The Marxist Perspective on Trade Unions (1804 Words)

Read this article to learn about the Marxist perspective on Trade Unions!

Marx saw both danger as well as promise in the trade union movement. The danger lay in the fact that trade unions, more often than not, tend to be inward looking.

They may be too preoccupied with local and immediate struggles against the might of capital, thus losing sight of the greater struggle to overthrow capitalism.

In this sense, trade unions, even if they are influenced by Marxist ideology, may degenerate to economism (i.e., the reduction of all social facts to the terms of economics).


Lenin in his work what is to be done? Made some observations on trade unions. These could be useful for understanding the Marxist perspective. Lenin noted that as long as workers fight for their rights and better conditions of employment, in individual cases, they remain involved in purely economic movements, such as demanding higher wages in a factory. They would be inward looking as they want to bring changes to their own environment. They could also ignore the problems of other workers in their own premises.

Factories or workplaces have permanent workers who are unionised. Besides, there are other categories such as temporary and contract workers. Temporary workers are those that are hired by the company for a short duration and they get neither full wages nor the security of permanent workers, while contract workers are those that are not directly employed by the company but are employed by labour contractors who are engaged by the company. They thus work as temporary workers and are not paid on par with regular workers, their remuneration being much lower. Temporary and contract workers do not have the same job security as the permanent ones.

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It would be expected of trade unions to take up the cause of all workers, whether they are permanent or not. However, most trade unions prefer to defend the interests of only the permanent workers as they are their members. Normally, the temporary or contract workers are not unionised. They do not join unions because they are afraid that they may be sacked if they are engaged in collective action. A Marxist approach would presume that all workers who face exploitation are defended.


When unions look towards the interests of their members and nowhere else, they are victims of economism. On the other hand, when a trade union that has its influence in one work unit joins hands with other unions to form a national or statewide alliance to change the conditions of workers throughout the country or the state, it becomes a real movement. It is a political movement because it tries to challenge the authorities of the state or it tries to modify policies. Such a movement is part of the overall struggle to control or overthrow capital.

Such movements can be seen whenever there are larger coordinated movements. They do not deal with firm or workplace-based issues. They attempt to change or modify existing policies or they seek to introduce new policies in favour of labour. For example, when workers in a factory under the leadership of their union demand a higher pay, this is economism, but when workers in the industry unite to demand a wages policy, it is a class-based movement because it attempts to introduce a new policy and in doing so they challenge the right of the capitalists to dictate terms.

The Marxist perspective looks at trade unions as having the potential of becoming organised agencies for superseding the very system of the rule of the capitalists. By undertaking class-based movements (instead of concentrating on economism), unions can help in creating class consciousness by uniting workers to struggle against the capitalists as a class.

Basis of Trade Unions:

According to the Marxist perspective, there is a basic contradiction between labour and capital. One sells its labour power and the other buys it. It is through bargaining between buyer and seller of labour power that wages are determined. Labour is usually at a disadvantage. Traditionally, there was a stage in which the individual worker bargained for their wages with the employer.


Trade unions, as we noted earlier, were born out of this situation. They try to unite workers as a collective unit, and not as individuals, against capital. The workers gradually understood that they had been competing with each other for getting jobs and, in the process; they were depressing the wage rate. Trade unions turned this competition into cooperation.

In some ways, any form of collective action by workers could be viewed as a positive step. Lenin in the same work quoted earlier had mentioned that when workers spontaneously oppose certain policies of management, they were not doing so in an organised and sustained manner.

Organisation and sustained movement over a period of time are the two hallmarks of trade unions, and they are not necessarily creations of spontaneous action. However, Lenin explained that a collective movement that was spontaneous exhibited class consciousness in an embryonic form: the workers were upset with what they termed as injustice and they reacted to it on impulse.

This however shows that the workers were willing to protest in a collective manner because they knew something was wrong with the system but they could not pinpoint what it was. This, Lenin thought, was a healthy form of collective action and it needed to be channelled through a permanent organisation like a trade union so that the protest could be sustained over a period of time.

We can thus see that criticism of the labour movement or of trade unions comes from within the Marxist perspective. It does not glorify trade unions as the sole messiah of the working class, and it makes a distinction between economism and concerted political action. Richard Hyman (1975), who used the Marxist approach to interpret trade union behaviour, is critical of trade unions because they are unable to look beyond the relations between capital and labour.

Trade unions play a limited role in the class struggle, the main role being played by the political movement which tends to look beyond trade unions and mobilises all sections of the oppressed. At the same time, Hyman does not feel that trade unions can be denied their revolutionary potential of changing society. He felt that, by and large, trade unions were engaged in challenging capital but not necessarily in attempting to overthrow it.

Ralph Miliband, another Marxist sociologist, had warned that when trade unions integrate with capital, they become agents of the state which blunts their revolutionary potential. Most trade unions, even those with Marxist affiliations, are content in wresting some rewards from capital.

Often, trade unions may collaborate with capital because of political reasons. Such trade unions may be co-opted by the state and they lose their power to protest. Miliband believed that trade unions must remain as protest bodies to protect labour even if the state becomes pro-labour. We can find several such instances taking place in India and in other countries. Trade unions in the former socialist countries were by and large co-opted by the state.

Trade unions became bodies that educated the workers on the positive aspects of government policies. They also engaged in cultural activities like encouraging workers to see progressive plays and participate in literary circles. This might have sounded all right when the regimes were in place.

However, after 1991, when the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states started crumbling, their trade unions were confused as to what their roles should be in this changed situation. Since trade unions had ceased to protest they were unable to lead the workers against the massive restructuring of their economies that led to hundreds and thousands losing their jobs. Trade unions failed in their duties or lost their initiative to protest against government policies and so, in many of these states, the working class, in utter frustration turned to neo-fascist as also religious movements.

In India, we find that trade unions are invariably affiliated to political parties .This affects their power to protest. For example, the INTUC, affiliated to the Congress party, is the second largest trade union federation in the country. Despite the number of its members and its size, INTUC and its affiliates rarely organise protests in states where the Congress party is in power.

Similarly, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) which was formed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1950s is cautious in organising movements in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJ P). In West Bengal and Tripura, which were dominated by the Left Front led by the CPM, we notice similar trends in the trade union movement.

CITU, affiliated to the CPM, is a fairly militant union in states other than West Bengal and Tripura, but in West Bengal, it rarely staged any demonstration against anti-working-class policies of the government during the long rule of the Left Front.

In both states, the union collaborated with the governments to bring about industrial peace so that it would not deter those who wanted to invest there. Surprisingly, in these states, the INTUC which is normally a union that would fall under the pluralist’ category became the militant upholder of labour rights.

We can see that the linkage of trade unions with political parties is not something exclusive to India. In most countries, trade union federations are affiliated to a political party. In the United States, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of labour unions, makes no qualms about supporting and funding the Democratic Party. In Britain, the TUC is affiliated to the Labour Party.

In France, the General Confederation of Workers (GCT) is affiliated to the Communist Party of France. In Italy, too, the majority federation is affiliated to the reformed communists, namely, Party of the Democratic Left. In Germany, the Confederation of German Unions (DGB) is affiliated to the Social Democrats.

Hence, we can see that in developed countries too there is a strong link between politics and the trade union movement. The main difference between the situation in those countries and in India is that here, the political parties control the trade unions whereas in the West, it is the trade unions that control the policies of the political party.

In Britain, for instance, when the TUC felt that the Labour Party was taking an anti-working-class stand in policy making, it decided to stop funding the party and threatened that the trade unions would publicly oppose its policies. In India, trade unions are dovetailed with political parties and hence they forgo their right to protest when the political party is not in favour of such action, something evident from the examples cited above.

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