SA close down ADGB union office, Germany, May 2nd, 1933. Photo: GHDI SA close down ADGB union office, Germany, May 2nd, 1933. Photo: GHDI

Fascists hate unions because they are a vehicle for working class power. The past can inform our fight today, argues Chris Bambery

Whenever fascism has taken power trade unions have been banned. Many trade unionists suffered jail and persecution. That was true in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and in Franco’s Spain.

The reason is simple. Fascism reduces everything in society to complete state control. Everything is under the heel of the state. Trade unions are the basic defence units of working people, defending jobs, wages and working conditions. Fascism cannot tolerate the fact they are independent organisations upholding the interests of working people.

Hitler and Mussolini argued before they came to power that society was not divided into classes, instead the interests of the nation not only came first but united everyone, all would benefit from the rise of Germany and Italy with the construction of new empires, and in Hitler’s case, global domination.

As they gathered mass support, including building paramilitary squads which were unleashed on the left, they criticised those financiers and industrialists who did not operate in the interests of the nation. But that took second fiddle to their attacks on the left and the trade unions. In Germany Hitler targeted Jewish bankers and businessmen claiming Wall Street, the City of London and Soviet Russia were the mainstays of a Jewish global conspiracy.

As they took power both Hitler and Mussolini entered into an accord with the ruling elite, including big business. Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess, told a meeting of bankers and industrialists:

Here, gentlemen, you have the forces of destruction, which are dangerous threats to your counting houses, your factories, all your possessions. On the other hand, the forces of order are forming, with a fanatical will to root out the spirit of turmoil.

In Germany the employers were reeling from the impact of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, a series of bank failures in Germany and the virtual collapse of the economy. They wanted to slash wages and welfare spending, to destroy the unions and to physically conquer captive markets in Central and Eastern Europe. For that they were willing to go along with the Nazis’ anti-semitism even as it grew into genocide. Having outlawed left wing parties the Nazis quickly moved to ban independent trade unions, seizing their assets and persecuting members.

Italian fascists waged war on the unions between 1920 and 1922 when Mussolini took power, burning trade union offices, and beating and torturing trade unionists. In Turin, the key industrial centre, fascist squads celebrated Mussolini coming to power by attacking trade union offices and killing 22 trade unionists.

In Nazi Germany the Nazis took outlawed all trade unions. Big business profited from the reduction in wages and poorer conditions which inevitably followed.

Today’s fascists are careful to avoid the trappings of Hitler and Mussolini’s movements but their aims are the same.  Above all they argue all Britons are part of one nation; all white Britons that is. If these people took power they would empty our hospitals, schools, railways and workplaces of our non-white brothers and sisters, seeking to turn us against each other. They would enter once again into accord with big business, at our expense, and they would turn on our trade unions, not least because of their own anti-racist stance.

All trade unionists have a vital interest in opposing the English Defence League, Football Lads Alliance and other fascist outfits.

But when we are talking about the trade unions and fascism there is also a tradition of resistance we should honour. On 5 March 1943, workers at the giant FIAT Mirafiori car plant in Turin walked out on strike. As it became clear the dictatorship could not repress the strike it spread within Northern Italy, involving one hundred thousand workers. Mussolini was forced to grant pay rises and better rations, but in conceding he struck the death knell for the regime.

In Spain during the 1960s mainly Communist activists built a new union federation, the Workers’ Commissions, which was built from the grass roots up. It launched a number of strikes which as Franco neared his eventual death in November 1975 became more political. The sheer scale of working class unrest convinced the Spanish elite they had to dismantle the dictatorship.

Those are traditions we can build on today in fighting the Nazis.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.