Labor Aristocracy and Union Bureaucracy

Written by Carlos Petroni (León Pérez) and adopted as a Resolution of International Left, May 2012


To address the debate over whether a sector of the working class (the labor aristocracy) benefits from the surplus value extracted from the countries oppressed and exploited by imperialism, we must start with the analysis of the origin of the labor aristocracy itself. This is also necessary to see how the bourgeois project that incorporates a layer of the working class into a higher level of benefits, salaries, and privileges — as practiced in every country in the world — is part of the dominant class “divide and rule” strategy against the oppressed and exploited.

The emergence of the working-class aristocracy is intricately linked to the needs of the bourgeoisie to:

a) guarantee the economic exploitation of central resources without the hassle of social conflicts.

b) gain a foothold in the labor movement to ensure their domination of the whole by dividing and overexploiting most of the workers. The creation of the labor aristocracy is the other side of the coin of the maintenance of a permanent army of unemployed workers. The former guarantees a loyal segment of the working class while the latter serves as a latent threat, an available replacement for employed workers, and a way to depress their wages.

With the advent of imperialism, the bourgeoisie sought to ensure that the value added to raw materials extracted from the colonies and semi-colonies was produced in the Metropolis and also, this bourgeoisie needed the support of its own working class as its social base in order to pursue economic interventions in foreign markets and the use of force to guarantee it (wars, armed interventions, blockades, etc.).

The combination of both, capital exports, and an era of monopolies in the imperialist stage produced colossal mass of profits for the central, imperialist countries, which to a considerable extent was an uninterrupted process, which could be guaranteed by, among other factors, the creation, and the existence of the working-class aristocracy.

This tier of the working class would guarantee the production of surplus value in large industrial cities; and would provide the political base of support for interventions in other countries; and at the same time have part of the working class serve in the imperialist armed forces to dominate other nations.

The labor aristocracy originally emerged because mid XIX century monopolist imperialism could provide higher salaries to key sectors of the working class than those given to the rest of the working class due to the centrality and high profitability of the branches of production where they worked. This was facilitated by the extremely low prices that imperialism paid for the extraction of raw materials from the colonies and semi-colonies.

This is how the labor aristocracy benefited directly from the over-exploitation of workers from less developed countries who are, at the same time, dominated by the ruling classes of their own country.

In that historical moment, capitalism in the developed countries counted on extraordinary profits that allowed, through the surplus obtained by the monopolist corporations in the colonies and semi-colonies, to pay for higher salaries to sectors of the working class in their own country and in the countries where their capital was present. This was done to minimize economic and political struggles and to be able to build a social base to sustain their plans to exploit and dominate the world.

The labor aristocracy, while belonging to the working class, obtains privileges at the expense of the rest of the class; this is done with the intention of creating internal divisions within the working class. Now, where does capitalism get its profits to pay high salaries to some workers and not others?

The answer is from surplus value. The larger distribution of profits among a reduced sector of the working class is possible in large part due to a higher rate of exploitation of the rest of the working class in their own country and of the workers in dependent countries.

The emergence of oligopolies, cartels, and other forms of diversification and a combination of the domination of capital over different branches of production facilitated the redistribution of income and profits among the different branches, the interrelation of production, and the establishment of higher salaries or production expenses in some at the cost of others or the transfer of resources between these different branches according to what satisfied the interests of the bourgeoisie.

The increasing integration of production in several branches of the economy at an international scale (for instance cars that are assembled with components produced in 20 or 30 different countries) developed the production in multiple countries and involved the participation of an international working class. This integration takes place even between branches of production that are established in countries far away from the Metropolis.

The bourgeoisie became capable of regulating the production, from extraction to production to aggregated value, and commercialization, up to distribution at a global scale, thus becoming the price-fixers of merchandise value and its rates of profit internationally.

At this point we can say that the imperialist capitalist system achieved global domination, what some now call Globalization.

Whether they extract less surplus value from the aristocratic workers in order to pay them higher salaries or whether they are less exploited, or whether workers from underdeveloped countries are subject to higher exploitation, the explanation is always the same: they can do any of these things thanks to the fact that they compensate for their losses with profits from the exploitation of the workers in underdeveloped countries.

Capitalism can now regulate rates of profit, exploitation, and surplus value at an international scale to better serve its political convenience and for a larger ideological domination of the workers. The calculation of profits added value, and bourgeois exploitation in rising periods of the economy is global, taking the aggregate exploitations of a conglomerate, at least from branches of worldwide production, or even from the world economy.

The capacity of the imperialist bourgeoisie to control markets, centers of production, distribution of profits, wages and salaries, and commodity prices at a global scale is interrupted only when big international and global crises take place. These periods of crisis are characterized by overproduction of commodities, an excess of accumulated stocks and a decline in the rate of investment of financial capital.

This is the moment when the capacity to dominate the economy on a global scale begins to falter and may even lead to economic collapse in one or several countries, thus endangering the whole.

In these moments of crisis inter-capitalist competition increases, and the benefits and wages of all workers come under attack, including those of the labor aristocracy, together with the social gains the workers made in times of plenty. The central idea is that the ruling class seeks to transfer onto the backs of all workers the effects of the crisis sparked by its own voracious and anarchic administration of the system.

The rate of exploitation of workers, their wages, working conditions and even their democratic liberties are the first variables of adjustment for the crisis. Hence, when the bourgeoisie takes measures to save itself or reduce the impact of the crisis on its own class, no worker, peasant, or popular sector — not even the labor aristocracy — will be free from ruling class attempts to make them pay for the continued well-being of the ruling class. This is noticeably clear from the recent attacks on the workers in the imperialist countries of Europe and the United States.

The labor aristocracy obtains benefits from the surplus value that capitalism extracts from the oppressed and exploited classes in their own country as well, including the most privileged strata. It is worth noting that, for example, a worker at General Motors in the United States is NOT as exploited as a worker from a GM subsidiary in Argentina. Thus, the latter helps to pay part of the higher salaries of their counterparts in the United States.

What a US worker can consume is DIFFERENT from a salaried Argentinean worker, nor do they work the same number of hours. Even within the United States, the rate of exploitation, the salaries, and the working conditions for immigrant workers are worse than for those US workers in heavy industry.

This is explained by the need of US Imperialism for support from “white” workers, not only to prevent them from winning in the conflicts generated by the class struggle in the US, but also to win the support of these workers for US control of oil, which even includes the assassination of activists and labor leaders in the invaded countries.

During normal times, this support is also convenient to sustain the differentiation in the rates of exploitation and wages; thus, the extraction of surplus value from immigrants and other overexploited sectors of the working class. The same mechanism exists in terms of income gap by gender, where female workers, in general terms, receive 54% of what male workers receive for comparable tasks and jobs.

This practice of creating a labor aristocracy has been extended to every country, imperialist or not, and the same thing always happens to workers in key sectors of the economy obtain benefits at the expense of the rest of the working class.

In his “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” Lenin describes how the bourgeoisie developed a caste within the labor movement, the labor aristocracy, and how this is linked with the origin of the labor bureaucracy. “Obviously, out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labor leaders and the upper stratum of the labor aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand diverse ways, direct and indirect, overt, and covert.”

Lenin goes on to describe the labor aristocracy, and explains how its existence determines its consciousness, and often its actions.

The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc., makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others.”

This stratum of bourgeoisified workers, or the “labor aristocracy,” who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and, in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the Versailleses against the Communards.”

Imperialism introduces certain modifications: a privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions in the uncivilized nations.”

Just to give an example of this phenomenon in Argentina you only need to look at the Moyanista wing that today controls the Confederacion General de Trabajadores (CGT – General Confederation of Workers). It is based on a labor aristocracy made up of truck drivers, petroleum workers, rail-road workers, bank workers, automotive factory workers and to a lesser extent industrial workers, who obtain the highest salaries in the country, and are, at the same time, the base of support of the Moyanista union bureaucracy, and of the government — with which they have allied themselves, as well as with the interests of exporters and financiers of imperialism.

It would suffice to compare the difference in salaries, working conditions, and union representation and negotiating power of this 6% to 7% of the working class with the million and a half rural workers who work sunrise to sunset or those workers who are ‘off-the- books’, who do not even make 50% of the salaries earned by the labor aristocracy.

The bourgeoisie has again taken the decision to preserve some of these sectors of the labor aristocracy for political, ideological, or economic reasons, and acts with the power of the state to preserve the sectors.

The degree of dependence of the country and even of the national bourgeoisie on imperialism — whether it be US, Brazil, China — often, does not allow them to have sufficient resources to pay off all sectors of the labor aristocracy.

The bourgeoisie of the transportation sector — the owners of the road trucking fleets or the railroads — that grant concessions to some workers above the average of what other workers receive, would not be able to do so if it were not for the large subsidies for salaries, gas, fleet renovation, and payments for infrastructure provided by the state.

The millions in state subsidies that the government presently grants these sectors to sustain the salaries and working conditions of the Moyanista unions are key to the permanence of the labor aristocracy in Argentina.

The subsidies are therefore money stolen by the bourgeois state from all the workers and taxpayers and diverted from social services and construction of public infrastructure (schools, hospitals, housing, etc.) to put them into the hands of the bourgeoisie, which in turn lets crumbs from this organized pillage fall off the table into the hands of a small sector of the labor aristocracy.

Not all workers who have good salaries are necessarily part of the labor aristocracy. The differences in salaries and working conditions among workers are also influenced by the degree of development of the class struggle and the fight of the workers against the bourgeoisie.

There are sectors or branches of the working class, that have obtained gains in working conditions and salaries by means of struggle, but who are able to retain those gains only if they sustain a permanent level of struggle or unless they turn into a part of the labor aristocracy that the bourgeoisie wants to expand and their leaders are co-opted into the labor bureaucracy.

When the labor bureaucracy negotiates for better working conditions and wages, it offers in exchange the containment of class conflicts and if struggles do take place, they guarantee that they will restrain them to prevent the most exploited layers of the working class from winning the same pay raises or improvements in working conditions. In every case, especially in good times, we are witness to a decision of convenience by the bourgeoisie, to easily yield some concessions to some workers, at a political and social cost, convenient for its own interests.

When this capacity to “negotiate” between capitalists and the union bureaucracy deteriorates it can lead to confrontations. This happens when a crisis shakes the bourgeoisie and the state or when the bourgeoisie seeks to marginalize the labor aristocracy and even the labor bureaucracy, because of a power struggle or when it seeks to increase its profits or because of a change in the productive infrastructure.

There are other ways of bribing the labor leaders: the collection on their behalf of obligatory union dues, their administration of multimillions in housing and health benefits, by which many union bureaucrats find a way to enrich themselves, even at the expense of the health and the interests of those whom they represent.

If a sector of the workers lives a petty-bourgeois lifestyle with access to goods and services granted by a policy of exploitation of the rest of the workers, it is logical that they will defend their privileges.

Even in the 19th century Marx and Engels said that it was no surprise to them that many workers of Imperial England had a bourgeois mindset themselves and supported that bourgeois class politically. Material phenomena intervened here: why wouldn’t workers think like capitalists and ideologically support them if they take the crumbs from the vast colonial exploitation?

[The] English proletariat is becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations are apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” (Complete Works. Marx and Engels. Letter from Engels to Marx, 1858)

The bourgeoisie, being a minority in society, needs to construct an electoral majority to justify its permanence in power, which is impossible without winning part of the exploited to its political parties. The labor aristocracy thus secures for the bourgeoisie a loyal segment of the population to its plans, just as favoritism and cronyism lure other popular sectors to join the political parties of the dominant class.

In fact, even the military dictatorships in Latin America and Fascism in Europe granted concessions to the labor bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy and did it for the same reasons as the “democratic” bourgeoisie. It is important to note that in Argentina, for instance, it was the military dictatorship that gave the labor bureaucracy control over the administration of health social insurance programs, which in turn enriched the labor leaders.

Having a clear concept about the labor aristocracy allows us to characterize in general how it will act in the face of a capitalist and imperialist offensive and not discard it as part of the working-class movement, but to take their role into account in the political positions we put forward.

It is essential to develop agitation and propaganda campaigns directed at this sector, looking at the material questions involved, which make the majority sectors of this group turn to the right and even towards fascism (Italy, Germany, etc.). In moments of bourgeois crisis, as is currently happening in Europe and the United States, these sectors will be open to perspectives of more solidarity with the rest of the class and could decide to come out to fight as an integral part of the whole class. This is why it is equally important to promote the struggle among the most exploited and oppressed, so that they obtain their demands, and to protect the mass movement from prejudices and supremacist attitudes coming from the labor aristocracy. Samuel Gompers, the legendary early US union leader and bureaucrat from the American Federation of Labor (AFL, a labor federation similar to the CGT in Argentina), at the turn of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century headed the union tendencies in the USA, and also internationally, that were opposed to the integration of blacks and immigrants into the skilled industries and unions the AFL controlled, even using violent methods to exclude them in central countries such as England and the USA. Most of the unions in Europe, including those controlled and led by social democrats, supported, and sustained the colonialism of their own governments and agreed with some of the main social democrat parties of Europe, maintaining that this would introduce civilization to the “savage peoples” and would transform them into proletariats.

This position was a smoke screen to hide their support for colonialism; that is, that European Union workers benefited from the super-exploitation of oppressed colonies, peoples, and ethnic groups. This was the same case in the United States.

In fact, in the Social-Democracy Congress of 1903, Lenin, together with Rosa Luxembourg and others, founded their first faction within social democracy, producing a resolution against these reactionary positions. They won over much of the Congress, but this did not stop the main social-democratic parties from ignoring this resolution. As an extension of this reactionary position, they supported their respective bourgeoisies in World War I.

In the 1930s, the US unions, with a membership of exclusively white and aristocratic workers fought shoulder to shoulder to prevent the admission of Black people and other nonwhite workers into skilled work and large unions. A conflict erupted within these unions, including those in the mining industry. They broke with the AFL, thus creating the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO, later known as the congress of Industrial Unions), which for more than a decade embodied a militant type of unionism with radical methods of struggle and achieved important concessions from the company bosses and the integration of blacks into industries and trade unions like never before. Only decades later did the unification of AFL and CIO take place (1955), based on a more moderate framework and in a new situation, forming the largest union federation in the country.

During the so-called “Cold War,” the US imperialist bourgeoisie used the existing labor aristocracy and its product, the union bureaucracy, to lead the main labor unions in the country, the AFL-CIO, to subvert, spy, bribe and destroy all types of labor unions around the world, especially those that were class oriented or combative unions with a communist or social democratic leadership.

During the entire postwar period and the Vietnam War, the AFL-CIO formed special institutes to infiltrate, corrupt, subordinate, or even destroy combative federations and unions in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. It additionally allocated the equivalent of billions of dollars in today’s currency to finance anti-communist agendas. Most of this money came from secret funds of the US government.

During the Vietnam War, some US labor unions, like those of the construction workers in New York City, formed groups to physically attack students and union workers protesting the war.

In summary, the labor aristocracy is a bourgeois, social engineering project, began by the imperialist bourgeoisie, to obtain a base of political support for itself and against the rest of the social classes and the oppressed countries, including the rest of the non-aristocratic working class in the imperialist countries.

Of course, the cyclic crises of capitalism and imperialism limit the ability to bribe layers of the proletariat. It shuffles between different layers of workers according to the needs for reorganizations of businesses and in many cases these layers shrink in number or their importance declines. The key concept, nonetheless, is that the need for a labor aristocracy and its opportunist, political, and labor leadership continues to be an essential need of the bourgeoisie to remain in power.

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