One would think a state established in the name of the working class would allow workers to self-organize unhindered. But in the Soviet Union, labor unions represented labor only in name.
After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks zealously shut down non-Bolshevik trade unions, especially those aligned with the Mensheviks or Socialist-Revolutionaries. Then they merged them into single unions for each profession and merged them into the structure of the state. The All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions controlled almost the entire labor force of the Soviet Union. There were about 30 trade unions distinguished by profession, and membership was compulsory. Labor unions in the Soviet Union primarily promoted the interests of the Party and the government—management—and focused on imbuing laborers with political zeal rather than improving their working conditions. In Communist China, “workers do not have the right to organize in trade unions of their choice,” writes the AFL-CIO, and all trade unions must report to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
In communist countries, which aspire to be a “worker’s paradise,” workers do not actually have the freedom to join the labor union of their choice, nor do the labor unions in communist countries represent the interests or defend the rights of workers. Instead, as Lenin said, “unions are a school of communism,” which communist governments use to impose both labor terms and politics on workers.
It doesn’t have to be that way. On September 17, 1980, a Polish dockworker named Lech Wałęsa helped found a labor union called Solidarity. Before Solidarity, Polish workers tried to protest the Polish government’s price hikes on food, but Poland’s communist government brutally repressed the protesters in the summer of 1976. With the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the Polish workers could, in effect, negotiate with their employers—the state—for better working conditions and human rights. When the state is the employer, the management, and the law, free labor unions become the champions of workers’ rights and human rights more broadly.
Solidarity had almost ten million members by 1981, and in 1989, Solidarity got the communist government of Poland to hold free elections. On this labor day, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation celebrates the free association of people as an antidote to communism. We remember how Solidarity, a trade union—what Lenin dubbed the “school of communism”—brought communism to its knees in Eastern Europe.