E. Belfort Bax

Liberty and Labour

(10 September 1904)

Liberty and Labour, Justice, 10th September 1904, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The attacks on trade unionism in this country have found their counterpart in other lands, as well on the Continent of Europe as in America. As an instance we have the great strike in the glass industry at Charleroi, which has brought prominently to the front certain issues concerning the legal status of Labour organisations, not alone in Belgium, but generally, which issues really form the ultimate crux in well-nigh all modern industrial disputes.

The employer refuses at all costs to recognise the existence of the workmen’s trade union as such. He insists upon regarding his “hands” as a congeries of isolated individuals and objects to treat with them on any other footing. The union is powerless; it cannot compel him to recognise its existence. In the Belgian case, the employers insisted upon retaining blacklegs in their works and defied the union. As an answer to this, the unionists, who were in a majority, determined to punish the employers by, after due notice, reducing the output per day on “ca’canny” lines until the employers came to heel. Now, without approving of “ca’canny” in any way whatever as a principle of general application between employed and employer, it is clear that this was a special case. There was no deceit or trickery here. The union openly adopted the policy of enjoining on its members the limiting of their exertions during the working day by a definite amount for a certain period. This was agreed upon and carried into effect with the express purpose of punishing the masters of the glass works for their high-handed conduct in keeping on, and even favouring, blacklegs, at the expense of union men, and for the further purpose of inducing the said masters to reform their ways. The latter brought the case before the High Court at Brussels. Now, in the Belgian penal code, a clause of Article 310 lays it down that the contract as between master and servant implies that the latter shall exert himself to the reasonable uttermost of his ability during his working hours. This the glass-workers admittedly had not done. Hence judgment was given against them.

The Peuple, of Brussels, has now started an agitation for the repeal of the whole of Article 370. The capitalist press, of course, finds this proposal outrageous. Article 370, with its various clauses, of which that quoted is one, is designed to protect not only workmen desiring the glorious liberty of labour, and the just rights of the employer, but also to guard the national industries against the wicked machinations of trade unions, which would destroy them.

This controversy is, from one point of view, only another instance of the difficulties of dealing with industrial problems with a view to the workman’s interests on the basis of the present system. Legislation on these subjects under a capitalist regime not merely recognises the existence of the capitalist, but gives him rights which must necessarily truncate those of the men.

The aim of legislation under a Socialist administration, on the other hand, would be to progressively curtail the rights of the employer until he was reduced to the position referred to by Kautsky in The Morrow of the Revolution, in which he (the capitalist) continues indeed to direct his factory, but owing to the onerous conditions laid upon him by the legislature for its conduct, he has all the risks and all the expenses with at best a doubtful minimum of profit. Under these circumstances, Kautsky points out, the employer will be only too ready to surrender his concern to the community for what he can get for it. The economic development of itself tends in this direction, but the pace can undoubtedly be facilitated and accelerated to an indefinite extent by legislation.

Events seem to show that trade unions generally are drifting into a position which will make it imperative for them to demand a legal status and corporate personality, with the crucial provision that the decisions of each union shall be legally binding upon all the men of its particular trade, whether union members or not. This would cut at the root of blacklegism and the liberty of the individual workman to turn traitor to his colleagues. The Taff Vale decision, in depriving the unions of their old immunity from being sued, has left them with all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of a legal corporate personality. Incidentally, of course, their securing full corporate status in this sense, with, of course, corresponding responsibilities, but also with rights which make their power over all workmen engaged in their particular trade supreme, would have the effect of making the membership of each union conterminous with the total number of workmen in the trade, since none would care to be subject to the union’s decisions without having a voice in them, or without obtaining any of the other advantages accruing to membership.

The employer henceforth would no longer be able to treat with the individual workman, but would be compelled to deal with the union in its corporate capacity through its accredited representatives. The individual workman, on his side, would cease to have direct relations with his employer, but would be compelled to negotiate with him through his union. If trade unionism is to continue to be a real force in the fight against capital, it seems inevitable that its legal position should be changed in the direction indicated. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how it has any future before it.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004