The National Minority Movement

One Mineworkers’ Union—Why?


Date: 1926
Publisher: National Minority Movement
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.


Foreword

THE following reasoned statement of the case for transforming the M.F.G.B. into one national union comes at a critical time in the history of the Federation.

Following as it does upon the publication of the Minority Movement proposals for reorganisation, it shows conclusively that the need for such is not conditional merely upon internal requirements, but is demanded imperatively by the imminent termination of the Durham Agreement.

All the big questions affecting the constituent districts during the last fifteen years have been fought directly under the ægis of the M.F.G.B.

Comrade Horner puts the question as to what shall be done at the end of 1927: Shall the M.F.G.B. stand by Durham or must Durham stand, and fall, alone? The answer emphasises the hopeless prospects facing the M.F.G.B., no matter which of these alternatives is adopted.

The basis question is shown to be one much more serious because it is more general and affects not only Durham but Yorkshire, South Wales and all the other districts.

Whether the miners will continue to act as a national unit depends upon the manner in which the M.F.G.B. responds to the clamour of the lodges for a national overhauling of the whole machine.

So far as the district officials have voiced their opposition to reorganisation on a national scale, comrade Horner deals with it in the following pages, but it is worthy of notice here that since the “British Mineworkers’ Union” appeared four months ago not one word of valid criticism has been launched against it.

Indeed. the response to the scheme has been all that could be desired. From the capitalist press there has been violent but unconvincing opposition; from the men there has been whole-hearted and eager support.

The leaders of the organisations, national and local, during the next few months will have to declare themselves either one way or the other, either in support of the coalowners and their press or on behalf of the men for whom the organisation is established, and who constitute its motive force and cohesive power.

It is earnestly to be hoped that the leaders will recognise the historical limits of federated organisation,, and help the onward urge to amalgamated unionism, and thus retain unsullied the record of a huge and loyal body of men who by numerous resolutions and demands have in recent months shown their strong desire to keep their organisation structurally well abreast of the times.

NAT. WATKINS,
Secretary,
National Miners’ Minority Movement.

One Mineworkers’ Union—Why?

THE publication of the pamphlet issued by the Miners’ Minority Movement, entitled “British Mineworkers’ Union,” has been responsible for feverish flutterings in the ranks of the officials of the District Associations. The undisguised fashion in which hatred has been in many cases violently expressed by these people has caused even the average man to wonder. Strangely enough, those who are usually the most restrained in their demeanour when meeting the coalowners have been the most extravagant in their language when condemning what they have been pleased to describe as a disruptive movement.

This should cause no surprise in the minds of persons who can understand the circumstances and the resulting mental make-up of these oftentimes very genial and, from an administrative viewpoint, usually capable persons.

It has never previously been regarded as a crime to agitate in a general and abstract way for national unity.

On the contrary, it has been accepted by all as an evidence of loyalty. Invariably, it is true, there has been the challenge of how real unity was to be obtained. But now that an attempt has been made to put in concrete form a general aspiration there is tremendous opposition shown. The opposition is not, however, straightforward in the sense that the necessity for One Mineworkers’ Union is questioned, but the usual subterfuge is resorted to—that the time is not ripe for such a move. Charges are levelled at the left in an attempt to make them responsible for the deep-rooted disgust that exists amongst the men, due to the lamentable failure of our last effort to throw back the forces of the coalowners and the Government. The critics say, shortly, that we are impeding the return to 100 per cent. organisation of the existing District Associations, and declare that we should first accomplish that objective and then discuss improvements in the M.F.G.B.

Baseless Opposition

There is, however, no basis for such a libel, for, in fact, the opposite is true. The men still outside the union remain so because of dissatisfaction with the conservative prejudice of the officials who refuse to recognise that new conditions demand new methods and new weapons of struggle. It is this vague, almost unformed idea of the necessity for change which makes so many of our men easy prey to any and every adventurer who comes along with a new scab, craft or community union.

The men who join these unions are seldom if ever from the left, they are in almost every case the erstwhile supporters of right wing officials. The actual transference to these small scab unions is the final intimation they give us of the fact that for the future they are giving up all hope of results through struggle; and that they are going henceforth to depend upon the beneficence of capitalism, which they hope to persuade into generosity by acts of treachery to the remainder of the working class. The final step is always taken after a defeat, or even a costly victory, when a belief in the futility of struggle bears heavily upon them.

They frankly seek to save themselves from the full effects of the defeat by and through treachery, and in this they are encouraged by the bribes which it is possible for capitalism to tempt them with whilst their numbers are small.

This course is impossible for the Miners’ Federation however much certain of our people would like to travel that path.

To subsidise a small section is possible, but to buy off the main army is an entirely different problem. If capitalism has to give as bribes similar concessions to those who, given great strength, could win them by force, there remains no purpose in the bribery.

The M.F.G.B. having undertaken the task of organising the mass of the persons employed in and about the mines, has automatically undertaken to procure results by the exercise of economic and political pressure, simply because there is no other way to secure results for the mass of the workers.

Members Want Change

Viewed from this angle, our task in persuading men to rejoin the union is a good deal simplified, for now it is clear that to do this we have to retain faith in the effacacy of struggle.

If and when our machine declares its futility in the face of enemy attacks, through failure to maintain a decent standard of life for its members, the weaker elements will always fly to treachery as the way of evading the worst effects of capitalist production.

The question of gathering power for the exercise of effective struggle through the better and more scientific utilisation of our forces cannot be separated from the actual economic and social conditions under which our people are existing.

The general mental condition of the average miner after the recent struggle is one of despair, determined by a feeling of impotence to resist the injustices under which he labours.

He knows that in the struggle we secured unexampled: loyalty over a period of months, and that in spite of all this we suffered a terrible setback: He is asking questions about the future, requiring some new basis for hope through the accession of new forces, the better direction of the old, or both. Failure to search for new sources of strength is a failure to revive faith in the efficacy of organisation, and this in its turn will drive increasing numbers of men into scab, craft or community unions in an attempt to save themselves by and through the practice of undercutting and blacklegging.

Therefore, instead of the agitation for One Mineworkers’ Union being a contributory factor to non-unionism and scab unionism, it is, on the contrary, the only scientific method for the recruiting of backsliders.

Reactionary Pretexts

There are other pretexts used to justify the opposition such as that the Miners’ Minority Movement is not the body which should undertake the task of telling them what to do and how to do it.

The Miners’ Minority Movement members are 100 percent. members of the M.F.G.B., and have as much right to convey their opinions to the mass of the men as any official section has, and will continue to do so.

This is, however, only an excuse meant to confuse the people by the suggestion contained in the objection that if it had been done by the officials they would have considered it favourably.

This dog-in-the-manger attitude is not worthy of serious notice, for the fact is that they have made no move in the direction of securing even an examination of the machine which failed us so lamentably, and if this is the only cause of objection it is easily remedied by a declaration that the M.F.G.B. will call a conference to discuss the principle of One Mineowners’ Union, and will set up a representative committee to formulate a constitution for acceptance or amendment by the members in the lodges or branches.

The members of the Miners’ Minority Movement are not at this stage particularly concerned about or prejudiced against any other proposed methods of dealing with the innumerable complications which would arise out of such a gigantic merging of forces; they do not even say that the proposals laid down in the “British Mineworkers’ Union” are the only ones capable of adoption; as a matter of fact, in the Foreword it is expressly stated that the Minority scheme is simply a suggestion of one way by which the unifying of forces might take place. If there are other ways, as undoubtedly there are, let these critics put them forward, and if they bear favourable comparison with the Miners’ Minority Movement suggestions there is no trouble for we will accept them, if and when we are satisfied they are calculated to give better results to the mass of the workers in and about the mines. These are, however, mere pretexts to cover up real objections which could not be expressed before the body of men.

Progress Only Through Struggle

The officials of the existing district associations generally are quite naturally opposed to the acceptance of the idea that struggle is the basis of future working and living conditions for the miners. They hanker after the theory that some day, somehow there is going to be a revival in the coal trade which will give new force to negotiations as a method of procuring improvements.

All the facts are against this theory, and all in favour of the theory of never-ceasing economic crises which w111 make it impossible for British capitalism to buy off the anger of the workers with temporary ameliorations in conditions and wages,

Reputations have been built on able negotiations, the art of struggle has been allowed to sink into disuse because of the very success in past negotiations, and naturally these officials after years in the atmosphere of satisfactory compromise are averse to the sacrifice of the theory of collaboration.

In addition to this factor there must be allowance for a strong reluctance on their part to accept a subordinate position after years of domination, a domination that is still such notwithstanding the smallness of their areas. This is not purely selfish, but arises very largely out of recollections of past successes of the several District Associations, and a conservative belief that even now the districts could not do worse than the M.F.G.B. has done. No allowance is made for the increasing intensity and widening area of the struggle, the new forces and factors that have come into play in the last ten years, and the greater concentration of capitalist production itself, which of necessity must determine very largely our resistance. It is not surprising therefore that opposition has been shown from these quarters; on the contrary, it would be surprising if it were not.

Analyse with Open Minds

An appreciation of the basis of resistance ought not to be permitted to influence us in consideration of the problem itself.

In spite of all our partialities or prejudices, whether of right or left tendency, the problem remains to be solved.

Can the mineworkers of this country keep what they have, or secure any appreciable improvements in the condition of things, with the means at their disposal now? If this is possible without change then all our propaganda will be fruitless, and the existing apparatus will serve for as long as this is possible. On the other hand, if this cannot be done then the opposition to advancement will be beaten down.

The workers in the mining industry must live with the help of leaders and old machines if they can, but leaders and organisations must show a prospect of results or they must pass out of the scheme of things, to be replaced by other machines and men capable and willing to apply themselves to the new phases of unavoidable battle.

What are the factors presented to the British mine-workers in the effort to live?

First, all will agree that the prospects of success against the coalowners, unless the whole of the districts of the M.F.G.B. fight together, are almost infinitesimal.

There were approximately 200,000 men who returned to work as blacklegs before the termination of last year’s struggle, and this fact materially affected the chances of victory; in fact, it can almost be said that this did determine our ultimate defeat.

Now, if one single area, such as Durham, South Wales, Yorkshire or Scotland were to refuse to operate with the rest of the M.F.G.B. we should be in exactly the same position as if we had 200,000 blacklegs at work, so that we are forced to recognise that our fate is not in the hands :of a majority of our number, but can be determined by a minority of one district

Historical Weaknesses

The M.F.G.B., as at present constituted, cannot prevent: any single district from taking isolated action despite a majority to the contrary, or enforce participation in common action in the event of a district not being prepared to do so. The District Associations are completely autonomous units, entitled to withdraw from the M.F.G.B. at any time whether before, during or after a fight.

This was clearly demonstrated in Nottinghamshire when the Notts Council meeting at Basford actually did discuss a separate district settlement, and when only by a majority of two votes was the proposal rejected. Had one vote turned at that time we should have had not merely the treachery of Spencer to deal with, but we should have been forced to submit to the right of the Notts Miners’ Association to withdraw from the M.F.G.B. and to take isolated action and return to work.

It may be said that if these people are determined to be treacherous they will be so whatever organisation they might be in. Such a contention, however, would be wrong, for two conditions are essential to a betrayal-the will to betray and the ability. The ability to betray must be taken away from all persons of like tendencies to Spencer. It will be said there are not many Spencers, but then, many are not necessary, one is enough to bring all the efforts of the M.F.G.B. to nought. Those who have not the will to betray need have no objection to this limitation, for it means nothing to them.

Unified Control Imperative

In order to escape these possibilities there must be central control of all, the parts of the organisation, and whilst this may involve the sacrifice of a measure of present district practices on questions of detail, it appears to be inevitable, however regrettable from some local aspects. At the same time, the largest possible degree of district freedom should be granted, always subject to the all-important principle of final decision at the centre, whilst great care must be taken to avoid the setting up of a bureaucracy far removed from the influence of the rank and file.

These matters, however, are questions of detail which sink into insignificance when brought into relation with the terrible and anarchic situation facing us. We were not merely defeated in the field in the last struggle, but we have since been disarmed, and left impotent by the terms of surrender.

The clauses relating to wages and working conditions are not the most pernicious provisions of the agreements entered into in the districts.

The most terrible section of them all is that which has to do with the period of these agreements.

If we had been defeated and had fixed a common date upon which we would come together again that would be regrettable enough, bat to have been defeated with no prospect of simultaneous termination of all the District Agreements is a tragedy which must be seriously considered.

Consider the disparity in the periods and dates of termination. They are as follows:

 

Duration

Date of Termination

Durham

1 year

November 30, 1927

Northumberland

2 years

January 14, 1929

Scotland

3 years

June 30, 1930

Yorkshire

3 years

December 31, 1929

South Wales

3 years

December 31, 1929

Lancaster and Cheshire

3 years

December 31, 1929

Forest of Dean

3 years

December 15, 1929

Cumberland

3 years

November 28, 1929

South Derby

3½ years

June 30, 1930

Warwickshire

4 years

December 31, 1930

South Staffs

4½ years

June 30, 1931

Derbyshire

5 years

December 31, 1931

Nottinghamshire

5 years

November 30, 1931

In addition there are variable conditions relating to the period of notice necessary to terminate each of the agreements, all of which tend to make common action between an appreciable number of districts impossible, even if such a course were advisable.

Durham—A Critical Issue

What have the people who oppose drastic changes in organisation to offer as a method of meeting this situation? If things are permitted to go on in the old sweet way, we shall find ourselves at the end of the year, when the Durham agreement ends, confronted with a struggle for a new agreement there, probably as the result of impossible demands by the coalowners of that county, backed financially by the Mineowners’ National Association.

We will then have to decide as between the terrible alternatives of blacklegging them, even though we might salve our consciences by financial assistance, which we know will be inadequate, or calling out the other districts in a sympathetic strike, which must fail if long continued. If we fail to act with Durham when we are called the M.F.G.B. will die; if we act its fate will be very little changed unless we are successful.

Even if we fight sympathetically with our Durham comrades, is the process to be carried on and repeated at the expiration of each succeeding year? And are we to fightĄ twice in the years when these agreements end at different dates? Such a policy is ridiculous, yet it appears to be the only alternative to mutual blacklegging. To pursue either course is to invite certain disaster. Nevertheless, this is what we are drifting into under the guise of getting 100 per cent. for the existing District Associations, before taking any step towards the adoption of what must necessarily be immediate and extraordinary measures nationally. One hundred per cent. Federation membership is impossible of achievement without the execution of parallel organisational changes calculated to meet this situation.

Shake Off the Shackles

Is there a way out? There is, if and when the Federation leadership can be persuaded to face the problems which face us all.

The Mineowners’ National Association showed us the way to liquidate all past commitments and to break with established practice.

When the M.F.G.B., E.C. went to meet them prior to the lock-out in order to discuss the continuance of the national agreement, they were politely informed that the Mineowners’ Association, as a negotiating body, had ceased to exist. It had virtually committed suicide, but had left a will in favour of the District Coalowners’ Associations, for Mr. Evan Williams made it quite clear that although he was dead he still lived and would be prepared to meet the South Wales representatives in Cardiff to arrange an agreement with them at their earliest convenience.

For tactical reasons in favour of the coalowners as a whole,, the officials of their Association abandoned status and prestige, and if we are to succeed our people must demonstrate similar class loyalty on behalf of the whole movement. We must present the owners with the fact of disbanded District Associations, for only by this means is it possible for us to fight simultaneously over the whole front again. With the liquidation of the District Associations goes the agreements to which those district representatives have been forced under duress to give sanction.

By one voluntary act, which, apart from this particular situation, would still be important, we can discard responsibility for all the commitments entered into during that period of panic, and can once more face the coalowners as a single unit fighting for a new National Agreement.

Help Durham by Helping All

When the Durham Agreement expires we must be in a position, not merely to support our people there in a struggle for a repetition of the terms of the expiring agreement, but to launch our attack for a National Agreement.

That we are not ready, and will not by then be ready, will be argued in opposition to this programme. If we are not ready to fight for a National Agreement we will not be able to conduct a purely sympathetic struggle, and this being so we are with bandaged eyes marching towards our mutual destruction through blacklegging. Either we fight with our Durham comrades or we work and produce coal which will ensure their defeat.

One British Mineworkers’ Union is not the production of any persons frantic imagination, it is an economic necessity to the mineworkers of Britain, and any person who seeks to stifle its birth by the camouflage of 100 per cent. organisation as an alternative is rendering a grave disservice to the miners. These are not alternatives; they are complimentary one to the other, and the persons participating in the agitation for One onion are as zealous in the task of urging men to join the district organisations as any official :section of the Federation.

The two tasks must be pursued in conjunction with each other, for men will not join the union without hope of more successful weapons of struggle, and these cannot be procured except in so far as the large majority of the men are organised already.

When the merge takes place it must be as complete as possible, and as simple in its operation as circumstances will allow.

Non-unionism and scab unionism are irritating complications, which must be suppressed wherever they rear their servile heads.

This agitation for One Mineworkers’ Union is not anti-official; it is, however, against silly prejudice, and anti to any individuals who place personal consideration before the welfare of the movement.

It is, in short, pro-mineworker. And because we believe that the conditions under which we all must live and work are absolutely dependent on our power, it is the Miners’ Minority Movement’s contribution to the general endeavour to procure such strength as will guarantee a standard of life such as we are entitled to expect in the most productive period of history.