Source: The Communist, January 14, 1922.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
THE present crisis in the Trade Union movement presents an opportunity for Communist activity, which must be taken full advantage of by every active member of the Party. The retreat which set in with the defeat of the Miners’ Federation has now become general all along the line, and is fast degenerating into a rout.
Before the determined onslaughts of the employers, Union after Union is giving way without even an attempt at resistance. Disgusted and disheartened by the action of the Executives in accepting defeat without a struggle, the rank and file are becoming demoralised, and thousands every week are leaving the Union, tearing up their card in despair. The ever-increasing numbers of unemployed is draining the funds of the Union in payment of benefits, and the efforts of the Executives to prevent impending bankruptcy by the imposition of levies on the working members (who at the same time are compelled to accept wage reductions), is driven still more members out of the Unions. With the active elements mostly in the ranks of the unemployed, those at work, having lost faith in their leaders and their Unions, and afraid of victimisation and unemployment, have become timid and interested, only in holding on to their jobs at all costs. In short, the Trade Unions are in process of rapid disintegration, and if the retreat continues, the impending general assault of the employers on the hours of the working week will result in the total destruction of the Unions as fighting organisations and the reduction of the betrayed and demoralised workers to the status of the coolie.
Up against Bankruptcy, the leaders of the Unions are compelled to go to the bankers for overdrafts to help them out, thereby mortgaging the future fighting strength of the Union. The bankers, who are but clerks to the industrial magnates, are refusing to come to the rescue, as the greedy grasping maw of their masters has not yet been satiated. In despair, the Executives of the Unions are turning to the Government, and through the Ministry of Labour are asking the Government to give security to the banks that they may back up overdrafts to the unions. Communists don’t need to be told what that means.
If the demand is continuous and increases, it means the Unions, and with these, the very basis of organisation will be held in pawn by the capitalist government, which will not fail to impose the will of the industrial magnates.
The situation provides the Communist Party with a unique opportunity for gaining the leadership of the Unions. Properly handled, the position can not only be retrieved, but by a well-thought-out and correctly-applied policy, energetically and intelligently inspired by all Party members, it should be possible to rally the workers, re-organise the Unions on a fighting basis, and lead them from passive resistance to attack.
To win the confidence and gain the leadership of the masses, it is essential that our policy and programme should bear relation to the practical, everyday problems that confront the workers. The masses are not roused to action by academic discussions on Communism or by pictures of any (to them far away) Communist Utopia. Questions of hours, wages, workshop conditions, unemployment relief, impending bankruptcy of the Unions, etc., etc.—these are the concrete questions to the workers that lead to action.
Our programme of action must, therefore, be based on such issues, and we should frame demands which will rouse the workers and act as watch-words of the struggle—demands which, while gaining ready acceptance and support of the workers as just and reasonable, are yet, because of the mercenary disposition of the employing class, beyond realisation under Capitalism. The workers receive their education in the fight. Our job is to stir them into action. Once the fight is on the development of the struggle itself will give the workers a revolutionary education. They will speedily realise that Capitalism to-day will not concede even the most modest demands without a struggle, and that any effort to secure a higher standard of life, or even to maintain the present standard, will be met with the most brutal opposition. The struggle is bound, therefore, to take on a more revolutionary direction, and will more and more tend to develop into open class conflict—into a revolutionary struggle for power.
On the basis of the general industrial policy of the Party as outlined in our manifesto, the following programme should provide a basis for immediate action in the present crisis of the Trade Union Movement:—
(1) Stimulate a more active interest in the work of the Trade Unions among the rank and file.
Demand more regular and frequent branch meetings, and raise discussions at every meeting on matters affecting the Trade Unions as suggested.
Endeavour to get payment of dues and benefits relegated to a position of secondary importance to be conducted in a side room so as not to interfere with the atmosphere of discussion and leave the time of the branch free for the important business of the Union.
(2) Form a group of all the rebel elements in the branch for organised activity.
(3) Communists or sympathisers should, wherever possible, assume responsible positions, no matter how minor the post may be, whether shop-steward in the works or General Secretary of the Union.
Great stress should be laid upon the principle of voluntary service wherever practicable in the activity of the Union as a method of economy. The application of this principle will go far to weed out the reactionary elements who mostly function for money.
(1) Demand that the relief of unemployment should be a charge on the profits of industry and not on the funds of the Union. Point out that the continued payment of unemployed benefit is bankrupting the Unions; that the sums paid are too small to maintain the unemployed members, and that the Guardians and Parish Councils take such sums into consideration when fixing amounts of relief. Unions are therefore relieving the local and national authorities of their responsibilities in this direction without benefiting the unemployed.
(2) Demand that all further payments of unemployed benefits shall cease and the funds be conserved for fighting purposes.
Urge at the same time that unemployed members should join the local unemployed Committees, and, jointly with the Unions, take part in the fight for the national demands of the unemployed.
(3) Resist all attempts to impose levies for unemployed benefit and oppose all joint schemes for unemployed relief which involves contributory payment by the workers.
(4) Advocate reductions of hours without loss of earnings to absorb the unemployed.
(5) While insisting on a small retaining fee, demand some form of exemption from dues for unemployed to prevent lapses from Union, and advocate the removal of all barriers to membership of Unions.
(1) To resist any further attempts to reduce wages, get branches and members to demand that their Executive Councils take up the challenge of the Employers. Urgent demands should be made for a special Trades and Labour Congress to be convened to consider and prepare to take common action in resistance to any further attempts at wage cuts. The claims of the employers to run industry should be challenged.
(2) Urge close co-operation with the unemployed organisations on this question, and point out that the granting of the demands of the unemployed will obviate any possibility of black-legging.
(3) The employers are making preparations for a general attempt to lengthen the working week. Here, then, is common ground for united action by unemployed and employed. Communists should demand the immediate cessation of all overtime, and meet the attacks of the employers with a counter-demand of a 40 hour working week for all industries without loss of earnings. Point out that this will receive the support of the unemployed workers, who recognise that a shorter working week will mean employment for them.
Joint meetings of local Unemployed Committees and Trade Union branches should be held to discuss this question, and advance the slogan of a 40 hour week.
If our activity is conducted along the lines laid down, it should be possible in a very short time to win the confidence and increase the support of the masses for the Communist Party. The workers are looking for strong leadership. The bureaucracy in the Unions is becoming more and more discredited and losing its hold over the workers. Communists must everywhere step to the front and take the leadership. Do not be afraid of making mistakes. We will learn as we go along to avoid being mere negative propagandists, and become determined leaders in the struggle. Having learnt by experience that Communists are not mere visionaries, but practical-minded realists capable of dealing effectively with the great problems of the day (while at the same time holding aloft the objective of Revolutionary Communism) the masses will rally to the Communist Party, and behind our banner go forward to the final struggle for emancipation.