The working class does not develop the capacity to liberate itself overnight. Through a more or less protracted process, working people can break from fatalism and habits of going along with hierarchy, overcome divisions (such as along lines of race or gender), and develop the skills and self-confidence, solidarity, and organizational strength to challenge the capitalist regime.
The economy would grind to a halt without our work. This is the main source of the collective power of the working class. Large-scale actions such as general strikes builds in the working class a sense of our collective power. Self-management of struggles, unions and other mass organizations develops in the participants a sense of confidence in our abilities and of our capacity for running things ourselves.
Unionism has had two tendencies in history. At times workers have developed their own grassroots workplace unionism, where they act “in union” with each other, and control their own struggles with their employer – worker controlled unionism.
On the other hand, there has also been a tendency towards bureaucratic unionism, controlled by paid hierarchies who don’t work the job. The bureaucratic type of unionism became strongly entrenched in the US and elsewhere after World War 2. Unions limited their focus to narrow issues of pay and benefits, and routine bargaining, sector by sector. The general strikes and pitched battles of the years before World War 2 became a fading memory. The bureaucracy came to monopolize the negotiations with the employers, and encouraged workers to look to politicians for solutions to broader issues beyond narrow collective bargaining. Workers were encouraged to look at the union as a service agency.
The paid hierarchies tend to be allergic to militant action, wanting to minimize legal and financial risks to the union organization. They work to contain struggles within the framework of longstanding relationships with the employers.
The alternative to bureaucratic unionism is to rebuild worker counter-power through the assertion of the tendency to grassroots worker action and organization independent of the union bureaucracies and political parties.
The form of unionism that we advocate is worker controlled class unionism. Class unionism means organizing to unite all workers in a fight against the dominating classes. This form of unionism is built up from below, but does not limit itself to fighting over the circumstances of life of the workers in a particular company or industry, but works to build links and solidarity with other working people.
Class unionism is particularly visible in mass actions such as general strikes against the state or all the employers. Worker controlled class unionism is self-managed by the members, is built on mass participation, and works to spread solidarity and link up across divisions of sector, income-level or across borders. Class unionism is based on class solidarity, which is encapsulated in the slogan An Injury to One is an Injury to All. This means that the injuries that are due to various forms of oppression (such as along lines of race, sex or immigration status) cannot be ignored.
Thus the type of unionism that we advocate is controlled by the members, works to spread solidarity and links between workers, bases itself on direct collective action, fights all forms of inequality and oppression, and rejects any idea of partnership with the bosses.
The working class cannot liberate itself unless workers take over the means of production and distribution. This presupposes the development of a worker mass movement that has a history and practice of self-managing struggles and their own organizations, and, along with it, the aspiration to replace the existing industrial autocracy with self-management in a free socialist society. The emergence of worker controlled class unionism on a wide scale creates the potential for this liberatory transformation of society.
To transform the labor movement, we support efforts to build worker controlled unions independent of the bureaucratic union federations. At the same time, the bureaucratic unions exist in a number of important industries. We can’t ignore or remain aloof from the bureaucratic business unions as long as workers in fact use them as a means to self-defense against the employers. We have to participate in these unions and organize within them. To this end, we support the building of rank and file worker movements or tendencies in the context of these unions but independent of the bureaucracy. The sort of rank and file movement we favor should not aim to simply elect a different leadership of the business unions but should aim at changing the labor movement into a social movement based on mass participation, solidarity, member control, and the struggle for fundamental social change.