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The party and the trade unions

The party and the trade unions
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With regard to trade unions, the party expresses positions which are of the nature of principle, and relate to the necessity for the presence of large organisations of an economic character open to all wage-earners. The party's aim is to acquire a determining influence in the trade unions by means of its organised fractions within them, and, in the revolutionary phase, to take over the union leadership itself. In such a situation the link between party and class is established, «the transmission belt» through which the party can exercise its proper function; that of guide and leader of the revolutionary movement.

Capturing influence over the intermediate proletarian organisations is achieved by demonstrating that the party line is the most coherent and consistent in defending working class interests; as opposed to the positions of other political movements within the union (reformists, anarchists, syndicalists etc.) against whom a political battle is carried out; indeed the facts themselves are bound to make this very evident to every proletarian.

The organisations we are talking about are of a purely economic character, the trade unions, and it is a key postulate of the party that their role is irreplaceable; it is a position we have always defended though many have abandoned it. The need for other types of intermediate organisation, of a political character, becomes apparent in the phase subsequent to the conquest of power.

So far we have been dealing with questions of principle. But how do we assess the trade unions of the present day, what is our attitude towards them, and how does the party decide what tactics to adopt in different circumstances? In these matters Party activity in the unions is directly linked to its interpretations of the facts and its evaluations of the various situations; and though approximations occur, experience and further study will continue to prompt further precisions and rectifications.

First of all, the formation of proletarian organisations in different countries has resulted in historical differences. These differences must be taken into account, i.e., the different organisational characteristics, their procedures, and the different political positions which have inspired them during the many battles, won and lost, which the proletariat has fought. For example, a very real distinction exists between the anglo-saxon «trade unions» and the «syndicates» of French and Italian industry. The party's assessment of trade-union type organisations in different countries will therefore not be identical in all countries and all circumstances.

The party in Italy doesn't support organising within the CGIL [the main union federation in Italy] anymore, it recommends instead the reconstruction of the class union «outside and against the regime trade union». This is a directive (not a general principle of party action) which has come about as a result of evaluating the situation as it has evolved in Italy, and it is an attitude which is still prone to fine tuning, and even to alteration should a different situation require a change of tactics. First of all, we should clarify this; that Lenin was quite correct when he lashed out at the extremists for forming «revolutionary» unions, since such a tactic meant abandoning the masses who remained in the social-democratic unions to the influence of the counterrevolutionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie. As he stated in «Left-wing communism - an infantile disorder», communists must work even in the most reactionary unions with the aim, when circumstances permit, of taking them over, kicking out the old leaders, and overturning their policies.

But it is important to distinguish between «reactionary unions» and what we term «regime unions». The first are workers' unions led by «chauvinists and opportunists», often directly or indirectly linked to the bourgeoisie and to the police, as Lenin put it. Such leaders will adopt policies designed to sabotage workers' struggles, and intervene mainly to prevent them from developing in a classist and revolutionary direction. Nevertheless, such unions retain a workers' identity, they are useful for, and used for, class struggle. Also, there exist possibilities for communist workers to organise within them and agitate for communist demands. Such organisations remain susceptible, under favourable circumstances, to being won over to class action and to being conquered by the party. Before the advent of fascism, the CGL was such an organisation, but once it had been destroyed by the fascist gangs and the State police, the bourgeoisie set up its own organisations to replace it: the «fascist» unions, the regime unions, direct emanations of the State. They can be characterised as structured from above, obligatory, and therefore inaccessible to penetration by classist directives. Their inalienable principles are social collaboration according to the principles of fascist corporatism, which also forbids, by its very statutes, access to communists. These organisations, despite the fact that there are certain cases of them lining up in defence of workers' interests (of which more later) are no longer a real workers' unions and the party's advice is not to organise within them.

The party's position on the CGIL (the additional «I» is for «Italian») re-formed after the 2nd World War, is that it is the «heir of fascism unionism» and «modelled on Mussolini's blueprint». It was, in fact, a direct emanation of the regime as well, as amply demonstrated by it's suffocation of the attempts of workers to organise in a red, classist way. Nevertheless, the fact that its very formation had been bound up with the sales-patter of the democrats and the mystification of anti-fascism, led to a situation where it was obliged to reclaim, in a formal sense anyway, the tradition of the ex-CGL; with which the majority of workers still identified. The working masses in Italy considered the CGIL their's, as a red combattive union. This allowed the Party to organise within it, agitate for the principles of the anti-capitalist class struggle, and point out to the workers the need for the union to «return» to class politics; it would even try to capture base organisations like the «camere del lavoro» (1), and the «internal commissions» (2) organised in the factories.

But even whilst we were agitating in the CGIL, we still held out the possibility of another eventuality: the reconstruction «ex novo» of the class union. It would have been impossible to predict which of the two eventualities would prevail at the time.

From the immediate post-war period to the present day we have witnessed the progressive abandonment by the CGIL of any vestige of class politics, even of the formal variety; more seriously still, it no longer claims to be organising itself into a class union. There has been the merger with the CISL and the UIL, both unions of scissionist origin formed to suit the bosses' requirements. And then there has been the introduction of the scheme where the employers collect union dues; a scheme which the party refuses to participate in, therefore putting our militants at one remove from the federal union apparatus in any case since many of us have been prevented from joining as a result.

The economic crisis of the mid-seventies accelerated this whole process. In addition to a host of «sacrifices», the fabric of the CGIL organisation became ever more narrow and resistant to any class influence. The situation arose where any struggles which conflicted with the politics of union collaboration had to resort, ever more frequently, to seeking support from workers' organisations existing outside the union confederation, with the latter doing everything in its power to sabotage such struggles. The CGIL became ever more inaccessible, even in the base and factory organisations. Today it has reached a point where union demands and pacts are not even submitted to assemblies of workers for their approval, but only to the bosses' for theirs'. All the decisions are now taken in a sphere totally apart from the workers.

The federal union, which has now arrived at a stage where it endorces anti-strike laws, has become an organisation separated and opposed to the working masses, a body of paid functionaries whose purpose is to allow any attack by capital to succeed, and any reactions from the workers to fail. The workers are denied access to this apparatus - apart from that small minority which is prepared, normally for personal gain, to sell out and embrace its political positions.

Given this state of affairs, it would be impractical, and would cause confusion within the class, if communists were to work in such organisations with the aim of simply replacing the «corrupt» leaders who «had sold out», or seeking to win them back to class politics. For a long time now there have been no posts in the union leadership which the party could contest anyway. All routes are barred to us, even if we have membership cards, and even if we have many workers supporting us.

Certainly we make our positions known at demonstrations, participate in strikes, and take part in workers' assemblies approved by the union - what few there are - but that doesn't mean to say we are «working in the union».

In any case, since the end of the seventies, the fact of the matter is that any attempt by the workers to move in a direction opposed to the politics of collaboration has been manifested through organisations outside and opposed to the federal union. The COBAS [Base Committees - see article «The Party and the COBAS» in «Communist Left» N°. 1] express this tendency, whilst the «Internal opposition groups» within the CGIL, on the other hand, have revealed themselves to be the means of betraying those who have become discontented or as attempts to bring straying workers «back into the fold».

Lenin, when he spoke of «reactionary unions» meant organisations which belonged to the working class even if led by corrupted and mercenary leaders. In such organisations, the work of communists is not only possible but indispensable. Their task is to repudiate the actions of the leaders, and, when the situation is favourable, to win the unions back to class politics and gain the leadership of the Party. In Italy today, on the other hand, we are faced with «regime unions»; and such they are even if they haven't formally declared themselves to be «State unions» as happened under the fascist regime. These organisations we consider to be intimately integrated into the institutional apparatus of capitalist power. No longer do they belong to the working class, they are closed and impenetrable structures, just like all the other Institutions of the regime, and although workers may be «members» of such institutions, they are not organised.

From this derives our recognition of the impossibility of working inside these reactionary organisations in order: to draw them towards class politics. Hence our formulation of the necessary to reconstitute the class union «ex-novo», outside and against the regime union.

The majority of workers, however, still continue to follow the reformist non-directives, and although widespread dissatisfaction exists, the need to abandon the unions and reform them on a classist basis has not yet been widely expressed. The Party has the duty of anticipating this necessity in the meantime nevertheless.

We also predict that at times when the regime unions have been unable to restrain, isolate, or repress their most combattive elements, they will - under strong pressure from the workers - discover the necessity of appearing to back large-scale struggles and even put themselves at their head. In taking over the leadership of the movement, and even voicing some of its demands, the regime union can fulfil its function by attempting to control it, circumscribe it, deflect it and cause it to fail. The alternative, of abandoning the struggle to itself could lead to dire consequences for the regime. For example, there is the case of the magnificent strike against the dismissals at FIAT in 1980, which lasted for a month, until it was stabbed in the back by the CGIL.

On such occasions, the duty of the party remains that of pointing out the necessity for autonomous organisation outside the regime union as the means of conducting the struggle, and as the fundamental conclusion to be drawn.

We emphasise that such considerations are made with the Italian situation in mind. In Italy, the party has a long history of testing its conclusions in the heat of workers' struggles. The necessary deepening of our understanding of the trade union situation in other countries is proceeding in other countries where we have a foothold and will develop as our forces consolidate and expand. These studies will determine how we further define our formulations in the matter of union tactics. We will have to go into the history of trade union organisation up to the present day, look at how they are organised and structured, both in the factories and the higher levels; we will have to examine their links with the political parties, and the degree to which they are incorporated into the State apparatus; it is necessary to know about the tendencies within them and of any opposition movements to the leading groups. Contemporary studies will enable us to estimate whether there is any real possibility of any rank-and-file organisations which exist becoming susceptible to class action.

• • •

Another issue we would like to pin down is how we define a «class union». This is an important consideration since there is a tendency to reduce the problem to purely a question of organisational forms. There is the view that holds, for instance, that «rank-and-file democracy» should be seen as the starting point because the reason for the degeneration of the trade unions is that democratic consultation with the workers has been abandoned; or that the well-paid body of union officials, who have escaped from the factory floor, should be replaced by voluntary worker activists.

It is certainly true that that the regime union is structured in such a way as to prevent itself being subordinated; indeed it's very raison d'être is to systematically impose its will on the class and bring its anti-worker politics to bear. But nevertheless, even in the class union «rank-and-file» democracy is a fetish which can be used to undermine the necessity for well-timed and unified actions of the entire movement. The class line and class action has to be defended against corporativist and reactionary pressures, and these inevitably crop up amongst the «rank- and-file» as well. Whilst it is true that the regime union can not but be founded on an apparatus of well-paid and corrupted officials, the class union, though based on voluntary activity in the class union will require full-time, and therefore paid officials, in a large and centralised organisation.

Another point we should mention is that the key to resolving the problem of reconstructing the class union will not be found by searching around for new organisational forms. Though we don't rule out the possibility that the class will express other forms than the traditional in a revived movement, it is highly unlikely. The organisations which the workers have been forming outside the official unions in Italy, the COBAS', and similar ones elsewhere are the object of our interest not because they are the manifestations of «original» forms of workers' organisations, but because they are the expression of the tendency to reorganise against the collaborationist politics of the old unions.

What we anticipate is the necessity for a return to a politics and activity on a class basis by organisations of a purely economic character, composed of wage-earners alone, and with a centralised structure that will ensure unitary action for the movement. Though based on factory organisations, territorial organisations, which transcend the local and craft based nature of the factory, will also be essential.

These last points we will return to in a subsequent article.

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  1. Camera del lavoro: literally, chamber of labour. Territorial organisations whose nearest British equivalents are the trades councils and working-mens clubs. [back]
  2. Internal commissions: factory grievance committees, rank-and-file organisations on the shop-floor. [back]

Source: «Communist Left», No. 6, July - December, 1992

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