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Ye Olde Trade Union Consciousness

A significant problem with the unionized or organized labour movement is its inability to communicate with the non-unionized and more exploited sectors of the working class.  We live in a society where being unionized is often a privilege, where the proletariat is not necessarily the workers operating in unionized spaces, and where the foundation for labour is most often precarious, casualized, and migrant.  There are large portions of workers who are excluded from the ranks of the unionized and for whom unionizing is not an immediate option.  Then there are the day labourers, the people who spend large portions of their lives relegated to the reserve army of labour, who nonetheless contribute to the functioning of capital but whose very nature of work, like many others, prevents them from ever being considered for a union drive.

We already know that the ruling classes will go out of their way to insult, belittle, and assault every union movement, every strike, every moment where the workers demonstrate that they, and not the bosses, hold the power.  As a union member myself, who was involved in a prolonged strike against my sector's management, I obviously support every union's strike or work-to-rule campaign and reject, as part of my politics, every attempt on the part of capital to diminish, bad-jacket, and slur unions and unionized workers as greedy, privileged, and lazy.  I recall with scorn how some of my neighbours referred to striking garbage workers (as if these neighbours would ever want to clear garbage) as greedy and "going too far."  I recall with even more scorn my most recent slumlord making the same claim about unionized garbage workers even though she had inherited her property, had never worked a day in her life, and was the paradigm of greedy laziness.

That being said, it is clear that there is a significant gap between unionized and non-unionized workers and that the gap creates a certain lack of solidarity between the two groups.  Although the ruling classes clearly want to promote this lack of solidarity, and go out of their way to do so, the reason why it exists says more about the consciousness produced by the labour aristocracy than some opportunistic strategy to "split the working class."  For if it was just some imported strategy, rather than something that connects to a deep-seeded split amongst workers, then it would not have so much strength.  People are not tricked into enmity so easily: consciousness proceeds, though not simply and easily, from our class position.

Recently I have been speaking with non-unionized, and sometimes "reserve army-ized", workers as part of the boycott campaign I've recently promoted.  Many of them do not like the government (in fact many of them do not vote because they despise every party), but they also are suspicious of unionized workers.  And though this suspicion sometimes translates into a flight into conservative claims about greedy and lazy workers, often it is expressed as a quite justified complaint: why do these workers, who enjoy unionization, not care about the work we do or imagine anything beyond their own economistic struggles?

A good question.  The problem with trade union consciousness, after all and as Lenin understood, was that it tended to lock us within our specific unions and narrowed our consciousness upon demands that had to do with our own wages, our tiny inter-union debates, our jobs against our managers.  Trade union consciousness does not necessarily connect to a revolutionary consciousness and often limits solidarity.  Do striking transit workers care about the migrant workers who might be deported if they cannot get to work on time due to the transit strike?  This is an important question and, though I support every strike, I think it needs to be asked because these contradictions are used to pit less privileged workers against more privileged workers.  It is also used to conservatize a small sector of workers in this society, and make even larger sectors just feel powerless.  Unfortunately, since the mainstream left has often limited itself to working with trade-unionized workers, this has blunted our ability to organize against capital.

Although those workers left outside of unionization are sometimes picked up rightist organizers, who feed them easy answers and turn them against unionized workers, I want to suggest that this is not the fault of these workers but the fault of those whose solidarity is limited to unionization.  Unionized workers possess a consciousness that is most often labour aristocratic, who are embedded in an economism that informs most of them to vote for a social democratic party, and who can easily be bought off––once their wage demands are met––because they want to keep their union status.  Most often the union bureaucracy functions in a very top-down and opportunistic manner; it understands that its existence is dependent on a certain configuration of capitalism.  And though a certain configuration of capitalism promotes unionization at the expense of large sectors of non-unionized workers (not to mention the larger narrative of imperialism/colonialism), the privilege of being a bureaucracy, of being able to make a living by overseeing unionization, creates a certain loyalty to the strictures of capital.  And this loyalty prevents solidarity between those most invested in union structures and those who have been excluded.

Sometimes the contradiction between the privileged and under-privileged workers takes place right at the heart of the union movement.  I recall how, six or seven years ago, the leadership of a union local of UNITE/HERE in Toronto was actually organizing with management against migrant labour.  Since this labour was incorporated in the local itself, the union bureaucracy had to represent it as unionized but, at the same time, was also collaborating with management to withhold the Collective Agreement.  And when the workers came out against their own union, accusing it of collaboration with capital, there was a failure within the union movement to recognize the struggle as legitimate.  Thankfully, my union at the time backed the workers rather than the union bureaucracy; the sad fact, however, was that the majority of organized labour in the city did not care about this excluded sectors of workers and, in the interest of "solidarity" (read: solidarity with capital), generally refused to deal with this contradiction.

But this contradiction defines the way labour is structured under capital and, unless we deal with the fact that the union movement is often exclusionary, we will have no way of addressing non-unionized struggles or comprehending the vicissitudes of the proletariat.  Instead we will only imagine that the proletariat is the unionized industrial proletariat, that it can be nothing else, and ignore the labour of the vast masses of workers who will never have the privilege of being unionized.

And yet vast swathes of the mainstream left still operate amongst the unionized workers, sometimes even amongst the union bureaucracy, and fail to recognize the struggles of non-unionized workers.  And so the consciousness of the unionized workers, often the consciousness of the labour aristocracy, becomes accepted as the consciousness of the "real workers."  The union movement is mistaken as proletarianism, all other workers disappeared and excluded from our supposedly revolutionary agenda.  So when this happens, is it any wonder that some non-unionized workers end up resenting the privilege of unionized workers?

Unfortunately, when this problem is noticed the solution is often a simple formula: everyone should unionize, these other workers should form their own unions, and just stop complaining about those workers who are doing better.  Fair enough––maybe everyone should unionize.  And maybe the International Workers of the World was right and everyone should form into one big union: I support this idea in principle and, as a union member and unionist myself, believe that the idea deserves agitation.  At the same time, however, I also understand that the historic compromise between labour and capital that happened at the centres of world capitalism (as a combination of struggle and the fact that imperialism was the able to recuperate its profits through the export of capital), cannot function in such a way to allow complete unionization amongst workers.  There are people necessarily excluded, there are massive sectors of workers who cannot be unionized, cannot be allowed to organized, must always remain at the bottom in order to prop up the unionization of others.  Capital is unwilling to prevent global unionization and so, if we have to struggle for such a universal project, we also have to place revolution on the agenda; it cannot happen otherwise.  And yet the demand for revolution, clearly, is not the demand of the unionized worker: better wages is not revolutionary, overcoming a small sectarian dispute in a single local rarely possesses universal significance, a single strike is often isolated.

Still I support every strike, every work-to-rule campaign, every attempt on the part of workers, however limited, to position themselves against capital.  My problem, however, is that focusing on these struggles at the expense of those workers excluded from unionization, for seeing the labour aristocracy and the parliamentary parties they sometimes support as representing the proletariat, is ultimately limiting.  Indeed, after spending almost eight years agitating for a union local (and a local that, as aforementioned, once supported some of the most radical worker struggles in my city in contradiction with other locals), I have become jaded with this way of thinking.


  1. Eleven years ago I was threatened with violence and trumped up disciplinary action for talking up Nader to coworkers instead of following the Gore/Lieberman line for the 2000 elections by a salaried UFCW worker who was supposed to be acting on behalf of my working-class interests. Members who campaigned for Bush/Cheney were ignored. Much of the North American union movement is hopelessly entangled with capitalist party politics. I too support every union action, but most of the big unions are not going to help us in revolutionary struggle (not that voting for Ralph Nader is in any way revolutionary, but any challenge from the left seems to be squashed real quick).

  2. Yeah... In Canada the union movement developed in a different way: originally it had strong ties to socialist and communist strands and emerged with an understanding of itself in contradiction to capital (none of that Hoffa-izing nonsense!), but it still has the residue of settler-colonial ideology. And after the historical concession to labour on the part of capital (though won by labour), it has become extremely bureaucratized. There are still many union locals that try to run on grass roots models, and nationals that allow local autonomy, but the bureaucratization is causing similar problems to those in the US to emerge.


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