What is a union ?

In 2022, many of our comrades were able to witness, and participate in, discussions about what is a worker, what trade unions are and their usefulness. This was particularly the case following the French presidential election, when the STJV joined voices calling for union membership and pointing out that our struggles are everyday affairs, which are built over the long term. More recently, a video by People Make Games had caused quite a stir in our circles.

The general observation that emerged from these discussions was that, including in trade union circles and among those directly involved, there is a lot of confusion over what are trade unions, syndicalism, workers, and so on.

Some of the opinions expressed during these discussions gave trade unions very limited fields of action and goals. Others even unintentionally conveyed anti-union clichés that permeate our society, and opened the door to anti-union initiatives.

Since this corresponds neither to the reality of what we do at the STJV, nor to our goals, we have written this article to combat this confusion, to define the important terms of the debate, and to present the current positions of the STJV, which are derived from the history in which we are rooted and from our statutes, practical experiences and internal discussions.

As the trade union landscape is very diverse, not all unions, let alone the trade unionists who make up the unions, necessarily have the same position. This is especially true between unions in different countries, which operate in different legal and cultural contexts.

We would like to point out that it is not necessary to agree with all the current positions of the STJV in order to join it. It is through our internal work and discussions that we define the politics of the union.

Who are the workers?

In order to be able to define what a worker is, we must first step back and explain what labour is and therefore, by extension, what production is.

Taken in a general sense, production is everything that society in the broadest sense produces, that allows us to live and that we use directly or indirectly in our daily lives. Its meaning is so broad that it is difficult to define its contours, but, for instance, it includes the production of food, clothing, furniture and housing, as well as leisure activities such as video games, services, healthcare, information, telecommunications, transports, and knowledge, particularly through research…

Labour is any activity that directly or indirectly results in the production of something, regardless of the effort or activity behind the word. If we take the example of a game console, the direct work that was necessary to produce it includes, among other things: the extraction of raw materials, their transport, their transformation, their assembly, the design of its components, their delivery to shops, the related marketing, their distribution…

This so-called productive labour is itself only possible thanks to so-called reproductive labour, which frees up the human working time needed for production and maintains employees’ energy and health. It includes all unpaid and unrecognised domestic work, including all household chores and childcare.

We all live thanks to collective labour that makes it possible to produce the resources we need.

Workers are therefore not only those who are employed in companies, or who have ongoing employment contracts. We should not fall into the common confusion between labour and employment. Labour has always existed and will always exist, while employment is a particular way of organising parts of labour in the capitalist economic system.

The term “worker” refers to anyone who is forced by the capitalist economic system to perform labour, whatever form it takes and regardless of their actual ability to work. It thus includes so-called “stay-at-home” carers, volunteers in associations, activists in political organisations, artists and content creators, but also unemployed people who are under permanent pressure to return to work, disabled people who have to justify in a way that is intrusive to their private lives their inability to work without any guarantee that it will be recognised, and so many others.

Who organises production?

Currently, the people who have the ability to determine what is produced are those who own the factories, machines, computers, raw materials, patents, rental flats, online platforms, intellectual property, newspapers, and so on. Everything that is needed to produce something is referred to as the means of production. For instance, in the case of video games, you cannot produce an Assassin’s Creed game if you do not own the licence, if you do not have access to a game engine, computers, offices to work in: these are means of production.

The people who own these means have the power to decide what to do or not to do with them. In our economic system, these decisions are based on the market value of what is produced, not on its social value. One example is the pharmaceutical companies that stop producing life-saving drugs because they are not profitable enough.

Neither the people who make these drugs, nor those who need them to live, can choose to make them anyway. They do not have the power to do so because they do not possess the necessary means of production. It is the relationship to the means of production that defines what we call social classes: the class that controls them is called the bourgeoisie, and the one that doesn’t is called the proletariat.

Since the bourgeoisie needs the proletariat to provide the labour necessary for production, if only because of its own small numbers, it employs proletarians to produce goods and services. Their labour is paid less than the value of what they produce, in order to make a profit: this is called exploitation. In the video game industry, for instance, the profits of a game are not distributed equally among the people who made it: most of it goes to the publishers, bosses and shareholders, i‧e. the people who own the means of production.

The proletariat is thus defined in opposition to the bourgeoisie, both over the control of the means of production but also over the difference in social obligation to work. In this sense, the words “proletarians” and “workers” are synonymous in STJV communications.

What are unions?

To ensure that production really benefits the people who need it and society in general, it is necessary for the proletariat to be able to decide collectively what is produced, how, in what quantity, and to whom it is distributed. This is where trade unions come in.

If unions are organisations based on workers, it’s because the organisation of production currently revolves around labour. In our economic system, the social mechanisms of capital redistribution, access to public services, all the subsidies, allowances and pensions, are funded by economic production. All those who benefit from them are therefore dependent on labour.

Syndicalism is a strategy that takes advantage of the leverage employed proletarians can have by acting directly on production and in particular by blocking capitalist production, but it does not stop at the doors of factories and open spaces.

The process of restructuring production affects all proletarians, and must therefore include all of them. Union struggle does not only revolve around salaried workers, but includes everyone who belongs to the proletariat. Non-salaried workers and people who benefit from the redistribution of capital and public services already have their place in the trade union movement, as demonstrated by unions of undocumented workers, freelancers, unemployed people, pensioners or platform workers.

What is their area of action?

Although this remains one of their main activities, and sometimes the most visible, trade unions are neither limited to representation in companies, nor to the deliberately restrictive legal framework of “labour relations”. The legal powers they have are useful and practical, but they do not prevent them from organising outside this framework.

Neo-liberal ideas, unfortunately widespread, claim the opposite with the aim of institutionalising trade unions, depoliticising their action and thus emptying it of its substance by making it ineffective. But, on the contrary, the history of trade unions shows that union struggle has always been fought on all fronts.

The creation of free state-of-the-art hospitals, the foundation of the French social security system, constant support for undocumented workers’ fights are just a few examples of the large-scale social achievements that have marked the history of unions in France. The labour movement, through mutual aid funds, is also at the origin of unemployment benefits. These measures, made possible by class solidarity, apply to many persons who are not salaried workers. Their purpose has always been to collectively organise means of emancipation from capitalist economic domination.

Labour has such a structuring role in our society that it concerns virtually everyone, and largely conditions our livelihoods. A union cannot and should not be exclusively concerned with the struggle against economic domination, because dominations are not isolated from each other but overlap and combine.

For example, many of the ‘classic’ trade union issues – discrimination in hiring, parental leave, workplace and work organisation accessibility for people with disabilities, accessibility for users, sick leave, etc. – are quite clearly at the intersection of other oppressions: sexism, racism and ableism in particular.

By improving working conditions, public and social services, increasing the amount of time available for everyone (for instance by reducing the number of weekly working hours) and fighting against job insecurity, trade union action improves everyone’s living conditions.

How can they successfully change the economic system?

One point on which the majority of the union movement agrees in theory is that, in order to be able to decide pragmatically and effectively on production and adapt it to the needs of all, it is necessary to put an end to the division of society into classes and to separate the organisation of production from the permanent quest for profit.

It is the only way to ensure that production really benefits the people who need it and society in general, including by taking into account ecological constraints. This means that proletarians must take control of the production and decide what to do with it themselves. In trade unions, but also in parties, there are two main general currents that seek to change the economic system: the reformist current and the revolutionary current.

The reformist current aims at seizing power peacefully and with respect for republican principles, and relies exclusively on the use of the law and existing institutions to gradually transform capitalism. Within trade unions, this means relying on institutionalised “labour relations”.

The revolutionary current promotes a direct confrontation with capitalism and a quick and sudden seizure of power that would overthrow the existing system. It treats existing institutions only as tools, which can also become structural obstacles to the transformation of the economy. At the trade union level, this means favouring grassroots organisation of the proletariat and resorting to direct action (actions decided and carried out collectively, directly by the people concerned, and not by representatives), with the aim of seizing back the means of production through strikes.

Relying solely on existing institutions is a danger for trade unions, since all structures seek to maintain their existence. We need to be particularly vigilant to ensure our unions do not end up taking decisions that serve their own interests more than those of our class. More precisely, if it is not designed and operated as a revolutionary tool, a union is condemned to maintain itself and therefore maintain its environment, capitalism.

This is one of the limits of reformist unions: they develop an internal bureaucracy and, over time, the interests of the structure as well as of its employees change. To maintain their existence, the easiest thing for them to do is to ensure that proletarians continue to need them. One of the best ways to prevent this from happening is to involve as many proletarians as possible in union organisations, at all levels. The more power is shared, notably through self-governance, the more the risk of hijacking structures is mitigated.

In a nutshell, a trade union can be defined as follows:

A union is an organisation whose goal is to organise the proletariat so that it can collectively and permanently take back control of all production. It’s a strategy, a way of self-organising between proletarians to determine how to manage production, what to do with it and who benefits from it.

How to get involved in trade unions?

The basis of trade union action is solidarity, mutual support and mutual education. By knowing your rights and helping those around you to know their rights, you pave the way for future battles and become aware of your own condition. Being aware, even if only partially, of existing channels of action and organisation allows you to advise those around you and direct them to the people who can help them, without waiting until the last moment.

By doing this, you also directly help the trade unions, as union work is easier when people join us or talk to us early. By attacking problems early, at their roots, we avoid having to bring out big guns like lawsuits that can take years to resolve, and we protect more effectively by preventing more serious problems.

You can also follow, support and take part in social movements. These movements, because of their scale, have a lot of inertia and unionists work hard together to start, organise and keep them going. Participating in these movements helps to maintain, amplify and build them over time, allowing their victory.

Why join a union?

The best way to help the union movement is still to get involved in workers’ organisations, and therefore to join a union. Joining in itself can help a union by increasing its size and therefore its weight in discussions or power relations. The simple fact of paying dues provides financial means and therefore improves its capacity to help proletarians.

At the national, local or company level, joining demonstrations, attending social events, participating in meetings and discussion groups, even as a spectator, can help you to smoothly enter union life, but also, and above all, to meet comrades who know your problems and who also suffer from them. Taking part in union activities and events is an important step in realising that you are not alone, that you can discuss and organise together.

For those who are able, it is also possible to get directly involved in union work. In particular in structures like the STJV where all the work is volunteer, everyone contributes what they can according to their means, without any expectations or obligations. The idea is not to reproduce what happens at companies. Contributing just a little bit, now and then, already helps to increase the amount of work done by the union and, above all, helps you learn more about union struggle and our rights.

What if there is no suitable union for me?

If there is no union in your industry, or none that suits you politically, it is possible to do more research, for example by going to the local and regional branches of union confederations, and to unions in industries close to yours. You can ask unions closer to you politically if they know of any in your industries. Smaller unions, especially those that are independent and/or revolutionary, may be active but not necessarily well known.

If you really can’t find one, apart from the radical but real option of creating a union like the STJV did for the video game industry, it is always possible to get involved in an existing union regardless, through practical actions that are useful in all circumstances such as legal advice.

Finally, don’t forget that joining a union is not a lifetime commitment! The act of joining a union should not be crippling, as it does not force you to do anything. It is perfectly possible to join a union to check out its internal organisation and democracy, ask questions, etc. and then leave if you don’t like it and find that it is not possible to change the union internally.

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