The Basis of Trade Unionism

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By Emile Pouget.

Member of the French General Confederation of Labor.

Definition Of Trade Unionism.

OF late the term "Trade Unionism" has a more far-reaching meaning than it used to have. The term continues to qualify "members of a trade union organization." Besides this nebulous and colorless definition, which, by stretching a point, might be a label for "Yellow" as well as for "Red" trade unions, the term has acquired a new and very precise meaning.

The term "Trade Unionism" has become a comprehensive term: the impulsive power of conscious workers towards progress. The workers who invoke this epithet have thrown aside unsound and deceptive notions, and are convinced that improvements, be they partial or extreme, can only result from popular force and will. On the ruins of their former sheeplike hopes and superstitious beliefs in miracles to be expected from State Providence as well as from Divine Providence, they have elaborated a healthy, truly human doctrine whose basis is explained and proved by social phenomena.

The Trade Unionist is evidently a partisan of grouping workers by means of trade unions, only he does not conceive a trade union as an agent for narrowing his horizon to such a point that his sphere of action is restricted to daily debates and wrangles with his employers; and although at present he strives to get minor grievances redressed, he never puts aside the evils arising from the exploitation of the workers. Neither does he conceive the trade union to be, as some politicians do, an "elementary school of Socialism," where men are recruited and trained to be aggressive fighters in a cause they consider efficacious—the conquest of governmental power.

For the Trade Unionist, the trade union is a perfect combination answering to all needs, to all aspirations, and therefore sufficient for all purposes. It is an association conceived by "reformers" affording opportunity for daily conflict with employers, for improvements, and for settling minor claims.

But it is not only this; it is a combination capable of bringing about the expropriation of capital and the reorganization of society, which some Socialists, who are deceived by their confidence in the "State," believe will be brought about by the seizure of political power.

Therefore, for the Trade Unionist the trade union is not a transient association, only suited to the needs of the hour, and whose usefulness could not be conceived apart from its present surroundings. For him the trade union is an initial and essential combination; it should arise spontaneously, independently of all preconceived theories, and develop in any surroundings.

In fact, what more reasonable than for the exploited of the same trade to come together, to agree to unite in defence of common advantages that are to be gained immediately?

On the other hand, supposing society to have been annihilated and a Communist or any other society to have blossomed forth on its ruins, it is evident that in these circumstances, in these new surroundings, the need of associations, bringing men employed in identical or similar work and duties in contact with one another, will be most urgent.

Thus the trade union, the corporate body, appears to be the organic cell of all society. At present, for the Trade Unionist the trade union is an organism of conflict and claim of worker against employer. In the future it will be the base on which normal society will be built, when freed from exploitation and oppression.

The Working Class Battles Of The 19th Century.

The conception of the forerunners of Trade Unionism is not the result of a hypothetical system sprung from some brain and not justified by practical tests; on the contrary, it proceeds from the examination of historical events and of their clear interpretation. We may say that it is the result of a whole century of conflict between the working classes and the middle classes.

During the whole of the nineteenth century the proletariat strove to separate its movement from that of the purely political action of middle class parties. This was indeed a great effort, for the middle class wanting to govern without hindrance, the assent or indifference of the proletariat was necessary, and politicians exerted themselves, not only to fight and massacre proletarians when they rose against their exploiters, but also to make them tractable by a sham education, designed to turn them from the examination of economic questions, and to cause their energy to drift towards the deceptive hope of democracy.

We cannot make it too clear that the autonomous working class movement has been, and is still, obstructed by all the forces of obscurantism and reaction, and also by the democratic forces that are, but under new and hypocritical disguises, the continuation of old societies in which a handful of parasites are maintained in plenty by the forced labor of plebeians.

The middle classes, through the State, whose function, independently of its form, consists in protecting capitalist privileges, have applied themselves to stifling and deviating working class aspirations. Thus, during attempts at emancipation proletarians have been compelled to realize that the governments they were subjected to were all alike, no matter by what name they were labelled. They passed from one rule to another without deriving any result from change of scenery, mentioned by history as of great importance. All governments treated them with animosity and ill-will. When they obtained from their rulers a mitigation of their wretched fate, they owed it, not to feelings of justice or pity, but to the wholesome fear they were able to inspire. To government initiative they are indebted for Draconian legislation, arbitrary measures, and savage reprisals.

Antagonism between the State and the working classes predominates the whole of the nineteenth century. We see it most plainly when we observe that governments, by way of throwing their enemies a bone to gnaw, have readily conceded political rights to the people, while they have shown themselves intractable as far as regards economic liberties. In the latter case they have only given way to popular pressure.

This difference of behavior on the part of the rulers is easily explained. Recognition of political rights to the people does the governments no harm, as these baubles do not imperil the principle of authority and do not undermine the proletarian base of society.

It is another story when economic liberties are in question. These are of real advantage to the people, and can only be acquired at the expense of the privileged. It is therefore evident that the State, the upholder of capitalism, refuses to the last to grant a particle of economic improvement.

The demonstration of this permanent conflict of the working class with the State would lead us into writing a martyrology of the proletariat. To prove the truth and constancy of this antagonism a few historical landmarks will suffice.

Less than two years after the taking of the Bastille (June, 1791) the bourgeoisie, by its mouthpiece, the Constituent Assembly, despoiled the working classes of their right to form associations,<ref>La loi Chapelier, passed on June 17, 1791.</ref> a right they had just obtained by revolutionary means.

The workers believed the Revolution to be the dawn of economic freedom. They thought that burning the gates of Paris where town-dues were collected (June 12, 1789) would destroy all barriers. Let us add that, two days after the burning of the gates of Paris, the Bastille was taken by assault, not because it was a political prison, but because it was a danger to rebellious Paris, as was the Mont Valerien in 1871.

Workers taken in by the enthusiastic strains of pamphleteers thought themselves freed from the trammels of the ancient regime, and began to come to an understanding with one another and to group themselves in order to resist exploitation. They formulated precise claims. The bourgeoisie soon proved to them that the Revolution was only political and not economic. It elaborated repressive laws, and as the workers lacked knowledge and experience, as their agitation was confused and still incoherent, it was not hard for the government to check this movement.

We should be mistaken in supposing that the "Chapelier" law was expedient, and that those who voted for it ignored its effect on social life. To make us swallow this fanciful interpretation, we are told that Revolutionists of that period raised no protest against it. Their silence only shows that they ignored the social aspect of the Revolution they took part in, and that they were only pure Democrats. Moreover there is nothing astonishing in their great want of foresight, as even to-day we see men pretending to be Socialists who are also merely simple Democrats.

As a proof that the Parliamentarians of 1791 knew what they were about, some months later, in September, 1791, the Constituent Assembly strengthened the "Chapelier" law prohibiting combinations among industrial workers, by enacting another law that made associations of agricultural laborers illegal.

The Constituent was not the only Assembly that manifested its hatred of the working classes. All Assemblies that followed strove to tighten the bonds enslaving the worker to his employer. More than this, seeing that passing laws trying to make it impossible for workmen to discuss and defend their interests was insufficient, bourgeois Assemblies contrived to aggravate the wretched position of proletarians by putting them under absolute police control.

The convention did not prove more sympathetic to the working classes. In the month of Nivose of the year II it legislated "against coalition of workmen, employed in different trades, who, by writing or by emissaries, incite to the cessation of work." This behavior of the convention, the revolutionarism of which meets with so much praise, clearly proves that political opinions have nothing to do with economic interests. A still better proof is, that in spite of changes in governmental forms, starting from the Democracy of the convention, the Autocracy of Napoleon I., the Monarchy of Charles X., to the Constitutionalism of Louis Philippe, never were the severity of the laws against workmen mitigated.

Under the Consulate, in the year XI (= 1803), a new link to the slaves' chain was forged—the Certificate Book, which made the working men a class of specially registered individuals. Then, with their vile and crafty legal procedure, and their lawyers who elaborated the code we still suffer from, rulers tied down and gagged the proletariat so well that Louis XVIII. and Charles X., heirs to this baggage, did not need to increase it.

Nevertheless, in spite of severe legislative prohibitions, the workers came to an understanding, grouped themselves under mild forms, such as "mutualities," and constituted embryo trade unions for organizing resistance. The combinations grew to such an extent that strikes multiplied, and the Liberal government of Louis Philippe inflicted greater penalties against associations (1834). But the impetus had been given! This recrudescence of legal severity did not stay the movement of the workers. In spite of the law, the Societes de Resistance multiplied, and were followed by a period of growing agitation and numerous strikes.

The Revolution of 1848 was the result of this movement. A proof of the economic scope of this Revolution is that economic questions took precedence of all others. Unfortunately, the corporate groups needed experience. The urban workers ignored the peasants, and vice versa. Thus in 1848 the peasants did not stir, not understanding the working class movement; likewise in 1852 the town workers understood nothing of the peasants' attempt at an insurrection. In spite of these failures, and there were many others, all improvements obtained were due to working class energy. It was the will of the workers that was expressed in the Luxembourg Commission and was legally registered by the Provisional government.

In the first hours of the Revolution the frightened middle classes showed themselves conciliatory, and to save capitalism were disposed to sacrifice a few trifling privileges. They were, however, soon reassured, by the inoculation of the people with political virus—universal suffrage—as much as by inconstancy on the part of the corporate organizations, and their ferocity became as great as had been their fear. The massacres of June, 1848, were for the middle classes a first instalment of satisfaction. Soon after, in 1849, the representatives of the people, proving themselves simply the representatives of the middle classes, legislated against associations. They were prohibited, and their members subjected to penalties decreed in the law of 1810.

As the reaction of Louis Philippe failed to check the working class movement, so did the Republican and Napoleonic governments fail. Without troubling themselves about the form of government, or with the prohibition to combine, the corporate groups continued to develop in numbers and in strength, so much so that by their pressure on public authorities they wrung from the government legal sanction for the ameliorations and liberties they had forcibly acquired, thanks to their revolutionary vigor.

It was by what we now call direct action that the right of combination was wrung from Caesarism in 1864. The workers of all associations grouped themselves, combined and went on strike without taking the least heed of the law. Beyond all others, the printers distinguished themselves by their revolutionary character, and in Paris (1862) one of their strikes was the determining event that brought about the recognition of the right to combine. The government, blind like all others, thought to kill the agitation by striking a great blow. Wholesale arrests took place. All the members of the strike committee were imprisoned, as well as the most active among the strikers.

This arbitrary abuse of power, far from terrorizing, overexcited public opinion, and such a current of indignation resulted therefrom that the government was compelled to capitulate and to recognize the workers' right to combination. This was due only to pressure from without. It would be difficult to ascribe this success to Socialist Deputies, for the excellent reason that there were none in Parliament.

The conquest of the right to combine so stimulated trade union organization, it grew so rapidly irresistible, that the State was compelled to put a good face on a bad matter. In 1863 trade union liberty was recognized by an Imperial circular, which said: "As to the organization of working class associations, the administration must leave to those interested in them full liberty."

Meanwhile the International Association of Workers, definitively constituted in 1864, after several earlier fruitless attempts, shed its rays on western Europe and opened up new horizons to the working class, horizons that were to be obscured by the great crisis of 1871.

Let us now stop so as not to be lured on too far by this retrospective summary, and let us draw logical conclusions from it.

From the landmarks of history that we have mentioned it follows that at the dawn of the present regime, in 1791, the government, as defender of the privileges of the middle classes, denied and refused all economic rights to working men, and ground them down till they were like particles of dust, having no cohesion one with another, so that they were at the mercy of exploitation.

Later on the workers emerged from chaos, in which the middle class would like to keep them. They grouped themselves on economic ground apart from any politics. The government, whatever name it is labelled with, tries to arrest the proletarian movement, and, not succeeding, makes up its mind to sanction the improvements or liberties obtained by the workers. The most salient point in all these agitations and these social shocks is that exploited and exploiters, governors and governed, have interests, not only distinct, but opposed; and that there is between them a class war in the true sense of the term.

In the short summary given we see the drift of the trade union movement, untrammeled by parliamentary contamination, and the wisdom of working men's associations on solid economic ground, which is the base of all true progress.—Freedom, London.