Edmund Frow

The Attack on the Engineers


Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 13, June 1931, No. 6, pp. 358-365 (3,400 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.


“. . . British Engineering is in a very grave position. The sale of its products is declining and with increasing rapidity. Unemployment is high and is: still mounting. For lack of employment, skilled men are leaving the industry.”—REALITIES AND PROBLEMS, published by the Engineering Employers’ Federation.


The Engineering Employers’ Federation open their case for an attack on wages and hours with the above statement. While they openly admit the crisis the industry is in, the Trade Union officials in their “reply,” took great pains to minimise the depth of the crisis, and to show that it is part of the World Economic Crisis.

But the fact of 247,948 or 24.4 per cent. registered unemployed cannot be denied by anyone.

This decline of the industry has not been arrested but, on the contrary, has been accentuated by the changes carried through by the employers in recent years. More and more powerful combines dominate the industry, such as the Associated Electrical Industries Ltd., the British Steel Corporation, &c., which are in a much better condition to carry through rationalisation, by reorganising the shops on “scientific lines” with a speeding up of the workers consequent on such reorganisation, by concentrating and transferring certain work to particular factories in the combine, and by the introduction of new and up-to-date machine By this means thousands of workers are displaced, while those remaining at work are driven much more intensively.

In all the workshops, particularly in the big factories on mass production, there has been this fierce and intensified rationalisation drive. The introduction into the industry of new and specialised machine tools merits special attention. Instances of such machines are Churchill’s Centreless Grinding machine, the Richard’s Twin Borer, Richard’s P.R.’s, Kearns’ “Do-All,” Asquith’s Drilling machines (one type has three tables), and the Ward Combination Lathe.

The development of the scientific machine tool, mass production, standardisation and simplification, use of jigs, gauges, and precision tools has led to great changes for the workers. The Report of the Balfour Committee showed a change of from 60 per cent. of the workers graded as skilled, 20 per cent. semi-skilled, and 20 per cent. unskilled in 1913; to 40 per cent. skilled, 45 per cent. semi-skilled, and 15 per cent. unskilled in 1926.

To-day, five years later, it is safe to say that a majority of the workers are graded as semi-skilled, and are indeed semi-paid.

The day of the old skilled craftsman has gone. Precision machines now do the work accurately, and have a much greater production capacity. Instead of fitters and turners, we have machine minders and assemblers or erectors as far as the mass of the workers are concerned. Speeding up, the conveyor system, constant cutting of piece prices are the order of the day.

Along with these developments, the employers have had a clear and well-defined policy in relation to the workers, which can be summarised as follows:

1. Introduction of a large number of apprentices and women workers into the industry at low rates of pay, over which the employers have maintained full control.

2. Refusal to recognise any definite rate on machine tools.

3. In the light of the experience of the old Shop Stewards’ and Workshop Committee movement, the formation of “Welfare” Works Committees and the development of “welfare work” by the employers for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening their influence over the workers.

4. The closest collaboration with the Trade Union officials and the use of the York Memorandum (provisions for avoiding disputes) as a method of compulsory arbitration.

The Employers’ Offensive

When it became clear to the employers that, despite the ruthless carrying through of this policy based on maintaining and increasing profits, the industry during 1930 was experiencing a sharp decline, their only solution was further attacks on the workers.

This passing over of the employers to a general offensive against the wages and conditions of the workers was made clear in November, 1930, with the publication of the report called Realities and Problems by the Engineering Employers’ Federation. This was followed by the application to the Trade Unions for a joint Conference, which was held on January 30. At this Joint Conference, the Employers’ proposals were put forward for a 48-hour week, attacking the overtime, night-shift, double-day shift and the piecework agreements, and also asking for the question of manning of machines and demarcation to be further discussed.

That the employers were determined on a most drastic and far-reaching attack was made clear, Sir Allan Smith stating before winding up:

If the present depression is prolonged or intensified we shall be compelled to ask you to confer with us on the general wages question. Further, the adjustment of the working conditions may of itself involve adjustments of wages or other methods of remuneration, and these will require to be dealt with in conjunction with the working conditions in question. (Proceedings at a Special Joint Conference held on January 30; page 34.)

Further, in concluding the threat was made:

If, however, you and your members fail to make your contribution the employers will be left with no alternative but to take what steps they consider necessary. (Op. cit.; page 34.)

The Workers’ Fighting Spirit

The policy of the employers of constantly attacking the workers led to numerous disputes in the factories. In an engineering centre like Manchester, disputes occurred during 1930 on such issues as manning of machines, introduction of “Widia” High-speed Steel, time-and-a-third for pieceworkers and on the question of working systematic overtime.

These issues raised by the militant workers and shop stewards were taken through the Trade Union machine, several militants and stewards being victimised. The case of the introduction of the Ward Combination Lathe is typical of what occurred in all these disputes. At the beginning of 1930, this lathe was introduced at Messrs. Ferguson Pailins, and claimed by the employers to be a capstan lathe, although with its independent slide rest it is clearly a turret lathe.

The local agreement in Manchester fixes the rate of Combination Lathe operators at 2 16s. 0d., but at Ferguson Pailins the rate paid was 2 8s. 0d. The claim was made for full district rates, and the matter referred to the machinery of the York Memorandum. The case was taken to Central Conference with the result that “the parties were unable to arrive at a mutual recommendation.”

This is but one issue that glaringly reveals how by the “provisions for avoiding disputes” this machinery of compulsory arbitration functions to stifle action on the part of the workers, and enables the bosses to successfully carry through their attack.

To-day, youths man the Ward lathe at Ferguson Pailins for 32s. per week. The Hartlepool District Committee took the same case through to Central Conference towards the end of 1930, claiming the full district rate. No wonder there was “failure to agree” when 32s. is paid in Manchester.

The attitude of the Trade Union officials was made clear not only by their slavish adherence to the York Memorandum, but also by their attitude at the National Committee meeting of the A.E.U. When the machine question was discussed, an amendment moved by the members of the Minority Movement which instructed the Executive. Council to claim the full district rate for all adult labour employed on machines was carried, by 33 votes to 17. Brownlie and Co. then got busy, and the next day this decision was rescinded by 44 votes to 8.

The lessons of these disputes have not been lost on the workers. More and more the engineers realise the need for action in place of long drawn out negotiations.

The employers’ attacks on the workers have continued while national negotiations have taken place. The attempts to transfer shops from a system of payment by result on to plain time working, to reduce wages while maintaining the same intensive rate of work, also the reduction of the wages of apprentices in the federated shops in the Manchester district are significant in relation to the general attack. On these issues the militancy and fighting spirit of the workers was demonstrated; lack of organisation and leadership was the main weakness.

The disputes taking place in the workshops, and the feeling exhibited at the mass meetings held all over the country, make it clear that the engineering workers, radicalised by the constant struggles in the workshop over wages and working conditions, are in a fighting mood, willing and prepared to struggle.

The Policy of the Trade Union Leaders

In sharp contrast to the growing militancy of the workers stands the treacherous policy on the part of the Trade Union bureaucracy of systematically sidetracking and betraying the workers’ interests. The negotiations between the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the Trade Union leaders first for the 1, and then for the 10s., and finally for an 8s. wage advance, conducted over a number of years, served the employers’ purpose of holding up any action by the workers while they continued to reduce real wages by the rationalisation drive in the shops.

The Trade Union machine is held by people who “settle disputes,” not win them. The York Memorandum and such like machinery aids the employers in their attack, and the Trade Unions have become part of that machinery which aids the employers in attacking the workers.

The rôle of the Trade Union officials has been seen clearly in connection with the employers’ big attack this year when they have worked to prepare the engineering workers to accept the employers’ terms.

Following the Joint Conference held on January 30th, when the employers’ proposals were put forward, and the reply of the Unions made on March 11th, the Union leaders set up a committee to meet the employers to “explore” their proposals. On April 14th, this committee reported back to a meeting of representatives of the Executive of the Unions concerned, and this committee was empowered to negotiate with the employers.

The plea put forward was that they must see “How far the employers are disposed to give and take--- for there would have to be giving as well as taking.” (Daily Herald, April 15.)

But obviously any negotiations on the basis of the employers’ proposals means taking from the workers to give to the employers; this the negotiations soon made clear. It is interesting to note that the large unions’ with their more developed bureaucracy played the most reactionary role in all the joint meetings of the representatives of the Unions. On this occasion, a proposal put forward by the smaller unions to submit the question of whether negotiations be continued or no to a ballot vote of the membership was turned down by these reactionaries.

The result of these negotiations was made known on April 23, when the Trade Union officials reported that the employers had come forward with “modified demands,” while they on their part had submitted proposals “made without prejudice” which are calculated to worsen the conditions of the engineers.

The “modified proposals” made by the Employers were: (1) Hours to advise the abandonment of the claim to increase the working week from 47 to 48 hours; (2) Overtime: time-and-a-quarter for the first three hours, thereafter time-and-a-half. Each day to stand by itself as now; (3) Night-shift: the normal week to be 52 hours and the hourly rate to be one and one-sixth the day rate, overtime at time-and-a-third.

The trade union representatives’ proposals were that overtime should be at time-and-a-third up to 12 o’clock and thereafter at time-and-two-thirds, and the night-shift should remain at 47 hours and be paid for at one and-one-quarter the day rate.

The union negotiators expressed themselves as prepared to consider the demand for prices on payment by result to be fixed to yield 25 per cent. instead of 33⅓ per cent. as at present, while “differences” remained over the question of terms for the two and three shift system.

It must not be taken that the reduction in the piece price rate is a simple question of 25 per cent. from 33⅓ per cent., equal to an 8½ per cent. reduction. This proposal, which, as was afterwards made clear, the negotiating committee had definitely offered to accept, would mean that the employers would have an opportunity of completely revising all piece prices or of introducing a new system of payment by results.

Already we have had indications of the employers in certain factories attempting to revert from systems of payment by result on to day-work, while maintaining the same intensive rate of work and so getting across a wage reduction.

Despite all this manoeuvring on the part of the Employers and Trade Union leaders in their efforts to avoid a struggle and to force the workers to accept worsened conditions, under the mass pressure of the workers on May 7, the Conference of Executive representatives, armed with the authority of their executives passed a resolution stating that the terms contained in the employers’ proposals do not contain a reasonable basis for discussion.

We, therefore, have no alternative but to inform the employers that we cannot authorise any further negotiations on these terms.

The last clause in this resolution was opposed by one of the big Unions, who pressed for negotiations to be continued “in order to obtain other proposals from the Employers.” Here again we see the bureaucracy fighting strenuously to avoid a struggle.

The militancy of the workers has, however, forced the Union officials to head a struggle in order to be better able to behead it, and the important weapon of Government arbitration is ready to be used, as was indicated recently when it was stated:

Should a deadlock occur, the Ministry of Labour will, no doubt, be called in. (Daily Herald, May 8.)

Yes. The yellow Daily Herald is correct. No doubt the Labour Government will intervene in an attempt to lower the wages and working conditions of the workers. While the Labour Government were successful with the arbitration courts in lowering the standards of the Textile workers in the cotton struggle in 1929, and the woollen workers in 193o, these lessons were not lost to the workers in general. During the recent fight against the 8-loom system, the Lancashire Cotton Weavers showed that they had lost much of their illusions in this connection, and using the concrete experience of the workers in arbitration courts and awards, we must at this stage intensify our propaganda against the intervention of the Labour Government, exposing its anti-working class role, and fight against the idea of arbitration.

Also, we have the task of fighting the defeatist propaganda conducted by the Trade Union officials and their attacks on the militant workers, which have proceeded side by side with their efforts to get an “amicable settlement.”

Recently we had Mr. W. Hutchinson making the statement that:

The workers had not got the power to do much, because the working classes were either too apathetic or indifferent or did not realise their responsibility. (Speech at Oldham, May 10, Manchester Guardian, May 11.)

This slanderous statement about the rank-and-file who have shown a splendid fighting spirit was followed by the call for 100 per cent. Trade Unionism which has been just recently the main cry of the Trade Union bureaucracy. This call is calculated to break the unity of the workers, in the engineering factories, to get the unionist to fight the non-unionist—and vice versa, instead of both unitedly fighting the employers and their lackeys, the Trade Union officials.

Many workers, realising the treachery and duplicity of the Trade Union leaders, have mistakenly dropped out of the trade unions in disgust. These workers are prepared to fight, but not under the corrupt Trade Union leadership.

The Metalworkers’ Minority Movement in this situation has the task of rallying the workers for struggle under independent rank-and-file leadership on the basis of concretely applying the decisions of the Fourth and Fifth World Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions.

The strong craft traditions of the engineers has been rudely shaken in recent years and by persistent work in the Trade Unions the Minority Movement has won much support and also positions in the Trade Union apparatus.

But it is clear that now, when the Trade Union officials are definitely playing a strike-breaking rôle and are working to betray and sabotage the workers’ struggle, the Minority Movement, while continuing and intensifying its Trade Union work, must win and establish a firm organisation in the factories.

The lack of factory papers in the engineering industry and also the reports in the press indicate that a strong tendency exists to neglect the drive to the factories and to confine work to the Trade Unions, where many comrades tend to play the part of left critics of the bureaucracy.

It is natural that in the engineering industry, where the militant workers, having developed work in such trade unions as the Amalgamated Engineering Union, with its traditions for democracy, regular Branch meetings, &c., that the weakness described as follows by the R.I.L.U should exist:

Above all Trade Union legalism, belief in constitutional methods, the long standing opposition and resistance to the line of independent leadership have not been broken down. (Open letter to the Charter Convention.)

A strong ideological fight must be conducted against these tendencies and the Communist Party and Minority Movement units mobilised in the engineering centres to utilise all forces and contacts to drive to the factories. For, along with the development of the employers’ big attack, the workers in the factories are feeling the effects day by day of the intensive rationalisation drive and the situation is ripe for the establishment of independent organs of struggle.

Along with this drive to the factories our work in the Trade Unions must be directed to win the workers for struggle behind our independent leadership and against the treacherous Trade Union bureaucracy. Along with resolutions passed in Trade Union branches demanding action against the employers’ attack and putting forward our counter proposals (which will serve the purpose of still further exposing the treachery of the Union officials), must go the positive proposal calling on all members in the branch to work for the setting up of independent organs of struggle, embracing all workers organised and unorganised, which can alone rally and organise the workers for a real fight.

The present situation has features in common with the situation during the war years. At that time the Trade Union leaders did nothing to fight for or protect the engineers, but entered into an agreement with the Government in order to chain the workers to the war machine.

During this period the rank-and-file workers showed a good understanding of what was required. Throughout the industry, the workers threw up a new unofficial rank-and-file organisation which led them in struggle—the Shop Stewards and Workshop Committee movement. This movement embraced all workers irrespective of grade or Trade Union on the basis of their mutual interests against the employers.

When the big slump came after the war, the employers, with the assistance of the Trade Union leaders, were successful in victimising many of the leaders of the Shop Stewards’ movement, partly as a result of the unclarity of the militants as to the next steps to be taken in the changed situation that arose.

We must utilise the experiences and traditions of this movement—one of the finest in the history of the British working class for the setting up in the present situation of Independent Committees of Action, composed of both organised and unorganised workers.

Our activities must be concentrated on initiating such committees which will be able to lead the workers independently against the employers’ attack and forward in struggle for their own fighting demands.

The approach must be made not with generalities, but by drawing together the most immediate and pressing grievances of the workers in the shop into a programme of demands, around which all workers can be rallied to set up united organs of struggle for a common fight.

With an extremely favourable objective situation, a body of workers militant and determined to fight, if the Minority Movement works correctly and energetically it will be able to lead the engineers following in the steps of the Lancashire Cotton workers to smash the employers’ attack and gain a real working-class victory.