‘schools for communism’? reading group on trade unionism and workplace organising

“The Trade union is not a predetermined phenomenon … ..it becomes a determinate institution , i.e. takes on definite historical form  to the extent that the strength and will of the workers who are its members impress a policy and propose an aim that defines it.” (Antonio Gramsci)


The next of The Commune’s reading group series in London will be on the topic of workplace struggle and the theory of trade unionism. Following our recent series on ‘communism from below’, this series will look more closely at how the working class organises and the strengths and limitations of different means of struggle.

The autumn 2009 sessions’ details appear below – the appropriate texts will be uploaded shortly as well as venue details. We encourage free discussion and do not set down a ‘party line’ – the discussion is roughly based on the given questions and the reading material, but also its practical implications in the context of today. Indeed, the second part of the series, in early 2010, will look at the changed shape of the working class and such themes as casualisation, globalisation, migrant workers, gender division of the workforce and anti-union laws. Email uncaptiveminds@gmail.com for more details.

14th September –   Why do workers form trade unions?

– What relations underlie the exchange between capital and workers?

– What mechanisms do management use to try and get workers to produce more for less money?

– In what different ways have workers organised to resist this? Of what particular importance are trade unions as a form of organisation?

Karl Marx- Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 6, ‘The Sale and Purchase of Labour Power’

Harry Braverman – from Labour and Monopoly Capital pages 24-41 The New Working Class and  Job Dissatisfaction in the 1970s

5th October – Two views of trade unionism

– Are unions an expression of the self-organisation of the working class, or bodies which seek to win improvements on their behalf?

– What is the difference between ‘trade unionism’ and the revolutionary class struggle?

Hal Draper – from The Two Souls of Socialism, pages 18-21, The Fabian Model

Hal Draper – from Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 2, Chapter 4 , Trade Unions and Class, page 81-98.

Beatrice and Sidney Webb –  from Industrial Democracy 1897 edition ‘ pages 150 on Trade Union Functions, 178-179 on the Method of Collective Bargaining, 253-257 on The Method of Legal Enactment , pages 595- 560 on the Assumptions of Trade Unionism

26th October – What Are Trade Unions For?

– Why should unions remain independent from the state?

– What are the limitations of negotiating better conditions of employment?

– In what ways have unions become integrated into the administration of capitalist relations, and how can this be resisted?

GDH Cole – ‘Two Views of Trade Unionism’, from British Trade Unions Today, pages 535- 541

Alan Flanders gives the social democratic view in ‘What Are Trade Unions For’ in pages 37-47 of Management and The Unions

Hal Draper – From  Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 2 , Chapter 4, Trade Unions and Class, pages 98-118.

16th November – Trade Union Democracy

– Does democratic organisation make trade unions more effective?

– Is the rank and file up for a fight but held back by bureaucrats? Why do these workers allow themselves to be ‘sold out’? Are ‘apathetic’ workers holding back the ‘left-wing’ bureaucrats?

– Can the working class spontaneously and by itself develop a ‘socialist consciousness’: or only a trade unionist’s view of the class struggle?

Richard Hyman – Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unions pages 1-20

Alvin Gouldner: Metaphysical Pathos and the Fear of Bureaucracy

Cyril Smith – Meszaros on Lenin

30th November – The First Shop Stewards’ Movement

– How did the shop stewards’ movement come about in 1915-20?

– What lessons had they learnt from syndicalism and the guild socialists?

– How did workers assert their control in the workplace?

GDH Cole – Workshop Organisation, Chapter 10: The Aim Of The Workplace Committees

WM Gallacher and JR Campbell – Direct Action

JT Murphy – The Workers’ Committee, an Outline of Its Principles and Structure

14th December – Workplace Trade Unionism in the ‘60’s-‘70s: the Limits to Corporatism

– In what ways did the working class show its strength to stand up to ‘management’s right to manage’ in this period? Why couldn’t the state stop this happening?

– To what extent could management make use of workplace union structures to quell the class struggle?

– What were the limitations of the new means of industrial struggle seen in this period?

HA Turner, G Clack, G Roberts- Some Smaller Strikes from the Inside, from Labour Relations in the Motor Industry, Pages 224-230

Theo Nichols  and Huw Beynod – Trade Unionism, Corporate Capitalism and the Working Class, from Living with Capitalism p 161-167

Richard Hyman -‘The Politics of Workplace Trade Unionism’, from Capital and Class, Summer 1979