Knowledge, Vision and Strategy for Trade Union Revitalisation



The trade union movement is in crisis.  It is a crisis that is illustrated by the facts of plummeting membership and decline in the power of collective bargaining and influence in the political sphere.  As a UK based trade union representative I believe that without strong trade union organisation the global justice movement will only ever have very limited success in resisting corporate led globalisation.  Below I will try to pinpoint the main reasons for the current crisis before moving on to make suggestions for trade union movement revitalisation.


Understanding the Trade Union Crisis


Writing in the foreword to a recent publication, life long trade union activist Dan Gallin explains the "partial truths" and "partial insights" that underpin the theory that the present crisis within the trade union movement began in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the "economic, social and … political effects of globalisation".  He argues that "the crisis of the trade union movement today is in fact the outcome of the larger crisis of the broader labour movement, which began much earlier, much before the onset of globalisation."  


Gallin argues that a satisfactory understanding of the present crisis needs to go back at least to the rise of fascism in the 1930’s where "a whole generation of labour activists, the best people, disappeared in concentration camps, in the war, or did not come back from exile."  After the war the labour movement re-emerged "superficially strong".  He explains that "all democratic governments in post war Europe were initially supportive of the labour agenda.  This was because the labour movement "was part of the Allied cause, and had won the war, whereas capital was on the defensive, having largely collaborated with fascism…"  But as a result of this relationship "trade unions developed an over-reliance on the State" which in turn resulted in the trade union movement abandoning its "aspirations to represent an alternative society".  


Getting to the root of the problem Gallin explains that "underlying [the labour movements] loss of power and authority is a crisis of identity and orientation".  Aligning himself with the global justice movement Gallin states that "the need of the hour is a serious challenge to global transnational capital and the world order it has fashioned".  But he rightly adds that "such a challenge cannot be mounted unless the movement recovers a common identity based on an alternative vision of society."  


Of course the traditional alternative vision advocated by the labour movement has been socialism, but as Gallin points out "socialism is also undergoing a crisis, and that is a crisis of the meaning of socialism."  He continues the point advising that "we need to re-define socialism so it again becomes recognisable as the politics which are naturally ours, those of the historical labour movement – recognisable and acceptable even by those who have rejected, for good reason, the damaged goods sold under that label."  


Summing up his argument Gallin lays out the challenge for labour movement activists around the world – 


Those who are developing the concepts of … the global justice movement, are seeking to rebuild a labour movement with a shared identity and shared values – not the lowest common denominator, that is what we have today and this movement, as it is, can only lose.  Beyond the lowest common denominator, we need an alternative explanation of the world, alternative goals for society and a program on how to get there that all can subscribe to.  A new international labour movement, armed with a sense of a broader social mission, can become the core of a global alliance including all other social movements that share the same agenda.  Such a movement can change the world.  It can again be the liberation movement of humanity it set out to be one hundred and fifty years ago.  


Overcoming Our Identity Crisis


Unfortunately for the working class, few people within the labour movement, the anti-capitalist movement or the broader global justice movement have risen to Gallin’s challenge.  The leadership of the labour movement seems to have accepted that socialism has been proven a bad idea and to have accepted Margaret Thatchers TINA doctrine – "there is no alternative"  – resorting to trying to make the best of conditions under capitalism.  The old revolutionary left seems incapable of learning any lessons from the 20th Century, continuing to dogmatically assert the usual lines that naturally result in stagnation and isolation.  And the newly formed World Social Forum seems content to simply assert "another world is possible", feeling no particular need to explain what the economy of this other world might look like.  


An important exception to this is the work of radical economists Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.  Rising to Gallin’s challenge Albert and Hahnel first point out that "since Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European leaders all called their countries "socialist", and since Henry Kissinger … and the New York Times all called them "socialist" and nearly all Western Marxists called them "socialist", these countries must have had economies embodying socialist principles."  Albert and Hanhel then spell out the logical conclusion that follows from this world-view as follows – "The crisis of these economies therefore indicates that socialist values – the only alternative to capitalist values – are repudiated."  


However, they go on to further point out that "Socialist values – assuming that by this we mean egalitarian and participatory values – have never characterized any of these countries."  Shattering this standard world-view they warn that "If we don’t realize that, we cannot understand the roots of their current crisis or alternative possibilities."  Helping to explain the "Orwellian semantics" Albert and Hahnel quote world renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky who clarifies the situation as follows – 


"both of the major world propaganda systems have described this destruction of socialist elements as a victory of socialism.  For western capitalism, the purpose is to defame socialism by associating it with Moscow‘s tyranny; for the Bolsheviks, the purpose was to gain legitimacy by appealing to the goals of authentic socialism." 


So, if the Soviet Union, China and Eastern European economies were not socialist then what were they?  Clearly they could not be described as capitalist as there was no private ownership of the means of production.  According to Albert and Hahnel "Whatever you decide to call the economies of the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe – we prefer the term "coordinatorism" – it is critical to realize that they are not now and never have been egalitarian and participatory."  By a "coordinatorism" Albert and Hahnel mean "an economy in which a class of experts / technocrats / managers / conceptual workers monopolize decision-making authority while traditional workers carry out their orders."  


Albert and Hahnel trace the origins of coordinator economics back to "weaknesses in the Marxist theoretical framework" which manifested in the reality of the "anti-egalitarian and anti-participatory sentiments of the leaders of the Russian revolutions."  Reinforcing their argument Albert and Hahnel borrow another quote from Chomsky who states that "particularly since 1917, Marxism – or more accurately, Marxism-Leninism – has become, as Bakunin predicted, the ideology of a ‘new class’ of revolutionary intelligentsia who exploit popular revolutionary struggles to seize state power … "  Chomsky continues the point  adding that this "[new class] proceed to impose a harsh and authoritarian rule to destroy socialist institutions, as Lenin and Trotsky destroyed the factory councils and soviets.  They will also do what they can to undermine and destroy moves towards authentic socialism elsewhere, if only because of the ideological threat" … and concludes "this two-pronged ideological assault, combined with other devices available to those with real power, has dealt a severe blow to libertarian socialist currents that once had considerable vitality … "  


Although few socialists have anything positive to say about Stalin these days many Trotskyist’s still argue that the Bolshevik leadership were forced to dismantle workers self-management and implement authoritarian rule because of external factors such as the civil war.  However, Albert and Hahnel are keen to point out that Trotsky himself did not hold this position, stating instead that – 


"I consider that if the Civil War had not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management much sooner and much less painfully."  


Along with many others Albert and Hahnel conclude from this a point that only the ideologically blind could miss – "Trotsky didn’t reluctantly accede to coordinator structures out of necessities compelled by the Civil War, as apologists maintain, but because he preferred them." 


In another article Albert and Hahnel ask " … what is wrong with the original socialist vision?  Why can’t workers in different enterprises and industries, and consumers in different neighbourhoods and regions, coordinate their joint endeavors themselves – consciously, democratically, equitably, and efficiently?"  They continue "The simple truth is that socialism as originally conceived has never been tried, but not because it is impossible."  


However, Albert and Hahnel are not uncritical of original socialism – "We recognize that council communists, syndicalists, anarchists, and guild socialists fell short of spelling out a coherent, theoretical model explaining how such a system could work."  They go on adding that – 


Our predecessors frequently provided stirring comparisons of the advantages of a libertarian, non-market, socialist alternative compared to capitalism and authoritarian planning.  But all too often they failed to respond to difficult questions about how necessary decisions would be made, why their procedures would yield a coherent plan, or why the outcome would be efficient.  


Addressing these weaknesses in the original socialist vision Albert and Hahnel went on to develop a new economic model called participatory economic, or ParEcon for short.  



ParEcon – a new long-term vision for the Labour Movement


In his excellent essay – Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class – Tom Wetzel states that "Participatory Economics is an attempt to answer the basic questions that any viable economic program must answer" and "an attempt to specify simply an economic structure, a framework that will enable people to control their own lives, and pursue lives as determined by them, based on their emancipation from class oppression."  (What follows is only a brief introduction to ParEcon.  For a comprehensive account visit http://www.zcomm.org/znet/topics/parecon)



Worker and Consumer Councils


First of all, we need to know what the basic institutions are that go to make up a Participatory Economy.  Here Michael Albert points out that, "Historically, when workers and consumers have attempted to seize control of their own lives, they have invariably created worker and consumer councils as a means to do so".  The creation of these new economic institutions has many possible ramifications for the economic system as a whole.  For example, it has the potential to eliminate private ownership and institutionalise self-management.  This is in fact the case in a Participatory Economy.  




In a ParEcon private ownership of economic institutions is gone.  Worker and consumer councils would "… simply remove ownership of the means of production as an economic consideration.  Property in the form of the means of production becomes a non-thing."This is because "Historically, having a few members of society own these means of production, decide on their use, and dispose over the output and revenues they generate has meant that this privileged group has always had more wealth, more income, and more economic power than others in society." 


So, to overcome this historical injustice, in a participatory economy "No one has any ownership of means of production that accrues to him or her any rights, any responsibilities, any wealth, or any income different from what the rest of the economy warrants for him or her. " And "No one has wealth, income, or economic influence different than what anyone else has due to having different ownership of means of production" 




What is meant by self-management?  Tom Wetzel nicely captures the essence as follows – 


"We all have the ability to foresee possible courses of action into the future, to think out steps to realize our purposes, to develop skills to carry out actions needed to realize our purposes, to create plans of action, and to carry out those plans under our own control.  This is self-management." 


It is a belief in such sentiments that underpins peoples, past and present, commitment to struggle against Capitalist and Coordinator class oppression and for economic freedom via workers self-management.  However, paying lip service to such nice sounding sentiments does not guarantee freedom from class oppression.  As has been pointed out – "We need to advocate fine values, yes, but we also need to advocate a set of institutions that can make our values real without compromising economic success." 


Before moving on to describe such institutions I would like to briefly pick up on this point of self-management and economic success.  Many people see self-management as "compromising economic success".  Many people view the advantages gained by self-management as a kind of trade-off with economic efficiency.  But as Robin Hahnel points out – 


There is ample literature documenting the advantages of employee management.  Evidence is overwhelming that people with a say and stake in how they work not only find work more enjoyable, they are more productive and efficient as well." 


So, at this point we can see that the basic institutions that go to make up a Participatory Economy are more or less the same as those envisioned and acted upon in the past by the "authentic socialists" we referred to earlier.  However, Albert also points out that "In a ParEcon, while worker and consumer councils are essentially like those that have historically emerged in past struggles, there is an additional commitment to self-management".  As we shall see this additional commitment to self-management also acts as an institutional barrier to coordinator class dominance within the anti-capitalist struggles of today and in a post-capitalist society. 



Proportional Decision-making Power


In a participatory economic system "Everyone is free to apply for membership in the council of her choice, or form a new worker council with whomever she wishes." However, once a member of a council not everyone’s vote necessarily carries the same weight every time a decision is made.  Instead  "Each person will have a level of influence that won’t impinge on other people’s rights to have the same level of influence.  We will all affect decisions in proportion to how we are affected by them" 


So we can see that self-management in a participatory economy takes on a specific characteristic where each individual is empowered to an appropriate level.  No one gets more or less of a say in a decision than they should and all get to make a fair contribution to the decision-making process.  



Balanced Job Complexes


All economic systems need people to do work, and all work places tend to organise this work into well-defined bundles of tasks we commonly refer to as "jobs".  However different economic systems organise jobs in different ways.  


For example, in a class-ridden society the tasks that go to make up the various jobs will be orgaised in such a way as to maintain a hierarchical structure.  What this means in concrete terms is that the people towards the top of the hierarchy (the coordinator class) will have jobs composed of tasks that are empowering whilst those towards the bottom of the hierarchy (the working class) have jobs made up of disempowering tasks.  


This approach to conceptualising and organising jobs in the work place is sometimes referred to as the "corporate division of labour".   The corporate division of labour is an institutional feature found in both capitalist and coordinator economies and it is an institutional feature that systematically maintains workplace hierarchy whilst undermining self-management.  The point is made clear when we ask – "If we want everyone to have an equal opportunity to participate in economic decision making  – if we want to ensure that a formal right to participate translates into an effective right to participate – doesn’t this require balancing work for empowerment?"  


So we reject the corporate division of labour as incompatible with self-management and "We seek to extend the insights of William Morris, the noted nineteenth-century artist and wordsmith, who noted that in a better future we would not be able to have the same division of labour as now."  But what is the alternative?  "Instead of combining tasks so that some jobs are highly empowering and other jobs are horribly stultifying, some jobs convey knowledge and authority while other jobs convey only stultification and obedience, and those doing some jobs rule as a coordinator class accruing themselves more income and influence while those doing more menial work obey as a traditional working class subordinate in influence and income – ParEcon says let’s make each job comparable to all others in its quality of life and even more importantly in its empowerment effect … From a corporate division of labour that enshrines a coordinator class above workers, we move to a classless division of labour that elevates all workers to their fullest potentials." 


The creation of a classless division of labour is achieved by replacing the old corporate division of labour with a new institutional feature called "balanced job complexes".  As Tom Wetzel has pointed out, this would mean "jobs would be systematically re-designed throughout the economy … what we do is we re-design jobs so that they are balanced between skill and design work on the one hand, and the doing of the physical work, the less desirable or less empowering work."  Importantly he adds that "We also systematically change the education system to democratize access to expertise and information and training, we integrate this with the system of production itself." 



Participatory Planning


In addition to re-designing jobs to facilitate meaningful self-management we also need to abolish markets as a means of allocating goods and services.  This is because, like the corporate division of labour, markets destroy self-management – "This occurs not only due to disparities in wealth translating into disparate power, but because market competition compels even council based workplaces to cut costs and seek market share regardless of the ensuing implications." Neoclassical economists argue that markets are the fairest and most efficient way to allocate goods and services, but as Tom Wetzel has said – "this is mere propaganda; the market is actually a system for the allocation of resources by naked economic power." In short markets force people to compete even when they want to cooperate – resulting in antisocial economic activity.  


The traditional leftwing alternative to markets has been central planning.  But as Robin Hahnel has pointed out "while the fatal flaw in capitalism is its antisocial bias, the fatal flaw in central planning is its antidemocratic bias." Supporters view central planning as an important component in a democratic and classless economy.  However, because this small minority of planners at the centre (the coordinator class) monopolise and control important information the level of popular and meaningful participation in decision-making is highly questionable.  But what is clear is that because of this concentration of information and power at the centre (resulting from the continued use of the corporate division of labour) central planning can never result in a classless economy and is institutionally opposed to worker and consumer self-management.  


As an alternative to both markets and central planning advocates of participatory economics propose a system of allocation called "participatory planning".  "We say that the alternative is to have the entire population directly create the plan themselves" and that "the education system and the availability of information should be such as to facility this."


On first hearing this, participatory planning might sound like a nightmare – endless large-scale meetings resulting in chaos and stagnation.  But as Robin Hahnel has pointed out – "Many of the procedures we recommended were motivated precisely to avoid pitfalls in the naïve illusion that "the people" can make all economic decisions that affect them in what amounts to "one big meeting"." 


As it turns out the basic planning procedure is conceptually quite simple.  The participants in the planning procedure are the workers councils and federations, the consumer councils and federations, and an Iteration Facilitation Board ("IFB – a group of workers who provide information to participants in participatory planning for each iteration, or round, of the planning process").  These economic institutions interact in a planning procedure that can be broken down into the following 4 steps – 


"The IFB announces what we call "indicative prices" ("prices indicating the social costs and benefits associated with the use of goods and services") for all final goods and services, capital goods, natural resources, and categories of labor."   


"Consumer councils and federations respond with consumption proposals.  Worker councils and federations respond with production proposals."


"The IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each final good and service, capital good, natural resource, and category of labor, and adjusts the indicative price for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply."  


4.  "Using the new indicative prices consumer and worker councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals."


"The planning process [which is part of everyone’s Balanced Job Complex] continues until there are no longer excess demands for any goods, and categories of labor, any primary inputs, or any capital stock; in other words, until a feasible plan is reached." 


Remuneration for Effort and Sacrifice


As we have already seen, in a participatory economy private ownership of economic institutions no longer exists.  This means that rewarding people for simply owning a workplace can no longer take place.  However, removing this unjust criteria for remuneration leads us to ask – by what alternative criteria do we reward people in a participatory economy?  


Here Albert and Hahnel propose effort and sacrifice as a morally sound criteria for remuneration – 


"If you work longer, and you do it effectively, you are entitled to more of the social product.  If you work more intensely, to socially useful ends, again you are entitled to more social product.  If you work at a more onerous or dangerous or boring but still socially warranted tasks, again, you are entitled to more social product."  


Traditionally the left has proposed "to each according to their need" as a maxim for rewarding people for work undertaken.  However Albert and Hahnel think that this maxim has more to do with compassion and humanity than economic justice – 


"While I believe justice requires compensating people according to the sacrifice they make, it seems to me that it is our humanity that compels us to provide for those in need."


So a participatory economy would be compassionate in the sense that it provided for people in need but it would be a just economy in the sense that it remunerates for work based on effort and sacrifice.  


Organising for Revitalisation


Despite its appeal as a new long term vision for the Labour movement ParEcon can seem like a million miles away from the realities faced by trade union activists in their day to day struggle for decent working conditions.  Even for the most committed trade union activists who are completely convinced by ParEcon, the gap between global capitalism and international participatory economics can seems unbridgeable.  As Robin Hahnel has commented – "If I had a nickel for every person who told me how much they liked the idea, but could not imagine a way to get there from where we are today, I would already be retired."  


Addressing this problem Albert and Hahnel have come up with a number of suggestion for what a program for "today" might entail that is directed towards moving us towards a participatory economy "tomorrow".  For example Michael Albert explains how a "fight for higher wages will not be an end in itself – but will seek to raise public consciousness of the worthiness and viability of later instituting a system of remuneration for effort and sacrifice.  It will seek to win higher wages now, and also inform and enrich the means and desires to win full equity later."  Or how a "fight for better working conditions will not be an end unto itself, but will seek to raise public consciousness of the worthiness and viability of later instituting balanced job complexes.  It may seek new forms of accountability, information transfer, job sharing, all moving toward classless workplace organization." 


These are examples of what Albert calls "non-reformist reform struggles" meaning that trade union activists organising for a new economy "will not assume that existing defining social features will persist forever, but will seek reforms that will improve peoples lives in the present as part of the process of replacing those defining features fully in the future." 


Michael Albert has even proposed a participatory economic program which includes a bold set of demands designed to "address needs that people currently feel", "propel parecon consciousness-raising", "empower people to seek still more gains" and "galvanizes people to win sought gains and simultaneously advance the encompassing broader program it is part of".  The demands include a "one quarter less work time for everyone, plus a parallel one quarter drop in wages and bonus income for the top quarter income earners in society" plus "no change in total wage income for the middle half of society, and a one quarter raise in total wages income for the bottom quarter of society."  


But before any of this can take place trade unions have to become internally more democratic.  Robin Hahnel has written that – "… instead of lagging behind society at large in building a culture of participatory democracy, instead of imitating the hierarchical, authoritarian practices of their corporate foes, unions must search for ways to simulate participation by their members."  Hahnel continues, warning that "… as long as entrenched union leaders dictate policies, and decide when they find it convenient to mobilize membership in support of their campaigns, member participation will continue to atrophy, and unions will continue to become even less important in the lives of the shrinking minority of […] workers who are union members." 




Drawing on the insights of a small number of radical-progressive thinkers I have argued that the present trade union crisis is fundamentally a crisis of identity.  However, as we have seen, this is a crisis that has resulted from propaganda induced confused thinking  regarding the meaning of socialism and its short history.  We have seen that what has been called socialism throughout the 20th Century is more appropriately referred to as coordinator economics.  Understanding this helps us to realise that the collapse of the "socialist" systems during the 1980’s and 90’s has no reflection on the validity of authentic socialism as an alternative to capitalism.  


Returning to and building on the tradition of authentic socialism the labour movement now has a new economic model called participatory economics to consider.  I have presented the basic institutional features of ParEcon and addressed some of the strategic concerns regarding economic transition.  We also touched on the preliminary work of internal reforms, making trade unions the vanguard of participatory democracy within society before the real work of revitalisation can really get under way.  


For this to take place there will first need to be some kind of network facility created for trade union activists who are interested in developing projects designed to promote participatory democracy inside the trade union movement and participatory economics in the workplace (for an example of such a facility go to "Project for a Participatory Trade Union Movement" on the "Projects" page at http://www.ppsuk.org.uk


Combined, this knowledge, vision and strategy represents a basic organising framework for trade union revitalisation.  It represents a complete change in direction for the trade union movement – a change that will only take place as a result of considerable pressure and serious organising.  It is not by any means a complete program.  It requires a lot of further discussion.  However, the basic direction is there and the discussions can now take place within the realities of organising instead of in the abstract of theory.  






The Future of Organised Labour (Gallin) 

Looking Forward – Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (Albert and Hahnel)

Socialism as it was Always Meant to Be (Albert and Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

ParEcon-Life After Capitalism (Albert)

Libcom or Parecon? (Wetzel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class (Wetzel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class (Wetzel)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Participatory Economics and the Self-emancipation of the Working Class (Wetzel)

Looking Forward – Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (Albert and Hahnel)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Looking Forward – Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (Albert and Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

Realizing Hope (Albert)

Moving Forward – Program for a Participatory Economy (Albert)

Economic Justice and Democracy (Hahnel)

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