“In 1934, the [Soviet Union] government abolished the existing national department of labor and turned its functions over to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, it being taken for granted in a socialist regime that no group in the country is more competent or trustworthy to administer the nation’s labor laws than those persons most directly concerned, the workers themselves.
But imagine what a wild outcry such a proposal in the United States would wring from the reactionaries. The Soviet trade unions, in protecting the rights and welfare of the workers in the industries, have the power to issue regulations having the binding force of law, and for whose infraction careless or bureaucratic factory managers may be punished. To supervise the country’s great labor protective service the trade union movement has its own system of factory inspectors. Each factory council has a commission to attend to problems of local enforcement in the plant, mine, office, or railroad.
This is a concept utterly unthinkable in any capitalist system.”
– William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, pg. 331
This essay is an expansion of a chapter in a recent post, Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam. The chapter, “Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam,” was one of the most discussed parts of the essay by readers of Return to the Source. Although the chapter began to address the fundamental distinction between trade unions in socialist countries versus capitalist countries, the essay’s particular focus on Vietnam limited the scope of discussion. Thus, it is our hope to expand on many of the points made in the chapter. Fragments of this chapter appear in this piece uncited.
In the United States, organized labor is under outright assault from the imperialist class. Devastated by so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation and no-strike clauses written into contracts by management and conservative union leaders alike, state and local governments across the US have sought to deal trade unions a finishing blow.
The onslaught of anti-union governors provoked a strong, militant upsurge in union activism, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Florida. Many of these measures were defeated using a variety of tactics: In Wisconsin, it took a state Supreme Court ruling to overturn the worst provisions of Governor Scott Walker’s law stripping public workers of the right to collectively bargain. In Ohio, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and other unions spent a staggering $24 million to successfully defeat Governor John Kasich’s Issue 2, which similarly attacked the collective bargaining rights of public workers. In Florida, the unions defeated some of Governor Rick Scott’s attacks on organized labor through direct lobbying a tentative coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature.
For all of the success stories, however, there are also revealing defeats that demonstrate the limits and failures of the reformist tactics embraced by most national and state trade union leaders. In Wisconsin, of course, the trade unions suffered a devastating blow when they lost the Scott Walker recall campaign, having spent $10.6 million on the effort. In Florida, the state Supreme Court upheld Governor Rick Scott’s wage-cut for state employees in a 5-4 decision that was tipped in the Governor’s favor by a justice that the unions endorsed in the 2012 general election!
These defeats have something in common, namely the reliance on purely reformist tactics by union leadership instead of resorting to more militant actions, particularly the strike. Criticizing this conservative trend in the trade unions in the US, however, is not the purpose of this piece. For the most up-to-date look at the American trade union movement, its flaws, and its potential for recovery, Return to the Source wholeheartedly recommends reading Joe Burns’ book, Reviving the Strike.
Instead, we briefly remind readers of the attacks and defeats suffered by American trade unions to make a point that should be obvious: Workers do not have even a semblance of ‘democracy’ or political power in a capitalist country. Relying on the democratic institutions in a capitalist country to affect change for workers proves fruitless time and time again, especially as conservative trade union leaders ‘bargain’ away the last vestiges of class-self-defense that workers have in the United States. Strikes, as Burns’ book points out, are the most effective weapon that workers have in capitalist relations of production, and abandoning that weapon in lieu of the ballot box is a poor trade, indeed. The proof, as it is said, is in the pudding.
However, there are countries and nations whose people have overthrown capitalism and created a dictatorship of the workers, in which working people become the ruling class and run the state and economy in the interests of the majority. Generally speaking, this is socialism, and it still exists in about 1/5 of the world despite the overthrow of the Soviet Union and most of the Socialist Bloc in the late-80s/early-90s.
In every major instance of actually existing socialism, trade unions have continued to play a role in the economy, albeit a drastically different role. Since most workers in the US are primarily familiar with trade unions as the most basic organization defending their wages, benefits, and rights, this begs an obvious question: If socialism is the class rule of the workers, why do trade unions continue to exist after the defeat of capitalism? Further still, what are the roles and continued significance of trade unions in socialism? And finally, how do they differ from trade unions under capitalism?
Framework: Class-rule is not class-utopia.
Before examining the role of trade unions in the socialist countries and contrasting them with their counter-parts in capitalist countries, we want to make an important point that is critical to understanding how workers rule collectively as a class in socialist countries.
The US is a capitalist country. In other words, the ruling class in the US is a small minority of banks and corporations that exploit the labor of workers in their own country and in oppressed nations around the world. The particular form of government – whether a democratic republic, a fascist dictatorship of capital, a corporatist clientele system, a social democracy, or something else – does not change the fundamental class character of the US government and the economy, which is dominated by capitalists.
The capitalist class, however, is not homogenous. In the US, there exists a class of monopoly financial capitalists, who together with banksters from the other imperialist countries, own most of the world’s wealth and the means of production. This is the fundamental feature of imperialism. However, there are also non-monopoly capitalists, who own large businesses and corporations within the US that control a proportionally small fraction of the wealth domestically and are, in turn, controlled by the financial capitalists. Although both of these strata of capitalists are a part of the same class, they occupy different positions in the imperialist system and, at times, they have divergent interests. These divergent political interests manifest themselves in the US as the Democrats and Republicans, which are generally supported by financial capitalists and non-monopoly domestic capitalists, respectively.
Many non-monopoly domestic capitalists in the US opposed the financial bailout of the country’s major banks in 2008, even though the US government took the action to save the capitalist class from economic ruin. The massive transfer of $700 billion from taxpayers to banks, though, was not an anti-capitalist action, even though it was opposed by some capitalists. Fundamentally, it was an aspect of capitalist class rule in the US and the particular opinions of the capitalists mattered less than the greater system of class oppression that the action upheld.
This is framework is very important for our discussion of trade unions for two main reasons: First, socialism may be the class-rule of the workers, but it does not mean that it is a utopia for every single worker at every single moment. There are contradictions in actually existing socialism, not least of which is its continued existence in a globalized economy dominated by aggressive imperialist powers. However, a fixation on particular examples of worker dissatisfaction or poor working conditions in regards to China, Cuba, or any other socialist country clouds the greater trend of class rule.
Second, the fanatical hatred of actually existing socialism by some on the US Left evaluates the position of workers from the experience of workers in a capitalist country, rather than examining socialism as an entirely different class order. Sam Farber of the International Socialist Organization, for instance, is incredulous at the collaboration between the trade union leadership, the Communist Party, management, and the state in Cuba, arguing that this is evidence of the worst forms of worker exploitation. This incorrect view transposes the class order of the United States – or any capitalist country – onto the Cuban people, in which class collaboration between union leadership and management is a defining feature of capitalist domination.
However, Farbar’s Western-centric view betrays his anti-communism because he cannot recognize that the workers control the state and, in effect, have the ‘upper hand’ on management in a socialist country. They collaborate with the state in drafting labor laws and policy in much the same way the Chamber of Commerce ‘collaborates’ with politicians in drafting policy and law in the US. For these critics, certain actions are evidence of ‘state capitalist’ relations simply because they take place in capitalist societies. This is patently absurd, patently wrong, and patently anti-communist.
The point is not that socialist countries are a utopia for workers. Indeed, management often loses individual battles to workers in the US, but no rational person takes this as evidence of socialism in the world’s greatest imperialist power. The imperialist class still controls the state and the commanding heights of the economy, and they win an overwhelming majority of the individual battles between capital and labor. Socialism is not perfect for all workers at all times, but they control the state and their trade unions overwhelmingly win the battle between labor and management.
Actually existing socialism is an entirely different class order than people in the US are accustomed to, and any look at the trade unions should begin at this point.
What do the trade unions do under socialism?
While socialism is defined by the class rule of the workers, it also administers the economy in the interests of the vast majority. Socialism, as conceived by Marxist-Leninists, is a stage in transition to communism, which is a classless, stateless society. Having overthrown the capitalist class and seized the economy, the working class must exercise its dominance over the deposed bankers and capitalists to break their power and remake society to function for the benefit of the majority. Politically, this ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ takes a variety of forms – Soviet Republics, People’s Republics, New Democracies, and others – but the goal is to wield the commanding heights of the economy and production to meet the needs of the masses and lay the material basis for communism, which requires technological, educational and cultural innovations.
However, socialism is not a classless society. Since socialist revolution has generally broken out in underdeveloped countries without a strong industrial base, ruling communist parties have generally made the development of the economy’s productive forces a top priority. This requires a combination of methods of economic organization – central state planning, workplace democracy, people’s communes, and more recently, socialist markets – and an input of labor by workers. Unlike capitalism, however, the labor of workers in socialism does not generate value only for a few capitalists but instead aids in developing the whole socialist economy for the benefit of the masses.
With this comes contradictions. Overzealous managers, even when elected and directly accountable to the workers – like in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Cuba – will sometimes place rigorous demands on workers. Sometimes, statewide central plans will set unreasonable expectations or goals that cannot be feasibly met. Working conditions may be poor or workers may have specific demands to their particular trade that are not being met. In market socialism, many workers in China, Vietnam, and Laos have raised serious grievances and class struggle against factory owners and managers, who are often from foreign capitalist countries and seek to exploit their labor.
Trade unions are the ‘first-responders’ for these grievances, so to speak. William Z. Foster, the chairman of the Communist Party USA from 1945 to 1957, describes their role in the Soviet Union his important work, American Trade Unionism, in a chapter called “Trade Unions in the Soviet Union.” We quote him at some length:
“As the basic organization of the working class, the trade unions’ chief task is to concern themselves with all questions affecting the immediate welfare of the workers, including wages and working conditions, production, labor protection, social insurance, cultural matters, housing, etc. They are a basic factor in the development of industry. They also play a vital role in all other issues affecting the general welfare of the Soviet nation. Especially since the USSR’s involvement in the war [World War II] have their responsibilities become heavy and involved. No major question of policy is decided by the Soviet government without trade union consultation. In no other country in the world is the influence of the trade unions anywhere near so great as in the USSR.” (Foster, 319)
Foster, himself a prominent union organizer before and after becoming a communist in a variety of trades across the US, visited the USSR before making such an assessment. Notice that “no major question of policy is decided…without trade union consultation.” If only the trade unions in the US would be so fortunate in both national and state politics, where even their multi-million dollar expenditures cannot even win the support of President Barack Obama to push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would relax organizing rules for workers forming new unions and raise penalties on anti-union management activity.
Contrasting it with the all-out assault on trade unions in the US, Foster continues:
“In the Soviet Union, the reverse of all this [anti-union policies in the US] is true. The trade unions find themselves in quite a different and altogether freer situation. There are no enemy class forces to attack them. The workers and their farmer allies are in complete control of the government; in the Supreme Council of the USSR workers, both of factory and office, which means trade unionists, are in a big majority. N.M. Shvernik, head of the Soviet trade unions, is president of the Council of Nationalities, one of the two equal Chambers of the Supreme Council of the USSR. Worker majorities prevail in the Soviets of all the industrial centers, and in the country areas the Soviet majorities are composed of friendly collective farmers. In the Communist Party the bulk of the membership if also made up of workers who are, of course, nearly if not all trade unionists, and the party top committees contain many trade unionists. Naturally, too, the Soviet press and radio are 100 percent favorable to trade unionism.” (Foster, 320)
It’s an interesting point of comparison with the United States. There is not a single active union member in either chamber of the US Congress. Local governments seldom have any union representation on the City or County Commissions, much less in the state legislatures. Even the Democrats, who falsely bill themselves as the ‘party of labor’, cannot claim anything close to a majority of its members as union workers, and their willingness to abandon organized labor at every juncture speaks to this fact. Finally, the media is overwhelmingly absent from and usually hostile to trade union activity, especially when we look at Fox News’ 24-hour, far-right, anti-worker programming.
We should also compare apples-to-apples with today’s socialist countries and similar regional capitalist countries. In a report called “The Trade Unions in Cuba“, the UK-based Cuba Solidarity Campaign notes that the central role that trade unions play in the country’s politics was unique for most of Latin American history in the 21st century. They write:
“Owing to the adoption of neo-liberal policies, with their emphasis on ‘flexibility’ and deregulation, the trend since the eighties in Latin America, in common with countries in other continents, has been to override workers’ rights. Union membership is discouraged or banned – violently in some countries, such as Colombia where 164 trade union activists were murdered between 2004 and 2006. (1) As a result, large sections of the work force, such as agricultural labourers and workers in the maquilas (export assembly factories), are non-unionised and habitually receive low pay for very long hours in poor and sometimes hazardous conditions with no job security or welfare rights.”
In contrast, the report notes that 98% of Cuba’s 4 million workers are members of trade unions. Women make up 43% of all trade union members, but – speaking to the country’s amazing progress in advancing the position of women – they “account for 58.9% and 53.6% of officials at regional and local levels respectively.” The report goes on to note that “trades unions make a major contribution to decision making in respect to the economic policy adopted by the Cuban government to counteract the effects of the US Blockade, in force since 1961,” and that their role has “increased substantially” since the counter-revolution in the USSR.
The real effects of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC) on socialist policy were boldly demonstrated during this so-called ‘special period’ in the 1990s, as the country was thrust into the turmoil of losing their largest trading partner. The report states:
“In preparation for the CTC Congress, held in 1996, over 2 million workers discussed measures to deal with the economic crisis and to evaluate government proposals to that end. These were presented for consideration, first to Congress and then to the National Assembly, the Cuban parliament. This period of consultation which extended across all trades and areas of the country took almost a year. More than 167,000 suggestions were made. (12) Among the measures proposed were laws on monetary policy, taxation, budgets and pricing policies.”
First, let’s take a moment to recognize the level of democratic participation that workers have in the drafting of major policy decisions at a time of overwhelming turmoil and economic crisis. This is significant, especially when we look at the relative lack of public participation at any level during the financial crisis of 2008 in the US. But did their participation have an effect? Let’s see what the report has to say on the matter:
“The National Assembly took these suggestions seriously, and many of them were incorporated into the legislation introduced subsequently. For example (13) in 1995, after submissions from the trades unions, the National Assembly voted to withdraw an early draft of the Foreign Investment Law that would have permitted workers to be hired directly by foreign enterprises. Instead, the decision was taken to oblige such enterprises to hire workers only through state agencies in order to safeguard their pay and working conditions. In 1996 the majority of workers rejected the proposal to tax salaries during this period of severe privation, although they did not discount the idea for the future once the economic situation had changed. As a result the National Assembly postponed the proposal. Similarly, as a result of country-wide discussions, a proposal that workers should contribute to the social security system was not implemented.”
Indeed, the report states that between “1995 and 2001 more than 150 agreements relating to around 100 subjects were adopted after consultation with workers.” It’s hard to imagine anything of the sort in a country like the US, and even less imaginable in a quasi-fascist, anti-worker puppet state like Colombia, where trade unionists are openly murdered by paramilitary death squads.
The important role of trade unions in shaping policy continues today in Vietnam, China, and the other socialist countries. Simon Clarke and Tim Pringle of the University of Warwick, UK, found in a comparison study between trade unions in Vietnam and China entitled ‘Can party-led trade unions represent their members?’, that the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) – the official labor federation in Vietnam – played an active and decisive role in the country’s labor laws, which is constitutionally enshrined.
“Until 2007 VGCL was directly involved in drafting all labour legislation, and it continues to have the statutory right of consultation. Over the past ﬁve years VGCL has taken an increasingly independent position in pressing its own views on the government, most notably in criticising the inadequacy of government enforcement of labour legislation, in pressing for increases in the minimum wage and in insisting on the retention of the right to strike in the 2006 revision of the Labour Code.”
Trade unions still exist under socialism as the most basic organization for the working class. They are the first-responders in representing the day-to-day interests of their members, and they craft and shape government policy at every level. Put another way, trade unions are the nervous system for socialism that allows the workers state to learn the mass sentiments of workers and take action in the interests of the vast majority.
‘Collective Bargaining by Riot’
Without the hostile situation presented to unions in a capitalist society, the attitudes of trade unions towards the state and management are naturally different. There is a greater sense of collaboration and less of a pressing need to resort to strikes and other production-stopping measures.
However, this does not mean that workers do not engage in class struggle in socialist countries. Particularly in China, Vietnam, and Laos, which have embraced market reforms to strengthen socialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, class struggle between workers and capitalists – usually foreign monopoly capitalists – takes place frequently.
Contrary to propaganda put out by the Western media (and gobbled up by misguided leftist critics), strikes are legal in socialist countries. Strikes and other militant labor campaigns break out quite often, especially in China. There is a formal legal procedure required for launching strikes in socialist countries, but while many strikes are not necessarily legal, they are also not interrupted or broken up by the government. In the same aforementioned study, Clarke and Pringle find that trade unions in socialist countries usually win in disputes with management, even when they resort to unpermitted strikes:
“Faced with growing industrial unrest the trade union and the party-state are forced back into a ﬁre-ﬁghting role. In Vietnam the local ofﬁce of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MOLISA) generally takes the lead, persuading the management to meet the workers’ demands, at least to the extent that the strike has been provoked by legal violations, while the local VGCL representative encourages the workers to return to work before the strike spreads to neighbouring enterprises. The police will also be called to maintain order as the workers spill out onto the streets. It is rare for there to be any police action against strikers, although strike leaders, if identiﬁed, may subsequently be victimised by the employer.”
Strikes, even unauthorized strikes, function as critical pulse-checker for mass sentiment and economic conditions faced by workers, and they usually provoke new pro-worker legislation by the Party. In this sense, the true class nature of the Vietnamese state is revealed as proletarian. After all, if the state steps in to mediate and force concessions from management, the duration of the strike will naturally shorten. We look again to Clarke and Pringle’s findings:
“The strikes in the new booming capitalist industries in both China and Vietnam have been steadily increasing in scale and extent, so that ‘collective bargaining by riot’ (Hobsbawm 1964, pp. 6 –7) has become the normal method by which workers defend their rights and interests. Workers have developed a very good idea of what they can get away with and how far they can go, so that short sharp strikes and protests have become an extremely prompt and effective way of redressing their grievances.”
Indeed, this unravels the criticism levied against socialist countries by many leftist critics, who focus on the legal limitations on strikes rather than the outcome of unauthorized strikes and other forms of worker activism. For the last time, we quote Clarke and Pringle’s conclusion:
“The limitation of the right to strike has been by no means as signiﬁcant a factor as the absence of freedom of association in inhibiting worker activism and the reform of the trade unions in China and Vietnam. The important issue is not so much whether or not a strike is legal as whether or not it is effective. In China and Vietnam strikes have proved to be an extremely effective method for workers to achieve their immediate demands, as the authorities refrain from repressing strikers for fear of exacerbating the situation and press employers immediately to meet the workers’ demands, to prevent the strike from spreading.”
This ‘collective bargaining by riot’, as it is termed by Clarke and Pringle, happens in China constantly. In addition to resulting in victory for the workers, in most cases, it also results in new pro-worker policies by the government. The 2011 series of labor disputes between Chinese workers and foreign corporations testify to the working class orientation of the Chinese state. In response to widespread strikes at Western factories and manufacturing plants, particularly the infamous Foxconn manufacturing plans, the CCP undertook an aggressive policy of empowering Chinese workers and backing their demands for higher wages. Beijing’s regional government raised the minimum wage twice in six months, including a 21% increase in late 2010. In April, 2011, the CCP announced annualized 15% wage increases with “promises to double workers’ wages during the 12th five-year plan that lasts from 2011 to 2015.”
Anytime strikes take place in socialist countries, leftist critics are quick to argue that this inherently demonstrates the antagonistic interests of the state and the workers. Time and time again, they blur the real issue at play, which is that the workers demands are almost always met by the state. This, in fact, highlights the importance of the concept of ‘actually existing socialism’.
For some leftist critics, there should be no class struggle under socialism. Every worker should be in a state of perpetual bliss, according to their view, because any evidence of poor working conditions or exploitation – usually from foreign companies – is evidence that the country in question is not socialist. Socialism is a complete end; a utopia. Intrinsically, this is an idealist conception of socialism that will never manifest itself in reality, ever.
Socialism is only as valuable as it actually exists in the material world, hence ‘actually existing socialism’. Class struggle continues because of the necessary measures taken to improve the lives of oppressed people; measures that often bring many unsavory, and indeed capitalist, contradictions. This struggle, however, does not disprove the existence of socialism. In actuality, it confirms its existence.
We learn about the essential class character of the state when looking at its overall orientation. A capitalist state does not mediate disputes between trade unions and management in favor of the workers. Strikes are short in capitalist countries because they are repressed with force. The capitalist state doesn’t allow trade unions to sit in the pilot’s seat in drafting labor law.
But all of these things happen in socialist countries. When looking at the class orientation of the state, it defies all logic and evidence – and if these Western leftist critics were honest with themselves, it defies their own experience with capitalist states – to claim that Vietnam is a capitalist country.
How do workers in socialist countries view strikes?
We have discussed the role of ‘collective bargaining by riot’ and the ways in which socialist governments support and respond to the demands of workers who strike. However, we have reserved ourselves to this point in talking only about those countries that embraced forms of market socialism, in which foreign corporations still play a role in domestic production. Many, like Sam Farber, point to the relative scarcity of strikes in Cuba – a more traditional, centrally planned socialist economy – as evidence of the government’s oppression of workers.
We know what Farber and other anti-communists in the US think about strikes in socialsit countries. How do the workers themselves view strikes, though? In their groundbreaking 1981 study, Human Rights & Freedoms in the USSR, Fydor Medvedev and Gennady Kulikov point out that although there “is no Soviet law to ban industrial action,” generally “Soviet workers do not strike.” They ask, “Could it be that everything is in perfect order at our factories and plants? Or perhaps there are no conflicts or disputable questions between workers and managers at Soviet enterprise?” This is absurd, and they admit, “Of course there are, but still the workers do not strike.”
We quote Medvedev and Kulikov at some length to demonstrate the point:
“We asked Antonina Pokhmelnova, assembly worker at the Second Moscow Clocks and Watches Factory and member of the Presidium of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, to explain the situation.
‘Why should we strike?’ Antonina was surprised. ‘We can settle all problems with the managers without that. Anything can happen of course: a worker, a shop superintendant, or even a manager may do wrong. One may be hot-tempered, another, striving to meet planned targets, may overlook people’s needs or the law banning overtime, and so on. This does not mean much, because if there are conflicts with managers, our trade union committees have enough power to uphold the working people’s legitimate interests.’
Antonina opened the Soviet Union No. 9, 1980. ‘Have a look at this. About 6,174 managers censured and 146 of them removed from their posts in 1979 alone at the request of the trade unions for having violated labour protection regulations and labour safety rules.’ (Medvedev, 22)
While workers can and do (did, in the case of the Soviet Union) strike, it happens less frequently when the state takes a more active role in the economy and leaves less up to the ‘anarchy of the private sector.’ With many avenues for raising and securing the interests of workers, trade unions seldom have to resort to the same means to insure representation in a socialist country as they do in capitalist countries.
Governing Production: Trade Unions and Rank-and-File Input in Socialist Workplaces
While there are exceptions, the US and other capitalist countries generally have no formal role for workers in the production process, much less a determinant role in policy matters. This is not the case in socialist countries, in which workers govern production through a variety of forms. In Democratic Korea, for instance, workers rely on the factory committee – an elected body composed of trade union leaders, party members, and managers – as a part of the Daean work system. For the purposes of this essay, we will focus on the particular role of the trade unions and rank-and-file worker input into governing production.
In socialism, the government balances the general interests of the masses and the collective with the particular interests of the workers at the point of production. This is a key difference from some left-communist and anarcho-syndicalist views of socialism, which argue that workers should organize themselves into loose confederation of autonomous cooperatives. In this view, there is no actual system of balancing the local interests of socialist enterprises with the collective demands, goals, and aspirations of the masses. Striking such a balance is the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat, similar to how the capitalist state – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie – balances the interests of the capitalist class as a whole with the opinions and aims of individual capitalists.
While this balance means that other representatives beyond trade union officials are a part of governing production, the trade unions and workers still play a decisive role. We return to Medvedev and Kulikov for an anecdote that demonstrates this point:
“Antonina Pokhmelnova told us a typical story.
‘At a trade union meeting we were discussing what to do in order to raise the output of clocks. i’d like to quote here only one of numerous proposals because I believe it shows how the workers’ opinions are valued in the USSR. My friend, assembly worker Lyudmila Ataulina, suggested that we do without the assembly line. Of course, everybody was surprised: was it possible? I remember the shop superintendent asked the chairman of the meeting (who was our fitter) to give him the floor immediately.
‘What are you going to use instead of the assembly line?’ he asked. Indeed, at the time the assembly line was considered (and is still considered) indispensable for intensive industrial production, the clock industry included. But Lyudmila stood her ground: the assembly line imposed a certain rhythm, which kept the worker under constant strain. Without the enforced rhythm people would assemble clocks quicker and better, while those who were still unable to work quickly and efficiently would be given help. Lyudmila had calculated the time to be spent on every operation, and the meeting discussed it and came to see her point. The managers also endorsed the initiative, which made labour less monotonous and more efficient. Both the workers and the factory stood to gain.” (Medvedev, 24)
The reason that production standards and goals remain under socialism is to improve the collective welfare of everyone. The Soviet Union, for instance, was working from a much less developed industrial base than the United States and most of Western Europe, and in order to guarantee the material benefits that make socialism desirable for the people, they needed to improve the productive forces and increase their capacity for output and technological innovation. Medvedev and Kulikov explain this, saying:
“The Soviet workers regard the five-year plans of national economic and social development as their personal concern. The Communist Party uses these plans to orient the working people towards the improvement of economic factors and the quality of work. This course stems from the Soviet economic strategy, which aims at a consistent growth of the people’s well-being. The working people have ample opportunity to show their initiative and socialist enterprise in pursuing this course.” (Medvedev, 24)
However, efficiency can come at a cost to the worker, and unlike a capitalist country, which celebrates and rewards such alienation and exploitation, a socialist country seeks to eliminate this by involving workers intimately in the production process. The anecdote above hardly fits the outrageous ‘totalitarian’ image of Soviet managers standing over workers and yelling at them to produce faster. Instead, Medvedev and Kulikov reveal a collaborative and participatory process, which is the essence of industrial democracy. In this case too, the input came from a rank-and-file worker and was supported by the trade union before management.
Foster describes the extensive ways that the trade unions contribute to the plans drawn up by the socialist state. Again looking at the USSR’s historic example in the chapter, “Trade Unions in the Soviet Union,” from American Trade Unionism, Foster writes:
“The State Planning Commission, composed of technicians, industrial experts, economists and representatives of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, draws up a preliminary plan covering all of Soviet industry for five years, broken down into schedules for each year.” (Foster, 326)
“The government planning agency now submits it for consideration, through the several commissariats and other centers, to all the enterprises and organizations whose proceedings for the ensuing year it will govern… In each factory or office the part of the Plan relating to managers and heads of departments, but also submitted to the whole of the workers concerned, through their various factory or office committees, production conferences and trade union meetings… All sorts of suggestions and criticisms are made, which are considered by the foreman and managers, and finally transmitted to the government planning agency… Very often, during the last few years, the workmen’s meetings have submitted a counter-plan, by which the establishment would be committed to a greater production than the Provision Plan had proposed.” (Foster, 327)
If you zoned out while reading that process, go back and start from the beginning. Tedious as the procedure may be to read, it explains the extreme degree of industrial democracy and worker participation in the drafting of socialist economic plans.
No wonder Foster called this system “industrial democracy on a scale and in a degree that the trade unions of the United States and Great Britain, despite their wartime labor-management committees (which the employers look upon with mean and jaundiced eyes), do not even remotely approach.” (Foster, 327) The drafting of national economic priorities in the Soviet Union included participation from workers and trade unions at every level, even going so far as to allow entire counter-proposals for national five-year plans!
Instead of a Department of Labor, as exists in the US, handling complaints from workers, the trade unions themselves manage not only social insurance but implementation of labor law. Foster notes that in 1934, the government of the Soviet Union “abolished the existing national department of labor and turned its functions over to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, it being taken for granted in a socialist regime that no group in the country is more competent or trustworthy to administer the nation’s labor laws than those persons most directly concerned with the workers themselves.” (Foster, 331) Giving all of us food for thought, Foster immediately follows this by saying, “But imagine what a wild outcry such a proposal in the United States would wring from the reactionaries.” Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine such a proposal coming forth in the first place in a country that vilifies and attacks trade unions at every juncture.
While far from perfect, it’s impossible to characterize such a system as ‘capitalist’ for the reasons Foster described. The Soviet Union is a case study that demonstrates the role of trade unions in socialist countries as critical institutions for workers to democratically shape policy and control their destiny as a class.
Trade Unions as the Cornerstones of Education, Culture, and Sports in Socialism
Thus far, we have talked about trade unions as institutions that allow the Communist Party to know the demands and feelings of workers, organizations of class-self-defense, first-responders to problems in the workplace, and critical policy-making institutions. Briefly, we will touch on trade unions as cornerstones of community in socialist society.
Unlike in capitalist society, in which government bureaus and underfunded social programs constitute what little ‘social insurance’ people have, socialist countries have a robust social insurance program that enriches the lives of working people. Foster writes, “At all stages of their lives the Soviet workers are financially protected from every possible hazard: sickness, old age, accidents, permanent disability, maternity, death, etc.”
Instead of welfare offices administered by the bourgeois state, the “vast social insurance system of the USSR has, since 1933, been under the direct administration of the trade unions,” according to Foster. He continues:
“The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions manages the funds generally, the various national trade unions take care of insurance matters in their respective industries, and the actual distribution of benefits to the workers is handled by the local factory committees. For this purpose each factory committee has a broad social insurance council, elected by direct vote of the workers. These factory insurance councils decide upon the amount of compensation in each case, and they also check to see that the state enterprises keep their assessments paid up.” (Foster, 330)
Far from merely administering the country’s social insurance system, though, trade unions in the Soviet Union also planned educational and recreational activities for their members directly through the workplace. The goals of these educational programs speak to the larger aim of communism, in which workers can pursue a variety of interests and educational pursuits. Foster describes that these educational programs in many fields worked “towards the realization of the historic task of raising the cultural and technical level of the working class in the USSR to the level of engineers.” (Foster, 331)
In the realm of cultural pursuits, “the trade unions [in the Soviet Union] conducted classes for 5,000,000 illiterates and semi-literates,” from 1933 to 1938, and the “total number of trade union members who are members of cultural circles – political, general educational, defense, dramatic, music, singing, sports, etc. – increased from 4,730,000 in 1935 to 6,573,000 in 1938.” (Foster, 332) Trade unions would also operate factory libraries “of more than 1,000 books each” in 1938. (ibid.) In 1938 alone, more than 6,343,000 trade union workers used these libraries and “read an average of eighteen books yearly.” No wonder UNESCO reported that the Soviet people “read more books and saw more films than any other people in the world!”
Trade unions would coordinate sports and physical activities “in closest collaboration with the Departments of Health and Education.” Jerry Cooke of Sports Illustrated explains how trade unions were at the center of recreation and sports in the Soviet Union and helped produce world-class athletes and accessibility to fitness for workers regardless of occupation:
The parent organizations of the sports clubs are the trade unions. Depending on the industry or profession in which he works, the Soviet sportsman is assigned by the union to his club; and each club services from six to 20 different unions.
The whole structure is supervised by the Soviet Committee for Physical Culture and Sport, located in Moscow, and its various branches in the Socialist Republics and the larger cities. The committee sets standards, recognizes records, arranges the big national and international meets and generally acts as a legislative and supervisory body for Soviet sports. City committees do the same on a more local level, and they occasionally provide additional facilities for recreation, where necessary.
Largest of all, and characteristic of most, is the Burevestniks, or Stormy Petrels. The Burevestniks have approximately 2 million members from 13 industries and their unions. The club has at its disposal 117 stadiums, 110 athletic halls, 119 winter sports centers, 45 water bases—for various aquatic sports—and hundreds of other miscellaneous bases where people can participate in whatever sports they are interested in. All expenses for these facilities are met by the fees that the various unions pay to the Burevestnik organization.
The Voluntary Sports Societies of the Soviet Union (VSS) were under the leadership and guidance of the trade unions. By organizing sports at the factory level, trade unions in socialist countries also make greater progress in advancing the condition of the worker away from simply a laborer into well-rounded human beings with a variety of interests and pursuits.
In socialist countries, like the USSR, trade unions occupy a function very different from the capitalist world. These are not only economic institutions for the defense of the working class, but instead they are the foundational building blocks of a better society for working people. They not only protect the interests of workers on the job, but they insure(d) a more fulfilling existence than simply working until death.
Imagine if the US had an equivalent program for allowing workers in all industries to realize their potential as athletes, writers, scholars, filmmakers, performers, or some other enriching vocation? One of the greatest tragedies of capitalism is the untold potential and talent of the people forced into factories, doomed to spend eight hours or more per day punching a clock for profit they will never truly see. The socialist countries have shown us a glimpse of the possibilities when people are liberated, and the trade unions play a profound role in making this dream a reality.
It is our hope that workers in the United States and Western Europe read this essay and look into some of the sources to understand what is possible. The socialist countries all have their contradictions and limitations, and as we made clear in the initial framework, none of these places were perfect workers utopias.
However, one must ask themselves: Do the roles and experiences of trade unions in socialist countries seem at all similar to their role in capitalist countries? US workers have witnessed an all-out assault in the last two years on organized labor. The deck is constantly stacked against the most basic organizations of the working class in this country. But in socialist countries, these same familiar institutions actually govern, have real political power, and take on a variety of functions unheard of in a capitalist country.
Isn’t that worth fighting for?