Labor aristocracy

"Labor aristocracy" (or "aristocracy of labor") has three meanings: as a term with Marxist theoretical underpinnings, as a specific type of trade unionism, and/or as a shorthand description by revolutionary industrial unions (such as the Industrial Workers of the World) for the bureaucracy of craft-based business unionism.

Use within Marxism

In Marxist theory, those workers (proletarians) in developed countries who benefit from the superprofits extracted from the impoverished workers of underdeveloped countries form an "aristocracy of labor." The phrase was popularised by Karl Kautsky in 1901 and theorised by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin's theory contends that companies in the developed world exploit workers in the developing world (where wages are much lower), resulting in increased profits. Because of these increased profits, the companies are able to pay higher wages to their employees "at home" (that is, in the developed world), thus creating a working class satisfied with their standard of living and not inclined to proletarian revolution. Lenin thus contended that imperialism had prevented increasing class polarization in the developed world, and argued that a workers' revolution could only begin in one of the underdeveloped or semideveloped countries, such as Russia. This theory of the labour aristocracy is controversial in the Marxist movement. []

While this theory is formally shared by most currents that identify positively with Lenin, including the Communist International, few organisations place the theory at the centre of their work. The term is most widely used in the United States, where it was popularised in the decade prior to the First World War by Eugene Debs's Socialist Party of America, and the Industrial Workers of the World (see below). In Britain those who hold to this theory include the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the Revolutionary Communist Group. Many Trotskyists, including Leon Trotsky himself, and the early congresses of the Fourth International, have accepted the theory of the labour aristocracy: others, including Ernest Mandel and Tony Cliff, considered the theory to have mistaken arguments or "Third Worldist" implications. US revolutionary socialist Charlie Post has developed a contemporary critique of the theory []

Criticism of unions of elite workers

The term was originally coined by Mikhail Bakunin in 1872 as a criticism of the notion that organised workers are the most radical. Bakunin wrote: "To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers."

In the U.S. and Britain, the term "aristocracy of labor" is used as an implicit criticism of labor unions that have organized high-salary workers and have no interest in unionizing middle-income and lower-income employees--even in cases where organizing the unorganized would strengthen the unions involved. These unions, it is argued, are content to remain a "labor aristocracy." Examples might include the unions of professional athletes, which have raised the wages of a certain class of already highly paid workers--professional athletes--but refuse to organize other workers, including other employees of the teams they work for. It commonly charged that the Air Line Pilots Association, the Screen Actors Guild, and a handful of other AFL-CIO unions conform to the labor aristocracy model of trade unionism. In defense of these unions, the AFL-CIO's jurisdictional rules may forbid such unions from organizing workers in certain occupational classes.

Criticism of craft-based business unionism

At the beginning of the twentieth century in the U.S., "most American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions did not admit unskilled mass-production workers."A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, page 231. In 1905, many existing unions actively lobbied for racist and anti-immigration policies through the creation of the notorious Asiatic Exclusion League. That same year a new union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in Chicago. The IWW, also known as the Wobblies, differed from the AFL in significant ways:

*The IWW organized without regard to sex, skills, race, creed, or national origin, from the very start.Solidarity Forever—An oral history of the IWW, Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, Deborah Shaffer, 1985, page 140.

*The AFL was craft based, while the IWW inherited the tradition of industrial unionism pioneered by the Knights of Labor, the American Railway Union, and the Western Federation of Miners (WFM).Melvyn Dubofsky," 'Big Bill' Haywood", 1987, pages 20 and 33.

*The IWW promoted the concept of all workers in one big union. Ever cognizant of the common practice of AFL craft unions crossing each other's picket lines, the IWW adopted the WFM's description of the AFL as the "American Separation of Labor."A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, page 201.

*The IWW believed that unions needed to build a labor movement with a structure that closely mapped the industries they sought to organize. A great merger movement had swept through corporations in the period from 1899 to 1903, and labor radicals believed that "the unifaction of capital represented by the rise of the new trusts needed to be countered by an equally unified organization of the entire working class."David Brundage, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism: Denver's Organized Workers, 1878-1905, 1994, page 139.

From its inception in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World criticized existing craft unions for creating a "labor aristocracy".Joe Hill, by Gibbs M. Smith, 1984, page 2. Eugene V. Debs wrote that "seasoned old unionists" could see that working people couldn't win with the labor movement they had. Debs believed the AFL practiced "organized scabbery" of one union on another, engaged in jurisdictional squabbling, was dominated by an autocratic leadership, and the relationship between union leaders and millionaires in the National Civic Federation was much too cozy. IWW leaders believed that in the AFL there was too little solidarity, and too little "straight" labor education. These circumstances led to too little appreciation of what could be won, and too little will to win it.The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, 1976, page 5 ppbk.

Animated by a class philosophy that saw capitalism as an economic system dividing society into two classesndash those who own, manage, or rule, and those who have only their labor to sellndash the IWW declared that,

"the working class and the employing class have nothing in common... Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers... take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class..."Constitution and By-Laws of the Industrial Workers of the World, Preamble, 1905, Retrieved June 24, 2007.

The AFL, in contrast, declared,

We have no ultimate ends. We are going only from day to day. We are fighting only for immediate objects—objects that can be realized in a few years... we say in our constitution that we are opposed to theorists... we are all practical men...A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, pages 139 and 206.

Labor Historian Melvyn Dubofsky has written,

By 1896 Gompers and the AFL were moving to make their peace with Capitalism and the American system. Although the AFL had once preached the inevitability of class conflict and the need to abolish 'wage slavery', it slowly and almost imperceptibly began to proclaim the virtues of class harmony and the possibilities of a more benevolent Capitalism.Melvyn Dubofsky," 'Big Bill' Haywood", 1987, page 17.

The AFL therefore preached "pure and simple" trade unionism. The AFL concerned itself with a "philosophy of pure wage consciousness," according to Selig Perlman,A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, page 137. who developed the "business unionism" theory of labor. Perlman saw craft organizing as a means of resisting the encroachment of waves of immigrants. Organization that was based upon craft skills granted control over access to the job.The Rise and Repression of Radical Labor, Daniel R. Fusefeld, 1985, pages 6-7.

While craft unions provided a good defense for the privileges of membership, conventions such as time-limited contracts and pledges not to strike in solidarity with other workers severely limited the ability of craft unions to effect change in society at large, leaving only the ineffectual means granted by a business-dominated elite society, i.e., electoral politics, lobbying congress, and a newly-enfeebled economic weapon, the injunction-circumscribed strike. But the AFL embraced this "businesslike" and "pragmatic" worldview, adopting the motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work."A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, page 137 and 139.

The AFL outlived the class consciousness of its own founding Preamble, but the IWW embraced the goal of abolishing wage slavery. In 1908 the IWW responded to what it considered the AFL's class collaborationist tendencies with new wording in the IWW Preamble,

Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe upon our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system." ... The army of production must be organized, not only for the every-day struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown.Constitution and By-Laws of the Industrial Workers of the World, Preamble, 1908, Retrieved June 24, 2007.

The IWW saw itself as the answer to the conservatism of the AFL. The IWW hoped to "build a new world within the shell of the old."Constitution and By-Laws of the Industrial Workers of the World, Preamble, 1908, Retrieved June 24, 2007. Because the AFL declined to act as an ally in such a cause, the Wobblies sought to develop solidarity with all rank and file workers, while criticizing or spoofing AFL union leadership. AFL union "bosses" were (and still are) referred to by the Wobblies as "piecards," a term that may have been borrowed from the itinerant workersndash the hoboesndash who filled the ranks of the IWW, had a particularly rich lingo that contributed significantly to Wobbly slang, and described anyone with money as a piecard.

To the IWW, all the union bureaucracy of the AFL functioned pretty much as a "labor aristocracy." In that regard the IWW's views haven't changed much over the years.

Mainstream unions have evolved, embracing some of the principles of industrial unionism, and (in many cases) opening their doors to a greater spectrum of the working class. However, there are many aspects to business unionism that solidarity unionists still find suspectndash a tendency to operate as a business, rather than according to "union principles"; enthroning elite hierarchies of leadership which are not easily recalled by the membership; deriving significant income from the sale of insurance or credit cards, arguably leading to conflicts of interest; union leadership compensation levels that are closer to those of corporate executives than of rank and file workers; top-down decision making; and building relationships with the leadership of corporations or political parties that the rank and file may view with suspicion.

All union movements function in some fashion to raise up workers in social/economic status, and/or in union privilege. The significant difference between a union movement with a labor aristocracy, and a union movement based upon class solidarity, is how and to what extent the structure, bureaucracy, and in particular, policies and practices of that union movement function, either to leave that level of increased privilege as the status quondash or, to recognize the necessity of building structural relationships, promoting education, and engaging in solidarity activities, with the specific intention of translating gains into an effort to enhance the status of "all" working people.


ee also

*Industrial Workers of the World
*labor unions

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