(President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation)
Source: The Unity Library, No. 3, 1937
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
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.
“Solidarity for ever,
“For the Union makes us strong.”
This song, which we have often sung in demonstrations, is singularly applicable to-day, for the Trade Union movement is in the throes of a great revival. Tens of thousands of workers are joining the Unions every week. Branch meetings were never better attended.
There is hardly a section of organised workers which has not received some slight increase in wages, and most sections arc beginning to ask for more.
This is, to some extent, due to the trade revival, but not altogether. The years from 1926 to 1929 were years of revival. Unemployment by the middle of 1929 had reached its lowest post-war point, but in the same period, Union membership was falling steadily.
Now, with over 1,600,000 unemployed still on the labour market, there has been a notable revival of Trade Union activity. This is primarily due to the feeling, created by recent developments in industry, that without strong Trade Union organisation, life for the workers is becoming unbearable.
The outstanding development, common to all industries, is that of speeding-up. In the mining industry, increased mechanisation both for the cutting and conveying of coal, has increased the intensity of labour. In order to get the fullest use of the machinery, the working day is being lengthened by systematic overtime. Men are given a stipulated task in excess of what is possible within the stipulated hours and stay on until this task is completed. The effect of this on safety is considerable. The tendency to minor accidents and to major disasters alike is accentuated.
The effect of this speed-up on employment is absolutely unmistakable. The output per man employed, increased from 21.69 cwts. in 1929, to 23.95 cwts. in the March quarter of 1936.
And mechanisation has still some way to go. 47 per cent. of coal is cut by machines and 37 per cent. is conveyed. Much can still be done. So even with a considerable increase in the demand for coal, there is unlikely to be any increase in the demand for men—unless there is a reduction of the hours of labour. The second report of the Commissioner for the Depressed Areas states:
“The figures do suggest that, with more regular working, a greater output can be obtained from the mines, without any addition to the numbers employed.” (Second Report on the Special Areas, p. 30.)
The shipbuilding industry tells the same story. While the cargo ship of 8,000 tons of ten years ago consumed from 26 to 28 tons of coal per day for a speed of 9 knots, the ship of to-day can get that speed with half the consumption of coal. This means that it can carry more goods and do quicker runs, for less time will be spent in bunkering. Loading and unloading are quicker at the docks, so the same size ship can carry much more in the same period than ten years ago.
The case of passenger transport is worth citing. The B style of London bus used to carry 34 passengers with 5 standing, and do 12 miles an hour. The present type of bus carries 60 passengers plus 5 standing and does 30 miles per hour. The men’s extra mileage per duty to-day as compared with 1932, is 5 per cent. Monday to Friday, 6½ per cent. on Saturday, and 10 per cent on Sunday.
Last but not least, there are the new industries, motors and air. At the Austin Motor Works in Birmingham, in 1922, it took 55 men a week to produce a motor car. Now the same job is done in the same time by 7 men.
It is difficult to get a completely reliable figure for increased output for the whole of industry, but Mr. Ely Devons (of Manchester University) in an article in the “Economic journal” in September, 1935, calculated that the output per head in mining and manufacturing industry was in 1933, 20 per cent. higher than in 1924, and there have been significant increases in output since then.
It is needless to emphasise that real wages—wages measured by what they can buy—are now falling sharply owing to the rise in prices.
The result of all this has been to put an increasingly greater strain on the workers. On bus fleets there have been many lightning stoppages against speeding-up. In the engineering industry speed-up is evoking increasingly greater resistance. In the mining industry a whole series of strikes have taken place with regard to wages and conditions in mechanised pits.
The effect of this rationalisation is to keep unemployment at a high level even in the midst of a trade boom.
While the output of British industry is markedly higher than it was in 1929, there is to-day half a million more unemployed than at that period, and a further increase in industrial prosperity is possible without a marked increase in employment.
To quote again the Commissioners for the Special Areas:
“As regards the heavy industries, a factor to be borne in mind in assessing future capacity for employment, in conjunction with the prospect of increasing production, is the greatly increased efficiency of operation, arising from mechanisation and improved organisation, which is likely to lead to a decrease in the number of those employed.”
Is it not clear that, unless we succeed in drastically reducing the hours of labour, the next slump will find us with an unprecedented volume of unemployment?
The workers feel that they will have a golden opportunity in the next two years and they intend to use it. They will resolutely oppose all plans to deprive them of the right to strike, either in the war or other industries. They will oppose long-drawn out negotiations and government enquiries, having for their objective the breaking up of their industrial advance. They mean to have all-round improvements, and that speedily.
If speed-up is a grievance common to all industries the remedy is also a common one-namely the reduction of hours to 40 per week (the 7-hour day for miners) without reduction of wages.
In the past, when we have demanded shorter hours, we have been told that this was impossible because of foreign competition. But to-day the French workers are getting the forty-hour week without reduction of wages, the Belgian workers are getting the 40-hour week in certain heavy industries and a large number of American workers are on the forty-hour week.
At the Plymouth Trade Union Congress the following resolution was passed:
“That this Congress asks the General Council to consult with the Executives of the affiliated organisations as to the best methods whereby the workers can be protected from the effects of the intensified speed-up of industry; consideration to be given to:
1. The extension and development of the campaign for the 40-hour week,
2. Holidays with pay for all workers,
3. The operation of adequate safety measures in all mills, factories and places of employment,
4. The best means of developing Trade Union organisation with recognition and effective representation.”
I believe that our way forward is on the lines indicated by this resolution. The British Government’s attitude to the 40-hour week is that it will not take any part in promoting the 40-hour week by legislation. It is a matter for negotiation with the employers.
But, as a speaker at the Trade Union Congress pertinently observed:
“The Minister of Labour has declared that the 40-hour week is a subject for negotiations between the Trade Unions and the employers. Suppose the Trade Union movement of this country decided that the 40-hour week was to be an accomplished fact, and started negotiations to that end with the employers; suppose the employers refused and all the Unions decided on industrial action at the same time, would the Minister of Labour say ‘Quite legitimate, my friends.’ On the contrary, he would be most likely to declare that simultaneous industrial action was an act of doubtful legality.” (Mr. Martin, Tailors’ and Garment Workers’ Union.)
This is the essence of the question. So long as the Unions are not prepared to take industrial action in order to enforce the 40-hour week the Ministry of Labour contents itself with die formula “It is not a matter for legislation. It is a matter for negotiation, with the employers.” But it is absolutely certain that immediately the Unions agreed to take simultaneous action to enforce this demand, the Government would shout that this was threatening a General Strike and the General Strike is illegal.
It is clear, however, that we have got to contemplate the preparation of industrial action if we are to obtain the 40-hour week in this country.
The first necessity is to convince large sections of the workers of the immediate practicability of the 40-hour week and large sections of the public of the justice of our demands.
We therefore want a powerful energetic national campaign showing the people the increased output of the workers, the effects of speed-up and the necessity of reduced hours in order to absorb the unemployed.
Is it not possible for the General Council of the Trade Union Congress, in discussing with the Union Executives the ways and means of carrying out the above resolution to raise the following questions with them:-
1. How far are the Executives prepared to back the General Council in launching a nation-wide campaign for the 40-hour week. It is obvious that a really effective campaign would be a serious drain on the resources of the General Council and that body is entitled to ask the Executives to grant it a measure of assistance.
2. Whether the Union Executives recognise the necessity of presenting the demand for the 40-hour week to the individual employers at the earliest possible moment.
The 40-hour week will remain a pious aspiration until the Unions present it as a demand that they will endeavour to achieve by industrial action. It will be noted that the London Busmen have already presented a demand to the London Passenger Transport Board for the 7½-hour day. A move is necessary in all industries if the 40-hour week is to become a reality.
Associated with the demand for the 40-hour week is the question of payment for holidays.
In a recent wages agreement, the employers’ organisation in the clothing industry has recommended its members to consider the question of holidays with pay.
The late Commissioner for the Special Areas, Sir Malcolm Stewart, has pointed out that the granting of this privilege might have some slight effect on unemployment. In his first report he said:
“Another direction in which a small increase of employment could be effected would be the making compulsory of a week’s holiday with pay for all workers continuously in employment for one year with the same firm or company. I have never been able to understand why the man who works with his coat off is not as entitled to a holiday as the man who works with it on. Many firms are now giving a week’s holiday with pay to their workers and it is time that an effort was made to give this privilege to all.”
We do not see why this privilege should only be conceded to the man who works for one year in the service of the same employer. The recent legislation in France, and certain Trade Union agreements during the democratic regime in post-war Austria made the employers liable to pay for holidays in proportion to the time the worker was employed by thetas. For example, if the holidays to be paid for were a fortnight annually, an employer who employed a worker for six months would be forced to pay for one week’s holiday.
The Trade Union Congress has insisted on a fortnight’s holiday with pay and surely the tired politicians who get close on three month’s holiday with pay in the year will not object to this. They at any rate are not the victims of speed-up!
The strain of rationalisation and speed-up is greatest upon the older men. Yet the existing mean pensions give older workers no alternative but to keep on working as long as possible. It is one of the blots on our civilisation that with all its great productive capacity, with all its boasted social services, there are over 700,000 people over 65 years old still at work.
Mr. Stewart says:
“I should, therefore, like to see an addition to the contributory pension scheme so that the pension payable at the age of 65 would be increased to such a figure as would make retirement possible without dependence upon other resources. The receipt of this additional pension should, however, be conditional on definite retirement from work.”
Support for the increase in pensions conditional on retirement and for reduction in the hours of labour comes from the well-known industrialist Sir William Firth who says:
“If the Government made retirement at 65 compulsory, work for probably 600,000 to 700,000 men now on the ‘dole’ could be found.
“If the Government reduced the permissible hours in all grades of employment, especially for children under 16, the unemployment figures would be still further decreased.
“Men drawing old age pensions should not be permitted to continue their employment to the detriment of younger men with families to rear.
(Letter in Daily Telegraph, November 19, 1936.)
In the same letter, Sir William Firth says:
“ . . . . I shudder when I think how grave the unemployment problem will be three to five years hence when the armaments nice has subsided and we have avoided war, and am of opinion that now, and not then, is the time to deal with the unemployment problem.”
Here is the perspective which capitalism holds out to the people. Either war or a new economic crisis dwarfing all previous crises in a few years’ time. Trade Unionists must grasp what this means.
In the next two years the demand for new labour power will be at its maximum. Are they going to use this favourable opportunity to force the utmost concessions from the employers, to build up their organisations, and to prepare for the decisive struggle with capitalism or are they going to drift along disunited until war or economic crisis bursts upon them?
All of the demands we have suggested:—
The forty-hour week, holidays with pay, adequate retirement pensions were accepted by the Plymouth T.U.C.
But accepting them as window-dressing devices or as demands to be made on the next Labour Government in the midst of the next slump (as Mr. Bevin suggested) is mere escaping into a world of pleasant dreams. Those demands must be made a stimulus to action now. The first two should be tabled as demands to the employers. The pensions demand must be kept to the front in all our unemployed agitation and struggle. There is no need for new programmes and new demands. The need is to build unity and struggle for the demands which we have already formulated.
The best Trade Union agreement and the best legislation is useless unless there is organised working class power to enforce it. The building of strong Trade Union organisation is, therefore, of vital importance.
The question of building Trade Union organisation is sometimes regarded as being primarily a question of convincing the workers as to the necessity of organisation. The non-unionist is regarded as being backward and ignorant and if we can only raise him out of his ignorance he will become a good Trade Unionist.
Now in organised industries it is generally true that the nonunionist is backward and ignorant, but it is entirely wrong to generalise from this. There are many new industries where non-unionism is maintained by the fear of victimisation. This is true of many sections of the motor industry and of light engineering. How can such sections of industry be tackled?
It is obvious that half-hearted piecemeal campaigns by individual Unions will not do. It is equally absurd to expect a week’s campaign by the local Trades Councils to do more than scratch the surface. Either these great new industries have to be left to non-unionism or the unions have to pool a portion of their resources in money and men and concentrate a powerful attack on those centres of non-unionism. This can only be done on the basis of a concrete study of the problems in those industries.
Next to the terror exercised by the employers, the disunity amongst the unions themselves is a factor making for non-unionism in unorganised industry. Until this can in a measure be remedied the new industries will remain a hotbed of non-unionism.
As I write, the news comes through about the amalgamation agreement in the distributive industry between N.U.D.A.W. and the Shop Assistants’ Union. There can be no question that the effect of this agreement will be a concentration of power enabling the united Union drastically to reduce nonunionism in the distributive industry.
Could we not have a similar drive in the motor industry? If all the unions catering for the workers in this industry pooled a proportion of their resources, would it not be infinitely better than the present miserable nibbling at the problem, not to speak of the wasteful, sectional bickering. And would not such a common effort raise the possibility of making substantial progress towards one union for the metal industry?
So long as there are separate unions, the difficulty of securing common action in relation to unorganised sections of the industry and the difficulty of swift adaptation to new problems is enormous. One union for the industry would be a source of greatly increased strength.
If non-unionism is to be effectively tackled, therefore, there must be (1): The pooling of Trade Union resources and efforts in order to organise the unorganised and (2): The formation of powerful unions by amalgamation on the basis of the widest Trade Union democracy.
One of the most pressing of all problems is that of safeguarding the position of youth in industry. Rationalised capitalist industry is to-day ruining hundreds of thousands of youth, and the unions are doing little about it.
It is ruining them by excessive speed-up. It is ruining them by overtime and overwork so that the factory inspector can talk about the “gross overwork of young persons.” It is ruining them by employing them on simple repetition work between 14 and 19, and then dismissing them, virtually untrained, when they reach an age at which they are claiming adult wages.
Some Trade Unions have firm agreements with the employers as to the wages and conditions of employment for youth, but in great industries like engineering the employers refuse to negotiate on youth conditions at all. This is a remnant of the time when the conditions of youth in this industry were regulated by an apprenticeship system.
If the youth are to be. adequately protected from brutal exploitation the unions must fight for collective agreements regulating youth conditions in all industries.
These agreements should include: The forty-hour week; wage for age agreement; definition of the type of jobs on which youth are to be employed; agreement as to adequate industrial training for youth.
The developing war situation is forcing the capitalist class to pay some attention to the physical fitness of our young people. Critics have pointed out, correctly, that creating physical fitness does not end with the provision of facilities for exercise. Good housing and proper food are necessary, but above all for the young worker healthy factory conditions are imperative.
If the unions are prepared to embark on a crusade for the industrial protection of youth, they will find that the great mass of the people will be behind them.
The frenzied speed-up which is a feature of modern industry makes strong Trade Union organisation at the place of work imperative.
Without violating the letter of existing Trade Union agreements, the employers are constantly seeking to intensify the exploitation of the workers. In passenger transport they seek to speed-up schedules, in mining they endeavour to cut piece and yardage rates, in engineering they seek to cut prices and bonus times and to replace skilled labour with cheaper unskilled or semi-skilled labour. Thus, without violating agreements, conditions can be worsened.
There is but one remedy for this—the development of strong organisation in the place of work. In some industries like mining, the union branch is based on the place of work. In the great majority it is not, but nearly all unions allow their members to elect shop stewards or shop delegates, who can combine in a Shop Stewards’ Committee, thus confronting the management with a united body representing the workers in all the different departments of the factory and in all the different unions.
With such a body the workers can control the fixing of piecework prices, regulate the speed of the conveyor and prevent the introduction of cheap labour. The Shop Stewards’ Committee can be a training ground for future Trade Union leaders. It can be made a means of enlivening the union branches. It can gather the workers together for the struggle for a more vigorous policy within the unions.
In many industries we have a situation where the Shop Stewards’ movement tends to represent the skilled workers and to leave the semi-skilled workers and the women outside the orbit of union organisation. There is a tendency to seek to build a hundred per cent. organisation amongst the skilled and to leave the rest of the workers out in the cold. This is more than a mistake. It is a crime. The skilled workers will best defend their conditions not only by resisting the encroachment of their employers on their existing rights, but by securing the complete organisation of semi-skilled workers, women and youth in the industry.
In all the current controversies in the Trade Union movement the conflict between two policies, the policy of class co-operation and the policy of class struggle expresses itself.
Those who support the policy of class co-operation pin their faith in negotiation. They desire the development of more comprehensive negotiating machinery. They declare that capitalism is developing in a progressive direction and that Trade Unionism can win for itself a progressively more important status in capitalist industry.
Those who support the policy of class struggle see capitalism in the grip of a general crisis expressing itself in recurring economic breakdowns and in the rapidly developing war crisis. In a number of countries the ruling class are challenging all the democratic rights won by the workers in the struggles of the past. Those who believe in the class struggle lay the greatest stress on the need for building up the power of the working class expressed in strong Trade Unions and strong workshop organisation.
In such a situation, when in every economic crisis the gains previously wan by the workers are being challenged, it is necessary to imbue the Trade Unions not only with the necessity of mass struggle to improve conditions, but above all with the necessity of participating in the mass struggle for power. Not only must Trade Unionists be equipped to carry on the daily fight with capitalism but in the process of doing so they must be educated to take part in the struggle for their emancipation.
The Trade Unions can only be won for this policy, if the active workers help to develop a revolutionary party and do all in their power to increase its influence in the unions.
The Communist Party organises the advanced workers in a disciplined, revolutionary organisation in order that they can mobilise all the progressive forces in the Labour and Trade Union movement for the transformation of that movement in its policy, structure and outlook.
There is no need to emphasise to active Trade Unionists the supreme importance of leadership. Their daily experience teaches them that the whole organisation and morale of a workshop depends to a considerable extent on the quality of the shop stewards or the branch officials, to whom the workers look for a lead.
But if the Trade Union movement is to rise to its opportunities the political level of the membership must be raised, the organisation must be strengthened, the control of the movement must be truly democratic. These changes can only be brought about if the advanced workers, organised in a revolutionary party, can organise the great mass of Trade Unionists to bring them about.
The Trade Unions are the basis of the Labour Party. They supply the bulk of the finance. Trade Unionists and their families are the most consistent Labour voters.
One sometimes hears complaints about Trade Union dominance of the Labour Party. There is no such thing. The mass of Trade Union members, the great majority of branches are seldom given an opportunity of discussing Labour Party policy. It is not the dominance of the Unions over the Labour Party, but the dominance of a group of leading Trade Union officials, acting without a mandate from their members, that is the cause of much legitimate discontent to-day.
If the Trade Unions are to play a worthy part in building the political unity of the British working class, several changes are necessary.
At the present moment, large numbers of Trade Unionists do not pay the political levy for the upkeep of the Labour Party. We should remedy this by undertaking a great campaign to induce every worker to pay the political levy, so that we not only fight for the pursuit of a more vigorous policy by the Labour Party, but we at the same time provide it with the means of carrying out this policy.
The corollary of every member paying the political levy is that every member shall have full political rights in the Union and the present Labour Party regulations which prevent Communists from being delegates to the Labour Party Conference must be scrapped. Let the rank and file of the Unions have a free, democratic choice of the delegates who have to represent them at the Labour Party Conference. If the Labour Party wishes to base itself on the Trade Unions as a whole and not on a privileged section of the Unions, it can have no objection to this step being taken. This is the policy that the South Wales Miners Federation will urge within the M.F.G.B.
Not only do we want united action in order to advance the immediate economic programme that has already been agreed to by the Trade Union Congress, but we want political unity in order to meet the menace of Fascism and War and to secure the early defeat of the National Government. The Trade Unions, as the strongest affiliated sections of the Labour Party, must struggle within that body in support of the policy of the Unity Campaign, which advocates that the Labour Party open its doors to every section of the British working class movement on the basis of an immediate programme of struggle.
These necessary changes will not come about automatically. They can only come about by the united efforts of the most militant workers. Thus, in helping to build the Communist Party, we are building the instrument which will clear away the obstacles to working class unity and will enable a united Labour movement to pass, from the struggle for immediate demands, to the struggle for Power—for Power to transform Society and realise Socialism.