Home > The 'Solidarity' Group > The Unions: an Objection

The Unions: an Objection

Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 8, No. 3 (December 1975), pp. 26-28

We recently published in pamphlet form (‘Solidarity’ pamphlet No.47) a text by J. Zerzan which we called ‘Trade Unionism or Socialism’, The publication produced predictable responses, of which we publish the most articulate below. We hope to carry more material on this issue, in particular a further piece by J.Z. documenting the integration of the German trade union bureaucracy into the Nazi Labour Front, after Hitler’s accession to power. The article refutes the thesis, generally accepted by bourgeois and marxist commentators alike, that the unions were the backbone of Weimar democracy and the consistent enemies of Nazism and that they were destroyed after May 2, 1933, when all union offices and resources were seized and union officials imprisoned. J.Z.’s piece ‘Unionism and the Labour Front’ tells a very different story.

Dear Friends,

I wish to object to John Zerzan’s article ‘Trade Unionism or Socialism’ (Solidarity Pamphlet 47).

(1) Believing that work dissatisfaction is universal, Zerzan makes no attempt to distinguish between assembly line workers on the one hand and tool-and-die men, lathe operators, etc., on the other. Obviously assembly line workers ‘suffer most.

(2) The stress of union bargainers on money rather than on
decent working conditions may be due to certain features of democracy rather than to the lack of them. Given the way democracy works, factions form mostly on the basis of issues. No faction can stay in power for long (if the union has any democracy whatever) if it cannot produce substantial wage gains, since workers are very pressed for money. Too often union leaders trade off work conditions for wages because of the press of opposing factions. (It’s easier to go to the membership and
say ‘We’ve got a 14% raise’ than it is to detail how conditions will improve in the operating of hundreds of machines.)

(3) Zerzan trots out one example to show that the government supports unions in strikes – in Schenectady in 1970 where police kept scabs out. But this is the exception, not the rule. There are thousands of examples to show the contrary. Those of us who have been active in unions can testify to the times the police, in order to usher ,scabs into the plant, have clubbed pickets senseless, then arrested them, charging them with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, etc.

We have been hounded by police dogs, tear gas, armed deputies in helicopters. On this point Zerzan simply lies, for if a half-truth is, in effect, a lie, what is a 1/100,000 truth? (Using similar selectivity, Zerzan stresses those few instances where capitalists encourage strikes rather than the myriads where they oppose them.)

(4) Is Zerzan suggesting that unions had nothing to do with improving workers’ conditions since the 12 hour-day, non-union sweatshop conditions of yesteryear?

(5) Of course most American unions (like most American corporations) are shot through with corruption, authoritarianism and bureaucratism – all of which must be fought. But they are a fundamental contradiction in capitalism, even with some of their leaders hogging $125,000 annual salaries. In Zerzan’s opposition to unions, is he suggesting that capitalism progresses without contradictions? If so, then how does it decline? By people wishing it away?

(6) Zerzan writes: ‘In 1935 the NRA issued the Henderson Report, which counseled that “unless something is done soon, they (the workers) intend to take things into their own hands”. Something was done, the hierarchical, national unions of the CIO finally appeared and stabilised relations’. What logic! The CIO was not the New Deal’s way of putting’ the lid on workers. The New Deal did not form the CIO; that was don.e by militants who were hounded by capitalists at every turn. Capitalists hired goons, Pinkertons, private armies to smash the growth of the CIO. the New Deal distinguished itself by such activities as ~mashing the Teamsters’ Union by prosecuting and imprisoning its ‘entire leadership. Note the phrase ‘hierarchical, national unions’ (emphasis mine). I shall take up Zerzan’s objection to unions’ national character next.

(7) Centralisation of unions is an inevitable trend in monopoly capitalism. As corporations overlap, interlock and merge, so must unions centralise to fight them. Zerzan’s likening unions’ centralisation to the national labor front of Nazi Germany is both preposterous and viciously unprincipled since he must know that the Nazi Labor Front was completely a creature of the state. Even the National Review’s Rusher and Buckley, both of whom also object to big, centralised, national unions, would not make this kind of comparison.

(8) Zerzan cites a requirement that employees of a public agency in the San Francisco Bay area join a union, but he fails to mention whether or not the affected workers voted for this closed shop.

(9) Why does Zerzan mention that the enraged auto worker who killed three supervisors in 1970 was black? Does his race have any relevance to the point Zerzan is making?

(10) In citing Anton Pannekoek’s 1920’s pronouncement against unions, Zerzan neglects to tell us whether Pannekoek is objecting to craft unions or to mass industrial unions. Is there no difference?

(11) If not unions, what? Zerzan does not tell us.


Let us assume that Zerzan’s article was not a plant by the capitalists or the CIA. Then it reveals that the workers have yet another foe in their ongoing struggle, one that Marx did not foresee: they must fight not only their exploiters, but also their newleft critics, most of whom do not know what it is to go into a mine or shape up on the docks. The main tool the workers have is their organisation, which Zerzan hopes to destroy.

Marvin Mandell,
Cuttyhunk, Mass.

P.S. Let me be as selective as Zerzan for a moment: when the West German Krupp empire and the Hoechst Chemical Corporation want to expand and build plants, where do they go? To countries where they can deal with big labor barons? No. According to The Economist of London (April 26, 1975), these corporations have clinched deals with East Germany where labor is cheap, independent unions non-existent. As The Economist noted: ‘For the firms these deals ar a shot in the arm and an opportunity to escape all the environmental, labor, and other problems’ of West Germany.

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