From: Alexander Berkman, Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, New York: Vanguard Press, 1929.
What Is Communist Anarchism?
The Trade Union
'Yes, the union is our only hope,' you agree; 'it makes us strong.'
Indeed, there never was a truer word spoken: in union there is strength. It has taken labor a long time to realize this, and even to-day many proletarians don't understand it thoroughly.
There was a time when the workers did not know anything about organization. Later, when they did begin to get together to improve their condition, laws were passed against it and labor associations were forbidden.
The masters always opposed the organization of their employees, and the governments helped them to prevent and suppress unions. It is not so long ago that England and other countries had very severe laws against workers' getting organized. The attempt to better their situation by joint effort was condemned as 'conspiracy' and was prohibited. It took the wage earners a long time to fight out their right of association; and, mind you, they had to fight for it. Which shows you that the bosses have never granted anything to the workers except when the latter fought for it and compelled them to yield. Even to-day many employers oppose the organization of their employees; they prevent it wherever they can: they get labor organizers arrested and driven out of the city, and the law is always on their side and helps them do it. Or they resort to the trick of forming fake labor bodies, yellow company unions, which can be relied on to do the bosses' bidding.
It is easy to understand why the masters don't want you to be organized, why they are afraid of a real labor union. They know very well that a strong, fighting union can compel higher wages and better conditions, which means less profit for the plutocrats. That is why they do everything in their power to stop labor from organizing. When they can't stop it, they try their best to weaken the union or to corrupt its leaders, so that the union should not be dangerous to the bosses' interests.
The masters have found a very effective way to paralyze the strength of organized labor. They have persuaded the workers that they have the same interests as the employers, they have made them believe that capital and labor have 'identical interests', and that what is good for the employer is also good for his employees. They have given it the fine sounding name of 'Harmony between capital and labor'. If your interests are the same as those of your boss, then why should you fight him? That is what they tell you. The capitalist press, the government, the school, and the church all preach the same thing: that you live in peace and amity with your employer. It is good for the industrial magnates to have their workers believe that they are 'partners' in a common business: they will then work hard and faithfully because it is 'to their own interests'; the workers will not think of fighting their masters for better conditions, but they will be patient and wait until the employer can 'share his prosperity' with them. They will also consider the interests and well-being of 'their' country and they will not 'disturb industry' and the 'orderly life of the community' by strikes and stoppage of work. If you listen to your exploiters and their mouthpieces you will be 'good' and consider only the interests of your masters, of your city and country - but no one cares about your interests and those of your family, the interests of your union and of your fellow workers of the laboring class. 'Don't be selfish', they admonish you, while the boss is getting rich by your being good and unselfish. And they laugh in their sleeves and thank the Lord that you are such an idiot.
But if you have followed me till now, then you know that the interests of capital and labor are not the same. No greater lie was ever invented than the so-called 'identity of interests'. You know that labor produces all the wealth of the world, and capital itself is only the accumulated products of labor. You know that there can be no capital, no wealth of any kind, except as the result of labor. So that by right all the wealth belongs to labor, to the men and women who have created it and keep on creating it by their brain and brawn; that is, to the industrial, agrarian, and mental workers of the world; to the whole working class, in short.
You know also that the capital owned by the masters is stolen property, stolen products of labor. Capitalist industry is the process of continuing to appropriate the products of labor for the benefit of the master class. The masters, in other words, exist and grow rich by keeping for themselves the products of your toil. Yet you are asked to believe that you, the workers, have the same interests as your exploiters and robbers! Can any one but a downright fool be taken in by such a plain fraud?
It is clear that your interests as a worker are different from the interests of your capitalistic masters. More than different: they are entirely opposite; in fact, contrary, antagonistic to each other. The better wages the boss pays you, the less profit he makes out of you. It does not require great philosophy to understand that. You can't get away from it, and no twisting and quibbling can change this solid truth.
The very existence of labor unions is itself proof of this, though most of the unions and their members don't understand it. If the interests of labor and capital are the same, why the union? If the boss really believes that what is good for him, as a boss, is also good for you, his employee, then he will certainly treat you right; he will pay you the highest wages possible, so what's the use of having your union? But you know that you do need the union: you need it to help you fight for better wages and better conditions of work. To fight whom? Your boss, of course, your employer, the manufacturer, the capitalist. But if you have to fight him, then it does not look as if your interests and his are the same, does it? What becomes of the precious 'identity of interests' then? Or maybe you are fighting your boss for better wages because he is so foolish that he does not understand his own interests? Maybe he does not understand that it is good for him to pay you more?
Well, you can see to what nonsense the idea of the 'identity of interests' leads. And still, the average labor union is built on this 'identity of interests'. There are some exceptions, of course, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), the revolutionary syndicalist unions, and other class-conscious labor organizations. They know better. But the ordinary unions, such as those belonging to the American Federation of Labor in the United States, or the conservative unions of England, France, Germany, and other countries, all proclaim the identity of interests between labor and capital. Yet as we have just seen, their very existence, their strikes and struggles all prove that the 'identity' is a fake and a lie. How does it happen then that the unions pretend to believe in the identity of interests, while their very existence and activity deny it?
It is because the average worker does not stop to think for himself. He relies upon his union leaders and the newspapers to do it for him, and they see to it that he should not do any straight thinking. For if the workers should begin to think for themselves, they would soon see through the whole scheme of graft, deceit, and robbery which is called government and capitalism, and they would not stand for it. They would do as the people had done before at various times. As soon as they understood that they were slaves, they destroyed slavery. Later on, when they realized that they were serfs, they did away with serfdom. And as soon as they will realize that they are wage slaves, they will also abolish wage slavery.
You see, then, that it is to the interests of capital to keep the workers from understanding that they are wage slaves. The 'identity of interests' swindle is one of the means of doing it.
But it is not only the capitalist who is interested in thus duping the workers. All those who profit by wage slavery are interested in keeping up the system, and all of them naturally try to prevent the workers from understanding the situation.
We have seen before to whose advantage it is to keep things as they are: to rulers and governments, to the churches, to the middle-classes in short, to all who live on the toil of the masses. But even the labor leaders themselves are interested in keeping up wage slavery. Most of them are too ignorant to see through the fraud, and so they really believe that capitalism is all right and that we can't do without it. Yet others, the more intelligent ones, know the truth very well, but as highly paid and influential union officials they benefit by the continuation of the capitalist system. They know that if the workers should see through the whole thing, they would call their leaders to account for having misled and deceived them. They would revolt against their slavery and their misleaders - it might come to a revolution, as has happened often before in history. But labor leaders don't care for revolution; they prefer to let well enough alone, for things are well enough for them.
Indeed, the labor misleaders don't favor revolution; they are even opposed to strikes and try to prevent them whenever they can.
When a strike does break out they will see to it that the men 'don's go too far,' and they will do their best to settle the differences with the employer by 'arbitration,' in which the workers usually get the worst of it. They will hold conferences with the bosses and beg for some minor concessions, and only too often they will compromise the strike to the disadvantage of the union - but in any and all cases they will exhort the workers to 'preserve law and order,' to keep quiet, and be patient. They will sit at the same table with the exploiters, be wined and dined by them, and appeal to the government to 'intercede' and settle the 'trouble,' but they will be mighty careful never to mention the source of all the labor troubles, never to touch upon wage slavery itself.
Have you ever seen a single labor leader, of the American Federation of Labor, for instance, stand up and declare that the whole wage system is pure robbery and swindle, and demand for the workers the full product of his toil? Have you ever heard of any 'regular' labor leader in any country do that? I never did, nor has any one else. On the contrary, when some decent man dares do so, it is the labor leaders who are the first to declare him a disturber, an 'enemy of the workers', a socialist or an anarchist. They are the first to cry 'Crucify him!' and the unthinking workers unfortunately echo them.
Such men are crucified, because capital and government feel safe in doing it as long as the people approve of it.
Do you see the point, my friend? Does it look as if your labor leaders want you to get next to things, to understand that you are a wage slave? Do they not really serve the interests of the masters?
The union leaders and politicians - the more intelligent ones - know full well what great power labor could wield as the sole producer of the wealth of the world. But they don't want you to know it. They don't want you to know that the workers, properly organized and enlightened, could do away with their slavery and subjection. They tell you instead that your union is there only to help you get better wages, though they are aware that you won't improve your condition very much within capitalism; and that you must always remain a wage slave whatever pay the boss may give you. They know very well that even when you do succeed, by means of a strike, in getting a raise, you lose it again in the increased cost of living, not to speak of the wages you lose while you are out on strike.
Statistics show that most of the important strikes are lost. But let us suppose that you won your strike and that you were out only a few weeks. In that time you have lost more in wages than you can gain back working months at the higher pay.
Take a simple example. Suppose you were earning 40 dollars a week when you went on strike. Let us assume the best possible result: we'll say that the strike lasted only 3 weeks and that you gained a five dollar increase. During your 3 weeks' strike you lost 120 dollars in wages. Now you get five dollars a week more, and it will take you 24 weeks to get that lost 120 dollars back again. So, after six months work at the higher pay you will just stand even. But how about the increased cost of living in the meantime? Because you are not only a producer, you are also a consumer. And when you go to buy things you will find that they are more expensive than before. Higher wages mean increased cost of living. Because what the employer loses by paying you a greater wage he gets back again by raising the price of his product.
You can see, then, that the whole idea of higher wages is in reality very misleading. It makes the worker think that he is actually better off when he gets more pay, but the fact is - so far as the whole working class is concerned - that whatever the worker gains by higher wages he loses as a consumer, and in the long run the situation remains the same. At the end of a year of 'higher wages' the worker has no more than after a year of 'lower wages.' Sometimes he is even worse off, because the cost of living increases much faster than wages.
That is the general rule. Of course there are particular factors that affect wages as well as the cost of living, such as scarcity of materials or of labor. But we need not go into special situations, into cases of industrial or financial crisis, or times of unusual prosperity. What concerns us is the regular situation, the normal condition of the workingman. And the normal condition is that he always remains a workingman, a wage slave, earning just enough to enable him to live and to continue to work for his boss. You will find exceptions now and then, as of a worker inheriting or otherwise getting hold of some money, which enables him to go into business, or inventing something that may bring him wealth. But such cases are exceptions and they do not after your condition; that is, the condition of the average toiler, of the millions of workingman all over the world.
So far as those millions are concerned, and so far as you, as one of them, are concerned, you remain a wage slave, whatever your work or your pay, and there is no chance for you to be anything else under the system of capitalism.
Now, then, you might justly ask, 'What is the use of the union? What are the union leaders doing about it?'
The truth is that your union leaders do nothing about it. On the contrary, they do everything they can to keep you a wage slave. They do it by making you believe that capitalism is all right and by having you support the existing system with its government and 'law and order.' They fool you by telling you that it can't be otherwise, just as the boss the school, the church, and the government do. In fact, your labor leader is doing the same work for capitalism that your political leader is doing for the government: both support and get you to support the present system of injustice and exploitation.
'But the union,' you say, 'why doesn't the union change things?'
The union could change things. But what is the union? The union is just you and the other fellow and more of them - the membership and the officials. You realize now that the officials, the labor leaders, are not interested in changing things. Then it is up to the membership to do it, isn't it?
That's it. But if the membership - the workers in general- don't see what it is all about, then the union can't do anything. It means, therefore, that it is necessary to get the membership to understand the real situation.
This should be the true purpose of the labor union. It should be the union's business to enlighten its members about their condition, to show them why and how they are robbed and exploited, and find ways and means of doing away with it.
That would be fulfilling the union's true purpose of protecting the interests of the worker. The abolition of the capitalistic order of things with its government and law would be the only real defense of labor's interests. And while the union would be preparing for that, it would also be looking after the immediate needs of labor, the improvement of present conditions, so far as that is possible within capitalism.
But the ordinary, conservative union stands, as we have seen, for capitalism and for everything connected with it. It takes it for granted that you are a worker and that you are going to stay one, and that things must remain as they are. It asserts that all the union can do is to help you get a little better wages, cut down your hours of work, and improve the conditions under which you toil. It considers the employer a business partner, as it were, and it makes contracts with him. But it never questions why one of the partners - the boss - gets rich from that kind of contract, while the other partner, the worker, always remains poor, labors hard, and dies a wage slave. It doesn't seem to be an equal partnership, somehow. It looks more like a confidence game, doesn't it?
Well, it is. It is a game in which one side does all the pulling of the chestnuts out of the fire, while the other side takes possession of them. A very unequal partnership, and all the striking of the workers is merely to beg or compel the capitalistic partner to give up a few chestnuts out of his big heap. A skin game, for all that, even when the worker succeeds in getting a few extra nuts.
Yet they speak to you of your dignity, of the 'dignity of labor.' Can you think of any greater insult? You slave for the masters all your life, you serve them and keep them in comfort and luxury, you let them lord it over you, and in their hearts they laugh at you and despise you for your stupidity - and then they talk to you of your 'dignity!'
From pulpit and platform, in the school and lecture room, every labor leader and politician, every exploiter and grafter extols the 'dignity of labor', while himself all the time sitting comfortably on your back. Don't you see how they are playing you for a sucker?
What is the union doing about it? What are your labor leaders doing for the fat salary they make you pay them? They are busy 'organizing' you, they are busy telling you what a fine fellow you are; how big and strong your union is, and how much your officials are doing for you. But what are they doing? Their time is taken up with petty matters of procedure, with factional fights, with questions of jurisdiction, with elections of officers, with conferences and conventions. You pay for it all, of course, and that is why your officials are always in favor of a big union treasury, but what have you got from it? You keep on working in the factory or mill and paying your dues, and your labor leader cares blessed little how hard you toil or how you live, and you have to make a big racket at your union meeting to compel attention to your needs and your complaints.
When the question of a strike is taken up you will notice, as I have mentioned before, that the leaders generally oppose it - for they also like the boss and the ruler, want 'peace and quiet' instead of the discomforts involved in a fight. Whenever they can, the union leaders will dissuade you from striking, and sometimes even directly prevent and forbid it. They will outlaw your organization if you go on strike with out their consent. But if the pressure is too strong for them to resist they will graciously 'authorize' the strike. Just imagine - you work hard and from your scanty earnings you support the union officials, who should serve you, yet you have to get their permission to improve your condition! It's because you have made them the bosses of your organization, just as you have made the government your master instead of your servant - or as you permit the policeman, whom you pay with your taxes, to order you about instead of you giving him orders.
Did you ever ask yourself how it happens that when you are out on strike (and at all other times as well) the law and the whole machinery of government is always on the side of the boss? Why, the strikers number thousands while the boss is only one, and they and he are supposed to be citizens of equal rights - yet, strange to say, it's the boss who always has the government at his service. He can get the courts to issue an injunction against your 'interfering' with 'his' business, he can have the police club you off the picket line, he can have you arrested and jailed. Did you ever hear of a mayor, chief of police, or governor order out the police or militia to protect your interests in a strike? Queer, isn't it? Again, the boss can get plenty of scabs and black legs, under police protection, to help break your strike, because you have been working so many hours that there is always an army of unemployed on hand ready to take your place. Generally you lose your strike because your labor leaders did not permit you to organize in the right way.
I have seen, for instance, bricklayers on a New York skyscraper lay down their tools, while the carpenters and iron workers on the same job remained at work. The strike did not concern them, their unions said, because they belonged to another trade; or they could not join the strikers because that would be breaking the contract their organizations had made with the boss. 50 they kept at work on the building where their brother union men had struck. That is, they were actually scabbing and helping to break the strike of the bricklayers. Because, for sooth, they belonged to another craft, to a different trade! As if the struggle of labor against capital were a matter of craft and not the common cause of the whole working class!
Another example: the coal miners of Pennsylvania are on strike, and the coal miners of Virginia are taxed to help the strikers with money. The Virginia miners remain at work because they are 'bound by contract'. They keep on mining coal, so that the coal magnates can supply the market and lose nothing by the strike of the Pennsylvania miners. Sometimes they even gain by making the strike an excuse for raising the price of coal. Can you wonder that the Pennsylvania miners lose the strike, since their own fellow miners scab on them? But if the workers understood their true interests if they would be organized not by craft or trade but by industries, so that the whole industry - and if necessary the whole working class - could strike as one man, would any strike be lost?
We shall return to this subject. Just now I want to point out to you that your union, as at present organized, and your union officials are not built for effectively fighting capitalism. Not built even for successfully conducting strikes. They cannot materially improve your condition.
They serve only to keep the workers divided into different and often opposing organizations; they train them to believe that capitalism is all right; they paralyze their initiative and ability to think and act in a class conscious manner. That is why the labor leaders and the conservative unions are the strongest bulwark of existing institutions. They are the backbone of capitalism and of government, the best support of 'law and order,' and the reason why you remain in wage slavery.
'But we ourselves choose our union officials,' you object; 'if the present ones are no good, we can elect others.'
Of course, you can elect new leaders, but does it make any difference whether this or that man is your leader, whether it is Gompers or Green, Jouhaux in France, or Thomas in England, as long as your union sticks to the same foolish ideas and false methods, believes in capitalism and supports the 'harmony of interests', divides the workers and reduces their strength by craft organization, makes contracts with the boss which bind the membership and keep them scabbing on their fellows, and in many other ways upholds the regime of your bondage?
'Then the union is no good?' you demand.
In union there is strength, but it has to be a real union, a true organization of labor, because the workers everywhere have the same interests no matter what work they do or to what particular craft they belong. Such a union would be based on the mutual interests and solidarity of labor throughout the world. It would be conscious of its tremendous power as the creator of all wealth.
'Power!' you object. 'You said we're slaves! What power can slaves have?'
Let us see about it, then.
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