(3) How the bosses control and co-opt the workers’ movement

Part II: the trade union bureaucracy

Workers often view capitalist politicians with suspicion even at the best of times. But the leaders of the trade unions are far closer to workers’ day-to-day lives. The bosses can have no better allies if those who lead the organisations that are meant to fight capitalist exploitation agree to defend it.

This requires weakening members’ control over their leaders; of making the leaders vulnerable to pressure from the bosses and shielding them from the pressure of the workers. Leon Trotsky explained that:

…the whole task of the bourgeoisie [capitalist class] consists in liquidating the trade unions as organs of the class struggle and substituting in their place the trade union bureaucracy as the organ of the leadership over the workers by the bourgeois state.

Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1940

The co-option of leaders is not always done through corruption, though this is often an important part of it. Brown envelopes of cash are in fact the least reliable method for co-opting the workers’ movement. If it is exposed the corrupt leader quickly loses influence over workers.

A far more reliable method is to change the outlook of workers’ leaders – for workers’ leaders to convince themselves that there is no alternative to capitalism. This outlook can be encouraged from the ‘harmless’ step of the shop steward attending the manager’s private Christmas party, to the integration of the unions into the capitalist state through the various bargaining forums, parliamentary committees, courts and ‘dispute resolution’ laws we have already mentioned.

All of this opens up workers’ leaders to the influence of an entirely different milieu (or environment). Here they are exposed to ‘sensible’ middle class opinion which agrees on the ‘proper place’ of trade unions in society – they can complain, protest even, but never challenge the foundations of capitalism. This is the viewpoint of those with certain privileges under capitalism. It is the milieu from which the bosses recruit the managers, HRs, lawyers, and accountants that will sit across the table from shop stewards. These people are far removed from the mines, the factories, the workshops, the cleaning trolleys, the kitchens and security parades of raw class exploitation. What is out of sight is out of mind. From this middle class point of view capitalism may not be perfect but it works well enough because it works for them. The middle class plays an important role for capitalism. They help to dress-up and justify it as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – as ‘just the way things are’.

The boardroom will be very strange environment for a shop steward newly elected and sent for a week of negotiations. It is easy to get lost in such a hostile landscape. Our shop steward will be told by capitalism’s representatives that the existence of the class exploitation that yesterday he or she took for granted, is in fact all a big misunderstanding. The company is actually one big happy family working together for the mutual benefit of all. But returning to the shop floor and the day-to-day reality of class exploitation can keep shop stewards’ feet on the ground.


But the bosses find ways to try and stop workers’ leaders’ feet from ever landing back on the ground. The starting point for this co-option is encouraging privileges that no other worker could ever dream of – privileges enormously over-and-above what is actually required to be an effective workers’ leader.

The struggle for workers’ rights has always included correct demands for full-time shop stewards paid their normal wage by the boss. Workers rightly see it as a sign of progress when their union has the funds to open offices, hire full-time organisers and for certain elected leadership positions to become full-time posts. All of this is necessary for building a strong trade union. For most, being the shop steward is the hardest and most demanding job there is in the workers’ movement. Only the bravest and most self-sacrificing workers would even be willing to do it, normally pushed into the position because they have the confidence of other workers.

But the bosses’ find ways to make progress in the strength of trade union organisation work for them too. The bosses ‘re-tool’ measures originally necessary to build the workers’ movement as an opportunity to co-opt it. So the shop steward is released permanently from the hard and boring work of the shop floor. He or she is given their own office, additional allowances, an expensive cell phone, a new car. The bosses of some companies automatically put shop stewards on management pay grades. The bosses try and create as much distance as possible between workers and their leaders in order to isolate the leaders and ‘soften them up’ to their point of view.

The granting of special privileges can be extended into the trade union structures by those whose appetites have grown with eating. They want to feel the ‘social equals’ of the middle class representatives they sit opposite in the boardroom. They want to present the union general secretary as equivalent to a CEO. So full-time officials’ salaries and perks can grow and grow and grow. They are freed from using public transport because they can afford their own cars. They no longer have to rely on under-funded public hospitals or government schools for their children because they can go private. Eventually, they move out of working class communities and move in next door to the bosses and their managers in the suburbs.

These trade union leaders become lifted into the middle class. The milieu they are exposed to in the boardroom becomes the norm of their personal life too. They no longer move in working class circles or mix with working class crowds. They start to view the world as the middle class does. They start to think that, “yes, capitalism is bad, but it is not that bad, after all, it works for me now too”.

The interests of such privileged trade union leaders are no longer the same as the interests of the workers. They want to enjoy their privileges. The class struggle can become a nuisance to them. If it threatens to get ‘out of hand’ it can even become a threat to their privileges – a strike could end in defeat and job losses damaging the union’s finances. This gives them an interest in limiting struggle – they become conservative and scared to ‘rock the boat’.

From here, it is not a great leap to start looking beyond their union’s risky ‘core business’ of the class struggle to all sorts of ‘get rich quick’ schemes such as union investment funds. These introduce severe conflicts of interest and tie trade unions ever more closely into dependence on capitalism. Trade unions cease to be the thorn in the side of the class enemy but become the ‘partners’ of big business and the launch pad for trade union leaders’ business careers. For example, chemical workers’ union CEPPAWU, alongside the Nactu federation, both became shareholders in Sasol in 2008 – a company they both had members in. The former CEPPAWU general secretary used fake documents to win contracts worth R300 million before his fraud was discovered. The Coastu-affiliated mineworkers’ union NUM has a long standing 50/50 partnership with the Chamber of Mines in Ubank – a short-term money lender, in effect a loan-shark, targeting mineworkers as its main customer base. This gave the NUM a vested interest in low wages as this would keep their lending services in high demand among poverty-stricken mineworkers.

When enough workers’ leaders have been co-opted in this manner, what started as necessary administration has become something else – bureaucracy.[1] Whereas workers see trade unions as a vehicle to take forward their struggles for better wages and working conditions the trade union bureaucrat views them as the source of their privileges.

When bureaucracy becomes institutionalised (i.e. a permanent part of the ‘culture’ of a trade union) careerism takes root. The type of shop-steward we described earlier is pushed-out by those wanting to climb on the gravy train – opportunism replaces principle. This leads to destructive rivalries between unions to dominate an industry, collect workers deductions and control investment funds. Within unions a thuggish fight for positions can take hold. To create the space to play these games bureaucrats must suppress democracy and workers control and replace it with corruption, intimidation and even violence.


Now the bosses can let the workers’ leaders police the workers’ movement for them. This ‘outsourcing’ of the defence of capitalism is the best possible scenario for them. What better friends could the bosses have than shop stewards, trade union officials and trade union leaders who do not believe there is any alternative to capitalism? Or worse, do not want any alternative to capitalism? They will enter every negotiation, campaign and strike looking to compromise. With no belief that anyone other than the capitalist class can run society trade union bureaucrats run in terror when they are accused of ‘politicising’ a struggle. They easily accept the limitations that the capitalist state places on the workers’ movement and instead of challenging it they beg for its co-operation.

There are however limits to how far this agenda of co-option and control can be pushed. A trade union is nothing without its members. Ultimately even the worst trade union bureaucracy needs to keep the workers’ movement alive as the source of their privileges. Although some trade union bureaucracies have stretched this to its limits by basing their privileges more and more on the union investment funds we have already mentioned and other corporate sponsorship. But they can never completely break their dependence on workers without the union ceasing to be a union.

Despite all of these pressures, many shop stewards, trade union officials and leaders never surrender to the bosses or capitulate to bureaucratic pressures. But there is not a single trade union or federation that exists that is not vulnerable to co-option. The danger comes from the very nature of capitalism. But it is possible for workers to defend against it. This requires organisation around the programme of revolutionary trade unionism. It is a programme that has a clear alternative to capitalism that can help workers avoid the traps created for them.

[1] The word bureaucrat is French. It is derived from the French word for office – bureau. Bureaucrat therefore literally means ‘rule by the office’.

Continue to (4) Socialism & Revolutionary Trade Unionism