union was to be able to resist the periods of economic weakness, when the demand for labour-power falls, and the ability to demand higher wages, or even to defend existing wages is undermined, the union would have to be able to ensure that its members were able to continue to obtain a sufficient income. It could not do that simply on the basis of accumulated funds – though if workers had control over the £800 billion in their pension funds, that would go a very long way towards making that possible. Instead, it would be necessary, as Owen and the early co-operatives proposed, to utilise the periods of economic boom, especially periods like now, when interest rates are low, and credit is available – to begin to develop their own property in opposition to that of capital.

In a recent interview on “The Daily Politics”, Andrew Neil asked Dave Nellist of TUSC, how he would finance his proposals for the capitalist state to nationalise the banks and other commanding heights of the economy. Unwilling to actually say that they would just confiscate this property without compensation, Nellist was unable to answer. But, the reality is that Neil had answered his own question, by pointing out that a large part of the shares of these companies are owned by workers via their pension funds! The truth is that there really is no need for the capitalist state to nationalise these companies, there is only a need for workers to be able to exercise control over their own pension funds, and thereby all of these major companies, rather than at present that control being exercised by the banks and finance houses!

If workers were to demand control of their property, represented by these pension funds, and thereby to demand democratic control over all of the major companies, owned by their pension funds, they would quickly be able to use those resources to support any groups of workers facing recalcitrant employers. The all round protection that a one big union could thereby afford its members, would then quickly attract the majority of workers under its banner, undermining any tendencies towards division, competition and fragmentation.

In many ways, workers have already won the battle for Socialism, if only they would recognise it. What is required now is a political struggle to bring appearance and reality into alignment, because the capitalist state will do all in its power to prevent workers from exercising control over the capital built up in their pension funds, and thereby of developing new worker owned, co-operative property relations. The mistake of Owen was to believe that enlightened capitalists could be persuaded to simply acquiesce or even facilitate such a transition. They will not, workers will need to organise in such a trade union, in co-operatives connected to it, and via their own political party to bring it about.

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