Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form

Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form

Michael Hough

“But perhaps the survey of a wider field may lead us to think that they contain in germ the solution of the problem.” — The Golden Bough

Classical trade unionism could be recognized in its basic programme of higher wages, shorter hours and the emancipation of labor. From the First World War to the dissolution of the USSR, this programmatic troika became obfuscated by the perpetual allure of reformism or abandoned in place of various ultra-left or academic ‘innovations’ to the theory of the working-class as elaborated by the First, Second and Third Internationals. A rolling dissection of trade unionism by the accomplices of the working-class in the socialist milieus of last century ultimately led to the widespread adoption of the political position that the unions had passed definitively from organs of labor to those of capital through the relation of trade unionism to the capitalist state; for those without a theoretical alibi, the primacy of labor work has been submerged under decades of Popular Front-type diversions. Starting over again with the trade union question is the re-telling of their creation story; to connect and reconnect the generically similar phenomena of organized labor reveals the dithyrambs of trade unionism to be the anatomical charts of proletarian agency in the liberation of humanity from class society, from value and property: the end of alienation and exploitation.

Theses on the Trade Union Question

Contingency (Practice)

1 Workers’ spontaneous resistance to, “the incessant encroachments of capital. . . to questions of wages and time of labor,” in addition to making contingent demands concerning the organization, terms and conditions of work demanded and imposed by employers of wage labor together comprise the practice of trade unionism [1].

2 Trade unions are those combinations of workers which seek to prevent the price of labor-power from falling below its value [2]; the price-fixing or cartelization of the wage through conspiracies against private property and property rights.

3 Spontaneous resistance to and contingent demands of capital by the working-class are fixed phenomena of capitalism, generated and regenerated with the production of value [3]. Trade unionism appears as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation.

4 Reproduction of capital/negation of capital are implicit to wage labor, forming its content. All opposing forces within trade unions and trade unionism—armistice/resistance, reformism/anti-formism [4]—are derivatives of this dichotomy internal to the working-class: the class defined only by its (existing or potential) relation to capital. Every competing tendency in the lived experience of organized and organizing labor emanate from this dual content of wage labor.

5 Construction of centers of resistance is a conclusion to the practice of trade unionism. Formal trade unions organized in the midst of class struggles either dissolve or maintain their structure with the victory or defeat of the struggle. Those that outlive the immediate circumstances of their origin become a practice of permanent resistance as permanent trade unions; they become the structural embodiment of dead class struggles confronting living class struggles.

Concerted Action/Mass Action (Substance)

6 The shifting congruence of contingent demands and spontaneous resistance compels the class struggles of organized and organizing labor. Trade unions derive their substance from this determined movement of workers to both resist and make demands of capital. All forms of labor’s class struggles—strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, insurrections—are forms of concerted action. Engaging in the practice of trade unionism is made manifest in workers’ concerted actions. Transformation of concerted actions into the articulation of material gains produces the tendency to consolidate and defend these now defined gains.

7 Trade unions in substance are static moments of concerted actions; the definition of material gains and consolidation and defense of these gains is an embalming process, turning living class struggles into dead class struggles.

8 Trade unionism as practice may develop beyond the immediate object of struggle and the original content of contingent demands and spontaneous resistance. The ignition of mass, class-based movements begins with the transformation of isolated concerted actions into the dynamic of mass action. “Mass action is not a form of action but a process and synthesis of action.” [5] Economic depression, rising unemployment, austerity, war-time deprivations and other shared experiences spur the creation of links between and among existing struggles while simultaneously engendering new struggles. The class movement is the extension of self-generalizing mass action dynamics to all workers and class struggles in a condensed and precarious window of time.

Permanence (Structure)

9 Formation of new, merged and restructured trade unions occurs in clusters as a process of autogenesis, products of the historic and contingent needs of wage laborers. Those waves of struggle characteristic of national and international class movements produce these clusters of trade union activity.

10 Workers engaged in offensive or defensive actions produce a human architecture of self-organized combinations: temporary and permanent trade unions. This human architecture, made of participants selected in class struggles, transubstantiate strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. into defined material gains and consolidate and defend these gains. They are the personification of the workers’ historic and contingent needs. All roles in the trade union structure—steward, delegate, secretary-treasurer, committeeman—begin with the raw material of immediate participants in the class struggle, producing a human architecture who channel the forms of labor’s class struggles into the definition, consolidation and defense of material gains; gains articulated through the immediate experience of the local conditions of specific employers, industries and public agencies.

11 While trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles is a constant of the capitalist social relation, modes of representation are historically defined forms which characterize the self-organization of the working-class in each cycle of capital accumulation. The ‘mutual presupposition’ [6] of wage labor and capital in capitalist society compels each pole of the capitalist social relation to organize in reference to the other through their perpetual interaction of mutual encroachments, creating distinct periods when the self-organization of labor matches the organization of production as a collective bargaining regime. Modes of representation characterize each successive collective bargaining regime: mutual benefit societies, secret associations, craft unionism, industrial unionism. The acute, rising conflagration of class against class (the working and employing classes in general) of self-generalizing mass actions produce a crisis of legitimacy in an existing collective bargaining regime and associated dominant mode of representation. Quantitatively and qualitatively greater struggles by organized and organizing labor reveal that the existing structures of trade unionism have become fetters on carrying out their primary purpose: defining and defending material gains.

The Wage Cartel

12 From the time that material gains are defined and extracted, consolidated and defended from concerted actions, centers of resistance becoming the structural embodiment of dead class struggles confronting living class struggles, trade unions host a divergent trajectory from their members and the working-class in general. They develop needs and interests of their own; acting as host to both the unabridged (uncastrated) class struggle and the total inversion of the class struggle. Permanent trade unions, expressed through total membership and union standards, collectively create a wage cartel from the sum of all collective bargaining both nationally and internationally. The wage cartel is the source of the institutionalization of collective bargaining and the link connecting trade unionism to the state, actualizing through the dominant mode of representation and collective bargaining regime regardless of the form such bargaining takes (negotiation, violence or other means). Emanating from the reproduction of capital implicit to wage labor, the wage cartel projects itself as the official-legal-juridical labor movement—the exclusive representative of the working-class as a pillar of existing society. Despite being an innate tendency of trade unionism in general, its needs and interests reflect back into the life of every local, regional, national and international union as well as the wider unabridged class struggle.

13 The wage cartel is the limit or limiting factor to union activism and reformism. Trade unions can survive democratization, a return to militancy and radical changes in leadership- but will not survive an intransigent refusal to accept concessions over time. Even as a versatile instrument for trafficking variable capital, the wage cartel finds itself unable to protect past gains or win new gains on a durable basis. Despite being dependent on living class struggles for the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism to produce and reproduce the wage cartel, its own semi-independent, parallel existence to the working-class is equally dependent on the cycles of capital accumulation to provide it the sustenance needed to maintain itself as the official-legal-juridical labor movement. Those elements of trade unions and trade unionism which reproduce the wage cartel and reflect its interests and needs back into organized labor fulfill competing functions– representing labor’s class struggles and meeting capital’s needs—in the effort to protect the integrity of the trade union organization [6].

Dictatorship of the Proletariat

14 The subterranean engine of the working-class, every manifestation of organized and organizing labor, is its spontaneous resistance to and contingent demands of capital. Affirmation of resistance/demands is the prerequisite for the construction of centers of resistance as the practice of permanent resistance. The substance of trade unions—agents and subjects of the class struggle, participants in concerted and mass actions, articulating and defining material gains and the vehicle for the consolidation and defense of these gains—is only the application of time to the class struggle. The course of history (determined by capitalism) alternates between creating and removing the conditions for the transformation of a new human architecture of the class in its movement into the structure of new trade unions. From that which creates the wage cartel is the other side of the Janus face, emanating from the negation of capital implicit to wage labor and of the same practice, substance and structure of trade unionism: the dictatorship of the proletariat.

15 Proletarian dictatorship, the workers state, is only a derivative of the same practice of resistance/demands, imbued with the substance of concerted and mass action dynamics and taking its structure from the consolidation and defense of material gains by a human architecture of agents and subjects of the class struggle; the same class struggle reaching a higher phase and being fought with new, extraordinary forms [7]. If the defense of gains is the axis of consolidation for new trade union structures, the workers’ state is the consolidation of a minority of the working-class around the highest material gain that can be extracted from the class struggle: state power.

16 Shots fired from a union member’s deer rifle at scabs in 1986 and those from a chekist’s Mosin-Nagant at the sons of landowners in 1918 differ only in the depth and extent of the class movement behind them and the scale of the material gains they are defending. The former commits class violence to defend union standards, the latter in defense of state power. Organized force is familiar to the Nechayevschina of the wage cartel and official-legal-juridical labor movement, who will use hangman’s methods when it’s convenient or expedient to protect the integrity of bargaining units, as a compliment to collective bargaining or as a means to enforce internal discipline. What possessed the McNamara brothers to engage in mass destruction of property at the behest of the Ironworkers’ International is the defense of gains- the companion of which is organized force. This tendency toward organized force is inherent to trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles, reaching its most developed form in the workers’ state.

17 The Battle of Blair Mountain (1921) and the Ruhr Uprising (1920) display similar expressions of organized force by the working-class despite harboring vastly different political content. That which compels physical coercion by organized and organizing labor becomes the basis of the development of new, extraordinary forms for waging the class struggle—“the essential organ of class rule is the State- and the State can be nothing else” [8] for the working-class except “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling-class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors” [9]—the dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers state.

18 Historically defined forms of the class movement becoming the struggle for state power as well as opening the potential for the socialist movement—the commune and council forms—provide the basis for organized force, as the instrument to consolidate and defend state power as material gain, to become the workers’ state [10]. Trade unionist and revolutionary applications of organized force by the working-class originate with the inherent tendency toward the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles; it becomes the means by which the socialist movement grows as the prospect and perspective of communism [11]. Practical control of the means of production, of social and state power by the working-class is also the subversion and abolition of this power as the workers lack the capability to perform the historic function of a new exploiting class.

19 The agents and relations of capital are suppressed, repressed and subject to total extinction when the liberation of revolution finds itself locked in intercourse with the despotic-coercive organs of the workers’ state.

20 Organized force is both compliment and companion to the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism. Those routine instances of trade union violence (known by various euphemisms, such as ‘nightwork’ [12]) take on new qualities in the midst of the class movement becoming revolutionary movement and the immediate perspective of communism. Red Army of the Ruhr, the Lenin Boys, Extraordinary Commissions: the socialist movement will have its own nightwork in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Centers of Representation and Estrangement

From the twilight of primitive communism and the bourgeoning stratification of humanity, bureaucracy emerges as the administration of social relationships in societies divided into classes. There has never been an escape from bureaucracy– the developmental forces of production which engender bureaucratization released an irresistible pathogenic process. Rather than an omnipotent Judas operating within the working-class, the trade union bureaucracy appears as a fait accompli of labor’s class struggles. Vivisecting any particular episode of the class struggle allows for a reconstruction of the moment of creation of the trade union bureaucracy. As social forces rather than isolated events, workers’ contingent demands of and spontaneous resistance to capital produce combinations in a variety of forms. Informal discussions and fraternal groupings may develop into organs of struggle with the delegation of tasks, articulation of demands and formal meetings. The first test in the course of labor’s class struggles is reached when the organs of struggle dissolve or maintain their form with the victory or defeat of the struggle. Dissolution of the organic forms and leadership at the conclusion of a given class struggle aborts the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism at this embryonic stage. The choice to maintain these intermediary, embryonic, contingent organs of struggle as the basis of workers’ combinations exists as such due to the impossibility of permanent mobilization by any (greater or lesser) segment of the working-class. The exigencies of labor’s class struggles—i.e. to police and enforce gains extracted from concerted actions, to defend working and living conditions—produce a representation of the struggle in the content of trade unionism. Definition of material gains and the consolidation and defense of these gains is an embalming process, turning living class struggles into dead class struggles.

The Strawberry Affair (1932)

Unlike most national union leaders, Jimmy Hoffa entered the trade union bureaucracy as a child—elected vice president of a shop-level union as a teenager—and would remain a part of it until he disappeared in the midst of his effort to win back the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1975 at 62 years old. Like an intangible martyr of some ancient and forgotten religion, his cradle to the grave role in the trade union bureaucracy ended in the spectacle of sacrificial murder. This lifetime spent as a representative of organized and organizing labor began when Hoffa took a job in a Detroit grocery warehouse owned by the Kroger’s company. With the Great Depression as an alibi, wages, hours and working conditions were maintained at unbearable extremes; it was a ‘hot shop’ permeated with dozens of individual grievances. The teenage Hoffa made several friends at his new job, most of whom were other young workers aside from a relatively older man named Sam Calhoun. Calhoun had prior union experience from earlier jobs which seems to have influenced how this clique of friends became a fraternal grouping of co-workers. Official Teamsters history describes the defining point of resistance in the arbitrary termination of two warehousemen who went on their lunch break only to be fired on their return to work in April 1932, after which Hoffa and his circle of friends began compiling the grievances held by their co-workers. A routine delivery of fresh strawberries to the warehouse a month later was met with a mostly spontaneous refusal by the warehousemen to load the perishable fruit onto trucks bound for Kroger’s retail grocery stores until their boss agreed to hear and address their grievances. The fraternal group of Hoffa-Calhoun became de facto strike leaders, negotiating on the loading dock with the warehouse manager who acceded to their demand for a meeting. The next morning at the promised meeting, individual grievances that had been collated earlier by the Hoffa-Calhoun clique became the basis of their bargaining on behalf of all of the warehousemen, their fraternal grouping acting as the vehicle for the articulation and definition of material gains to be extracted from the struggle. In this case, job security and work rule improvements derived from the organization, terms and conditions of labor unique to their workplace were won; the strike was a success [13]. A mandate of legitimacy was conferred upon the fraternal grouping with the act of articulation and definition of material gains; their organic leadership simultaneously derived from and solidified by this act. The exigencies of the moment– enforcement of these now defined and newly won gains in the workplace—prompted the human architecture distilled and selected in the struggle to maintain their form. Immediately following their victory, the workers elected Sam Calhoun president of this new, now formal trade union, while the teenage Jimmy Hoffa was elected vice president. This specific incident of concerted action was embalmed in the consolidation and defense of the specific job security and work rule improvements extracted from the strike. Hoffa and Calhoun became administrators of the new relationship in the warehouse, personifications of the contingent needs and interests of their co-workers, representatives of the labor side of the capital-labor relation in the four-walls of the warehouse the day after the strike action. In a final metamorphosis, this new balance of forces and representation of the class struggle was made a tangible reality through the simple actions of renting an office, purchasing a roll-top desk and printing business cards under the auspices of the independent trade union. This new relation in the warehouse was from that moment a fact, both socially and physically. In the months following these events, the Hoffa-Calhoun leadership would explore affiliation with several permanent trade unions before settling on Teamsters local 299. Every action was imbued with significance because of the legitimacy granted the effort by the workers involved—a legitimacy born from the act of articulation and definition of gains. In place of permanent mobilization by the workers to enforce and police the gains defined and extracted from the class struggle, a representation of this class struggle was produced as a component of concerted actions in the human architecture distilled and selected from among participants in the struggle. All future concerted actions by the warehousemen would be made in reference to this fact in their workplace– the trade union structure, the bureaucracy that administers the consolidation and defense of past gains as personifications of labor’s interests and needs. A practice of permanent resistance emanates from those organs of struggle which maintain their form with the victory or defeat of concerted action. These structural embodiments of dead class struggles require legitimacy to maintain the social and physical fact of their existence. The requirements placed on organized labor to defend past and win new material gains compel organs of struggle to seek a center of resistance by affiliation, amalgamation or merger. For the Kroger’s warehousemen, the established jurisdiction of Detroit local 299 of the Teamsters provided an existing center of resistance that could assimilate the Hoffa-Calhoun bureaucracy along with their embryonic combination. In this fashion through a myriad of analogous situations, in every practice of resistance/demands, the combined trade union bureaucracy is produced and reproduced.


Rises and declines in the metrics of trade unionism are only moments in the general relation of organized labor to the cycles of capital accumulation [14]. Legitimacy is a subterranean force in the life of the working-class and its manifestations of organized and organizing labor– it cannot be quantified or estimated until it appears and openly announces and establishes itself. Linear development has never graced the working-class, whether in its tortured movement toward emancipation or routine practice of resistance/demands. Mass desertions, collapse of internal organizations (local, regional, industrial) and other symptoms of a declining long wave in the metrics of trade unionism are only moments in the life of organized labor over time. These oscillations affect individual organizations differently– some demonstrate wildly exaggerated swings in influence, membership and presence. One estimate puts the total membership of the United Mine Workers of America at approximately 10,000 at the turn of the 20thcentury. By the end of the First World War, a national master wage agreement had been negotiated with the coal operators and the membership rolls topped 400,000. Within ten years the total membership of UMWA had fallen by almost 80%; of those remaining, nearly all were counted in the ranks of UMWA District 12 in Illinois’ coal fields in 1929 [15]. At the bottom of this existential correction, two dual unions emerged to challenge UMWA’s monopoly over the organized coal miners: the National Miners Union affiliated to the Trade Union Unity League (founded 1928) and the Progressive Miners of America (founded 1932). The NMU-TUUL was a small organization supported by the Communist Party USA, which found only a small echo– primarily among the desperate and violently repressed miners in Harlan County, Kentucky and small pockets of expelled radical miners elsewhere. The PMA was an attempt by UMWA’s elected and appointed officers in Illinois, District 12’s ‘Fishwick-Farrington machine’, to leverage the bulk of the union’s membership and form a new AFL miner’s union. Between 1932 and 1935 the rump United Mine Workers bled the NMU and quarantined the PMA–reconciling with the Communists and rebuilding its Illinois organization—while reorganizing hundreds of thousands of coal miners. Beneath the life support which sustains dual unions (political parties, governments, employers), the working-class chooses for itself which trade union receives a mandate of legitimacy. Class discipline derives from this legitimacy:

“Union men are usually self-disciplined, understand orders and obey the officers who give these orders, which originated in the trade unions themselves.” – James Sullivan, ‘Facts About the Trade Unions’, American Federationist Vol. V #10 (1898)

AA-SWOC (Merger)

Several metalworkers unions would merge in 1876 to become the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA). The 58 pages of work rules AA imposed on Carnegie Steel in the late 19th century remains an impressive display of organizational virility. By 1933 it was a senile and decaying organization of several thousand members, worn down by broken strikes, state repression and increasing centralization and concentration of capital in the industry, culminating in the formation of the US Steel trust and ‘Little Steel’ cartel. The Amalgamated Association– the union of Homestead, the leading force of the Great Steel Strike of 1919—received an overwhelming mandate from the working-class when 150,000 workers surged into it between the middle of 1933 and early 1934, requesting membership cards, local union charters and strike leadership. Immediately bloated by this condensation of rising class struggles, AA proved itself incapable of organizing the masses of workers who sought membership and leadership, lacking an infrastructure to integrate them. Within two years, AA membership reverted back to its core of approximately 8,000 members who primarily worked in tin shops rather than the huge steel mills. By 1936, the CIO under its own auspices (the split from the AFL then forthcoming) attempted to convince AA to affiliate with the promise of a huge staff and large treasury to unionize steel. The AFL made a similar offer of funds and staff for a massive organizing effort to keep the Association away from John L. Lewis and the other dissident leaders. The Association chose the CIO on June 4th and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) was formed and chartered by the CIO three days later on June 7th, 1936. In exchange for the promised budget and staff, the Amalgamated Association was absorbed as a constituent of SWOC. Immediately after this relationship was consummated, SWOC opened 3 regional offices and 35 sub-regional offices, hired dozens of professional staff (lawyers, economists), 158 field directors and full-time organizers, 80 part-time organizers, while also mobilizing and directing up to 5,000 volunteer organizers. Veteran UMWA staff and allies were appointed to the top of the organization to direct the campaign and distribute the funds. The Amalgamated Association was reduced to two roles within this massive effort: issuing charters to each new local union organized by SWOC, and servicing the legacy members of AA and their collective bargaining agreements. At a convention in Cleveland in 1942, delegates voted to dissolve both the AA and SWOC and found a single, unified organization– the United Steelworkers of America. Between 1936 and 1942 the structure of the Amalgamated Association moved toward voluntary extinction as an independent agent, and after the founding of the United Steelworkers it could no longer be differentiated within the new trade union center. With such a robust and immediate infrastructure in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, in hindsight the Amalgamated Association seems superfluous to the effort to organize the trust and cartel of the steel industry. And yet, despite its utter impotence and incapacity to act on the overwhelming mandate from American steelworkers, the Amalgamated Association still held its legitimacy before the class. Its place within the Steel Workers Organizing Committee as the issuer of new charters wasn’t an afterthought: the massive apparatus funded, staffed and organized by UMWA-CIO relied on AA to transmit its legitimacy to the whole operation. Only after the struggles at the US Steel trust and Little Steel cartel concluded with company signatures on collective bargaining agreements did the SWOC-AA merge meaningfully into one new, centralized trade union International operating in its own name [16].


Legitimacy and time are the two variables affecting the trajectory of the trade union bureaucracy/trade union structure. A life cycle of formation, restructuring and merger follows the practice of permanent resistance that is characteristic of trade union organizations. After formation, after the subjects of workers’ concerted and mass actions congeal around the material gains defined and won in the class struggle as a new permanent trade union, the trade union bureaucracy exists to defend the trade union as a gain of the class struggle in and of itself through the administration of the social and physical fact of their existence in the workplace and in the class. Obedience to this self-preservation is trade union discipline, derived from the mandate of legitimacy granted the organization. When existing trade unions are deficient in legitimacy, participants of labor’s class struggles will create a new center of resistance. Such was the case in the formation of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). An archipelago of worker’s combinations had formed across the electrical manufacturing industry in the 1930’s; a clusterfuck of plant, shop, departmental unions– independent, AFL and TUUL affiliated– temporary, semi-permanent, permanent. American Federation of Labor directly-affiliated Federal local union 18368 at the Philco radio set plant in Philadelphia was the exception. A spontaneous strike in 1933 and a contingent organization no different from the plethora of others in the industry at that time led to a long list of inexplicable concessions from a major electronics employer: wage increases, grievance machinery, seniority rights and a union shop. Swollen by a membership that included all 8,000 workers in the plant with a treasury that was growing rapidly, it became concerned about its precarious position as the sole successful organization in the industry. The Philco Federal local protected its gains by becoming the bulwark of unionism in the electronics industry, organizing the other AFL affiliated Federal local unions into a single entity (Radio and Allied Trades National Labor Council) while going behind the back of the AFL to carry on secret discussions with the independent and TUUL unions. Industrial unionism was not an ideology but a practical reality– AFL affiliates like the Patternmakers, Machinists and Electrical Workers had launched dozens of organizing drives in the preceding decades with no durable results and the new upsurge had already developed inter-trade organizations. A crisis of legitimacy developed from the inability of existing organizations to become the center of resistance to successfully integrate the workers’ embryonic combinations in the electronics industry. The Philco organization took the lead in pressuring the AFL for a national charter and barring this outcome, led the initiative to form what became UE [17]. Formation of a new trade union center followed the practical absence of capabilities from existing organizations; it was a reluctant path. Confronted with the same wave of concerted and mass actions, the crafts of the building trades proved far more elastic and capable of evolution through restructuring. In 1938 the International Union of Operating Engineers would ratify a new International Constitution & By-Laws that codified administrative modifications made throughout the decade of the Great Depression in response to a combative working-class movement. Preparing for an influx of new members to their small and pure craft locals, the ‘permit fee’ system, under which a worker paid a local union for a permission slip to work on a project under the local’s jurisdiction or contract, was standardized to one set rate for every IUOE local union. A branch-local system was designed and introduced in which existing, new and potential members were organized based on skill level. In a given geographic jurisdiction, skilled journeymen would belong to the local union proper (ex. Local 1), firemen/oiler apprentices in an ‘A-branch’ (ex. Local 1-A) and unskilled construction workers in a ‘B-branch’ (ex. Local 1-B). These new ‘B-branches’ of IUOE locals were used to integrate ancillary construction workers that did not engage in building, i.e. from sand and gravel pits, quarries, etc. [18]. Despite craft unionism being displaced by industrial unionism as the dominant mode of representation through situations such as that found in the electronics industry, many craft unions like the IUOE retained their legitimacy before the class. In such a situation, restructuring (evolution) is necessary for the trade union bureaucracy to maintain its social and physical existence, otherwise it will be forced to merge (dissolve) into another.

Bureaucracy is the oxygen of the trade unions, their structure and the basis of their functionality. Reactionary, anti-class policies emanating from a given leadership or directing center do not change the fundamental content of trade unionism or necessarily alter the legitimacy a labor organization has before the class. The life cycle of trade union structures continues with time in spite of any individual traits and characteristics of a particular organization, their relative internal democracy or autocracy, progressive or regressive policies, etc. Persuasion and coercion, moral and practical leadership, have remained the means by which a political struggle in the trade unions is waged for the working-class (“. . . we couldn’t rule out the possibility that one day, during a new wave of workers’ struggles, it might be possible to roll back the [Italian General Confederation of Labor’s] policy, alter its structure and win it back (all or in part) to a class political line. Thus we used to talk about … – beating it back into shape.” Il Partito Comunista #64, Outside and Against the Existing Trade Unions, 1979). All of the ideologies of capital are interchangeable as the default and perennial ideologies of existing society, and will only be overturned on the political terrain in the unions/in the class by the worker’s political party [19].


Control is the basis for the forms engendered by the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism, manifestations of organized and organizing labor, to reach the most acute phase of the class struggle and produce the raw materials necessary to construct a workers’ state. American labor’s heritage of class violence to secure and defend wage rates and collective bargaining rights against an abnormally ferocious domestic capital painfully demonstrates that the question of force is reached in the course of daily class struggles, requiring neither radicalization nor politicization as prerequisites. Worker’s power is nothing but organized force made in relation or reference to worker’s (direct/indirect) control—of private property, the means of production and distribution, the fruits of labor.

Direct control: Homestead (1892), Seattle (1919), West Virginia (1920) [20]

Indirect control: Alaska (1986), Pennsylvania (1970) [21]

Escalating moral and physical pressure is a compulsion for organized and organizing labor in the assertion of its interests and needs; with a rising wave of class struggles, the scale of resistance/demands and control/power rise in tandem and the construction of a workers’ state becomes an immediate potential. The scale of workers’ resistance/demands and concerted/mass actions may topple the political bodies and ruling parties of existing society as workers’ combinations take on the forms of control/power subject to overt politicization. American labor defense guards (1938), French factory occupations (1968) and Portuguese demonstrations of armed workers and peasants (1974)– each episode remained only a homunculus of the forms of the workers’ state, a puppet of limbs and organs absent the potential for the socialist transformation of society inherent to the proletarian dictatorship [22]. Trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation may pose the question of force but cannot maintain control (of geographic territory or private property) or wield state power without the mediation of the workers’ political party. Without political leadership, the Amalgamated men at Homestead, the organized trades of Seattle and the armed miners of West Virginia can only prostrate themselves (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) before the forces of the state militia or regular army sent to repress them. This leadership is accomplished by winning a fraction of the class, the minority selected from among participants of workers’ practice of spontaneous resistance/contingent demands—concerted/mass actions—to the socialist programme, who will, in process, transubstantiate the forms of concerted/mass actions and workers’ combinations into the articulation and definition, consolidation and defense of state power as material gain. Winning Eugene Debs, architect of the American Railway Union and Pullman strike of 1894, winning William Z. Foster, leader of the great packinghouse and steel strikes of 1919, and organizing the Albion hall group, the nucleus who would initiate and lead the 1934 San Francisco waterfront (general) strike, demonstrate the practical experience of this process in the history of the worker’s party in America; while only on the level of daily class struggles, the content of trade union work by the workers’ party remains unchanged until the scale of workers’ resistance/demands and control/power allow for the definition, consolidation and defense of state power as material gain. The workers’ state as the definitive form of the proletarian dictatorship is the final stage and highest incarnation of labor’s class struggles by virtue of trade unionism– derived from the content of wage labor in the capitalist epoch—embodying wholly every phenomena of self-organization by the working-class. When this minority distilled and selected from workers’ concerted/mass actions is won in greater or lesser numbers by the workers’ party and congeals around the definition, consolidation and defense of state power as material gain, they simultaneously structuralize the organization of power by the working-class as a whole by becoming the human architecture (structure/bureaucracy) of the workers state while administering the new social and physical fact of proletarian dictatorship under the direction of the worker’s party:

“It is the Party alone which therefore represents, organizes and directs the proletarian dictatorship


Dictatorship is the second and dialectical aspect of revolutionary force” (Bordiga)

This bureaucracy of the workers’ state differs in no way from that of the trade unions, in composition, character or function. The legitimacy held by the (generated and regenerated) trade union bureaucracy, historic or existing, and the voluntary, organic discipline derived thereof transfers wholly to the workers’ political party when its agents and subjects can be found in the fractions of the class and minority of participants in labor’s class struggles, distilled and selected to become the human architecture of a new labor organization; those with the mandate to articulate and define material gains to be extracted from the class struggle and carry out and lead the consolidation and defense of these now defined gains. Proletarian dictatorship is in perfect continuity with classical trade unionism [23], in its practice, substance and structure and its only possible origin in the lived experience of the struggle between labor-capital [24][25].

In Relief

American Federation of Labor organizer W.S. McEwen would write that the basic principle of trade unionism is, “mutual protection against organized and unorganized capital and the regulation of wages and hours of labor.” To this fundamental definition Marx would add, “. . . unconsciously to themselves, the trades’ unions were forming centers of organization of the working-class.” A progression from these fundamentals to the workers’ state as the final act and ultimate conclusion of trade unionism is only possible by picking from the corpse of the Third International:

“If Marxism and Lenin, in What Is To Be Done?, say that the proletariat’s spontaneity is trade unionist, this is because the proletariat is subjected to the political influence of the other classes (bourgeois and petit-bourgeois) and not because the proletariat is in and of itself trade unionist” (Cervetto)

Our starting point is the opposite of Cervetto’s conclusion drawn from the experiences of the labor movement: the working-class is in and of itself trade unionist, beginning with the dual content of wage labor (reproduction/negation of capital) and by this contradictory content carries the agency to transform capitalism into communism by its capacity to engender and abolish its own class dictatorship through the class struggle. Trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles is by default permanently subject to the political influence of other classes; only the worker’s party can overcome this influence and even then only with permanent vigilance. Yet all of labor’s class struggles are conspiracies against private property—the class for itself no more than the class in itself is but trade unionist.

“The proletariat carries out the sentence which private property passes upon itself by its creation of a proletariat.


If the trades’ unions are required for the guerilla fight between capital and labor, they are still more important as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wage labor and capital rule.” (Marx)

“The true measure of the strength of a Communist Party is the influence it has on the mass of trade unionists.


The tactics of the Communist International should be based on a systematic drive to win the majority of the working-class, first and foremost within the old trade unions” (Lenin)

The organized fraction of the working-class held such importance for the successful extension of the proletarian dictatorship beyond Soviet Russia after October 1917 by being the selected minority which is and always has been representative– socially and physically– of the class struggles between labor and capital under the capitalist social relation. After organized and organizing labor has seized political power in its definition, consolidation and defense of state power as material gain through the intervention of the workers’ party, the trade unions become a “reservoir of state power,” (Lenin) under the dictatorship of the proletariat. By perpetually constituting and reconstituting representations of its class struggles—the selection of a minority of participants who personify workers’ interests and needs, imbued with the mandate of legitimacy from their fellow workers and by virtue of this legitimacy can command discipline (embalming of living class struggles into dead class struggles)– a fraction of this human architecture is diverted by the workers’ party from the generation and regeneration of the trade union bureaucracy into the structure of the workers’ state. While one and the same in its origins—its practice, substance and structure—with the trade unions, the structure/bureaucracy of the workers state operates under different organizing principles: from the Paris commune, delegates who may be recallable at any time—“any separation between the producers on the periphery and the bureaucrats at the center is thus eliminated by means of systematic rotation” (Bordiga)– administer the social and physical fact of workers’ control/power over society as a whole by the class as a whole. Over time, with the complete consolidation and defense of state power as material gain, the concrete forms of the proletarian dictatorship—the administrative and coercive organs of the workers’ state—develop the same conservative tendencies present in the trade union bureaucracy.

“We are a democratic organization. . . but we are democratic in proportion to the results obtained.” – Delegate [John] Bookjans, Local 237, Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, 1927 Convention [26]

While trade unions are host to the contradiction of organizing a conspiracy against private property while meeting capital’s needs to sustain the social and physical fact of their existence, the dictatorship of the proletariat as workers’ state hosts a far deeper contradiction: maintaining the power of the working-class, a class definitively unable to become a new exploiting class, in a society in transition from capitalism to socialism under the conditions of a permanent conspiracy against international capital.

“’The governmentalization of the trade unions is inevitable, their fusion with the state power is inevitable’ in the course of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. . . This will take place when the organs by which the one class exercises violence over another will be completely in the hands of the workers.”- A.S. Lozovsky, Lenin and the Trade Union Movement (1924)

By the continuation of increasingly acute class struggles between capital-labor under the proletarian dictatorship, fresh minorities are distilled and selected from among participants in these struggles to animate the organs of workers’ control/power and the fraction organized within and by the worker’s party; the diversion of labor’s human architecture by the workers’ party becomes the permanent mode of operation of the workers’ state for the duration of the proletarian dictatorship. This ‘governmentalization of the trade unions’ is a post-October reevaluation of the programme of classical trade unionism as written in the blood and entrails of Budapest’s factory proletariat: the emancipation of labor “is impossible to accomplish outside of the unions or against their will” (Lozovsky)—a lesson drawn from the mistakes and weaknesses of the Hungarian revolution and the White Terror that consumed the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919—and articulated plainly as the strategy of the Communist International from its Second Congress in 1920. Trade unionism in its practice, substance and structure are differently and identically contained moments of the same process: the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation from which no manifestation of organized and organizing labor can develop independently.

200 years of trade unionism in America preceded, paralleled and carried on after the founding and dissolutions of the International Workingmen’s Association, Social Democracy and the Communist International in succession. The content of organized labor simultaneously carried the inspiration for the unique programme of the working-class elaborated in the Manifesto of the Communist Party and continues to provide its practical demonstration.

“The first and main object should be, if a reduction of wages cannot be successfully resisted, accept it; but maintain your organization, for by that means, and that means only, can we at the earliest possible time regain our lost ground and even something more.” (Samuel Gompers)

“From time to time the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” (Communist Manifesto)

The line running through Marx, Engels and Lenin finds expression in the lived experience of trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles—their characterizations remaining literal and contemporary as the fixed, determinant elements of capitalism remain unchanged. Jimmy Hoffa as much as Samuel Gompers, the International Association of Machinists as much as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, represents a social force, a necessary and integral dynamic to the emancipation of labor as elaborated over two centuries of class struggle—a subterranean force, forgotten or abandoned, that every day affirms:

“There is no ‘new method’ in this struggle.” (Second Congress of the Third International, Ninth Session on the Trade Union Question)


[1] Karl Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, ‘6. Trades Unions: Their Past, Present and Future’ (1866)

[2] Karl Marx, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, reprinted in the Penguin Classics edition of Capital vol. I, p. 1069.

[3] “The class struggle is constantly being fuelled because the material conditions that generate it haven’t been eliminated.” Communist Left #34, For the Class Union (2013)

[4] “Reformist: the movements which, in not desiring the sharp and violent overthrow of traditional institutions, profit from the very strong pressure of the productive forces on them and sanctions gradual and partial changes of the existing order.

Revolutionary: (we adopt the term anti-formists); the movements which demand and put into practice the attack on the old forms, and which even before knowing how to theorize about the character of the new regime, tend to break from the old, provoking irresistible birth of new forms.” Amadeo Bordiga, The Fundamentals for a Marxist Orientation (1946)

[5] Louis Fraina, Revolutionary Socialism: A Study in Socialist Reconstruction, Chapter XI: Unionism and Mass Action (1918) Socialist Party of America

[6] “The parties agree that the principle of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay shall be observed at all times and employees shall perform their duties in a manner that best represents the Employer’s interest.” Teamsters United Parcel Service National Negotiating Committee, UPS National Master Agreement 2013 – 2018, Article 37 Section 1 (a)

[7] “The chief reason why the ‘socialists’ do not understand the dictatorship of the proletariat is that they do not carry the idea of the class struggle to its logical conclusion. . . The dictatorship of the proletariat is the continuation of class struggle of the proletariat in new forms. . . The proletariat, as a special class, alone continues to wage its class struggle. The state is only a weapon of the proletariat in its class struggle. A special kind of cudgel, rien de plus!” V. I. Lenin, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1919)

[8] Amadeo Bordiga, Proletarian Dictatorship and Class Party (1951)

[9] V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)

[10] “For the armed peasants and workers as the embodiment of state power are simultaneously the products of the struggle of the soviets and the precondition for their existence.” Georg Lukasc, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (1924)

[11] “Dictatorship is the second and dialectical aspect of revolutionary force.” Amadeo Bordiga, Force, Violence and Dictatorship in the Class Struggle (1946)

[12] In the parlance of Ironworkers local 401 in Philadelphia as revealed in the prosecution of a dozen officers and members for arson and racketeering in 2014-15, organized force was known by the euphemism ‘nightwork’.

[13] Bob Mack, “They All Went Up”: The Story of the National Master Freight Agreement, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (2012).

[14] “A cursory glance at labor’s history from the beginning of trades unionism in the [1830’s], through the various periods of cyclic crises, shows with almost unfailing regularity the same phenomenon. During times of ‘prosperity’, with its labor shortage and the cost of living invariably out leaping raises in wages, aggressive strike offensives and expansion of trade unions were on the order of the day. These just as surely changed when a new crisis set in. While these were often accompanied with desperate and violent revolts, the character and often repeated defeats of the defensive strikes turned the workers’ attention toward struggle for political reforms which were often expressed through various forms of labor or middle class parties. This may be said to have been particularly marked up until the ‘great upheaval’ in [1885 and 1886]; but a similar recurrence of developments of more recent date can be noticed.” Arne Swabeck, Next Steps of the American Workers (1930).

[15] Swabeck’s partial survey of United Mine Workers membership in 1929 (“The Thieves Fall Out in the Miners Union”):

West Virginia: 77 dues-paying members.

Pennsylvania: 1,374 dues-paying members.

Ohio: 1,061 dues-paying members.

Kentucky: 77 dues-paying members.

Indiana: 10,609 dues-paying members.

Illinois: 53,088 dues-paying members.

[16] Louis Adamic, “Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America” (1931; 2008).

[17] R.L. Filippelli, M. D. McColloch, “Cold War in the Working Class: The Rise and Decline of the United Electrical Workers” (1995).

[18] G.L. Mangum, J. Walsh, Union Resilience in Troubled Times: The Story of the Operating Engineers, AFL-CIO, 1960-1993 (1994).

[19] “Organization is the form of mediation between theory and practice. And, as in every dialectical relationship, the terms of the relation only acquire concreteness and reality in and by virtue of this mediation,” (Lukasc), “it’s only in the party that the inversion of praxis is found and where we accordingly find consciousness at the origin of action” (International Communist Party), “the highest form of proletarian class organization” (Lenin).

[20] The Amalgamated men at Homestead (1892) were compelled to seize and hold the steel works with rifles to defend their working and living conditions, via defending the integrity– the social and physical fact– of their union’s existence, from Frick and the Pinkerton’s. Seattle’s general strike (1919) gave pulse and breath to the classical vision of the emancipation of labor (“It was the feudal system that rendered the capital system possible. It is the capitalistic system that will make it possible for the people to establish for themselves a government (by and through the power and efforts of well-organized trade unions) of, for and by the people in the full sense of the word.” – Louis Berliner, ‘Trade Unions and Trusts’, American Federationist Vol.V #1, 1898)

All of the organized crafts and trades of the city voted to join 35,000 striking shipyard workers in sympathy strike action, directed entirely by the official American Federation of Labor machinery. For a few days the city was possessed by its workers, with services and production operating only by order of the representatives and mandated committees of organized labor. During a brief episode in the coal wars, armed union miners controlled 400 square miles of West Virginia in which they expropriated goods, Shanghaied specialists and reorganized social life to suit their struggle with the coal operators.

[21] Alaska 1986: An ex-member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers founded an electrical contracting business in the 1980’s, Alaska Utility Construction (AUC), with non-union tradesmen that would compete directly with IBEW-represented contractors. The job to build a power line extension for the Eklutna water plant went to AUC, who then resisted union attempts to bring them under IBEW contract and uphold the wage scale, work rules and working conditions then prevailing in the region. An escalator of force, beginning with negotiation and moral pressure, followed by threats, intimidation and ending in physical violence was deployed by the union to prevent their existing and future wages and conditions from deteriorating through the existence of cheap open shop competitors. When the work could not be won to union standards through negotiation, the contractor was intimidated; when intimidation failed, the contractor was punished– forced to rely on heavy police protection for the jobsite, to rebuild that which had been vandalized or destroyed in the night and suffer from budget overages and costly production delays.

Pennsylvania 1970: The Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers was formed by dissatisfied owner-operator members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the late 1960’s, first as an internal grouping then as an external dual union. FASH’s Western Pennsylvania local was chartered in 1968, and would launch a strike against regional common carrier companies in April 1970 over economic demands. FASH members “established marshalling areas throughout Western Pennsylvania where other steel haulers were invited by FASH members to pull off the highway and participate in discussions. In many instances, these invitations resulted in shootings, arson, rock throwing, tire slashing and other assorted acts of wanton vandalism,” (US Steel, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, National Steel Corporation, Republic Steel Corporation and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit. Argued June 5, 1979. Decided July 10, 1979)

[22] “Control within the factory has a revolutionary and expropriative significance only after central power has passed into the hands of the proletariat” –Amadeo Bordiga, Towards the Establishment of Worker’s Councils in Italy (1920)

[23] “Great industries. . . are confronted with demands to sign contracts with groups which. . . demonstrate that they have. . . no conception of the validity or sanctity of a contract, no respect for property rights or for rights of any sort except their own.” – Business Week magazine on the wave of CIO sit-down strikes (1937)

[24] “For, after all, Soviet Russia is not a ‘country’. Soviet Russia is a part of the world labor movement. Soviet Russia is a strike-the greatest strike in all history.”– James Cannon, The Fifth Year of the Russian Revolution (1923)

[25] “The class struggle did not accidentally assume its latest form, the form in which the exploited class takes all the means of power in its own hands in order to completely destroy its class enemy, the bourgeoisie. . .” – V.I. Lenin, Report on the Activities of the Council of People’s Commissars (1918)

[26] Matthew Josephson, Union House, Union Bar: The History of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union AFL-CIO (1956)