Organizing for Defeat: The Relevance and Utility of the Trade Union as a Legitimate Question

By Green, Brian | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Organizing for Defeat: The Relevance and Utility of the Trade Union as a Legitimate Question


Green, Brian, Labour/Le Travail


The continuity of struggle is easy: the workers need only themselves and the boss in front of them. But the continuity of organization is a rare and complex thing: as soon as it becomes institutionalized it becomes used by capitalism....

Mario Tronti, Lenin in England

THE DECLINE AND RETREAT of the North American labour movement in the past two decades has been a matter of extensive commentary and scholarly and political debate. (1) While these discussions have contributed immensely to our understanding of economic restructuring and strategic imperatives for the labour movement's continued political viability, much of the literature is limited to either a "counting of the dead" or a focus exclusively on the aggressive strategy of capital in the post-Keynesian era. Surprisingly little has been said about unions themselves and the relationship between their organizational consolidation as partners of a once ascendant Keynesian class compromise and their subsequent paralysis in the face of the collapse of that compromise. This paper will attempt to initiate such a discussion by tackling these questions: how did the historical development of the trade union form render it particularly vulnerable to the ravages of capitalist restructuring? And what, then, might this suggest about the future viability of the union as we know it?

This paper does not pretend to provide a detailed or especially nuanced historical record, that having been amply provided by historians of labour whose work is referenced throughout these pages. Rather, I trace the broad contours of trade union history (2) only as a context in which to analyze the strategic and organizational crisis of the official labour movement--a crisis which is best understood not as a victory of capital over the working class, nor as a widespread abandonment of economic struggles, but rather as a result of expanded struggle by an expanded global working class, and the movement of anti-systemic conflicts beyond the plane for which the trade union organization was prepared. Rather than a crisis of struggle and a victory of capital, then, the challenge to mainstream labour (and traditional left political parties) can be understood, at least in part, as a crisis within the left, a crisis brought on by the extension of popular demands beyond Keynesian limits, beyond the organizational capacity of the trade union, and beyond the parameters of settlement embraced by traditional left organizations.

The Birth and Expansion of the Trade Union

In North America, the birth of the modern trade union is generally traced to approximately 1880, as the industrial enterprise came rapidly to replace the farm and the family-based shop as the heart of economic production. (3) Implying greater physical and cultural distance between employers and employees, technological displacement, de-skilling and larger workgroups, industrial capitalism required new forms of organization and mobilization by which workers could effectively present grievances and win concessions in the workplace. The trade union emerged within this political-economic context, initially as an association of skilled, white, male workers to wage defensive struggles that sought to prevent the degradation of labour in industrial capitalism's "satanic mills." (4) Building on traditions of artisanal guilds, these craft unions articulated a demand for fair wages, respect for skill, and privileging of their members over the mass of "unskilled," "common" workers unleashed by the expansion of industrial production. (5) In short, they were constituted by, represented, and defended what has been commonly referred to as an aristocracy of labour, and sought not to overturn the rule of capital so much as to win and/or protect a privileged place within it. (6)

It was only with the advent of World War I, however, that this emerging labour movement won its first major victories, taking advantage of the international crisis and the demand for increased productivity to wrest concessions from capital and state.

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Organizing for Defeat: The Relevance and Utility of the Trade Union as a Legitimate Question
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