The Influence of Philosophical Currents on Labor Unions

1   Remarks on Philosophical Influences

Labor unions form and then change under a host of influences. Among those influences are various philosophical currents. Still, the predominant influences are those coming directly from workers. The experience of being controlled by others is at the core of why they join unions. Philosophical currents have their impact only through the way they channel the response to that control.

Moreover, philosophical ideas will play a role in determining what new forms of worker organization will be once the old forms are collapsing. Unions could emerge only with the demise of the traditional organization of workers into guilds. Guilds made sense in a feudal economy but not in the emerging modern economy.  Merchant capitalists eroded the relation between master and journeyman by having work done by independent artisans, that is, those not controlled by a guild master. With independent workers, capitalists were able to build a labor market that eroded the monopoly the guilds had over labor.  In sum, the individual worker had to contract directly for work before what we call labor unions were feasible for groups of workers.

Changing the context from one type of economy to another is not all we need for understanding the origin of labor unions.  We need two more things. One is the desire of workers to improve their situation, and the other is a conviction about what the remedy is.     Workers saw the result of contracting individually with employers was their living in squalor, lacking control over work, and suffering employer abuse without redress.[1]  Where would the remedy come from?  The French Revolution had taken up the idea of freedom developed earlier in the 18th century by French philosophers. That idea served well in fighting political and religious despotism. It was a small step from applying freedom there to applying it to fighting economic despotism in France and elsewhere.[2] Led by this idea, workers were choosing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to form voluntary associations that had many of the marks of our unions today. These new associations could claim to be autonomous in respect to external bodies and internally democratic, features that were to become central to what workers would value in unions.

The philosophical ideas that influence unionization, or anything else, are not ideas that suddenly appear in philosophers’ minds. They, in their turn, emerge out of social, cultural, and economic changes. The 18th century idea of liberty, for example, had roots in the 15th and 16th centuries’ expansion of commerce and in the desire of those engaged in it to avoid traditional regulation or interference by despots. In the early 16th century Machiavelli affirmed the necessity of “a free way of life” for successful cities.[3]  Philosophical ideas are, then, only one link in a chain of influences. They are not utterly original influences that have miraculously escaped from the chain of more mundane influences. This essay leaves untouched vast geographical areas of union activity. It centers on Western Europe andNorth America, areas where the capitalist wage system first predominated.

Finally, the claim that philosophical ideas have played a role in unionism does not imply that philosophers make direct contact with the labor movement. Agencies of a variety of types are carriers of the philosophical currents that influence unionism. Philosophers usually operate at a level that fails to admit of immediate application. Mediating agencies between the philosophers’ ideas and unions are essential. The schools, popular writers, and activists enrich the broader culture with those ideas.

2   Freedom to Associate and the Wage System

Unions are different from governments and economies. One clue for this is that unionism is something new, whereas governmental and economic activities go back millennia. Plato in the 4th century BC wrote about philosopher kings and about an economy to back them up, without having dreamt of labor unions. It took the development of the modern wage system to make unions possible. In principle, workers in the wage system are free to contract with whatever employer needs them. No guild restrictions or seigniorial rights over serfs limit the mobility of workers in the wage system, yet they are not self-employed in the way some artisans still are. It is not surprising then that predominantly modern ideas moved workers in the wage system toward unionism.

The 18th century French philosophers’ notion of liberty appears broad enough to apply equally to workers and to entrepreneurs. Despite this, they and their followers emphasized freeing entrepreneurs from feudal restrictions. The disciples of the French philosophes fashioned the concept of liberty that appeared in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the Constituent Assembly in revolutionary France in 1789.[4] These were disciples of people like Francois-Marie Voltaire and Denis Diderot, who wished to promote the new economy, which emphasized making profits from the use of private property by wage labor. Voltaire (1694-1778), perhaps the most creative and versatile of the French philosophes, had defended in his writings a number of the rights found in the work of the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704). Voltaire defended property and thought that the propertied middle class should rule. His defense of liberty included a defense of the liberty to grow rich, though he thought that without the dispossessed there would be nobody to do the work that keeps humanity from extinction. Voltaire also defended an unregulated form of capitalism.[5] Those in the Constituent Assembly, whose voices counted in drafting the Declaration, were in basic agreement with these views of Voltaire.

The general notion of freedom here had to do with one’s ability to do things without others putting obstacles in one’s way. In making this general notion more specific, it was easy for the philosophes and their followers in the Constituent Assembly to adopt a view of freedom favoring the employer. In contracting with employees, the employer was to be free to hire labor without interference from the employee. So, the employee had no right to interfere by insisting on a living wage or by insisting on using collective action. Such a one-sided view of liberty only encouraged employees in the new economy to return to the general notion of liberty. If freedom meant anything, it included freedom to organize.

In 1791, two years after the Declaration, the Constituent Assembly made explicit the consequences of the Declaration’s view of liberty in the new economy. It did this by passing the Le Chapelier law, which denied French workers the right to form associations and to strike. (Later, they won the right to strike in 1864 and the right to collective bargaining in 1884.)  The law owed its passage to a scare created by a series of strikes inParisworkshops. How could the law be justified? The Declaration had pointed out that one couldn’t use freedom as an excuse for harming others. But any harm done to employers by peaceful association and collective bargaining might merely deter the harm they would otherwise do to employees. The Le Chapelier law would then be inconsistent with liberty in the general sense, but consistent with liberty in the narrow sense of liberty for entrepreneurs.

The Declaration does not explicitly reject the right to association except to say that the limits on it are “determinable only by the law”. The Le Chapelier law subsequently set those limits by an outright ban on labor association. (Eight years later in 1799, the British parliament, with its Combination Acts, adopted similar limits on labor association.) Yet those, like Jean-Paul Marat, who saw themselves during the French Revolution as advocates for the popular classes, believed strongly that such a right existed. In criticizing the Le Chapelier law in his periodical, L’Ami du Peuple, Marat said, “They have taken away from the class of trades people and workers … the right of free assembly, the right to discuss its common interests in an orderly way ….” [6]  An assembly alarmed by the pace of popular gains and dedicated to a free market in labor passed this law.

3   The General Interest and Union Goals

The meaning of liberty is, however, expansive; it goes beyond not having to face obstacles to self-interest in order to include the absence of obstacles to the general interest.  From the 1820s to the 1840s, this expansion was evident in Britainas workers and others, who together made up the popular classes, widened their aims. In Britain, both the trade unions, which established themselves in the last quarter of the 18th century, and the mutual benefit organizations adopted aims that were broader than the aims of improved wages and aid for the poorest.  This sparked an effort by the unions to set up a general national union for the major trades. Though it failed, this effort led to a movement with an even broader perspective. This new movement embodied the ideas of reformer-industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858) for a cooperative nation-wide society.  Though realizing a cooperative society was a distant goal, getting the vote for working people and the indigent seemed an actionable one. They joined a movement for the People’s Charter, which if passed into law would guarantee universal manhood suffrage. This movement reached its peak between 1839 and 1842 before failing to reach its goal. These developments showed that trade unions in particular were capable of having a double focus. They were demanding the liberty to realize their own interests and to participate in realizing the interests of the broader community.

So unions began to adopt a double goal. They provide for their members needs as workers in a specific workplace, but they also respond to the needs of the larger community to which they belong. Yet sometimes only one of these goals dominates. This happens when their engagement with the community is only an expression of their self-interest. Then they support or protest a proposed action solely on grounds of its possible effects on them rather than on the broader community. It also happens when unions go crusading, slighting their members’ special needs to bring change to a larger arena.    The double goal had played a role inFranceas well. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712- 1778), a philosopher and novelist fromGeneva, became part of the revolutionary culture there, despite their rejection by the French philosophers who defended a bourgeois republic. He wanted a popular republic in which the special interests of those with sizeable property were subordinate to the general interests of the community. This view became that of important revolutionary actors like Jacques-Rene Hebert and Jacques Roux. In 1793 Roux said in the Convention, “Freedom is only a hollow sham when one class of men can starve another with impunity.” Self-interest was not enough for the popular republic Roux and others hoped to found. Dedication to the general interest would offer an escape from the misery social divisions generate. Citizens would be free from hunger, to learn in schools, to have a job, and to participate as equals in governance.

Rousseau was outside the main stream of the philosophes as represented by Voltaire. The idea that the state exists for certain private interests was anathema to Rousseau. The state should pursue, instead, common interests, and do this through a common will, a will to pursue interests common to all.  For him, the political sovereignty of a united people cannot be divided, which it would be if one class or faction were to rule. To assure that the state promotes common rather than private interests and that sovereignty is seamless, workers and trades people must play a role in shaping the common interest and in executing the common will. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) transformed Rousseau’s idea of a common will into what Kant called a categorical imperative. The tie in comes from Kant’s treating the categorical imperative as requiring that we act only on rules that we can consider as universally applicable. A reasonable interpretation of this is that rules we cannot will to be universal are not compatible with Rousseau’s common will which is the common will of humanity. It would follow from this that, since the common will acts for common interests, Kant’s moral imperative calls for acting in solidarity with others by pursuing at least those of their interests that are common.

Inseparable from the notion of a popular republic, which a segment of the French Revolution pursued in 1793 but never realized, was the notion of fraternity or solidarity. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen did not mention and was in fact distant from this notion. Forming a general interest and pursuing it are tasks that call for making the interests of others one’s own interests. Already in 1785, the Kant had affirmed the basis of the popular republican ideal when he said that we are to treat others not as mere means but in such a way that at least some of their ends should be ones we pursue with them.[7]  Following this prescription leads to solidarity of the kind involved in the pursuit of general interests. In the union movements of various countries in the 19th century, one strand explicitly promoted the general interest as the goal of working people.

4   Class Conflict and Socialism

In supporting causes like the People’s Charter, unions went beyond protecting their members from harm by also trying to reform the society. There is a danger hidden here that is easy to overlook.[8] Could unions work with others in the society to build a republic in which everyone is free to develop?  If so, workers would not limit themselves to acting for their own protection but would join the cooperative effort of all to guarantee the protection of all. The problem with this is that it assumes there will be cooperation with all. The powerful and wealthy may agree to save society but only in a way that restricts freedoms for workers.

The enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century worried about tumults of the vaguely defined masses – the canaille. But with the growth of capitalism in the 19th century, the conflict came to be seen in class terms.[9] The conflict between wageworkers and entrepreneurs emerged as a problem for the stability of a republican order. Within the working class awareness of its own interests and of its conflict with the interests of property owners was spreading in countries where capitalism was growing strong.  Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) took note of this awareness. Engels wrote in detail about struggles of British workers, including a moving account of a wage strike at aManchester brick firm backed by the Brickmakers’Union and crushed by actions of watchmen, the military, and the police. The notion of class conflict became central to their understanding of capitalism. From the mid-1840s, they interpreted the union movement as a product of class conflict.

This class consciousness not only differed from the corporate consciousness of the feudal crafts but it also differed from the Jacobin radicalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and of Jacobins like the influential English publicist Thomas Paine (1737-1809).[10] Paine’s work resonated with workers struggling for elementary political rights against regimes still defending hereditary rule. In England, his influence led numerous workers in the early 19th century to make the aristocracy their main target. A rejection of the autocracy of industrialists over labor failed to reach the same intensity.

The radical reformers in Englandin the first quarter of the 19th century argued for civil liberty, a free press, the right to vote, and an end to aristocratic privilege. Repression of the movement for reform was often brutal, reaching a climax in the 1819 massacre outside Manchester at St. Peter’s Fields. Regular cavalry together with a loyalist middle class rode through a peaceful crowd of some 60,000 riding down and sabering all they could. It was class war but over the privileges of the nobility and the monarchy.[11]

Unions had been illegal since 1799, under the Combination Acts, but the demands of those attacked in “Peterloo” – an ironic reference toWaterloofour years earlier – did not include freedom for unions and strikes. Still, the disgust created in the lower classes by the massacre was enduring and played a role in the expansion of the consciousness of many in the 1820s beyond Jacobinism. This expansion opened the way to the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824.  In this context, the increasing prevalence of wage work brought many in the radical reform movement to view unions favorably.

Nonetheless, influential socialists of the time, whether in Britainor elsewhere, found little that was positive in unions. This was true of Robert Owen of Scotland, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) of France, and Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864) of Germany.  Marx, then, became the first major figure to give a socialist argument for unions.  For him, socialism involved the self-emancipation of the working class through its overthrow of the owning class. This conception connected socialism with unionism, for unions were, in Marx’s view, organizations formed by wage workers to fight against the encroachments of capital.[12] Fighting against capital’s encroachments prepares the ground for the very different fight against capitalism itself. Workers here included not just the skilled workers of the crafts but also the growing numbers of unskilled factory workers. Unions were, then, a basic organization of struggle against capitalist demands, a struggle that would prepare the way for the different struggle for an era without capitalism.

Establishing this link between unions and socialism was only part of Marx’s contribution. He still had to say what role socialists, whether inside or outside unions, would play in relation to unions. Unlike Lassalle and Soviet Communists, Marx opposed giving control of unions over to a socialist political party.[13] The Marxist view seems to present a paradox. On the one hand, since unions are basic organizations for resisting capitalist demands, political parties should not try to compromise their independence. On the other hand, the ability to prepare the ground for a struggle to get socialism calls for an additional competence. The ability to defend workers in capitalist companies is different from the ability to guide this defense toward socialism. The latter ability seems to call for guidance from a socialist party. Without such guidance unions would be absorbed in day-to-day economic struggles and in the reformist politics associated with them.

So, to avoid a paradox, Marx had to walk a fine line between the Scylla of control by political leaders and the Charybdis of settling for more pay and benefits. He does this by suggesting that, in addition to participating in a socialist party, many socialists would be workers forming a loyal left wing within unions.[14]  Without subverting the unions’ autonomy by turning over control to socialist parties, these socialists would work within the union movement in its struggle to end capitalism. In this way, there could be a symbiosis between parties and unions while maintaining union autonomy.

It made sense then to treat unions as one among various organizations for class struggle that, pursued to its end, would eliminate the wage system.  The Marxist idea of unions had an impact through the International Workingmen’s Association (1864-1872), which brought together trade union leaders and revolutionaries.[15]  Within the International, Marx defended his view of unions as autonomous with respect to parties and the state but as a legitimate arena for activism by members of socialist parties. In it, he was able to influence British radical reformist unionists as well as French anarchists. Members of the International, whether they were  individuals or organizations, could then promote, in conjunction with their countries’ socialist parties or unions, a class-conscious unionism linked to the struggle against capitalism .

By the late 1860s, unionizing had the support of both the Lassallean and the more Marxist parties, which then united in 1875 to form the party later renamed the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).[16] The Marxist notion of having a socialist party alongside but not controlling unions in which socialists would participate was influential beyond Germany. In Italy, the General Confederation of Labor (CGL) appeared in 1906. It was a reaction to revolutionary syndicalism and its call for direct action without politics. The CGL, instead, worked in conjunction with the Italian Socialist Party, whose roots went back to 1892.  Founded in 1895, the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) merged the legacy of Marx with that of anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and P.-J. Proudhon. Despite its official stance of electoral abstention, workers within the CGT tended to vote for the socialist candidates of the French Section of the Second International. In Britain, however, union organization proceeded until 1918 without a major socialist party and indeed without even a major independent worker’s party.[17]

5   The Contract and Unionism

It was proving difficult toward the end of the 19th century for the working class to make progress with the class struggle model of unionism advocated by Marxists. There was competition from liberal, Catholic, and anarchist unions, but the main problem lay elsewhere. Capital had become organized and able to use the state to repress militancy.

In theUS, Samuel Gompers, president of the cigar makers union, founded what was soon to be called the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1881. He then began looking for a way for unions to make progress despite stronger opposition from capital. Employers had found they could rely on the state to issue anti-union injunctions to end strikes, stop boycotts, and prevent union organizing. Between 1898 and 1908, they asked for injunctions 66 times and judges granted them in 46 cases.

Gompers eventually developed a new unionism, which was neither that of popular republicanism aiming at social unity nor that of class struggle paving the way to social change. The new unionism attempted to overcome the opposition of capital by bringing it into a contractual relation that would establish labor peace. His new brand of unionism was an application of a modern version of the enlightenment liberal philosophy of the social contract, specifically the liberal philosophy of John Locke.[18]

In the US, formal agreements between employers and unions had been rare prior to the last quarter of the 19th century. Once agreements became more common and became regional and even national in scope, union leaders recognized that through these agreements unions were establishing peace with employers. Agreements, while they lasted, reduced aggressive efforts by employers to destroy unions.

As Gompers put it in 1921, “Collective bargaining … establishes industrial peace which is essential for the orderly production and distribution of wealth.” [19] He does not deny the tendency for conflict, but since peace is possible through agreements, conflict is avoidable. There is no suggestion that community and a cooperative republic result from collective bargaining. It offers only a truce made to avoid conflict. Nor is the goal to realize the Marxist vision of unions as steps toward a radical break with the existing economy. Gompers displaces this vision in order to pursue orderly production and distribution. This peace rules out any distribution of income and wealth and any increase in democratic control that would threaten capitalism.

The core idea of Gompers view of unions is that the contract creates a new entity. For Locke, the contract on which individuals agree creates a political society for their peaceful living. For Gompers, the new entity is a voluntary institution created by an agreement between a labor union and an employer on a set of rules to govern their interaction. This set of rules acts as a constitution for an industrial unit of labor and an employer. Since Gompers showed little interest in unionizing workers outside the crafts, the compact was, for him, between skilled labor and an employer. Moreover, the task of the state in respect to labor/employer relations was not to regulate labor or capital, but to create an environment free of obstacles to forming and maintaining their agreement.

Gompers’ view belongs to a view of government  that we can trace to John Locke (1632-1704), for whom government arises not from the right of any particular group or individual, but from the mutual consent of the people governed. The governed, then, contract among themselves to form a government.  The early 20th Century institutionalists extended Locke’s notion of contract to apply not just to individuals but also to collective entities. Instead of Locke’s individuals contracting with one another for their governance, the institutionalists’ workers, for example, would contract with their employers through representatives to make institutions for cooperation in their industry.  For institutional economists, like John R. Commons and his student William M. Leiserson, agreements between labor and management were “nothing less than constitutions for the industries which they cover.”[20]  These constitutions set up organs of industrial governance in the way the Lockean agreements among individuals led to organs of state governance.

It was necessary to decide who made up the contracting party on the side of labor. In the original liberal version of contract theory, individuals agreed among themselves on certain principles, but Gompers was reluctant to view the union as an aggregate of individuals. Hence, the contract with an employer was not a contract into which individual employees entered. Instead, the union as a collectivity made the contract with the employer. Gompers wanted, then, to splice an earlier view of associations as more than their members onto the individualist Lockean view of contracts. This made it easy for employers to say that collective bargaining agreements with unions had no standing in the law of contracts, which had its foundation in the individualist view. In 1902, Gompers and Louis Brandeis, then a Bostonlawyer, debated the legal status of unions.[21]

Gompers had insisted on keeping political parties and their ideologies at arms length from unions. In 1890, he clashed with Daniel DeLeon, a follower of Lassalle and leader of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), over the AFL’s refusal to charter DeLeon’s SLP as a member organization or even to charter the socialist union federation within which the SLP already had a charter. When DeLeon appealed for support to no less a figure than Engels, the reply from Engels was that Gompers had the right to make the AFL an exclusively union body. Gompers was equally concerned that Eugene Debs was, by the late 1890s, successfully recruiting trade unionists to the US Socialist Party, distracting them from their day-to-day union tasks. A majority of delegates at the 1894 convention of the AFL came there to adopt the political program of the Independent Labor Party in Britain. In it was a plank calling for the collective ownership of the means of production. Gompers managed to defeat its adoption by manipulating delegates whose unions sent them to the convention to vote for the program.  His policy of strangling socialist politics wherever it arose in the AFL facilitated making agreements with employers in the interest of industrial peace.[22]

There is a weakness in Gompers’ contract idea. One source of this weakness is the contract’s not being among individuals. A contract between a union and a company, calls for officers of the union to bargain with the company rather than all individuals in the union. A second source of the weakness is the conflict between workers interests and the basic interests of the company. The company operates for those investing in it and not for the welfare of the workers.

We can then explain the weakness this way.  The union’s officers stand in the middle between the union and the company. But they stand in the middle trying to keep the peace.  They worry that pushing hard to get what the union demands may lead to a response by the company that breaks the peace. But union officers prefer maintaining the peace rather than meeting the challenge involved in entering a conflict they are not sure to win. They must though be prepared to defend themselves from the union members they disappoint. They do so by becoming a force independent of the union membership. They form a bureaucracy that discourages both their urging the union to challenge the company and their accountability to the union. Nonetheless, Gompers’ contract view is the bedrock of the outlook of at least mainstream American union officials after him.

6   Union Bureaucracy and Workers Councils

A number of developments converged to deepen the bureaucratic tendency inherent in Gompers’ contract model of unionism. Layers of officials emerged to direct union activity at the local, regional, and national levels. Though many leaders in offices at each of these levels had risen from the union ranks, they wished to protect the power they had in these offices. Protecting their positions became an activity distinct from, and many times in conflict with, the interests of the ranks in the unions. They had positions to protect from workers’ shifting attitudes about key issues. In addition, these layers of officials also affected the bargaining process. Gompers left an ambiguity when he said that collective bargaining was not with individuals but instead with the collective of workers. Who then bargained; the collective or its official representatives? The activity of creating a contract proposal took place out of the view of union members, who came in only at the end with their vote.

Complaints about union bureaucracy became widespread in both Europe and theUnited States. InGermany, union representatives played an increasingly conservative role in the Social Democratic Party. In the 1906 SPD congress, the Social Democratic unions, with their focus on short-term economic issues and with control over them in the hands of officials, were successful in doing away with the party’s revolutionary perspective. This transpired over the opposition of SPD founders, Bebel and Liebknecht, as well as other Marxist oriented party leaders.

InItaly, a left-wing group in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), that included Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) among others, lamented the reformist and top-down character of the unions in the General Confederation of Labor (CGL), the union federation allied with the PSI. Nonetheless, these leftists in the PSI saw the unions as necessary so long as the wage system existed. Unions must continue collectively bargaining contracts over wages, hours, and conditions of work. But they thought weakening capital would be the task of another institution, the factory council.  Factory councils arrived on the Italian scene in 1919-1920, a period of intense militancy inTurin,Italy’s major industrial center.

In the early 20th century, there were strong syndicalist movements in various countries. They both penetrated the socialist unions and formed unions for workers outside the established trade unions. Their members strengthened the reaction against the spread of union bureaucracy and contractual unionism. They had no use for pacts with capitalists or for unions with bureaucrats, and they advocated the general strike as the strategy for ending capitalism. The French social philosopher, Georges Sorel, influenced early 20th century syndicalism in numerous countries.  He rejected the mediocrity of life in bourgeois democracy and advocated direct action in class struggle, rather than bargaining accords or passing laws.

In France, a stronghold of this tradition, a deep suspicion about delegating authority delayed the organization of unions. Syndicalists noted that workers showed solidarity in action against employers without having a commitment to an organization. Within the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT), syndicalism remained a strong current even after the CGT associated with the French Section of the Workers’ International in the years before World War I. The view within this syndicalist current was that arbitration, and any other practice that limited union autonomy, sapped the class struggle.[23]

In the US, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905 by delegates from 43 different labor organizations, was opposed to arbitration, collective bargaining, and political affiliation or intervention. Its philosophy of direct action led to a number of historic strikes, including the Lawrencetextile strike (1912), the Mesabi Range miners’ strike (1916), and the Seattlegeneral strike (1919). While the AFL was organizing only in the trades, the IWW was organizing skilled and unskilled workers, whether they were migratory or in a settled location.[24]

Gramsci was staking out ground lying between bureaucratic contractual unionism and spontanist revolutionary syndicalism. In 1919-1920, as factory councils were forming in Turinalongside the existing unions, Gramsci saw his task in editing the journal L’Ordine Nuovo as one of interpreting the relation of the factory councils both to the unions of the CGL and to the socialist party, the PSI.  The councils came together for direct action in the interest of workers. They were there to challenge the power of the owners rather than to make pacts with them.

Gramsci criticized both the economic materialism defended by some Marxists and the idealist view of history upheld byItaly’s then leading philosopher, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952).  Against the former, he claimed that popular beliefs are a material force in politics, while taking it as obvious that these beliefs could not gain currency except in certain kinds of economic contexts. Against the later, he held that to understand politics one had to recognize the existence of conflict among groups, whereas the idealist can only recognize the distinctness of ideas. Gramsci interpreted Croce’s vacillation over fascism and his withdrawal from public life in 1926 as an outgrowth of this idealism. Without denying that the economic context of politics was vital for understanding it, Gramsci’s influential notion of hegemony connected class with ideas. He wanted to understand how in a given society the ideas of one of its classes become dominant in the way people approach issues. As a first step, a class has to recognize that it cannot achieve dominance with a program that aims simply at its own interests as a class. Instead, it must make a credible case that it stands for the general interests of the society. As a second step, this class has to show that realizing these general interests depends on it. Then this class and its key ideas will become hegemonic in the society.

The unions, in his view, were still relevant, at least so long as the wage system lasted and made it necessary to bargain with employers over wages. In contrast, the factory councils pre-figured a socialist society after the fall of capitalism, when the conflict over wages gives way to worker control of production. The factory councils were eventually to form, along with neighborhood and rural councils, a network making up the society as a whole. The different parts of the network would delegate representatives to a governing body. Prior to such a socialist outcome, the councils, according to Gramsci, had the task, not to replace, but to “remodel [the trade unions] fundamentally” and “to win the trade unions to the cause of communism.”   Other socialist leftists, like Palmiro Togliatti, disagreed arguing that making the unions democratic would render them useless for transforming society. As to the party, Gramsci took the view that, in forming a socialist state, the party would have to relinquish power to the councils. For him this was, though, compatible with the view that, inside the councils, the socialist party would aspire to be a leading influence and, since the councils would make up the society, it would act as an “incorporeal government.” [25]

This view of the councils as remodeling the unions implied a subordinate role for the unions.  They were not the autonomous bodies in earlier republican, Marxist, and contractual views of unions. However, one needs to understand this subordination of unions to the councils in the context of special circumstances. Councils arise only when outrage and militancy are intense, as they were inTurinin 1919-1920 and had been inSt. Petersburgin 1905 and 1917.  As he came to see when the council movement suffered its defeat in April 1920, the subordination of the unions to the councils was not the normal condition of the unions but only their condition in a situation of intense working class struggle. The instructive thing about the view of this philosopher, journalist, and party activist is that it puts a limit on how far union autonomy can be useful to workers. In a situation of intense struggle, unions should cede their autonomy to the councils.

At the root of Gramsci’s views on the relation of unions, councils, and parties was the conviction that without a development of consciousness and culture there could be no successful social transformation. This development had to be an ethical-political one. The councils brought with them a new consciousness and culture, which was an outgrowth of the situation of Turin’s factory workers after World War I. The will of a socialist party could not impose factory councils on these workers. As mere act of will, a general strike or an action in the streets is futile since the consciousness and culture emerging from existing conditions has not prepared for it. In this regard, Gramsci’s thought blended both materialism and idealism, showing the influence of both Marx’s historical materialism and the philosophy of spirit of Benedetto Croce, whose writings, by the time Gramsci was a university student, were having a profound impact in Italy.

7   Unions Run for External Purposes

            The idea that unions are autonomous working class organizations – having its origins in the idea of liberty coming from the philosophers of the French Revolution and in the idea of working class self-emancipation in the Marxist tradition – has been a difficult one to realize in practice. Non-working class organizations are tempted to use unions for their own goals, goals for which they offer some broad philosophical backing. The result is a subordination of unions to states, political parties, nationalist movements, religious institutions, or even an organized section of another class. These external organizations succeed in splitting the union movement at times when workers most need strength in unity. In many cases, those subordinating unions have no sympathy at all for unionism. Believing unionism unavoidable, these external bodies hope to limit what they consider its negative effects by leading workers into unions subordinate to them.

InItaly, for example, there was a Catholic federation of labor, alongside the CGL and the syndicalist federation.  After its founding in 1918, the Catholic federation, the CIL, grew to over a million members by 1920, the great majority of whom were rural. The CGL had reached nearly two million by that time. The CIL had ties to the Popular Party, the PPI, which was dedicated to Christian democracy and was opposed to ending private property, the nominal goal of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).  Because of its views on property and class, the PPI refused to work with the PSI.  An important consequence of the CIL’s keeping labor within the bounds of Catholic social teaching on private property was its ignoring the class of those it recruited. It admitted not just rural workers but also landowners to its ranks. When rural workers occupied land, they faced opposition from landowners inside and outside the CIL. This weakened the support the CIL gave to the rural workers.

Catholic federations of labor in Italyand elsewhere reflect the social doctrines laid out in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical On the Condition of Labor, known as Rerum Novarum. While recognizing the right of workers to form unions to change the inhumane conditions that had become prevalent in workplaces, the encyclical also condemned socialist unionism as “contrary to the natural rights of mankind.”  The appeal to natural rights – and specifically the natural right to private property – was ostensibly moral rather than theological. Hence, it was addressed to believers and non-believers alike. Because of this encyclical, church officials urged Catholic workers not to confiscate capitalist property, not to give the state the power to run the economy, and not to agree to the doctrine of class conflict, with its implication that the capitalist is the natural adversary of the worker.

In the US, Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria elaborated on these themes in a book published in 1902, the year of a major anthracite strike. [26] He served on the commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to settle the strike.Roosevelt had agreed to the mine operators’ condition for accepting the commission’s findings that he appoint to it no member sympathetic to labor.

In early 20th century US, the Catholic hierarchy made clear it would accept Gompers’ AFL only on assurances that the AFL would not violate the right of private property and attempt to form a left leaning labor party.  Gompers was more than willing to give these assurances since an exodus of Catholics from the unions of the AFL would, at that time, enable socialists to control it and to oust Gompers.  His “pure and simple trade unionism” made it unnecessary for the Catholic hierarchy to create a Catholic union federation parallel with the ones in Europe.[27]

There are many examples of unions that lost autonomy through domination from the outside.  There were unions dominated by the party-state in 1920s in theSoviet Union. These labor unions were no longer representing the special interests of the working class, but had become part of the machinery of the state for realizing the state’s goal of increasing productivity. Moreover, in some non-Communist countries during the Cold War, there were unions dominated by the foreign policy interests of theUSand its allies. The American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations through its overseas institutes, such as the American Institute for Free Labor Development, which was active in Latin America, promoted unions competing with leftist unions and weakening leftist governments. By the end of the Cold War, their divisive activities had had rendered local labor movements less able to resist the austerity and privatization programs promoted by their neoliberal governments under pressure from international financial institutions

8  Recent Trends: Democratic and Global Unionism

A form of radical unionism began to appear in the mid-1960s in the USand Western Europe. Its activist roots in the USwere in the racial revolt and in the movement against the Vietnam War. Its philosophical roots in the US and elsewhere were in New Left philosophers with connections to the Frankfurt School, in Herbert Marcuse’s popular advocacy of open democracy as against a closed political universe and in Jürgen Habermas’ advocacy of communicative discourse as a counter to technical problem solving.[28]

One form of this New Left unionism aimed to establish union caucuses to promote union democracy and power. The purpose of these caucuses was to change unions rather than to form break-away unions.  The rank-and-file group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, with its origin in the 1970s, remains a force, within the Teamsters Union.  Caucuses are quite different from the factory councils inItalyof 1919-1920. Caucuses aim to reform unions making them more effective in limiting the demands of capital. But the aim of factory councils was to change the society.

A second form of radical unionism appeared in the 1960s in theUS. It did, in fact, try to bypass existing unions in order to change the structure of employment and hence of the society. An example was the short lived Revolutionary Black Workers movement, an umbrella for Revolutionary Union Movement groups, which appeared in a number of auto factories inDetroit.

A third form came later – minority unionism.  It attempts to avoid the hurdles corporations put in the way of union certification, hurdles that grew higher as international competition became stiffer.  Without getting legal bargaining rights but with union affiliation, a minority of employees in an industry can still be effective.  They can initiate protest actions against an employer that mobilize much of the rest of the workforce. To have labor peace, the employer will have to make concessions. Workers in the union-unfriendly state ofNorth Carolinahave formed minority unions in several workplaces – one being a Cummins Engine assembly plant. They joined the United Electrical Workers union, which has lent its support to their actions.

Another current seems to push in a direction opposed to these democratic ones. It responds to globalization by pushing from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The inability of unions to cope with economic globalization characterizes the present scene.  The union officials’ response is to make regular concessions to corporations with the promise after each one that it is the last. The union militants’ response is to call for no concessions promising that, if the unions mobilize their members, employers have deep enough pockets to swallow any losses from being denied concessions. Some would point out that these responses sidestep a decisive change that has taken place. We no longer live in a world of disjointed states, but in one of states in a global economic system.  They would note that unions can no longer limit themselves to a national perspective while corporations operate within a global framework. Unions though are at a disadvantage since the global perspective is something new for many of them. Of course, unions work through organizations, like the International Labor Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation. But they do so largely as national bodies.

Within the past two decades, there has been an outpouring of philosophical writing on justice in the global system. The authors start by noting that familiar tools for dealing with equality within a nation state are less useful in answering the new questions about global equality.  One of the more prestigious philosophers writing in this area is Amartya Sen. He develops an approach to issues of justice using a novel idea he calls “plural affiliations.”[29] Unions employing ideas like this one are, we shall see, beginning to point the way ahead for unions imperiled by globalization.

Using the idea of plural affiliations helps break down barriers to cooperating with people in other societies. Cooperating with people in another society faces as hurdles many of the differences between those societies. But an autoworker can side step these hurdles since he or she has an immediate affiliation with auto workers in any society. In their work, auto workers today have comparable routines, similar responsibilities to supervisors, and the same sorts of grievances. The autoworker who is a woman will also have an affiliation with a woman in another society who is not an autoworker. Each of us will have multiple identities, each of which affiliates us with people not just in our own but also in other societies. Affiliation through our identities makes each of us a global partner. As a result, what is good for each identity becomes a global good.  If auto workers need job security and a living wage, then these are global goods in the sense that they are goods for all of them.

The strands of affiliation between people do not remain isolated. They interact to form a society, which in this case is a global society. But this does pose a hurdle that we must clear to reach global justice. Some of the identities will clash. Being an entrepreneur may conflict with being a worker, who needs a living wage. It is the task of justice to adjust the global goods needed for various affiliations. Different philosophers advance different standards for resolving these conflicts. Sen himself makes the standard the freedom of individuals to develop. For me the standard would be the viability of society, in this case global society. If those affiliated by being entrepreneurs tend not to allow a living wage, then global society suffers damage.

How does this way of looking at globalization impact unions?  The affiliation of employees does not end at national boundaries. Like the affiliation of employers, it is a global affiliation.  Today, economic globalization is associated with creating Multinational Corporations (MNCs). An employee in an MNC has an affiliation with people in several different nations. This affiliation gives a union attempting to organize across the MNC a base to build on.

Labor unions are now responding to globalization by forming Global Union Federations (GUFs). These are federations of unions in enterprises doing related work. A GUF will seek to negotiate International Framework Agreements (IFAs) with these enterprises. The IFAs usually include an insistence on the labor rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, safety standards, fair grievance procedures, environmental protections, and non-discrimination. An IFA then becomes a favorable context in which various unions in a federation can bargain over their specific issues. When workers are fighting for union representation or for better conditions, they can appeal to a relevant GUF and its member unions for solidarity.

For example, the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) is a GUF that has IFAs with 14 sizeable MNCs mainly headquartered in Europe. One of the 14 is IKEA in Sweden.  In turn, Swedwood is part of IKEA. In 2011, a USunion, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), won a representation election at a Swedwood facility in Danville, Virginia.[30] The BWI along with the IAM were engaged in representation discussions with IKEA and Swedwood for several years before IAM filed for an election. Then the BWI mobilized international solidarity for the Danville workers through other unions in its federation. Some other US unions also have global partners.  With the aim of challenging “the injustices of globalization,” the United Steelworkers of America formed a GUF with the two-million member Unite the Union in Britain and Ireland, hoping later to make it a single union.[31]

The trade union movement stands a better chance of recovery by following strands of affiliation across the globe rather than trying to fight globalization at the level of individual nations. Following those strands leads to the acceptance of international framework agreements. Enforcing these agreements will call for moving outward to form global union federations. These unions will then be in a stronger position when they bargain contracts and process grievances. Let’s not be left behind. It is already happening.


[1] E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (New York: Signet, 1962), chap. 11.

[2] William H. Sewell, Jr., “Artisans, Factory Workers, and the Formation of the French Working Class, 1789-1848,” in Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the Uniteds States, eds. I. Katznelson and A.R. Zolberg  (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 59-63.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses (bk. 2, chap. 2.

[4]  Albert Soboul, The French Revolution 1787-1799, trans. A. Forrest and C. Jones (New York: Vintage, 1974), pt. 1, chap. 1,  sec. 3.

[5] Francois-MarieVoltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1764).

[6] Soboul, The French Revolution, pt. 1, chap. 4, sec. 1 and  pt. 2, chap. 3, sec. 1.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), chap, 2.  Harry van der Linden, Kantian Ethics and Socialism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), chap. 6.

[8] Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845), “Labor Movements.”

[9] E.J. Hobsbawn, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (New York: Signet, 1962), chap. 11, sec. 3

[10] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1790), pt.1, “Observations on the Declaration of Rights.”

[11] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, Vintage, 1966), 669.

[12] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), cha. 2, sec. 5.

[13] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), secs. 1 and 2.

[14] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), sec. 2. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution  (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 2:115-25.

[15] E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital:1848-1875 (New York: Signet, 1975),  chap. 6, sec. 2.

[16] Jürgen Kocka, “Problems of Working-Class Formation in Germany: The Early Years, 1800-1875,” in Working-Class Formation, eds. Katznelson and Zolberg, 338-46.

[17] Aristide R. Zolberg, “How Many Exceptionalisms?” in Working-Class Formation eds. Katznelson and Zolberg, 408-30.

[18] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1690), chap. 8.

[19] Christopher L. Tomlins, The State and the Unions: Labor Relation, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 82.  

[20] William M. Leirson, “Constitutional Government in American Industries,” American Economic Review 12:I (1922): 61.

[21] Tomlins, The State and the Unions, 83-91.

[22] Philip S Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1955), 2: chap. 19.

[23] Michelle Perrot, “On the Formation of the French Working Class,” in Working-Class Formation, eds. I. Katznelson and A.R. Zolberg, 108-110.

[24] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 4:13-40.

[25] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings: 1910-1920, ed. Quintin Hoare and trans. John Mathews (New York: International Publishers, 1977), secs. 30 and 32.  Gwyn A. Williams, Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy: 1911-1921 (London: Pluto Press, 1975), chaps. 5 and 6.

[26] Rt. Rev. J.L. Spalding, Socialism and Labor (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1902).

[27] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Moverment in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 3: 111-35.

[28] Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), chap. 2. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), pt. 2, chap. 7.

[29] Amartya Sen, “Global Justice: Beyond International Equity,” Global Public Goods, eds. I. Kaul,  I.Grunberg, and M. A. Stern (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 116-25.

[30] “Danville, Virginia: Swedwood Workers Vote Union YES!” (07/27/2011).

[31] New York Times (07/03/2008)