Unions and the Road to Socialism

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Milton Fisk

THE FAMILIAR MODEL of union struggle has been ineffective in attempts to change capitalism. I will try to explain why unions have not shaken capitalism’s foundations. The explanation will point to the failure to challenge inequalities in returns to labor and capital from production.

A new model, developed by labor in conjunction with other radical social agents, has the possibility of being effective. This new model depends on extending boundaries of earlier views of fairness to make them effective in joint struggles.

Marx on Unions

Karl Marx was one of the early thinkers who linked unions and socialism. What kind of link did he have in mind? There were two steps in Marx’s linking unions and socialism.(1) But neither suggests that union membership or activity would make socialists.

The first step is that, through unions, workers improve their chances of protection from their employers’ demands. They do this by actions taken together and for the good of all their members.

Moreover, in a union or a group of unions the context of their actions was not limited to solidarity and mutual trust. It also included a sense of the righteousness associated with their defense against the competitive drive among capitalists for greater profits. An expansion of these would be necessary before becoming the motivating bases for socialism.

Second, through political parties, workers could not only enhance their strength in confronting employers but also join in effective struggles to change the society. In Marx’s time, these were parties of a socialist nature, so the issue was not whether unions would be the source of such parties but rather how unions and socialist parties would relate to one another.

The socialism advocated by the socialist parties called for solidarity, trust and righteousness, not just within the working class — the expansion of these three traits went beyond the unions to the entire society. The union-socialism link was, then, not direct but through the workings of the socialist parties that unions relied on to chip away at capitalism.

With the rise of capitalism, employers had to rely increasingly on the state for support in clashes with employees. This required workers to act on two fronts, one facing capitalist enterprise and another facing the capitalist state.

To succeed, unions had to protect worker interests by resisting the state when it intervened on the side of employers. Marx then saw the need for workers to engage in political struggle alongside economic struggle. This expansion of struggle would enable workers to intervene at the level of the society broadly conceived, not merely within the work place.

In linking unions and socialism, Marx emphasized that the struggle of workers in unions against capitalists could reach its goal only when this struggle becomes part of a political struggle against the capitalist state, the main bulwark of capitalism.

This expansion of the struggle against employers to include one against the state led not just to confrontation with the state, but also to union workers finding new allies in groups defending the interests of people of color, women, immigrants and others. Such a common front based on motives of solidarity, trust and justice could give these motives a broader meaning for changing an entire society.

The Inverse Relation

It was supposed, since early times, that the product of labor did not belong to hired laborers but to those who hired them. On this assumption, the reward to labor was detached from the value of its product.

A labor market could then emerge based on scarcity of labor, parallel to a product market based on the scarcity of products. This separation of labor from its product rules out talk about labor’s getting its fair share of the product of labor.

For labor, though, sharing in the gains of production is a common demand. Should that share be enough for a decent living? Or should it be enough to equalize the gains of the average worker with those of the average investor?

But no one on the corporate side wastes time on such a question. For them, sharing gains is never more than a means of attracting the workforce they need and of keeping it peaceful.

In thinking about reforms, most unions are not yet posing the possibility of sharing the results of labor in some sense equally with investors. If they were, they would be running against a longstanding trend within capitalism. This trend is for the rate of profit made on capital investment to exceed the growth rate of output by a worker.

In good periods and bad for capitalists, the rate of profit for the capitalist stays ahead of productivity of the worker. In recent times, the productivity of workers has grown but the separation between their income and that of investors widens.(2)

Union members, as well, seem accepting of gains dwarfed by those made by capitalists. When the economy falters, they are generally accepting of losses deeper than those suffered by capitalists. As regards the losses, this is evident in concessionary bargaining by unions dating before and certainly since the Great Recession of 2008.

Figures appear showing, in good times and bad, that collectively the top few percent in income and wealth make and have more than all those together who earn what workers do. As a rule, there is an inverse relation in a given period, when gains or losses of capital are paired with lesser gains or greater losses by labor.(3)

In sum, even when business sales generate a higher rate of return on investment, there is in general no automatic increase of a comparable size in total worker remuneration. Indeed, without a struggle it is doubtful that they get an increase. In addition, when business sales generate a smaller rate of return on investment, businesses try to offset the loss by cutting workers’ wages, benefits, hours or jobs.

How is the inverse relation relevant to the question of the revolutionary potential of unions? To seek an answer, we do well to begin with a broader question, one about the relation of unions to capitalism. Unions tend to guide workers far enough to create an awareness (and implicit acceptance) in them of the inverse relation between capitalist and worker gains.

The close tie of unions to capitalism — expressed in the inverse relation between increases in total profits and increases in total wages — lets us classify unions as “organizations of capitalism.”(4) This tolerance on the part of capitalism for unions as junior partners came not from high-mindedness but from capitalism’s recognition of its need for social stability.

So unions, as watchdogs for labor rights, became state-sanctioned and regulated organizations within capitalism. They tended to become as much a part of the structure of capitalist society as outfits that supply factors of production other than labor.

Forms of Radical Unionism

Unions might nonetheless play a role in the making of socialist workers. For one thing, those who join a union will learn that its demands often meet with derision as being unrealistic. Moreover, employers counter union demands by threatening layoffs or moves to low wage areas, and fund campaigns for anti-union legislation.

Such steps lead many unionists to take a negative view of employers. But will these steps turn unions and their members in a socialist direction?

First, union activists often find that they cannot respond adequately to employers’ attacks without setting things straight within their own unions. The lack of democracy within unions blunts efforts by unions to be effective in defending workers’ interests. Thus we have militant unionists, like those in Teamsters for a Democratic Union who challenge Teamster officials who are content with existing relations with employers.

Defeating undemocratic leaders, however, does not of itself turn a union in a socialist direction. What it may do is open the union to the possibility of challenging an employer’s rejection of its demands.

Second, union responses to employers’ rejections of union demands have a limited goal. They do not try to end the pattern of the rate of return on capital growing faster than the rate of return to labor. They aim to satisfy mainly the immediate demands of unions. Their demands are the core of union militancy, even though they may not threaten the inverse relation.

The immediate target of this kind of militancy might be either capitalist or public employers. The restrictions imposed on public employees often have their origin in the capitalist class’s efforts to limit taxation.

The Chicago teachers, in their strike of 2012, protested cutting teachers, schools, and school activities. Financiers and industrialists impressed on the mayor’s office the need to keep their taxes low.(5)

There were also the Greek public workers in their long-term protests against cuts.(6) Here too the employers’ motivation was to avoid taxes by hiding money in Swiss banks and by voting in the parliament against tax raises. In each case, the antagonists of the public unions were ultimately capitalists influencing public policy.

We set out looking for a way that union activity might influence their members toward socialist ideas. We have not yet found such a way. True, the task of unions implies reducing the share of the product going to investors; but socialists wish to eliminate any share.

Merely reducing the rate at which capital grows in this way is compatible with capital’s continual growth. Moreover, in accord with the inverse relation, capitalists as a group realize a rate of return on their total investment that is greater than the growth rate of workers’ wages.

A Different Approach: Extension of Ideas

Major social changes often involve modifications of ideas rather than the creation of totally new ones. The modifications tend to involve extensions of ideas beyond their initial boundaries.

An idea is open to extensions when its boundaries lack definition in certain directions. None of this implies abandoning struggle, but it does point to the role of ideas in opening new directions for struggles to take.(7)

The idea of a “fair wage” has been a central one in discourse about gains and losses between labor and capital. The earlier ideas of a fair division underwent extensions when collective bargaining became its mechanism. A socialist proposal intended to resolve the labor-capital polarity goes further, to make satisfying human needs the core of a just distribution.

This way of thinking about how people change their norms involves extensions of normative concepts in common use.

Perhaps the most noted is an example from the French Revolution.

The normative idea of liberty in 18th-century French Enlightenment thinkers played a guiding role in undercutting the monarchy and the nobility. The interpretation given to the idea of liberty both by those thinkers and the French middle class left little room for popular rule. But during the revolution, spokespersons for the lower classes extended the Enlightenment idea of liberty to fit their situation.(8)

Defenders of this extension of the idea of liberty from the middle to the lower class were crushed, but their ideas lived on within dissident movements of the 19th century.

The Extended Idea of Fairness

Dissatisfaction is not sufficient to give birth to a new concept of fairness for labor. Organized labor has been slow to see that in other areas, the limitations of bargaining led to expanded views of what is just.

Colonies chose independence rather than bargaining with imperialism. People of color reject the idea of citizenship with inequality. Women and gays reject as inadequate small gains within a system of male domination. These groups superseded old paradigms of political fairness that perpetuated political inequality.

Yet the old economic paradigm of the inverse relation in rewards to work still guarantees inequality, not just for organized labor but for the broad working class. As long as the inverse relation remains the economic paradigm, socialists in unions and elsewhere will remain ineffective in undermining capitalism.

Workers will need to cross the threshold of struggles in which an extended sense of fairness will dominate. The main task calls for activists, in or outside unions, who will draw attention to struggles in areas already driven by an extended sense of fairness, be it economic or political.

As applied to labor, this extended sense requires an end to the kind of sharing that makes capital stronger than labor. It leads to a coming together of both human and material resources for society. This extension of fairness leads from unequal sharing among two groups — the inverse relation — to equal sharing in society as a human group.(9)

What Kind of Union?

By accepting the inverse relation, unions tolerate distributions of the product of labor that privilege capital over labor. An extension of the idea of economic fairness, like an extension of the idea of who can participate in governance, can lead to radical changes in what working people deem possible.

This suggests how unions can generate socialist consciousness, when they pick up from the surrounding society its extended idea of fairness as mutually accepted sharing. This process would discredit the inverse relation between gains of labor and capital.

Why, one might ask, would action by unions operating on the extended version of fairness predispose a union member to socialism? Think of some recent examples where the strike has meant, not an assertion of a right to take more, but an assertion that there is a threat to society that needs a response.

Consider the Teamsters in their 1997 strike against United Parcel Service. The strike was mainly for more full-time employees at UPS. But the union extended this demand to the society through the strikers’ slogan “Part Time America Doesn’t Work.”

When workers at General Electric walked out in 2003 over changes in health benefits, they called for “Health Care for All, Not Health Care at GE!” And when the Chicago Teachers Union struck in 2012, they had won the support of the parents. The parents were convinced that they would win if the teachers won.

By contrast, Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel and the business people dominating the city’s school board were opposed to sharing resources to improve schools. Many of the affected schools were in Latino and African-American neighborhoods.

In all the above cases, unions fought for an expanded idea of fairness, but did so against the unwavering opposition of capitalists and their supporters.  So, unions that pursue fairness by defending conditions needed for society’s survival can lead their members toward a socialist outlook.

But under what conditions will unions decide to make social survival a goal? We have seen that the old mechanism of bargaining reduces unions’ gains in relation to capital’s gains. When unions join with other groups in seeking fairness for social survival, their prospects improve and they may move in a socialist direction.

Marx says in the Grundrisse that a transformation among workers from holding the idea of their products as possessions of others into holding the idea of products as something forcibly removed from their own possession would “knell to its doom” capitalist production.(10)

The widespread extension of the concept of who in fairness has the product is not just a change in thinking, but a change that demands the overthrow of a system.


  1. For sources in Marx relevant to this discussion, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2, The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), Sec. 5, “Trade Unions and Politics.”
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  2. This is an implication of Thomas Picketty’s “central contradiction of capitalism.” See his Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century, trans. T. Goldhammer (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 571.
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  3. There is an inverse relation as there is in Boyle’s Law between gas volume and pressure.
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  4. This might seem strange since unions were once outlawed in the interests of capitalism, by the Le Chapelier Law (1791) during the French Revolution and a bit later by the Combination Act (1799) in England. But the kind of naked capitalist rule that outlawed unions did not last. In its place, the inverse relation limits capitalist domination — when there were gains then labor gained but less than capital and when there were losses then capital suffered but less than labor.
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  5. Robert Bartlet, “Creating a New Model of a Social Union: CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union,” Monthly Review, Vol. 65, No. 2 (June, 2013): 12-24.
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  6. Dan Georgakas, “Greece Nearing the Breaking Point,” Against the Current, Vol . 28, No. 2 (May-June, 2013): 9-11.
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  7. The extension of ideas by socialism itself is the subject of Milton Fisk’s, “Socialism for Realists,” Radical Philosophy Review, Vol. 17 (No. 1), 2014, 179-201.
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  8. Albert Soboul, The French Revolution 1787-1799, translated A. Forrest and C. Jones (New York: Vintage,, 1975), 322-4, 489-92.
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  9. A theme of Marx’s, stated in Part I of The Communist Manifesto, was that, far from protecting society, capitalism was a growing threat to the survival of society, a threat of reducing it to” barbarism.”  For more on social viability in relation to socialism and capitalism, see Milton Fisk, “In Defense of Marxism,” in Taking Socialism Seriously, editors A. Anton and R. Schmitt (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 23-46.
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  10. Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28 (1857-61) (New York: International Publisher, 1975), 390. Or, in a different translation, Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 463.
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January/February 2015, ATC 174