From Socialist Voice, March 2008

Trade unions

Class struggle and the work-place

It is often argued that class struggle is a thing of the past and has no relevance to our modern consumer society. Perceptions of class struggle conjure up images of “extremists”: workers and the subordinate classes rising up against the dominant classes.
     By definition, however, class struggle is a two-way process, and Miliband (1978) notes that one of the most obvious and therefore overlooked aspects of class struggle is that it is primarily the struggle waged by the dominant class against the workers and the subordinate classes. Those in the ascendancy are significantly more effective in the struggle, hence their ascendancy.
     Indeed the dominant class is so successful that many at the receiving end of this class struggle are not conscious of its existence. This facilitates the myth, which suits the ascendancy, that talk of class struggle belongs in the past.
     Bourgeois societies frequently proclaim their superiority because of the “freedoms” of their systems: freedom of the market, of assembly, speech, the press, etc. But philosophers make a distinction between freedom of and freedom from, in that one may have the freedom of earning a livelihood but not freedom from the threat of (or actual) unemployment, exploitation, dismissal, etc.
     The unquestioning belief in the capitalist system generates a hegemony that renders concepts such as unemployment “a fact of life.” But unemployment was not always a fact of life; the term itself did not make an appearance in the Oxford Dictionary until 1888 (Douthwaite, 1992).
     Champions of the capitalist system argue that unemployment is a temporary distortion of the labour market and that, like other markets, it is neutral. Such alleged neutrality is one of the bulwarks of the notion of the non-existence of class struggle. But workers in capitalist societies are at the receiving end of a class struggle hidden behind a veil of free-market neutrality. For example, a worker’s interest in securing and maintaining paid full employment conflicts with an employer’s interest in cutting hours, shedding jobs, and closing and transferring work-places. Employers engage in such practices to protect their profits or, as the business-friendly media like to label these practices, “reorganising,” “restructuring,” “competitiveness,” etc.
     Such practices also have an impact on other workers, making them more docile and less inclined to assert themselves against their own employers. Indeed in 1891 Engels wrote of workers, through their organisations, having the potential to ensure that wages don’t grow poorer in absolute terms; but while the increase in misery can be resisted, the increase in insecurity cannot be checked to the same extent in the economic crises generated by the anarchy of capitalist production (Marx and Engels, 1970).
     The denial of the existence of class struggle has become an industry in itself. Employers don’t like the idea of workers having notions of conflicting interests, as this can lead to workers challenging the power, authority and interests of their employers. The extent to which employers will go to keep trade unions out of their businesses are a testament to this. Therefore employers will go to great lengths to convince workers that there is no such thing any more as “them and us.” “Human resource managers” and other such professions attempt to persuade workers that “we are all on the same side” and that conflict is a thing of the past. But on closer scrutiny such propositions don’t stand up when tested in reality.
     D’Art and Turner (2003) note a number of conflicts of interest between workers and employers in the employment relationship in a market system. First there is a conflict over the wage-profit relationship, as the more wages a worker receives the less profit for the employer, and vice versa.
     But it doesn’t stop there. The employer’s input into the employment relationship—i.e. wages—is fixed at a quantifiable amount; but the worker’s input of effort is left open-ended.
     As a result of this imbalance, the amount of effort is left to be determined by the employer as the boss (Blackburn, 1967). This generates conflict at three levels: physical, intellectual, and emotional.
     Conflict over physical effort arises when the boss wants a worker to perform physical tasks faster than the worker is happy with. Conflict over intellectual effort can arise when a boss wants a worker to use their own intelligence in the job but is prepared to pay only “from the neck down.” Conflict over emotional effort arises especially in the service sector of the economy, where workers are obliged to leave their own emotions at home and instead act out an employer-created corporate emotion, regardless of the long-term psychological consequences.
     Conflict is also generated when employers regard the labour power of workers as just another commodity, like raw materials. Thus the worker’s needs in the form of sickness pay, paid holidays, pensions, etc., right through to self-fulfilment, creativity, etc., are subservient to the employer’s need of capital accumulation.
     The unequal power relationship in employment is a further source of conflicting interests. The highly regarded labour law academic Otto Kahn-Freund observed (1983) that the contract of employment is “a command under the guise of an agreement.”
     The common-law notion of both parties being equal before the law is dispensed with when the “agreement” of subordination arises, as the law in capitalist societies upholds the employer’s right to manage, or “managerial prerogative,” which is based on the concept of property ownership.
     Trade unions can provide workers with the capacity to organise collectively to defend and advance their own interests in this class struggle. But unions lately have tended to concentrate on demands on which compromise can be reached (Hyman, 1989). Economic demands (e.g. wage rises) are encouraged, while control demands (e.g. limits on the employer’s authority) are discouraged.
     This results in a “servicing” model of trade unionism and a movement away from organising on specific work-place issues (Juravich and Bronfenbrenner, 2005).
     Where workers secure purely economic benefits in negotiations, their position improves only relative to other workers and not relative to their employers (Aronowitz, 1973). Furthermore, such economic struggles are too narrow to develop the political consciousness of workers (Lenin, 1970).
     But damping down workers’ political consciousness is part of the class struggle engaged in by the ascendancy. After all, “one man is king,” wrote Karl Marx, “only because other men [and women] imagine they are subjects because he is king” (Marx, 1977).


Aronowitz, S., “Trade unionism and workers’ control,” in G. Hunnius, G. David Garson and J. Case (eds.), Workers’ Control, New York: Random House, 1973.
Blackburn, R., “The unequal society,” in R. Blackburn and A. Cockburn (eds.), The Incompatibles: Trade Union Militancy and the Consensus, Harmondsworth (Middx): Penguin, 1967.
D’Art, D., and Turner, T., “Independent collective representation: Providing effectiveness, fairness and democracy in the employment relationship,” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, vol. 15, no. 4, December 2003.
Douthwaite, R. (1992), The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many, and Endangered the Planet, Dublin: Lilliput, 1992.
Hyman, R., “Class struggle and the trade union movement,” in R. Hyman (ed.), The Political Economy of Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice in a Cold Climate, London: Macmillan, 1989.
Juravich, T., and Bronfenbrenner, K., “Introduction: Bringing the study of work back to labor studies,” Labor Studies Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, spring 2005, p. i–vii.
Kahn-Freund, O., in P. Davies and M. Freedland (eds.), Kahn-Freund’s Labour and the Law, London: Stevens, 1983.
Lenin, V. I., V. I. Lenin on Trade Unions: A Collection of Articles and Speeches, Moscow: Progress, 1970.
Marx, K., Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, New York: Vintage, 1977.
Marx, K., and Engels, F., Selected Works, vol. 3, Moscow: Progress, 1970.
Miliband, R., “The coup in Chile,” in R. Blackburn (ed.), Revolution and Class Struggle: A Reader in Marxist Politics, Brighton: Harvester, 1978.

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