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Workplace Democracy and Unions

Written by Wanda Pasz Monday, 30 January 2006

Unions-as-we-know-them are an extension of the corporatist system. They are a distant shadow of the grassroots organizations that sprung up during the 100 year war against the capitalists and their greedier more ruthless successors, the corporatists.

Today's unions are "government approved" organizations whose role is to control workers while providing a tepid sort of workplace representation on a narrow range of issues. They're tools of the state and, in some cases, tools of the employers whose workers they are "certified" to represent.

You won't find unions advocating for workplace democracy. That would mean an end to the existing order and it's the existing order that allows them to be.

If you look at the behaviour of mainstream labour representatives and leaders and the internal culture of institutional unions, the similarities between them and corporate culture are really quite striking.

There's the fear and suspicion of the constituency that they're supposed to "serve and protect", the blind loyalty to the institution and its officers, the justification of oppressive methods to maintain order. I've tended to think of institutional union culture as cult-like but then, corporate culture is also cultish.

It's not all that surprising come to think of it. Every fascistic society has depended on some form of "peoples' organization" to control the people - some club, association or other form of organization that purported to be for the workers but in reality served the interests of the state and ensured that the workers stayed within the box of the official ideology.

In societies where fascism is fully established, these organizations are more open in their allegiance to the state but in North America where a fascist economic order exists within a democratic political system, a more subtle and deceptive approach to managing workers was required. The institutional unions are it.

It's quite interesting when you look back into the history of the co-opting of certain unions into this vile partnership with the state and with the corporations whose interests the state represents (and the destruction of those that wouldn't be co-opted). It didn't just happen over night. There was a long and deliberate process involved - one that began almost as soon as labour began to organize itself. It involved reaching out to elements within the labour movement who were ideologically pro-capitalist or perceived a community of interest with the capitalists. It involved promoting the notion of labour-management cooperation as something that would ultimately benefit society was premised on the wrongheaded belief that the capitalists cared about people and communities beyond what they could extract from them.

Nonetheless, the notion that the capitalists were really a bunch high-minded guys who sometimes had to make tough decisions because of competition and the mysterious forces of the marketplace was promoted right from the earliest days of the industrial revolution.

One of the fundamental errors that the early labour activists made (and it's understandable how it happened) was assuming that these collaborationists had the same community of interest as them. They made this assumption because the collaborationists were from their socio-economic class. A few generations down the road, the colloborationists would become the agents of control in the workplace.

There's a lesson in this that may be quite important in relation to movement-building: Don't base your movement on "class" but rather on "community of interest". Class is where people are. Community of interest relates to where they want to be or what you care about, what kind of life you want.

This I think could be a much more effective way of achieving collective goals in that it draws together people who actually share the same interests. This should make it much easier to identify goals, work towards them and stay focussed.

When I think about it, the more successful movements of the 20th century were communities of interest where membership was not restricted based on anyone's current social or economic circumstances. If you look at the women's movement or the civil rights movement, you'll see that membership cut across socio-economic lines. (By comparison, the bogus labour movement rejects anyone who is not a card-carrying member of one of its "approved" institutions or is interested in becoming one.)

The more that I think about it, the more it seems to me that attempting to change an existing order by "class struggle" is a prescription for failure.

Firstly, the "class" is a product of the existing order. It's not necessarily a group that shares the same aspirations and interests - especially in relation to economic issues. It's not even clear to me how many "classes" we have in our society - are there two, three, four? (If we use socio-economic criteria to distinguish one from another, I think there are four.)

Bounding a movement by "class" will capture a lot of people whose interests are potentially at odds and exclude a lot of people who with common interests whose participation could be very helpful to furthering the aims of the movement. It's also boring and depressing. People hear the words "class struggle" and tune out. Who wants to struggle any more than they already do?

I don't think people like to think of themselves as members of a class. It either makes you feel like an elitist or a bug - depending on the one you're told you belong to. "Community of interest" opens up a lot of possibilities.

It's easier to control a "class" with traditional policing methods than it is to control a community of interest. When it comes to community policing, come to think of it, serving and protecting is the only appropriate role the cop can play.

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