Before discussing unions from a Marxist perspective, it is first necessary to review what Karl Marx wrote about commodities in Wage-Labor and Capital. There are a few quotes that relate to the topic of labor and unions:
“Their commodity, labour-power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money.”
It is clear that the workers, the proletarians, do not engage in the exchange of their commodity, labor-power, because it is interesting to them. The proletariat is involved in the exchange of their labor-power because workers need money to pay for their own survival via food, shelter, utilities, healthcare, etc. The only method workers have to acquire money is through the sale of their labor-power as they have no capital.
“By what is the price of a commodity determined? By the competition between buyers and sellers, by the relation of the demand to the supply, of the call to the offer.”
The first quote established that labor-power is a commodity. Marx adds to the first quote that supply and demand determine the price of a commodity, specifically through competition of sellers among themselves, buyers among themselves, and between sellers and buyers. For example, picture the competition of sellers among themselves by picking any modern product. Many automotive manufacturers have joined a competition for the next best electric vehicle, competing directly against each other.
“Now, the same general laws which regulate the price of commodities in general, naturally regulate wages, or the price of labour-power.”
Since labor-power is a commodity, it is also regulated by the same competition of supply and demand mentioned previously. Now, instead of the competition being among the companies making the cars, it is among 100 workers fighting for 10 job openings or 10 workers fighting for 100 job openings. The price of labor-power will be different in each scenario.
Taking these ideas into consideration, what benefits do workers gain from joining a union?
First, a union allows workers a level of control over their supply. Even a unionized proletariat is still required to sell their labor-power to survive under capitalism, but a union allows workers to cut their supply of labor-power off at times. When workers are on strike they use the power over their supply to demand improvements in benefits, conditions, wages, and more. Even just the threat of a strike is sometimes enough for the workers to achieve their requests. An individual worker going on strike will have a smaller, sometimes completely negligible impact on the supply of labor-power, but an entire warehouse, coffee shop, or office going on strike sends a stronger message and workers will often have their demands fulfilled. Additionally, the worker takes on a massive risk by going on strike alone. The likelihood that the single worker will be fired is extremely high. A few recent examples of unionized workers winning and acquiring their demands were at John Deere, Quaker, Kroger, and many more. Additionally, workers are unionizing at Amazon and Starbucks across the country currently.
Second, a union can add a layer of communication and relation. Instead of the boss communicating directly and exclusively with the worker the boss must sometimes discuss with the union first. Even if the boss does speak directly to the workers, the boss must at least follow agreements made by the union and be aware of the power that workers hold. If the boss does take actions disagreeable to the workers then the boss may face the wrath of the workers.
Ultimately, a union wants to improve the conditions, wages, and benefits of its workers. Demands made by a union are almost always economic in nature, because what else could they be? A union of warehouse employees are able to demand better wages, but they do not have the goal of any systemic change to capitalism, the mode of production. Exploitation through capitalism is likely what brought the workers together in their union, but the end of capitalism is not their goal.
Under capitalism the bourgeoisie still have control over the price of necessary commodities for our own survival such as rent, food, electricity, internet, and more whether workers are unionized or not. The struggle of unions against companies and the bourgeoisie will continue endlessly with the current structure. Commodities will increase in price over time as capitalists attempt to make more and more profit which will cause workers to demand a corresponding increase in wages. As the cycle of attempts to achieve endless profit continues, it can lead to diminishing returns for the gains of unions and the workers in them. Workers will likely win a contract, but the price of necessary commodities will still increase and the workers will have to continue negotiating for new increases.
Some would argue that since unions do not seek to end capitalism, Marxist-Leninists should not engage with them. Vladimir Lenin wrote about unions, and clearly stated the role communists can play in them, throughout What is to be Done?, of which two specific and important quotes are below:
“The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.”
Here, Lenin is identifying the fact that, on their own, unions do not seek to end capitalism. Unions specifically seek economic and/or legislative changes for wages, benefits, rights, and conditions. Workers are brought together because of mutual exploitation; they realize that the company is making massive profits while their own wages do not even keep up with inflation. The natural demand of a union is for more pay as it is the entire reason the workers were driven to unionize.
“Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”
Combining these two quotes shows that since the trade-unionists will, on their own, not come to socialism, the role of socialists is to bring socialism to the trade-unionists. Our role as Marxist-Leninists is to take the unionization of workers and elevate it beyond just the union fight. Communists must show workers that even after unionization is won the exploitation of the workers by the bourgeoisie does not cease.
Just because unions themselves do not seek to end capitalism does not mean that workers should not join them. The proletariat should form unions to fight for higher wages, better benefits, improved conditions, and additional labor rights. It is important to struggle for reforms to lessen the suffering and exploitation of the proletariat while simultaneously working toward revolution to end capitalism entirely.
Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital
Lenin, Vladimir. What Is To Be Done?