We find ourselves today in a strategic bind. The structural limitations of trade unionism have never been more obvious. Whilst in the last 18 months there has been a sharp increase in strikes, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1980s, this has been no guarantee that workers in trade union struggles automatically fight for progressive societal change, let alone the revolutionary change that is urgently required on our heating planet. As thousands across the world die in climate-induced wildfires and floods, trade unions mobilise in favour of new fossil fuel licences. Overtly political strikes, repressed by anti-trade union legislation, are effectively non-existent in Britain. Meanwhile TUC affiliates, rather than using their federated status to coordinate action, appeal to bureaucratic structures to sanction fellow unions.

At the same time, traditional Marxist critiques of trade unionism fail to speak directly to our moment. Trade unions have been majorly weakened over the last forty years, whilst a culture of neoliberalism has gradually rooted itself in all aspects of society. Where trade unions once had a mediating role between workers, capital, and the state, this relationship no longer operates in the same sense. The recent “strike wave” was a palpable example of this new reality. Whilst the government refused to negotiate with many national unions, their leaders begged to be brought into the room to reach a deal and end the strikes. Far from mediating between a “wild” working class and the state to ensure the continuing functioning of capital, many unions failed even to negotiate.

In most sectors, the response from workers on the shopfloor to this situation was not independently organised action, but rather overwhelmingly to give unions democratic mandates to end strike action and retreat away from confrontation. Even the most promising self-organised resistance, such as several “workers say no” groups, could only express itself by opposing bad deals made by national negotiators. Meanwhile, in workplaces where we have seen waves of self-organised workers’ struggles later co-opted by trade union structures - such as the NAECIA wildcat strikes, sit-down strikes by offshore workers, and wildcat action at Amazon - this has generally not come with new partnership relationships between the union, employers, and the state. This seems like a particularly significant development given the importance of these industries - oil, construction and logistics - to the national economy, and general reproduction of capitalist society. Faced with these new factors, both orthodox interpretations and Marxist critiques, formulated in the 20th century to understand the relationship between workers, capital, and trade unions, are proving inadequate to understand our current conjuncture.

The strategic questions this contradiction presents are further complicated by another factor: a recomposition of many communist militants into and around trade unions as central poles of activity. The collapse of the anti-austerity movement of the 2010s, the failure of Corbynism, and the degeneration of Trotskyist parties, have led to many socialists retreating into trade union work as their primary form of political activity. This takes different forms: from organising the first unions ever in their workplaces, becoming workplace reps in established unions to try and breathe some life back into their branches, or supporting the work of emergent “base unions” such as the IWGB and UVW. Nonetheless, this activity remains explicitly rooted in a return to workplace organising, facilitated through engaging in trade unionism and its legal structures. Whilst the resurgence of anti-raids networks, renters’ unions, and environmental activism shows that trade unions are not the only pole attracting a layer of militants in recent years, it is perhaps the most significant. At the same time, trade unions have become part of the spectrum of left careerism, occupying a similar place that NGOs, Local Government and Corbyn’s Labour Party have done in previous years. The movement of activists or those “on the left” into paid positions in mainstream trade unions is a factor that was distinctly absent from the revolutionary politics of the early 2000. This is happening while membership numbers continue to decline, and the reach of trade unions within the working class remains shallow.

Alongside these compositional factors, there has been a push to revive popular education on workplace organising. Numerous how-to guides have been published on the practicalities of building worker power. Jane McAlevey’s school of organising has been uniquely boosted within the official trade union movement, with mass international training sessions pulling in significant numbers. Some of the most strike-averse trade unions have sent members to be coached on worker-led “organising for power.” However, this contradiction shows the limits of upskilling trade unionists without prioritising political education.

In taking these perspectives together, we want to reflect on what it means today for communists to find themselves spontaneously (and perhaps accidentally) embracing a syndicalist practice. We are committed to a form of activity which puts us directly in touch with workers, but are also aware (at least in theory) of the political shortfall of sectional economic struggles. Two interrelated tasks lay ahead of us then. Firstly, we must formulate a new Marxist critique of trade unionism to guide us within our current class composition. Secondly, we must reckon with how to utilise the return of a large layer of militants to the workplace as a primary site of struggle, whilst supporting and cohering forms of working-class self-organisation that can go beyond the limitations of trade unionism as we see them.

Marxism and Trade Unionism

The historical heavyweights of communist thought never reached a unified understanding of the role of trade unions in revolutionary strategy. However, contrary to assumed understandings, Marxism has largely held a critical view of the limits of trade unionism. The source of this pessimism comes from the disappointment with which Marx and Engels watched the British trade union movement ossify in light of the political aspirations of the First International. From this experience, two critiques emerged. These established the basic frame of reference for the many positions that followed. The first argued that by focusing on economic demands (i.e. those which concern workers’ purchasing power on the capitalist market), trade unions organise the proletariat around ends which do not ultimately address capital’s control over labour. In this way, trade union struggles draw workers away from the real source of their unfreedom and toward an understanding of income obtained from exploitation as a legitimate aim. As Marx put it:

“[the working class] ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady…Instead of the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system.’” 1

Engels fleshed this point out, adding that strikes over wages and conditions had become the ultimate horizon of trade unionism. It, therefore, offered little to the revolutionary organisation of the working class. For Engels, trade unions excluded “all political action on principle and in their charters, and thereby also ban[ned] participation in any general activity of the working-class as a class.”2 In this light, it was necessary for trade union struggles to make the leap into political struggles. This meant pursuing demands which contained an emancipatory character for the whole class, not simply those deriving from the technical division of the class by capital. A key example was the shortening of the working day. This was a legal concession which, due to its universal reach and “socially coercive force”3 over capital, was a marker of “the political economy of the working class.”4

So developed the principle that trade unions had to be supplemented by an organisation that could generalise isolated economic struggles into a political form. Only a political organisation external to the trade unions could give expression to the demands adequate to the real needs of the whole class. This argument would become the central pillar of Lenin’s conception of the party. He distinguished between the ‘spontaneous’ consciousness induced by trade unionism and the revolutionary consciousness induced by the intellectual militants leading the communist party. According to this distinction, trade-unionism led to “the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”5 Therefore, it was the party’s role to provide ideological clarity for struggles that remained trapped within the logic of capitalist exploitation.

The second Marxian critique of trade unions concerned their tendency to become bureaucratised and hand over power to “corrupted leaders…and professional agitators.”6 This position developed as part of Marx and Engels’ response to the embourgeoisement of leaders of the English labour movement, as many pursued careers in parliamentary politics and began to preach class collaboration. Based on these later polemics, a fully fledged Marxist position developed that was firmly opposed to the command structures of trade unions. During the 20th Century this position took on a sharper critical perspective. Trade unions became viewed not simply as corrupted organs of the working class movement but as functional components of capitalist control. In 1925, Trotsky would argue that the “bureaucracy of the trade unions was the backbone of British imperialism” and that in their failure to become revolutionary organisations, trade unions had become the “lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers.”7 Meanwhile, Gramsci would describe the evolution of the trade union organisation as one which:

“concentrates and generalises its scope so that the power and discipline of the movement are focused in a central office. This office detaches itself from the masses it regiments, removing itself from the fickle eddy of moods and currents that are typical of the great tumultuous masses. The union thus acquires the ability to sign agreements and take on responsibilities, obliging the entrepreneur to accept a certain legality in his relations with the workers. This legality is conditional on the trust the entrepreneur has in the solvency of the union, and in its ability to ensure that the working masses respect their contractual obligations.”8

These early diagnoses would prove even more fitting for the postwar period as trade unions became increasingly integrated into the decision-making structures of state-managed capital. What became known as “corporatism” was a system of industrial relations in which trade union leaders and industry bosses cooperated with the state to establish national policy (especially income policy). This system emerged in Britain in the late sixties under the Labour government. As trade union leaders were drawn into public policy-making, the formation of national trade union policy became increasingly tied to these centralised negotiation structures. Local disputes became secondary to the priorities of national bargaining. On the boss’s side, the incentive to participate in this social pact was the expectation that trade union leaders would discipline workforces, enhance productivity, and prevent industrial conflict. For trade union leaders, the incentive was having direct involvement in shaping national policy. For the state, the incentive was to stabilise the relations between capital and labour in its pursuit of planned economic growth.

During phases of worsening economic crises, the corporatist system became synonymous with wage constraint and trade union leaders were viewed as collaborating agents of repression. The incorporation of trade unions into the capitalist state apparatus and the growing antagonisms between workers and their representatives formed the backdrop of several seminal far-left Marxist positions on trade unions. These took the step of promoting a communist politics which was definitively severed from the official arms of the workers’ movement. Some were explicit in renouncing the Leninist party-form due to its top-down elitism. From different starting points, and toward different ends, tendencies such as workerism, communization and council communism, reached the conclusion that the working class required organisational autonomy from capital and representative bureaucracies to pursue effective communist politics. Versions of these positions have had an enduring influence on left communist politics in the 21st Century and continue to shape how many activists relate to trade unions.

Some of us who have remained closest to the workerist tendency and have therefore insisted on staying rooted in working-class experience in the workplace find ourselves at odds with this broader critical tradition in our practice today. At a time when the organisational power of the rank and file is at a historic low, our renunciation of the party-form and commitment to a worker-led revolution has led us into trade union organising. This has brought us closer to syndicalism more than any other political tradition. By this, we mean a practice which assumes that class power and communist politics will emerge spontaneously from the development of economic struggles. This perhaps says something about attempting to square militant theory from the seventies (Italian Workerism) with our current conjuncture.9 Nevertheless, it is worth recalling these Marxist critiques of trade unionism to re-centre the question of politics in workplace organising and class composition. Not to redeem the party, but to again pose the mistakes of the past: economism, sectionalism, bureaucratism, corporatism, pragmatism, spontaneism. Along with the spectre of fascism10, all of these detours cast a looming shadow over the politics of syndicalism, which militants should be clear-sighted about.

It is also worth revisiting this tradition as slogans like ‘organising for power’ and ‘joining a union’ have taken the place of any serious consideration of what composing the class might involve today. The popularisation of Jane McAlevey’s training model has reflected a broad appetite to rebuild trade union power through a competent and proactive approach to organising. But in prioritising confidence boosting and worker participation as an end in itself, it wilfully neglects the practicalities of dealing with a bureaucracy or making the political leap. The Marxist critique of trade unionism makes the political lapses of this current clear. At the same time, we need to assess the relevance of these Marxist accounts for the current moment. We have inherited these positions from political conjunctures vastly different from our own. The extent to which they are useful for locating contemporary trade unionism in a communist strategy is unclear - particularly given the crisis of the communist party-form and the decline of the corporatist system. It would be a mistake to defer to classic verdicts, without weighing up the current terrain of struggle.

Trade Unionism Today

It is generally understood that one of the key objectives of neoliberal doctrine was the dismantling of working-class institutions, including trade unions. Governments pursuing this agenda had to stage high-profile confrontations with major trade union powers to push through anti-trade union laws. At the same time, the outcomes of neoliberal economic policy drove the fragmentation of organised labour (deindustrialisation, post-Fordism, globalisation, deregulation etc.) The terminal diminishment of trade union power since the latter quarter of the 20th century has been one of the most important preconditions for a mode of governance that has given unrestricted disciplinary power to the dominant classes. During this period, the UK’s economic decline precipitated a series of legislative and industrial changes, which radically transformed the scope of trade union activities and the place occupied by trade unions in the relation between state, capital, and labour.

Margaret Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws raised crippling barriers in the way of primary and secondary industrial action, and her government’s ideological warfare against the unions captured public opinion for a generation. But before and after Thatcher, there were a whole series of changes aimed at formalising industrial relations and integrating militant shop stewards into the machinery of trade union officialdom. This also foreshadowed the abandonment of the corporatist consensus, which had formed the basis of the collaboration of trade union leaders, governments, and bosses via wage constraint policies.

In considering the limits of trade union organising as communists - the limits of organising within trade unions as a route toward communism - it is important to recognise the constraints which regulate trade union activity today as products of history: a history of class struggle. Not simply to explain away our failures, our lack of capacity, or indeed the fundamental inadequacy of trade unions for the task. But, more importantly, to see the norms which regulate our activities in light of a longer history of class struggle. This is one in which the legal, organisational, and ideological narrowing of what once constituted the power of trade unions is a measure of the balance of class forces in contemporary society. We can judge the current limits of trade unionism differently depending on how we look at this balance. We could imagine a retrieval of all that has been lost from the trade union movement as the only way of tipping the balance back in favour of the working class. Then, we could see this moment as one of extreme retreat, trying to address the relentless downward trajectory of living standards. From this perspective, we might view the recent rebirth or return to trade unionism with some optimism. But we might also want to ask what is revanchist trade unionism likely to achieve for communists today? We begin from a model of industrial relations in which even the most exhaustive exercise of industrial power requires an organisational adherence to entrenched mechanisms of control. Ours is a moment when the dominant classes have implemented bureaucratic systems designed to disempower workers. Have they then essentially foreclosed the possibility of any such reprisal?

Trade union recognition agreements bind union branches to standards of conduct with the employers. Joint consultative structures for engaging employers, highly calibrated systems for mass balloting, and negotiated facilities time circumscribe the activist base of branches. All of these protocols were devised to convert organised worker resistance into a neutralised and professional endeavour. Most of these mechanisms developed in tandem with the growth and absorption of Human Resources into workplace management. The regulation of worker antagonism through HR procedures and trade union protocols has narrowed the room for contestation at work. However, it has also fundamentally subordinated organised workers to the rhythms and systems of the workplace. Nowadays, when a worker has a problem at work, there will be a pre-established policy which determines a narrow set of issues for which there is a formal channel of redress. These policies aim to integrate conflict into the work remit of HR and draw trade union resources (in the form of casework) into that process. This prevents disruption to the workplace. If the worker refuses this formal route, there will be a policy to force them: the disciplinary policy. In this way, the contingencies of worker resistance are pre-emptively converted into manageable variables that are part of the expected workplace activities. As trade unionists organising within TUC-affiliated unions, our training is to work proactively within these structures.

These methods are vestiges of the 1990s partnership culture of trade unions. Then, the rhetoric of workplace participation and consensus was common to New Labour, the TUC, and big business. However, today, this ideology of class collaboration has few advocates (the zombie of New Labour shows its most anachronistic aspect on this point). The Covid-19 pandemic marked a definitive moment of consolidation for a new authoritarian pact between the state and managerial classes, which had been gestating through the austerity years. During the lockdowns, the mask dropped on the fundamental violence of capitalist exploitation: mass layoffs were immediate as capital sought to absorb the shock of economic paralysis, and then (mainly racialised) workers had to work under fatal conditions when the state agreed to offset losses. We saw a clear sign of what was to come: the state defining loose unbinding guidelines which employers were free to interpret as they pleased. The lack of recrimination that followed only emboldened employers. The P&O scandal highlighted the enforcement crisis in British employment law as bosses simply priced in unlawful sackings. Postal workers faced widespread repression for trade union activities. Meanwhile, fire and rehire practices have become routine, and casualisation continues to spread into every corner of the economy. In this context, capitalists speaking openly about the need for “pain” in the economy is not that shocking.

We find ourselves, therefore, in a situation where the effects of trade union incorporation are becoming ever more clear. The exhaustion of formal and legalistic routes of redress has laid bare authoritarian managerialism while making it appear unassailable. This extends to the climb-downs of major national industrial disputes faced with the no-compromise pacts between capital and the state. Anyone who has suffered the indignity of trying to defend jobs in this climate will know full well how vulnerable workers currently are. We desperately need a new set of trade union tactics. The appetite to move beyond the limits of traditional trade union practices is one of our current moment’s most important subjective factors. We should pay close attention to its development. The composition of a communist politics emerging from the workplace depends almost entirely on workers wanting to use their power for truly liberatory ends. The first step on the way to reaching this collective desire is a recognition of, and a willingness to act upon, the limited power held within current practices of trade union struggles.

When workers are routinely in the firing line, the prospect of exploring new tactics and political priorities is incredibly hard to reconcile with the tasks at hand. In today’s workplace, fighting union branches operate in a state of perpetual reactivity, putting out one fire while others burn around them. Under these conditions, activists rarely get an opportunity to develop an offensive strategy, never mind pursuing one. This dynamic often leads to a widening separation between stewards and the membership, as lay reps are expected to have worked out plans to respond to the latest assault. If the union appears not to be defending workers from attacks (especially when the repercussions are so severe: people losing their jobs, hours, victimisation, changes to conditions, etc.) then members are likely to lose faith in the power of unions. This can lead branch reps to depend on the knowledge and resources of unelected regional officials and other bureaucratic personnel. This dependency creates a problematic relationship between paid officials, lay reps, and members. In the process, power, knowledge, and responsibility are centralised, and members become dependent on the services of so-called “specialists.” This deeply disempowering service model of trade unionism remains one of the worst effects of the elitist structure of the TUC. It is a contributing factor in the steady decline of membership numbers. Faced with all this, activists often find themselves asking: how do we devolve power and responsibility to workers while taking up new tactics, without at the same time giving the impression of a union branch “that does nothing for its members”?

Newcomers to trade unions will be finding these things out in practice. They will be encountering the conservative cultures and command structures of trade unions for the first time. They will discover that trade unions are not neutral organs of the working class in struggle, but that class struggle occurs within them as much as outside of them. In this scenario, there is a massive risk that the militant minority moving towards unions will abandon their efforts once they have endured enough defeats to prove their structural limits. Rather than seeing these barriers as a starting point for establishing a new set of practices and strategies, they may well repeat the verdicts of the past and move on. The risk is particularly glaring given the genuine prospect of TUC unions moving in step with the austerity programme of a new Labour government. Alternatively, and this is closer to our own story, militants may commit themselves to trade union activities with the best intentions but find themselves locked into neutralised rep responsibilities and defensive sectional struggles that do not compose the class in any meaningful sense. In the long-run, this might well have a similar political effect as the former scenario.

The ease with which we can be self-critical about our trade union activities does not come from a lack of optimism. It is because we can already see elements of a communist practice forming in the cracks of the old trade unionism we are part of. The grassroots, independent unions we’ve also been involved in, whilst still holding their limitations, have served as a kind of laboratory in this respect. The very existence of the IWGB, as a trade union formed as an ultimate retaliation to company unionism, represents a moment in the recomposition of workplace struggles. In its ten years of activity, it has had to develop radically new ways of doing trade union work as a response to being blocked from formal recognition agreements by yellow unions. Rather than entering into narrow negotiation channels with employers, workers have had to use visible and confrontational direct-action tactics to pursue their demands. This minimises the influence of paid reps, making worker participation the main source of power. Organisationally, the union has brought together a layer of militant low-paid workers from different sectors, using insecure work as an axis of solidarity. The expectation of mutual support across different campaigns centred around precarious work has meant that workers are exposed to the broader social forces dividing the working class: racism, sexism, housing, bordering, reproductive work, policing and so on. Therefore, tactics within workplace struggle become a route toward politicisation.

One recent example of this was when IWGB security workers at University College London used their strike days to storm the primary workplaces of the most senior decision-makers in the university (council members) to resist a fire and rehire restructure. Industrially, the tactic was necessary because UCL tried to push through the changes when the campus was quiet over the summer. During this time, the leverage from strike action was less available. But politically, the tactic also had a significant effect. Staging interventions within corporate offices in and around the City of London, workers could expand the scope of their workplace conflict to include a confrontation with the broader powers of capitalist rule in London. These included a legal firm, management consultancies, financial services, an insurance offshoot of the Bank of England, and the City of London Police. Not only did this action allow workers to apprehend the impersonal forces dominating the class in the broadest sense, it also allowed them to connect these to the governance structure of their workplace, as well as the forms of institutional discrimination they encounter daily. By drawing tactics from a deepened understanding of economic power, their workplace struggle took on an increasingly political character. As such, the workers became attuned to the fact that the source of power in their lives was operating both within and beyond their immediate workplace experiences.

Tactics like these, as well as the more promising developments in mainstream trade unions (e.g. rank and file committees and Bargaining for the Common Good) are contributing to the politicisation of trade union work. However, a coherent political project based on these elements is not inevitable. It will require sustained reflection on the political effects of what we currently do in trade unions. This needs to be developed with a sober assessment of whether our approach to economic struggles draws workers into a genuinely “expansive power”11, as opposed to the ‘additive power’ found in recruitment-driven approaches to workplace leverage. If not, we must ask ourselves which are the elements currently disempowering workers, which are dividing workers, and which will form the bridge to a new communist practice of workplace struggle?

We cannot answer these questions in a single trade union. Nor can they be addressed by political representatives for us. Instead, workers must find space to answer them for themselves, beyond sectional division. Creating and maintaining these spaces are our primary tasks today.

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  1. Marx (June 1863 - December 1866) Results of the Immediate Process of Production

  2. Engels (June 17 1879) Letter to Bernstein

  3. Marx (23 Nov 1871) Letter to Bolte

  4. Marx (1864) Inaugural Address to the International Workingmen’s Association

  5. Lenin (1901) What Is To Be Done? 

  6. Marx (11 Feb 1878) Letter to W. Liebknecht

  7. Trotsky (1925) Where is Britain Going? 

  8. Gramsci (1920) Soviets in Italy

  9. Or perhaps the limits of the Operaist position were there from the beginning. As Steve Wright notes: “Ignoring such warnings, the majority of workerists chose in effect to abandon to the confederations those militant workers still unconvinced by the tendency’s critique of unionism. In doing so, they would help to make their fears of union recuperation a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Wright (2017), Storming Heaven

  10. See: Gwyn A. Williams (1975) Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils and the Origins of Communism in Italy, 1911-21

  11. Marx uses the formulation ‘thoroughly expansive political form’ to describe the Paris Commune, referring to the general scope of its emancipatory aims and the way that this served as a vector of self-activity across the class. Marx (1871) Civil War in France


Roberto Mozzachiodi

Roberto Mozzachiodi is a casualised academic, a workplace organiser, and a translator.


Matthew is a library worker and shop steward.