Theories of Trade Union Organization

Theories of Trade Union Organization

The extensive literature on the theory of labor organization stresses the principle that a society controlled by organized workers is more desirable than the system of control by property owners.


We have already mentioned the formation of the revolutionary party which Marx believed was essential to the transformation of society into the socialistic state. The Webbs advocated the complete unionization of wage earners and the direct participation of the organized workers in government through the agency of a labor party whose membership would be identical with the membership of the trade unions. This program presupposes a democratic government in which majority rule is cherished. The essential principles of this plan have been achieved in England. Of quite a different character was the anarchistic theory of Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). He believed in the strong economic organization of all wage earners, but he was confident that any attempt to achieve political reforms would only lead to a diluting of the basic philosophy of the working men's move­ment. Economic equality should come first, principally by the confiscation of capital. The method he proposed was interna­tional organization of wage earners for revolutionary purposes. The Syndicalist movement has had much more extensive growth in Europe than in America. One of its leading exponents was Georges Sorel (1847-1922), a one-time Marxist who had lost patience with the Socialist movement and allied himself with the more militant Syndicalists. His program depended upon the organization of wage earners into syndicates (associations of working men), not unions. The aim of the organization was not political, there was no intention of taking over the power of the state. General strikes and violence were looked upon as the chief means of securing control of industry, and domination of political institutions would follow automatically.

A less violent form of Syndicalism has been advocated by the Guild Socialists. R. H. Tawney and G. D. H. Cole, famous English economists, are prominent leaders of Guild Socialism. They believe that by gradual evolutionary means, workers organ­ized along industrial lines can assume control of industry without at the same time controlling political institutions.

Perhaps the most conservative of all labor movements is to be found in the development of the American trade unions. As out­lined by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, union organization should be confined to the skilled trades, which by the very nature of their control of skill could bring pressure upon employers to achieve their aims. The unions should also control the training of new craftsmen through sys­tems of apprenticeship. The labor unions as a whole would not participate directly in political activity, nor would they become affiliated with any political party. In general their policy could be described as "rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies." Their chief weapons were strikes and boycotts. In dis­satisfaction with the aristocratic type of union, John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, sponsored a new type of labor union called the industrial union. As described by Lewis, every man in a given industry, regardless of his craft or job, should be united in one union. The strength of such would lie not in the withholding of essential skills but in the complete organization of all workers in an industry. The policy of the industrial unions in politics has been to give direct support to the candidate most favorable to labor, but only as a temporary ex­pedient until a party representing labor can be formed.

The absence of the names of the theoretical economists from this discussion of labor organization may be surprising. One must realize that the great economists of the past believed that the economic system could operate only under free competition. Labor organizations were unborn or in their infancy at the time. The reaction of the economists, therefore, was either to ignore the existence of trade unions or to look upon them, where they were present, as an evil of more or less consequence. That Adam Smith should have been aware of labor organizations and the problems associated with them even in his day is a true measure of his stature. Even Mill, for all his sympathy with the working man, felt that unions were useless. The disappearance of the freely competitive market—if such ever existed save in the minds of economists—has made it easier for later writers to discuss the theory of trade union organization as an important aspect of modern economy.