State socialist trade unions were ‘trade unions’ only in name. Whatever else it may be, a trade union is normally understood to be a voluntary association of employees who combine to defend their interests in relation to their employers. Under state socialism, trade union membership was more or less compulsory and the role of the trade union was not to defend the interests of its members in relation to the state-employer, but to mobilise its members in support of the policies of the Party-state and to administer a large part of the Party-state’s social and welfare programmes. The trade unions were, therefore, an integral part of the Party-state apparatus (Ruble, 1981; Hearn, 1977).
State-socialist trade unions, as the ‘transmission belt’ between the Party and the masses, were deeply embedded in the structures of the Party-state. The organisational structure of the trade unions mirrored that of the Party-state, the majority of their functions were Party-state functions and their authority derived from the Party-state. The trade unions were formed into a strictly hierarchical structure, with officers appointed by higher committees, and were subject to close Party supervision at all levels. In the Soviet Union, trade union membership was automatic and almost universal. In China, trade union membership was confined to urban employees, but union membership in urban state and collective enterprises was almost universal.
The history of the trade unions in China and the Soviet Union followed a very similar trajectory. The trade unions in both countries retained some independence during the first decade after the revolution, before being purged and brought under strict Party control (Sorenson, 1969; Harper, 1969). Under Stalin and Mao the trade unions were marginalized, to the extent of being suspended in China during the Cultural Revolution, before being incorporated into the state bureaucracy with the maturing and bureaucratisation of the state-socialist system.
The state-socialist bureaucratic system was not monolithic and the trade unions were consulted in the elaboration and implementation of social, labour and wages policy and even lobbied for increased living standards and social and welfare provision. However, the trade unions were the junior partners in the power bloc and their role was not to press the sectional interests of their members, but to subordinate their members’ aspirations to the building of the radiant future. Their primary task was to create the social conditions and motivational structures which would contribute to the most rapid growth of production.
Apart from their limited participation in policy-formation and in lobbying for resources, the trade unions were responsible for the administration of a large part of the social and welfare policy of the Party-state. In China, social and welfare provision was attached directly to the enterprise and the trade union played a major role in administering this provision. In the Soviet Union such enterprise provision came to be supplemented by a system of social insurance, but the administration of the social insurance fund was assigned to the trade unions. The trade unions were also responsible for monitoring the observance of health and safety and labour legislation, to ensure that enterprise directors did not seek to cover their deficiencies in meeting their plan targets by over-exploiting the labour force and creating social tension. In this role, the unions were the eyes and ears of the Party-state in the workplace and were closely monitored by the Party Secretary.
At the level of the enterprise or organisation, the primary task of the trade union was to encourage labour discipline and the growth of productivity through production campaigns and by such means as organising emulation and socialist competition, holding production conferences, encouraging the activity of innovators and rationalisers and awarding honours. The trade union administered the provision of sick pay, which involved visiting the sick and weeding out malingers, and in the Soviet Union had to give its approval to disciplinary sanctions, including transfers and dismissals.
The defensive role of the trade union was largely limited to smoothing over disputes, although when the trade union became involved in a dispute it was essentially, at best, as mediator between the worker and management, not as representative of the worker. However, most conflicts between workers and management were resolved by informal individual negotiation without any intercession of the trade union.
Most of the time and resources of the trade union apparatus were taken up by the administration of the enterprise-based social and welfare system, which played a central role in the reproduction of the ‘labour collective’ (Russia) or ‘Danwei’ (China). This included the allocation of housing, kindergarten places, vouchers for subsidised vacations and places in sanatoria, the organisation of children’s summer vacations, cultural and sporting activities and competitions, festivals and celebrations, counselling for those with personal or family problems and the provision of material assistance to those in need. The trade unions also took on responsibility for allocating scarce consumer goods.
In both China and the Soviet Union the enterprise trade union organisation was unequivocally a branch of enterprise management, and was perceived as such by its members. The trade union did not represent the workers in relation to management, as employees to employers, since all were equally employees of the workers’ state. The trade union president and enterprise director were both considered to be representatives of the ‘labour collective’ (‘Danwei’), with different functional responsibilities, though ultimate authority lay with the enterprise director, who was responsible for achieving the targets prescribed by higher authorities, under the supervision of the Party Committee.
As far as most trade union members were concerned, the main role of the trade union was its provision of social and welfare benefits and material assistance. However, the trade union rarely got any credit for its beneficence. Since the main role of the trade union was to allocate resources in short supply, it bore the brunt of complaints about the inadequacy of both the quantity and quality of provision and was always suspected of privileging managers and its own officials in allocation.