Trade Unions

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Trade Unions


mass organizations that unite working people linked by common interests based on their activity in production, the service industries, and culture. Trade unions originated in the epoch of capitalism, during the struggle of the proletariat against capitalist exploitation and for the improvement of working conditions and the standard of living of the workers. The world trade union movement is part of the international working-class movement.

Origins and development (from the late 18th century to 1917). In Western Europe and the USA the first trade unions were established at the end of the 18th century to defend the economic interests of the workers. (Trade unions appeared considerably earlier than political parties of the working class.) At first, the trade unions were essentially mutual aid societies, but they soon began to participate in the strike struggle. Persecuted by the employers and governments, which prohibited their activity, the trade unions were compelled to operate illegally. In France, for example, where the alliance of workers in trade unions and other associations was prohibited in 1791 by the Le Chapelier Law, freedom of trade union activity was not instituted until 1884. Between 1799 and 1824 trade unions were illegal in Great Britain, and even after they were legalized, their activity was restricted by law.

V. I. Lenin wrote that trade unions were “a tremendous step forward for the working class in the early days of capitalist development, inasmuch as they marked a transition from the workers’ disunity and helplessness to the rudiments of class organization” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41, p. 33). At the same time, as the working class emerged as an independent force in political struggle and as the task of linking socialism with the working-class movement became the main priority, elements of trade union narrowness, which were later pointed out by Lenin, became increasingly evident in the trade unions. (The emergence of the working class as an independent force in politics began with the Lyon rebellions of 1831 and 1834, the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844, and Chartism.)

Because the first trade unions were organized along shop lines, their membership was generally limited to skilled workers of a particular trade. Organization by shops also hindered the workers’ understanding of their broader class tasks and promoted the spread of the ideology of trade unionism, which reduced the tasks of the working-class movement to a struggle for more advantageous conditions for the sale of the labor power of particular groups of workers united in trade unions. The ideology of trade unionism first spread in the trade union movement in Great Britain, where, as early as the mid-19th century, a bourgeoisified, privileged elite took shape in the working class—the labor aristocracy, which defined the character of trade union activities.

The First International and its founders, K. Marx and F. Engels, who were directly associated with several national trade union centers, greatly influenced the development of the class consciousness of the workers and the transformation of the trade unions into the centers of proletarian struggle. Marx addressed his “Instructions for Delegates of the Provisional General Councik Various Questions” to the delegates of the General Council at the first congress of the First International, which was held in Geneva in September 1866. In the instructions, Marx observed: “If the trade unions are required for the guerrilla fights between capital and labor, they are still more important as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wage labor and capitalist rule” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 16, p. 200).

In the last third of the 19th century, as working-class parties developed and increased their influence in Europe and America, the trade unions grew and became more highly organized, the scale of the strike struggle expanded, and the participants in the struggle became more determined and more persistent. With the establishment of industrial trade unions, national trade union centers, and international federations and unions of workers from a particular type of production or branch of industry (for example, the International Trades Secretariats), the isolation of different trades was eliminated. However, with the beginning of the imperialist stage in the development of capitalism, the ideology and practice of trade unionism, which took hold initially in Great Britain, spread to the trade union movements of various European countries and the USA. In these countries, as in Great Britain, the chief proponents of the trade unionist ideology were from the labor aristocracy, which was supported by monopoly capital. Reformists headed the trade unions of every country and took over the leadership of the International Secretariat of Trade Unions (founded in 1903). Right-wing trade union leaders, such as K. Legien (Germany), who advocated the theory that the trade unions should maintain their “neutrality” in the political struggle, preached class cooperation and often broke strikes.

On the initiative of Pope Leo XIII, Christian trade unions were founded in the late 19th century. Their leaders advocated reformist ideas, disguising them in church phraseology. Anar-chosyndicalism, a petit bourgeois current that emerged in the 1880’s and 1890’s in the working-class movement in France and some other countries, was influenced by anarchism. The anar-chosyndicalists rejected the idea that it was necessary for the proletariat to create a political organization, because they believed that the trade unions did not require party leadership but could become a full-fledged form for the organization of socialist production, even within the framework of capitalism. According to the anarchosyndicalists, the most important form of the struggle of the proletariat is the economic strike, and its highest form is the general strike, which should culminate in the automatic collapse of the bourgeois system. In the early 20th century anarchosyndicalism won considerable influence, primarily in countries where capitalism was comparatively weakly developed and numerous petit bourgeois strata survived (Italy, Spain, and the Latin American countries). Anarchosyndicalism also enjoyed influence among some of the workers in Great Britain, the USA, and France.

The revolutionary orientation in the trade unions became stronger in the struggle against trade unionism and anarcho-syndicalism—the most typical opportunist currents, which assumed different forms, depending on the country. Often, the exacerbation of class contradictions forced reformist trade union leaders to take part in militant actions by the workers. The experience of revolutionary struggle helped activist workers and the rank and file in the trade union movements to overcome erroneous views.

In Russia, where trade unions first appeared during the Revolution of 1905–07, the trade union movement, which was headed by the Bolsheviks, was militant and revolutionary from the very beginning. The Bolsheviks opposed the Mensheviks, who endeavored to isolate the trade unions from the political struggle and separate them from the party.

Before World War I (1914–18) workers in countries with strong trade unions, such as Great Britain, Germany, France, and the USA, engaged in a persistent struggle, winning the shortening of the workday to eight to ten hours in certain branches of industry and the implementation of the first measures for social security and the protection of labor.

The war made trade union activity more difficult, because from the beginning, reformist leaders helped the bourgeoisie to spread chauvinism, proclaiming the slogans of “civil peace” and calling for the renunciation of strikes. The International Secretariat of Trade Unions was disbanded.

The developed capitalist countries during the period of the general crisis of capitalism. In the context of the revolutionary crisis associated with the consequences of World War I and the influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, the trade unions participated in several militant actions by the working class. They played an important role in the movement against anti-Soviet intervention, championing the slogan “Hands off Russia.” Right-wing trade union leaders, who obstructed the growth of revolutionary activity by the workers, did their utmost to limit the scope of the movement against in-terventionism. In 1919 reformist trade union leaders founded the Amsterdam International of Trade Unions, an international association, but many trade unions were excluded from participation, including those in the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of those in the colonial and dependent countries, and a number of revolutionary trade unions in the capitalist countries. The International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions was founded in 1920. Thus, the de facto split in the world trade union movement was organizationally formalized. In 1921 the Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern) was founded by the Soviet trade unions, by revolutionary groups within the reformist trade unions, and by revolutionary trade unions in the capitalist, colonial, and dependent countries. A revolutionary trade union center, Profintern was opposed to the reformist policies of class collaboration.

In addition to the struggle against the main danger, reformism, an extremely important precondition for the growth of the revolutionary trade union movement was the overcoming of “leftist” tendencies, which were expressed primarily in the refusal to work in reformist trade unions. Lenin’s “Left-wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920) played an extraordinary role in overcoming “left” sectarian errors in the international trade union movement.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s trade unions participated in the struggle for the social rights of the working people and for the expansion of the system of social security. In Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Belgium, and other countries industrial workers won the introduction of the eight-hour workday. The Popular Front government of France passed a law introducing the 40-hour week in 1936. In some countries, including the USA and Great Britain, the eight-hour workday was introduced in particular branches of industry on the basis of collective bargaining agreements. Laws and agreements regarding the eight-hour workday were often violated, and in Italy and Germany they were abolished after the fascists came to power. Sometimes the trade unions won wage increases, but such gains were frequently erased by mass unemployment, inflation, and taxes. Right-wing trade union leaders, who called for class collaboration with the bourgeoisie, weakened the workers’ pressure on capital. In Germany the policies of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party and the General Confederation of German Trade Unions hindered united action by the working class and considerably facilitated the fascist seizure of power in 1933. The fascists wiped out the workers’ social gains and destroyed the trade unions, which gave way to the Labor Front, an organization subordinate to the fascist government. Both workers and employers joined the Labor Front. In Italy fascist trade unions, which were established before the 1930’s, became part of the “corporative state.” “Vertical trade unions” were formed in Spain in 1939, after the victory of Franco’s supporters. Like the trade unions in other fascist countries, the vertical trade unions in Spain were administered by the state.

The Seventh Comintern Congress (1935) pointed out the importance of rallying the working class and all democratic forces in the struggle against fascism and worked out the tactic of the united front. The Comintern congress also noted the necessity of overcoming the split in the international trade union movement, emphasizing that there was only one condition for the unification of the trade unions—the struggle against capital, combined with the struggle against fascism and for internal trade union democracy. In conformity with the line adopted by the Seventh Comintern Congress and with the recommendation of the Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern), small left-wing trade unions were disbanded, and their members joined reformist trade unions on an individual basis. Trade union mergers took place in France, Czechoslovakia, the USA, Rumania, India, Canada, and a number of other countries. Profintern was dissolved in 1937.

During World War II (1939–45) trade unions in the occupied countries participated in the underground under the leadership of Communists involved in the antifascist struggle. In countries liberated from the fascist occupation, legal trade unions were reestablished under the administration of progressive leaders. Among the national trade union centers reestablished after liberation were the General Confederation of Labor in France and the Italian General Confederation of Labor, which resumed legal activity. The drive for unity gained strength among the working people who belonged to trade unions in the capitalist countries. Anglo-Soviet and Franco-Soviet trade union committees were active during the war. In 1945 the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) was founded, with the participation of the trade unions of the USSR. In addition to the Soviet trade unions and the trade unions of the people’s democracies, all the largest trade union centers of the capitalist countries, with the exception of the American Federation of Labor, joined the WFTU, as did various trade union centers of the colonial and dependent countries. (The Amsterdam International of Trade Unions had been disbanded during the war.) In 1949 right-wing trade union leaders managed to separate a number of national trade union centers from the WFTU, establishing the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which united trade unions advocating class peace and reformism.

In 1945 the International Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ICCTU) resumed activity. Its leaders refused to join the WFTU. In 1968 the ICCTU was renamed the World Confederation of Labor (WCL), and formal references to the social doctrine of Christianity were removed from its official documents. However, the organization did not discard the doctrine of the “third path,” which purportedly rejects both capitalism and socialism but actually favors the “improvement” of the capitalist system by means of reforms. Despite the split in the working-class movement in the developed capitalist countries, the working class in these states is engaged in an active strike struggle, in the course of which workers belonging to various trade union centers are united. Between 1919 and 1939, 74 million people engaged in strikes in the developed capitalist countries, and between 1946 and 1966, the number was 262.9 million. In 1971 alone, more than 70 million people participated in the strike struggle in the capitalist countries. In addition to the working class, office employees and representatives of the intelligentsia were increasingly involved in strikes.

Attempting to limit the workers’ right to strike, bourgeois governments implemented new antistrike and anti-trade union laws, such as the Taft-Hartley Act in the USA and the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 in Great Britain. However, the bourgeois governments did not succeed in putting an end to the upsurge in the strike movement. By joining strikes, the unionized working people of many capitalist countries restored and raised wage levels, which had been lowered after the war. Between 1957 and 1969, wages rose 22 percent in the USA, 35.9 percent in Great Britain, 68.3 percent in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), 45 percent in Italy, and 78.2 percent in Japan. In a number of developed capitalist countries, the workers won a shorter work week, more paid holidays and leaves, and the expansion of social legislation. (For example, these gains were won by the French workers after the general strike in May-June 1968.) However, the economic crisis that began in the first half of the 1970’s resulted in a decline in the standard of living of the toiling masses and confronted the trade unions with the task of organizing the resistance to the offensive by the monopolies, which were trying to nullify the concessions wrung from them during the long struggle of the exploited against the exploiters.

In the context of state-monopoly capitalism and the scientific and technological revolution, the trade unions face new problems, which they can solve only if they broaden their range of activities. As a result of the direct and increasing participation of the state in the economy in the capitalist countries, the struggle of the trade unions for the economic demands of the workers often grows into an action against the entire system of state-monopoly capitalism. “Structural unemployment,” a consequence of the scientific and technological revolution that affects primarily workers in “older” branches of the economy, such as the coal mining industry and railroad transportation, requires that the trade unions engage tirelessly in a struggle to solve the problem of employment in the interests of the working people. Among the special problems associated with the general problem of employment are social security, vocational training, and a shorter work week with a guaranteed wage level. Unemployment, which has increased as a result of the economic crisis, is intensifying the struggle to realize these demands. (Between the end of 1973 and the beginning of 1978, the number of unemployed in the developed capitalist countries rose from 8 million to 18 million.)

To solve all of these problems, the trade unions must participate in the control of production and become involved in the politics of the bourgeois state. Trade unions, including those headed by reformists, are increasingly advocating the nationalization of production by democratic methods. Moreover, the trade unions are demanding a role in state economic planning. Communists and all supporters of the revolutionary trend in the contemporary trade union movement view the expansion of the function of the trade unions as an important aspect of the struggle for socialism. By contrast, right-wing trade union leaders would like to focus the struggle for the democratization of the economy on reforms within the capitalist system.

As a result of current socioeconomic processes in the capitalist world, the trade union movement faces the important task of attracting broader strata of office employees, engineering and technical personnel, and workers in the service sectors. Trade unions are becoming more actively involved in international politics, supporting peace and international security.

The socialist countries. The tasks of trade unions change fundamentally after the socialist revolution. Having become organizations of the ruling class, the trade unions of socialist countries act in cooperation with the state, under the unified leadership of the Communist and working-class parties. They mobilize the working people for participation in building socialism and communism, and they engage in a struggle to improve labor productivity and the quality of output. For the broad working masses, the trade unions are a school of management, a school for the administration of production. Together with other public organizations, the trade unions play an important role in the communist education of the working people. The trade unions, whose membership includes the overwhelming majority of working people in the countries of the socialist commonwealth, assume an increasingly important role in public life.

The trade unions of the USSR made a major contribution to the organization of aid for the front during the Civil War and Military Intervention of 1918–20. The Soviet trade unions also made a major contribution to the creation of a new machinery of state, to the reconstruction of the national economy, to socialist industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture, to the implementation of the cultural revolution, and to the defeat of the enemy during the Great Patriotic War (1941–45). After the war, the Soviet trade unions promoted the reconstruction and further development of the country’s economy (see).

After the liberation of Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Albania from the fascist invaders, unified trade unions were organized in these countries and became part of national trade union associations. The Confederation of Free German Trade Unions, which was founded in 1946 in the Soviet occupation zone, became the trade union center of the German Democratic Republic in October 1949. Founded in 1925 by the unification of workers’ trade unions established after World War I, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions operated after 1950 under a new law defining the status and functions of trade unions. During the “cultural revolution” of the second half of the 1960’s, the trade unions were dissolved and reestablished in accordance with the ideas of the Maoist leadership. A single trade union center developed in the Korean Democratic People’s Republic in 1945 and in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1946. There has been a single trade union center in the Mongolian People’s Republic since 1927. The Trade Union Center of Cuban Workers was reestablished in 1961. The regulations of the trade unions of the socialist countries emphasize that their most important tasks are to strengthen the workers’ power and the alliance between the working class, the peasantry, and the intelligentsia and to consolidate the moral and political unity of the people.

The trade unions of the socialist countries participate directly in the development of state economic plans, the administration of production, the elaboration of the norms of labor legislation, and the organization of socialist emulation. In a number of socialist countries various public bodies work under the direction of the trade unions, including permanent production conferences and economic and workers’ councils and committees. Public bodies are an important form of socialist democracy and social control and an important means of enlisting the masses in the management of production. The educational institutions of trade unions, including houses of culture, clubs, and libraries, play an important role in inculcating a communist attitude toward labor in the people. Of the focal questions considered by the trade unions of the socialist countries, the most important concerns are the improvement of the conditions of labor, life, and recreation for the working class. In a number of countries, social security is under the jurisdiction of the trade unions.

The trade unions of the socialist countries are organized by industry and on the basis of democratic centralism. National trade union centers unify the sectoral trade unions, which have national and local committees. There are shop committees at factories and plants and trade union groups at enterprises. The trade unions of the socialist countries have arranged diverse forms of cooperation for the completion of the concrete tasks of socialist construction and for the organization of a broad exchange of production experience and scientific and technological achievements. The trade unions of the countries of the socialist commonwealth participate in the WFTU and its branch organizations, the international associations of trade unions.

In the context of the acute class struggle that is developing in various forms at the international level, the education of the working people in the spirit of proletarian internationalism has assumed special significance, becoming the most important task of the trade unions of the socialist countries. As the largest detachment of the international trade union movement, the trade unions of the socialist countries are expanding their ties with various international and regional trade union centers and with the national trade union organizations, including the trade unions of Great Britain, the FRG, France, and other European countries, as well as the trade unions of a number of Asian, African, and Latin American countries and individual trade union organizations in the USA.

The developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The upsurge in the national liberation movement and the collapse of the colonial system of imperialism after World War II were accompanied by the rapid growth of the trade union movement in the developing countries. The influence of the trade unions grew significantly in countries of Latin America, where the trade union movement had originated in the late 19th century; in Asian countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Turkey, where the mass trade union movement had emerged shortly after World War I; and even in those Asian and African countries where trade unions had not developed until after World War II. The trade unions of the developing countries are struggling against colonialism and neocolonialism and the forces of internal reaction and for the achievement and strengthening of economic independence, for social progress, for the freedom of trade unions, for higher wages for the working people, and for the development and unity of the trade union movement.

In countries where there are no legal working-class political parties, trade unions are the only form of class organization of the workers. In the course of their evolution, the trade union movements in developing countries in different regions have acquired distinctive features. For example, fragmentation is characteristic of the trade union movement in many nonsocial-ist countries in Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, where there are several national trade union centers affiliated with various political parties. In other Asian countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, and Singapore, the ruling circles established unified trade union centers that support the government. The Communist parties of certain countries have succeeded in creating progressive trade union centers that adhere to a class point of view and advocate united action by the working class. A number of trade union centers in the developing countries of Asia belong to the WFTU.

In most of the Arab countries there are unified national trade union centers, many of which operate under the leadership of national democratic parties. In countries where Communist parties have been founded, Communists participate in the activities of the trade unions. Most of the Arab trade unions belong to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, which maintains an anti-imperialist point of view. Founded in 1956, the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions had 4.2 million members by 1973. Some Arab trade union centers also belong to the WFTU. Founded in 1961, the All-African Trade Union Federation (AATUF) became one of the rallying points for the democratic and anti-imperialist forces of Africa. In 1973 it had 2.5 million members. A number of African trade union centers also belong to the WFTU. In 1962 the African Trade Union Confederation was established as a counterweight to the AATUF. The Organization of African Unity adopted a resolution in 1970 advocating the founding of an all-African trade union center, the Organization of African Trade Union Unity. Established in 1973, the organization includes almost all the national trade union centers of Africa.

Since the mid-1950’s, Communists and other progressive activists in the trade union movement in the Latin American countries have directed their efforts at the creation of unified national trade union centers. Such centers were established in Chile and Uruguay, where they were destroyed by the reaction in 1973, and in Bolivia. In Brazil the national trade union center was dissolved in 1964. In a number of Latin American countries, including Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela, the trade unions have engaged in united action on the most important problems affecting the interests of the working people. In 1964 the trend toward unity in the Latin American trade union movement resulted in the formation of the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity of the Latin American Workers, some members of which also belong to the WFTU and the international associations of trade unions. Since 1969 the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity has cooperated on a number of issues with the Latin American regional organization of the World Confederation of Labor (WCL)—the Latin American Central of Workers. By the 1970’s there was a significant decline in the influence of the regional organization of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Latin America, which is greatly influenced by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. However, the right-wing reformist trade union movement and leftist adventurist forces in a number of Latin American countries are continuing their efforts against unity in the trade union movement.

Soviet trade unions actively contribute to the strengthening of the trade unions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, providing them with material support and with assistance in training cadres (in particular, at the Higher School of the Trade Union Movement in Moscow). In addition, the Soviet trade unions send literature and films to trade unions in the developing countries and share with them the experience of Soviet trade union activity.

The struggle for international trade union unity after World War II. After World War II the influence of the trade unions grew considerably. The total world membership of trade unions was more than 300 million in 1978 (in 1945,70 million). In 1978 the WFTU had 180 million members; the ICFTU, 50 million members; and the WCL, 14 million members.

One of the most important preconditions for the further success of the international trade union movement is the struggle by its progressive forces for unity of action on the national and international levels by the working people who are organized in trade unions. The WFTU has consistently advocated the unification of the efforts of the trade unions in the struggle for improved living conditions for the working people and in the struggle for peace, democracy, and social progress. Proposals aimed at establishing unity in the international trade union movement have been repeatedly addressed by the WFTU to other trade union centers. The Eighth World Trade Union Congress (Varna, 1973), which was attended by the representatives of about 210 million trade union members, adopted a call for unity that had a great impact on the trade union movement. The congress also adopted the Policy Document and the Charter of Trade Union Rights and Economic and Social Demands of the Working People in Capitalist Countries at the Present Time. These documents are of great significance for the international trade union movement. The charter articulates demands that will be part of a single platform of the WFTU and the entire world trade union movement. Among the demands in the charter are the right to work and to choose an occupation, the right to organize trade unions, the right of the workers to freely elect their leaders, the right to strike, the right to issue trade union publications and conduct trade union propaganda, and the democratization of the economy. On the initiative of the WFTU and its member organizations, some contacts were established between the WFTU and the WCL at various levels during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Beginning in 1970, meetings were held between the secretariats of the WFTU and the WCL. Representatives of WCL trade unions took part in the International Trade Union Conference on Social Security (Moscow, 1971), the International Trade Union Antimonopoly Conference (Santiago, Chile, 1973), and the World Congress of Forces for Peace (Moscow, 1973). Leaders of the ICFTU have repeatedly rejected the WFTU’s calls for unity, but pressure from the masses has impelled them to participate in a number of joint measures, such as the International Trade Union Conference Against Apartheid (Geneva, 1973). The first meeting of the secretaries-general of the WFTU and the ICFTU was held in January 1974. Contacts between trade unions of various orientations are broadened through their membership in the International Labor Organization.

The WFTU has established firm ties based on joint anti-imperialist actions with the All-African Trade Union Federation, the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the Permanent Congress of Trade Union Unity of Latin American Workers, and large, autonomous national trade union centers, such as Sohyo (the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan) and the Confederation of Trade Unions of Yugoslavia. At international meetings in support of the anti-imperialist struggle of the Vietnamese people, such as the Extraordinary Session of the WFTU General Council in Moscow (1968) and the World Trade Union Meeting at Versailles (1970), more than half the participants represented trade unions that were not members of the WFTU. Representatives of different trends in the trade union movement participated in the International Trade Union Committee for Solidarity With the Struggle of the Workers and People of Algeria (founded in 1958), the International Committee for Solidarity With Aden (1964), and the International Committee for Solidarity With the Workers of South Africa (1961), as well as in international trade union committees for solidarity with the struggle of the Arab people of Palestine (1970).

Since the second half of the 1960’s there have been noticeable gains in strengthening the unity of the trade union movement in Italy. An agreement was concluded in 1972, establishing a federation of three trade union centers: the Italian General Confederation of Labor, the Italian Confederation of Working People’s Trade Unions, and the Italian Union of Labor. In 1966, 1970, and 1972, agreements on joint actions were signed by the General Confederation of Labor in France, which is led by the Communists, and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor. Unity of action by Italian and French workers ensured the success of the largest demonstrations of the postwar period —general strikes in France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969 and 1972.

With the expansion of the scope of trade union activity, establishing unity is becoming one of the trade union movement’s most urgent tasks. The current strengthening of the international monopolies and of capitalist economic integration demands united actions on a national and international scale and must be met by the opposition of the unified forces of the international working class. A number of steps have been taken toward international unity in the trade union movement, including the establishment of international trade union councils in the largest automobile firms, such as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and Renault, as well as at plants owned by the Solvay chemical concerns and at factories operated by the Philips and Fokker companies. Moreover, the trade unions have fought for the conclusion of collective bargaining agreements on an international scale. Unified strikes in the early 1970’s at enterprises operated by the international monopolies in different countries were also preliminary steps toward international unity in the trade union movement.

The tasks of the European Trade Union Confederation, which was established in February 1973, include the struggle against the international monopolies. However, the confederation is closed to the trade unions of the socialist countries. After persistent struggle, the supporters of joint action succeeded in organizing a meeting in 1974 between leaders of the trade union centers of all the European countries. The meeting adopted a resolution on the convocation of an all-European trade union conference. Two such conferences were held (1975 and 1977). The establishment of trade union unity continues to be hampered by the opposition of a number of right-wing reformist leaders.

Advocating unity in the international trade union movement, the Marxist-Leninist parties of all countries act in conformity with the line elaborated by the International Conferences of Communist and Workers’ Parties.


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Engels. F. “Predislovie k angliiskomu izdaniiu ‘Polozheniia rabochego klassa v Anglii.’” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “O stachkakh.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 4.
Lenin, V. I. “Predislovie k broshiure Voinova (A. V. Lunacharskogo) ob otnoshenii partii k professional’nym soiuzam.” Ibid., vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. “Mezhdunarodnyi sotsialisticheskii kongress v Shtutgarte.” Ibid, vol. 16.
Lenin, V. I. Detskaia bolezn’ “levizny” v kommunizme. Ibid., vol. 41.
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Nekotorye aktual’nye problemy mezhdunarodnogo rabochego i profsoiuznogo dvizheniia, parts 1–2. Moscow, 1972.

V. E. MOZHAEV [21–430–2; updated]

Trade Unions


Trade unions, considered as a group, constitute the largest social organization in the USSR. They unite on a voluntary basis industrial, kolkhoz, and nonindustrial workers of all occupations, regardless of race, nationality, sex, or religious belief. Students in higher educational institutions, specialized secondary educational institutions, and vocational-technical schools are also admitted to membership. As of 1982, more than 130 million working people, of all nations and nationalities in the country, belonged to trade unions (see Table 1).

Trade union members account for more than 98 percent of the working people—that is, virtually the entire working class, all the members of the working intelligentsia, and a considerable number of rural toilers.

Table 1. Trade union membership in prerevolutionary Russia and the USSR
1905 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .80,000
1907 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .245,000
1913 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .45,000
1918 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2,638,000
1925 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7,740,000
1932 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16,500,000
1949 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28,500,000
1959 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52,781,000
1963 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68,000,000
1968 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .86,000,000
1976 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .110,000,000
1977 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .113,500,000
1981 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .129,000,000

A trade union is an organization “for education. It is an organization designed to draw in and to train; it is, in fact, a school: a school of administration, a school of economic management, a school of communism” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 42, p. 203). Trade unions are among the most important of the elements that constitute the system of socialist democracy, since they involve the working people in the management of state and public affairs. Trade unions work under the guidance of the CPSU, rallying the working people around it, supporting it, and serving as its close assistant in the building of the new society. They are reliable executors of party policy. The participation in trade unions of the working class, kolkhoz peasantry, and working intelligentsia is evidence of the growing unity of the Soviet people and of the all-around progress of the advanced socialist society. A backbone of the trade union movement, the working class has the lead in the social structure of trade unions.

Trade unions function in coordination and cooperation with state bodies, various public organizations, and associations and societies of working people. They take part in state construction, in elections to Soviet governing bodies, and in the development of laws pertaining to production, labor, living conditions, and culture. Trade unions participate in the formation of bodies that provide economic leadership, in the establishment of control by the masses over the management apparatus, and in the work of bodies of people’s control.

By helping the party implement its program of social development, trade unions facilitate planned wage increases for industrial and nonindustrial workers as well as the resolution of other questions associated with raising the material and cultural standard of living of the people.

Historical survey. Trade unions appeared in Russia during the Revolution of 1905-07. The Bolshevik party waged an unrelenting struggle against the bourgeois and petit bourgeois parties for leadership of the trade unions. These parties—the Constitutional Democrats, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and anarchists—were attempting to direct the Russian trade union movement along a reformist, trade unionist path. The party rejected the Menshevik theory that the trade unions should remain “neutral.” The aim of the theory was to sever the trade unions from the Bolshevik party and to divert them from the revolutionary struggle. The trade unions helped prepare and carry out the October Revolution. By October 1917 their membership numbered more than 2 million workers.

After the victory of the October Revolution, the status of Russia’s working class changed radically. Transformed from an oppressed, exploited class into the dominant class, it assumed leadership of the state in a close alliance with the working peasantry. The trade unions were confronted with new tasks.

The trade unions bore the brunt of the work of creating bodies for economic management and a state apparatus, of coping with famine and economic dislocation, and of organizing the operation of enterprises that had been confiscated from private owners by the state. The primary task at hand was to organize the broad masses of working people for a radical socialist transformation of society, the enhancement of labor productivity, and the establishment of a new, conscious labor discipline. Such a task required that the masses of working people be taught systematically, patiently, and persistently the art of managing the state and production.

Between 1918 and 1920 the trade unions took part in the struggle against foreign and domestic counterrevolution on the Civil War fronts and helped mobilize the working class in the rear. In 1921 the Trotskyists forced a debate in the party on the trade unions. The party roundly condemned their attempts to set the trade unions against the party and the Soviet state and thereby undermine the foundations of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Communist Party adopted Lenin’s trade union platform, which scientifically substantiated the role of trade unions as schools of communism. Under the party’s direction, the trade unions contributed on a large scale to the implementation of the policies associated with the socialist industrialization of the country, the collectivization of agriculture, the advancement of the cultural revolution, and the building of socialism. During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, the trade unions were of considerable help to the front, mobilizing the workers in the rear for selfless, heroic labor in the name of victory over the enemy. In the postwar years, the trade unions directed the efforts of the working people toward rapid reconstruction and development of the country’s economy and culture.

For their substantial service to the cause of socialist and communist construction, Soviet trade unions were awarded the Order of Lenin in 1957 and in 1972 and the Order of the October Revolution in 1977.

A list of the congresses and conferences of the trade unions in prerevolutionary Russia and the USSR is provided in Table 2.

Rights and functions. Soviet trade unions have extensive rights in production management, an area in which Soviet experience is unmatched elsewhere in the world trade union movement. They take part in the formulation and implementation of state plans for the development of the national economy, and they involve workers in the management of production. They develop the scientific and technical creativity of the masses and make use of the experience and knowledge of the masses to achieve growth in labor productivity and to raise the efficiency and quality of work. Soviet trade unions promote socialist competition, in which in the past decade as many as 108 million industrial and nonindustrial workers took part, including about 68 million in the movement for a communist attitude toward labor. The All-Union Society of Inventors and Rationalizers and the country’s scientific and technical societies function under the guidance of the trade unions; in 1976 they had a combined membership of approximately 16 million. More than 50 million working people have been chosen to participate in the permanent production conferences.

Table 2. Congresses and conferences of trade unions in prerevolutionary Russia and the USSR
First All-Russian Conference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sept. 24–Oct. 7, 1905
Second All-Russian Conference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Feb. 24–28, 1906
Third All-Russian Conference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .June 21–28 (July 4–11), 1917
Fourth All-Russian Conference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mar. 12–17, 1918
Fifth All-Russian Conference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Nov. 2–6, 1920
First All-Russian Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Jan. 7–14 (Jan. 20–27), 1918
Second All-Russian Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Jan. 16–25, 1919
Third All-Russian Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Apr. 6–13, 1920
Fourth All-Russian Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .May 17–25, 1921
Fifth All-Russian Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sept. 17–22, 1922
Sixth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Nov. 11–18, 1924
Seventh All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Dec. 6–18, 1926
Eighth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Dec. 10–24, 1928
Ninth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Apr. 20–29, 1932
Tenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Apr. 19–27, 1949
Eleventh All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .June 7–15, 1954
Twelfth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mar. 23–27, 1959
Thirteenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Oct. 28-Nov. 2,1963
Fourteenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Feb. 27-Mar. 4,1968
Fifteenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mar. 20–24, 1972
Sixteenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mar. 21–25, 1977
Seventeenth All-Union Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Mar. 16–20, 1982

The concluding of collective agreements between enterprises and local trade union committees, a practice that had been suspended in the 1930’s, was resumed in 1947. Largely owing to the efforts of the trade unions, a seven-hour workday was reintroduced, and in 1956 an even shorter day was instituted for persons working under adverse or difficult conditions. The trade unions have also aided in the distribution of state allocations for labor protection and for occupational safety measures and in the restoration and expansion of the country’s system of cultural institutions. The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS) formulated the Statute on the Procedure for Reviewing Labor Disputes, which was adopted in January 1957 by an edict of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Under the statute, factory or local committees of trade unions were granted the power of direct review of labor disputes between industrial and nonindustrial workers, on the one hand, and the management of an enterprise or organization, on the other.

Key legislation has substantially expanded the rights and functions of trade unions. In 1958 the Statute on the Permanent Production Conference in the Industrial Enterprise, Construction Project, and Sovkhoz was adopted, as was the Statute on the Rights of the Factory, Plant, and Local Committees of the Trade Union. In 1970 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted the Basic Principles of Labor Legislation of the USSR and the Union Republics, which had been introduced in the Supreme Soviet by the Council of Ministers of the USSR and VTsSPS. The Basic Principles consolidated juridically the trade unions’ right of legislative initiative, which is vested in the VTsSPS and the trade union councils at the republic level. The trade unions had exercised this right even before it was legally formalized.

Among the measures adopted on the initiative of the trade unions or with their participation were a pension law, a law shortening the workday, a statute on the procedures for reviewing labor disputes, decrees increasing wages for low-paid industrial and nonindustrial workers, and decrees on collective orchard cultivation and vegetable growing by industrial and nonindustrial workers. A new Statute on the Rights of the Factory, Plant, and Local Committees of the Trade Union was adopted in 1971, and the Council of Ministers and the VTsSPS approved a new Statute on the Permanent Production Conference in 1973. In 1974 a new Statute on the Procedure for Reviewing Labor Disputes was approved by an edict of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

Joint decrees of the Central Committee of the CPSU, the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and the VTsSPS are issued on the key questions affecting the masses of working people. Decisions regarding levels of labor remuneration, the advanced training of personnel, and the use of work time and free time are made jointly by the VTsSPS and the State Committee on Labor and Social Problems of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. Individual normative acts, statutes, and instructions on the application of existing legislation in the areas of social insurance and labor protection are adopted by the VTsSPS. Standards and regulations on occupational safety measures for the various branches of the economy are formulated and approved by the appropriate ministries or agencies working in coordination with the central committees of the corresponding trade unions.

With an eye to promoting prudent and efficient use of material and financial resources, the VTsSPS, along with the Central Committee of the Komsomol and the State Committee for Material and Technical Supply of the USSR (Gossnab), conducts all-Union reviews of economy and efficiency, implements programs for individual accounts of savings achieved, and organizes visiting inspections, competitions, and other forms of worker participation in the movement to economize.

The trade unions take part in monitoring labor and consumption, in planning and setting wages, and in developing labor-remuneration systems and bonus regulations. The trade unions involve industrial and nonindustrial workers in the introduction of progressive, well-grounded production quotas, they supervise the review of such quotas, and they see that existing labor-remuneration systems are used properly.

The functions of the trade unions include state and public monitoring of labor protection, occupational safety measures, and adherence to labor legislation. Approximately 15 billion rubles were allocated for the improvement of working conditions and labor protection in the ninth five-year plan (1971–75). Management cannot dismiss an industrial or nonindustrial worker without the consent of the factory or local committee of the trade union. Trade union committees have the deciding voice in labor disputes arising in enterprises or institutions. Management must follow instructions given by the trade union safety supervisor regarding the correction of safety violations.

The sphere of influence of trade unions is expanding to agriculture. Between 1971 and 1975 the number of agricultural workers belonging to trade union organizations increased to 18 million from 15 million. In 1977 kolkhoz trade union organizations had a combined membership of 5.6 million.

Trade unions systematically perform public monitoring of the fulfillment of plans for the construction of housing and of cultural and consumer-service facilities. Similarly, they see that improvements are made in the operation of trade, food service, and communal services enterprises. Acting in concert with economic bodies and the managements of enterprises and institutions, trade unions also allocate housing.

The trade unions have administered state social insurance since 1933. In 1975 the budget for this service exceeded 26 billion rubles and was 1.5 times greater than in 1971. Trade union organizations grant and administer temporary disability insurance as well as other forms of social insurance assistance for which industrial and nonindustrial workers are eligible. They also endeavor to improve medical care for working people and health care for women and children. Trade union organizations monitor the activities of social security agencies and take part in the granting of pensions to industrial and nonindustrial workers and to members of their families.

Trade unions operate sanatoriums and houses of rest and have jurisdiction over the provision of sanatorium and health resort services to working people. Between 1971 and 1975 some 230 million industrial and nonindustrial workers and members of their families—80 percent more than between 1966 and 1970—vacationed or received treatment at trade union health resorts and tourist centers. In 1975 some 8.5 million people vacationed at health resorts free of charge or at reduced rates. Each year the trade unions organize rural Pioneer camps as well as school-affiliated camps. Between 1971 and 1975 some 45.9 million children attended such camps during their summer and winter vacations.

Trade unions engage in cultural work among the masses and conduct extensive educational programs. In 1975 their jurisdiction extended to more than 21,000 clubs and houses and palaces of culture, 305,000 red corners (special rooms for cultural-educational work), 33,400 motion-picture projection units, and approximately 23,000 public libraries. Some 9 million people took part in amateur arts groups. Trade union cultural institutions disseminate political and scientific knowledge on a large scale. In 1975 more than 2.5 million industrial and nonindustrial workers and rural toilers were engaged in study in more than 10,000 people’s universities created with the aid of the trade unions. Such universities included universities of culture, technological progress, economics, chemistry, agricultural science, health, scientific atheism, literature and art, pedagogy, and law and the state. Comrades’ courts and councils of workers’ honor, of veterans of labor, and of young specialists operate in enterprises under the guidance of trade union organizations.

Trade unions promote the development of physical culture, sports, and tourism. They sponsor voluntary sports societies and tourist institutions and organizations and hold large-scale Spartakiads (sports competitions) at regular intervals. Trade union organizations spend as much as 200 million rubles a year for physical culture and sports.

Organizational structure. Trade unions operate in accordance with regulations adopted at the Tenth Congress of Trade Unions (April 1949) and amended at the Eleventh through Fifteenth Congresses. Democratic centralism forms the foundation of the organizational structure of the trade unions. All trade union bodies are elected, directly or indirectly, by the trade union members, to whom they are accountable. All trade union members are eligible to vote and run in elections for trade union bodies. They can participate in the work of general meetings and raise questions concerning the activity of trade union and administrative bodies.

Trade unions are organized along industry lines. Their basic unit is the primary trade union organization, which is composed of trade union members who work at a given enterprise, sovkhoz, kolkhoz, or institution or who attend a given educational institution. A primary trade union organization having at least 15 members elects a factory or local committee. A trade union organization of less than 15 members elects a trade union organizer for a period of one year. The factory and local committees of large primary trade union organizations can, with the permission of the VTsSPS, be granted the status of a raion trade union committee.

Each trade union consists of industrial and nonindustrial workers in one or more sectors of the national economy. This structural principle simplifies the task of meeting the material and cultural needs of the trade union members and facilitates the organization of socialist competition on a countrywide scale in the various sectors of the economy. In addition, it enables trade union members to take part in solving problems regarding planning, production organization, labor, wages, and labor protection and to participate in generalizing and applying advances in production techniques.

The highest trade union body is the Congress of Trade Unions of the USSR, which convenes once every five years. In the interim, the highest body is the VTsSPS. As of Jan. 1,1976, industrial and nonindustrial workers were united in 25 trade unions representing the following industrial branches or economic sectors: defense and aircraft construction; civil aviation; motor vehicle transport and highway construction and maintenance; geological survey; consumers’ cooperatives and state trade; state institutions; railroad transport; cultural work; the timber, paper, and wood-products industries; machine building; medicine; local industry and communal and consumer services; metallurgy; maritime and river transport; the petroleum, chemical, and gas industries; food processing; primary and secondary education, higher schools, and scientific institutions; the electronics industry; communications; agriculture; construction and building materials; shipbuilding; textiles and light industry; the coal industry; and the electric power and electrical engineering industries.

Each trade union for a branch of the economy has its own central committee, which is elected at the trade union’s congress. Most of such branch trade unions have republic, krai, oblast, railroad, territorial, basin, okrug, city, and raion committees. At the republic, krai, and oblast levels there exist interunion bodies known as trade union councils. Each branch trade union has its own regulations, which correspond by and large to the Regulations of the Trade Unions of the USSR but address the specific needs of the branch union.

The structure of Soviet trade unions combines centralism—leadership, and an accompanying hierarchy of subordination, from the top down—with broad democracy, which involves reporting and elections from the bottom up. Branch and inter-branch trade union bodies at the republic, krai, oblast, okrug, city, and raion levels provide a link between the primary organizations, on the one hand, and the supreme bodies of each trade union and the VTsSPS, on the other.

The central organ of the trade unions is the newspaper Trud (Labor), founded in 1921. Independently or in conjunction with ministries and agencies, the trade unions publish nine central newspapers and 77 journals, including trade magazines written for the public as well as scientific and technical journals.

International ties. Since the first years of Soviet power, the trade unions have actively supported the unification of the international trade union movement. Soviet trade unions helped found the Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern) in 1921. They are working to strengthen cooperation with the trade unions of other socialist countries and are establishing ties and contacts with other trade unions abroad. In performing their international duty, the Soviet trade unions provide fraternal aid to the workers struggling in capitalist countries for their class interests. Soviet trade unions also support by every means at their disposal the national liberation movement of colonial and dependent peoples and the struggle of working people in countries that have embarked on the path of independent development, economic stabilization, and national sovereignty. An integral part of the world trade union movement, Soviet trade unions are active in the World Federation of Trade Unions; they struggle for the unification of the international workers’ movement along class lines and for peace on earth. The trade unions of the USSR maintain contacts with trade union associations in 145 socialist, developing, and capitalist countries.

Role in a developed socialist society. Developing the Leninist doctrine on trade unions, the Twenty-sixth Congress of the CPSU (1981) concluded that in a developed socialist society trade unions must be even more active and purposeful in the performance of their basic functions. Those functions are to develop the production-oriented and social activities of the working people, to refine the forms and methods of the working people’s participation in the management of production, to engage constantly in the improvement of the working and living conditions of industrial and nonindustrial workers and of rural toilers, to promote the steady increase of labor productivity, to strengthen labor discipline, to develop socialist competition, to support innovation and disseminate information on advanced production techniques, and to use moral and material incentives skillfully.

The Seventeenth Congress of Trade Unions (1982) noted that the Soviet people are successfully performing the tasks outlined by the Twenty-sixth Party Congress for the 11th five-year plan. In an address to the Seventeenth Congress, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU L. I. Brezhnev defined the current tasks of the trade unions from the Leninist standpoint.

Using the means at their disposal, Soviet trade unions are aiding the party in achieving the primary goals of communist construction: the creation of the material and technical basis for communism, the improvement of social relations, and the education of a new man.

Supreme administrative bodies. A list of the principal members, as of 1981, of the supreme administrative bodies of the trade unions of the USSR follows.

The chairman of the VTsSPS is S. A. Shalaev, and the deputy chairman is V. I. Prokhorov.

The secretaries of the VTsSPS are A. P. Biriukova, V. F. Bogatikov, I. I. Gladkii, S. V. Kozlov, K. J. Mackeviéius, V. P. Provotorov, A. M. Subbotin, A. P. Ushakov, A. V. Viktorov, and L. A. Zemliannikova.




Lenin, V. I. Oprofsoiuzakh: 1894–1922 (collection). Moscow, 1973.
KPSS o profsoiuzakh. Moscow, 1974.
Profsoiuzy SSSR: Dok-ty i mat-ly, vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1963–74.


Ivanov, E. A. Profsoiuzy v politicheskoi sisteme sotsializma. Moscow, 1974.
Istoriia profsoiuzov SSSR. [Moscow] 1969.
Nauchno-tekhnicheskaia revoliutsiia, rabochii klass i profsoiuzy SSSR. Moscow, 1975.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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