Trade Unions are not obsolete, the problem is the way they are led
On 23rd September, the professor and well known Awami Workers' Party leader, Aasim Sajjad, published an article in Dawn under the headline “Labour in our time”. The article, as the title suggests, dealt with the changing conditions of today’s capital-labour relations and, in particular, it suggested that these changes would inevitably change the forms of organisation necessary to resist “the onslaught of capital”.
Sajjad makes a valid point when he says it is necessary for left organisations to take into account changes in capitalism's political economy, something which is often forgotten. The form of resistance always needs to agree with the actual oppression taking place, otherwise it will be inefficient or even counterproductive. He also rightly recognises that there is a “crisis of consciousness”, meaning that many white, and even blue, collar workers do not see themselves as part of the working-class nowadays. Towards the end of the article, he suggests that another factor, besides technological advance, is contributing to this development – that “states and corporations have reasserted themselves politically to roll back the gains made by organised labour.”
That is the good part of the story, unfortunately, he throws the baby out with the bathwater. The political conclusion he draws from his analysis is that these changes have made class organisations, such as trade unions, increasingly obsolete, provoking the Dawn itself to conclude in its subtitle that “the working class is no more in the political lexicon”. His argument is that the changes he describes have changed, “the very meaning and form of labour, and thereby the capital-labour relation”.
However, the only evidence he provides for this very sweeping conclusion is a personal story of a journalist who was sacked alongside his colleagues as a result of rationalisation and a “turn to the internet” by newspapers. From that, he goes on to a rather abstract consideration of the meaning of so called “Industry 4.0”.
Certainly, jobs and working conditions have become increasingly precarious as he says, but this is less the result of changes within the economy than the political response by the working class, and especially its political leadership, its trade unions and parties to those changes. Also, the example of his journalist friend in this context is very misleading; a glance into Pakistan's streets would have quickly revealed that, for the moment at least, Industry 4.0 cannot be the reason for weak trade unions. Very few people are journalists, and even fewer are already working in the context of Industry 4.0 or, more accurately, what the author might imagine Industry 4.0 to be.
Moreover, a brief look into the biggest listed companies on the stock markets of the USA, Japan, Germany or China would have revealed to him that only a few of them are mainly involved in the IT sector. Most of them are actually still banks, construction, chemical, heavy industry, food, textile or mineral and energy extractionand companies. Even more unfortunate for Aasim Sajjad's thesis is that one of the best known companies in the IT sector has been trying to develop its own production of “non-digital” products for several years now, involving plans for cars, phones and high-technology robotics – namely Google. Many of the other IT firms are deeply interconnected with companies who produce commodities that can be touched (not just on a tablet), too. This is the real meaning of Industry 4.0, the growing use of IT technology and robotics in commodity production and, of course, circulation.
The result of this has been, and will be, a wide ranging readjustment of the production process which will affect the circulation and consumption of commodities and, of course, the public sector as well. The creation of new commodities, even new industries, will inevitably mean the decline, and even disappearance, of others and this, in turn, will have an impact on trades unions. In some places, previously highly organised workers and working class communities will face unemployment and this will have the immediate result of breaking up trade unionisation. The other challenge created by this process is the need to build new trade unions in totally new sectors, sectors that are at times highly precarious. This, however, is no new phenomenon that points to the disappearance of the working class, on the contrary, this is actually a challenge that the working class has repeatedly faced since the beginning of its own history.
In addition, despite the fact that many workers do not see themselves as part of the working class and both bourgeois and “new left” intellectuals try to prove that the working class does not exist anymore (Aasam Sajjad's article might be happy news for some of them) it is, in fact, bigger now than ever before. Even in countries like Germany, in both absolute and relative terms, it is much bigger than in the “good old days” when the Communist Party of Germany had nearly 300,000 members and the Social Democratic Party nearly a million in the 1920s.
It is also a very one sided argument to say that technological progress has only led to the atomisation of the working class, reducing its capacity for resistance. It could be argued that it has also led to the decentralisation in production, if comparison is made with a 19th century factory in which different workshops together produced every part of the final commodity. This is not true anymore today, of course, particularly for the big monopolies which determine the direction in which capitalism is developing. However, it is precisely those corporations, the 21st century monopolies, that have actually centralised production on a global scale.
What Aasim Sajjad sees as a disadvantage, could actually be a huge advantage and opportunity for the working class movement. Let us turn to practicalities at this stage; car production is one of the most profitable and important sectors of the economy, and one that organises millions of workers today. Centralisation has led to a situation where, if just 2 or 3 production sites of, say, pistons, in Europe were to go on strike, the whole of car production would come to a standstill within days in some of the biggest car producers in the world in Germany, France and Italy.
That measures like this were not taken in the years of crisis, when tens of thousands of workers in the European car industry were sacked, was certainly not because of any lack of organisation, car workers in Europe were amongst the best organised in the world. It was because of the political line which is still dominant in the trades unions, not just in Europe; the acceptance that, in a downturn in the economy, sacrifices have to be made, by the working class. The social basis for this is the union leaders' fear that they could lose their social position as “conflict managers” for capital.
This, of course, is not to deny that there are highly precarious layers of the working class, too. Sajjad's description of the journalist describes a real problem, but not a new one. When Marx wrote “Das Kapital” such a lack of employment rights, or even home-based working, were widespread in the industrialising countries. The only meaningful answer to this phenomenon, then and now, is a wide ranging trade unionisation campaign. Unfortunately, that is all too rarely seen. Quite often this is because trade union leaders have no interest in organising layers that either will not be able to afford the subs that pay for their posts, or because such campaigns often mean repression by managers and the state, too. What this makes clear is that the building of trade unions is not a spontaneous development, it needs politics, too.
Not surprisingly, many of the biggest trade unions globally were built by working class parties. Why these parties have long ceased to put the needs of the working class first, or to talk about fighting for a world without capitalist oppression at all, is another story. What remains true is that the conscious building of trade unions where they don't exist, or organising sometimes millions of members to take control of existing unions, making them true class fighting organisations, is a political fight.
In Pakistan, as in so many countries, that fight should be one of the highest priorities of any party that calls itself a workers' party. An accurate and clear analysis of the real conditions of the working class in Pakistan in 2017, would serve an extremely useful purpose for members of the Awami Workers' Party, providing the basis upon which to develop a strategy for the most far-reaching unionisation campaigns. Unfortunately, Professor Sajjad's article is neither accurate nor clear and would more likely lead to demobilisation and demoralisation if its readers were to take it seriously. Its only value might be that it spurs others in his party or, perhaps, his university, into writing what is actually needed.