John Maclean Justice, 1911

End of Singer’s Strike

Source: John Maclean, “End of Singer’s Strike,” Justice, 15th April 1911, p 5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The end of the strike at Singer’s has come. Readers will perhaps remember that in my former article I pointed out that Clydebank had grown with American rapidity; that Singer’s factory was a typical American concern and that the workers in defence had adopted the projected American form of economic organisation industrial unionism. It remains to state that the firm has now outflanked the Strike Committee by the American capitalist application of the plebiscite or referendum.

On Saturday April 1, the employees lined up in their respective departments as they had done the Saturday before, and headed by pipers, to whose martial strains they kept time, they marched with perfect discipline to the offices to receive their “lying time.” To witness this sight one would have imagined that victory was assured to this imposing mass of humanity.

And certainly the first ruse of the masters signally failed. Up till this Saturday the management had kept quiet, even to commit themselves in any way to the representatives of the press, and absolutely declining an interview with delegates from the Strike Committee except on one occasion, towards the end of the week, when the right of collective bargaining was admitted only to be broken next day in the usual capitalist manner. Capitalist honour, capitalist ethics! However in the Saturday’s morning issue of the “Glasgow Herald” there appeared a cunningly devised letter from one of the officials, who skilfully tried to throw the blame of the strike on the girls in the polishing department and the continuance of the strike on the Strike Committee. At the close, he hinted at the needless starvation of women and children if the struggle were prolonged, and urged the helpless slaves to return to work on the Monday.

The Committee, seeing the purpose of this stratagem, wisely exerted every ounce of energy on the Sunday by rallying speeches, and on the Monday morning by powerful pickets to prevent the desired collapse. In this they signally succeeded.

Defeated, but not dismayed, the management next resorted to what we must consider is one of the most subtly effective ways of cowing workers individually in whom the spirit of class-consciousness has not fully developed. Naturally omitting the members of the Strike Committee, they issued forms to the workers, and in these the stated that if 6,000 signed and returned them as willing to restart work operations would begin as usual. The Provost of Clydebank would be called in to supervise the counting.

Just let us imagine the mental plight of workers too foolish in the past to trust one another and the power of collective action. On the spur of the moment, goaded on not so much as the injustice to a few girls as by the continuous application of the speeding up process they had to a man thrown down their tools. Things were not so bad as long, as some money was coming in. But now, with two and a half weeks reflection, and with the possibility of an indefinite number of payless weeks reflection, with no union funds to help tide over their difficulties, with the possibility of starvation for all dependent on them and with the callous ‘good advice’ of so many Church and other organisations, that secretly, yet so effectively, battle on the side of capitalism, it is not to be wondered, at that each little timid soul when tossing restlessly on a sleepless bed would wonder at its audacity, and would continually weigh in the balance the wisdom or folly of the fight, and by thus cogitating would gradually lose all that moral stamina so essential to victory.

Just at this critical juncture in each soul’s struggle, in comes the appeal that is no other than a veiled threat. It says in effect: “Send back this paper signed to show that you are willing to return. If you do, we assure you that the Strike Committee will not know. If you do not, you had better look out for another place elsewhere, the which you may get — if it pleases us to let you. Choose.”

The timid soul, after consultation with the more timid soul of a distracted wife, wonders how many will yield. It reckons up that at if least 50 per cent. in A department will succumb, that the same will apply to all the departments, that therefore 6,000 forms will be sure to go back, and that another one will in no way change the final result. Back goes the card. The soul deeply conscious of cowardice perhaps, feels that a weight has been lifted off, a tension has been loosened, because a job has been retained.

Such truly, are the workings of the average soul, and it certainly was upon these very workings that the management depended for success. At any rate, the game succeeded. Fully 6,000 were returned despite the efforts of the Committee to get the cards sent direct to its headquarters. As only about 4,000 went thither, the Committee (wisely, I think) unanimously determined to ask all the workers to start on Monday, April 10.

What eventually will transpire time in its progress will duly unfold. Meantime, we must learn the lesson of this dramatic strike.

The referendum as above applied, and applied so successfully, will undoubtedly appeal to capitalist federations. We must, in consequence, expect its application in nearly every strike that will take place in Britain, if necessity demands, until something superior supplants it.

That being so, it is our duty to discover wherein its efficiency lies, as that that more readily may enable us to devise some method of destroying its effectiveness. I think this referendum is clever, because it appeals to the individual in the quiet of his own home, and because it enables the firm to deal with each unit separately. If all workers were class-conscious Socialists this method would signally fail, but as they are not it tends to succeed. And perhaps even untried Socialists would yield for a time or two.

What, then, should be done? Certainly not blame incipient industrial unionism as useless. All Social Democrats are industrial unionists. We differ from others in that we insist that real industrial organisation must arise out of the fusion and federation of already existing trade unions and the extensions of the scope of the forces to rope in workers and industries hitherto unorganised. And, furthermore, we rightly insist that economic organisation is subsidiary to political organisation in that the workers here, having the completest basis of unity, are better able at once to form a party representative of the interests of the workers as a whole, and affording in outlet for the energies of many capitalists and intellectuals who cannot very well come within the scope of a purely economic instrument.

Again, as politicians, we rightly hold that socialisation of wealth-producing property cannot be accomplished by the direct seizure of the factories and the land by the unions or union. This latter method denies (tacitly, of course) the naturalness of the State and politics, the which we as scientists cannot uphold. The State is the natural outgrowth of a growing economic structure of expanding society, and upon it, in rapidly increasing number, devolve duties formerly undertaken in a voluntary manner. It is only consistent with impartial scientific survey to carry forward this growth of the duties of the State until the social revolution has been accomplished. And this course is the only true one for the party that claims to be Marxist and believes in the class war.

We must blame the lack of the feeling of, and confidence in, class solidarity. It is our duty, then, to foster this by further inculcating the principles of unionism, co-operation and Socialism. Essentially, we must get the masses to test their confidence in one another by giving them ample opportunity of voting “class” at every election where candidates are available. The man who votes for a representative of capitalism can hardly be trusted to hold out against the strike referendum. Hence the continual necessity for political action as the best agency for fostering nascent class solidarity, in that no risks are run from the very secrecy of the vote.

However, even unconscious workers may be got to stand the strain of the referendum if organised preparation is made.

It should be the duty of a strike committee to repeatedly warn the workers of all the probable moves of the masters, and to have such a detailed organisation that one worker should be in charge of a group of ten, that ten of these petty officers should be responsible to one of their number, and so on until the supreme ones who should be the committee. Thus every unit could be fully kept in touch with the committee, which in an hour or two could collect all referendum cards sent out.

Every individual thus kept strung to the others would not have those soul-deadening reflections above alluded to, and would thus be better able to battle against the weakening will to surrender.

Knowing how varied are the conditions of industry, and how varied may be the application of the referendum, I have no desire to imply that this detail suggestion is the best and the most practical. It is given as a stimulus to others to work out other lines of defence when the workers trenches are assailed.