Katerina Tefft, staff
Free-market capitalism, as economist Karl Polanyi famously writes in The Great Transformation, is a “stark utopia” that “could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and turned his surrounding into a wilderness.”
It is out of this threat of the impending wilderness of free-market capitalism that the union emerges, out of the simple desire of workers to survive in an economic system that inherently pushes their wages down further and further, and deprives them of bodily and material security. And while a truly free capitalist system thankfully remains a mere utopian ideal and not a reality, the rise of neoliberalism has pushed the global economy steadily in that direction in recent decades.
Yet, despite the protection they afford, unions are often scapegoated by workers who seem not to realize that much of what they take for granted in the workplace—weekends, breaks, sick leave, the eight-hour workday, overtime pay, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, workplace safety standards, collective bargaining rights, wrongful termination protection, whistleblower protection, health benefits, pensions, parental leave, the right to strike, and equal pay—was not voluntarily or benevolently given.
We as a society take these rights and comforts for granted without remembering that they are all hard-won by unions and the labour movement. We forget about the working conditions in countries such as Bangladesh where unions are met with hostility or banned outright by the government – or even the conditions for workers of anti-union corporations like Walmart that operate within our own borders. We forget that if we didn’t have our unions fighting for our rights and livelihoods, we could lose them. We’re already careening in that direction; recent studies show a strong correlation between the decline of unions and the decline of the middle class, and growing income inequality in Canada and the United States.
However, unions are not ends unto themselves. Many trade unionists could do with taking a long, hard look inwards and asking if they have become complacent in normalizing and sustaining capitalism, and if they have forgotten the greater cause of the universal workers’ struggle in favour of their own immediate gain.
Reactionary trade unions are not ideal, and, ultimately, a better world for workers will never be achieved by simply trying to survive in the current system. We must expand our aims beyond that and look toward the future. But what unions do provide is a stepping stone toward that better world and toward worker ownership by creating class consciousness, worker co-operation and solidarity, and conditions in which workers can have their basic needs met in order to ensure survival in the immediate present. And unions remain a thorn in the side of the capitalists, as they fetter their ability to exploit workers and maximize profits unchecked.
Marxist theorist Anton Pannekoek says it best: “The struggle for better working conditions is of immediate necessity [ . . . ] At first the workers, powerless by the constraint of hunger, have to submit in silence. Then resistance bursts forth, in the only possible form, in the refusal to work, in the strike. In the strike for the first time the workers discover their strength, in the strike arises their fighting power. From the strike springs up the association of all the workers of the factory, of the branch, of the country. Out of the strike sprouts the solidarity, the feeling of fraternity with the comrades in work, of unity with the entire class: the first dawn of what some day will be the lifespending sun of the new society. The mutual help [ . . . ] soon takes the lasting form of the trade union.”
We must never take our rights for granted, nor become complacent and forget what must be our end goal: a new society for workers by workers. The trade union has true revolutionary potential if we only harness it.
Read the other side of the argument here.