J. T. Murphy
Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. VII, November 1925, No. 11
Publisher: 162 Buckingham Palace Rd., London, SW1
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.
“ . . . Congress further considers that strong well-organised shop committees are indispensable weapons in the struggle to force the capitalists to relinquish their grip on industry, and, therefore pledges itself to do all in its power to develop and strengthen, workshop organisation.”
THE passing of this resolution by the Scarborough Congress throws into sharp relief the change that has come over the trade union movement since the days when some of us set up “unofficial workshop committees” in the teeth of general opposition in the trade union movement. To-day, there is practically no opposition to the idea of “workshop committees.” We have not to fight either the railwaymen, the miners or any other body of industrial workers on behalf of the “principle,” as we had to fight in the war period. There are not many trade unions which have not in some way or other attempted to adapt themselves to this principle. Miners have put forward their schemes of pit committees and worked the theme into schemes for the democratic control of their industry. So have railwaymen, builders and the like as well as the engineers. The ground is then well prepared so far as the unions are concerned. But there is just one fly in the ointment—Unemployment.
This word sums up the opposition to-day. The spectre of unemployment haunts the minds of many active trade unionists who would be well pleased to translate their activities into workshop organisation were it not for the fact that they know, if they make themselves prominent in the workshop, they will be cleared out exactly as the majority of those who led the workshop committees in the “unofficial” days were cleared out with the first slump in trade. That unemployment and the fears arising from it are tremendous factors in the armoury of the employers it would be folly to ignore. It is because I do recognise these factors that I welcome the decision of the Trades Union Congress. In my opinion it paves the way as nothing else could to the defeat of the fears and the solution of many other questions now tormenting the movement.
This is not a freshly formed opinion on my part by any means. In THE LABOUR MONTHLY for January, 1922, I wrote:—
The conditions which made possible the rapid development of factory committees are gone. To get such organisations we require a sense of power and a degree of stability in the position of the workers, derived either from strength of organisation or the abolition of unemployment, as in the war period . . .
After supporting the re-affiliation of the Trades Councils to the T.U. Congress I went on to say:—
The Congress nationally, and the Trades Councils locally, should be immediately reinforced with delegates from the unemployed committees and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress ought to have within its ranks a direct representative of the National Administrative Committee of the Unemployed. We cannot allow a movement thriving on bitter poverty to create a cleavage in the working class when a united mass movement is within easy reach the moment we are prepared to demonstrate in deeds that we mean business on this question. Such a move is as sound in principle as in tactics. Massing the organisations is a source of strength. Unity of action is essential in policy. By these means we regain strength to initiate once again an organisational drive into the factories.
Since I wrote these lines, remarkable changes have taken place in the development of the trade union apparatus. The General Council of the T.U.C. is now a more powerful body and has greater prestige than ever before. There is an organised Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement working in close alliance with the General Council. The Trades Councils have been re-awakened and brought within the purview and direction of the General Council. There is a more powerful will toward unity of action and organisation than at any previous time. All these factors together present us, therefore, with an entirely new situation for the approach of the workers to the application of the Congress decision. For the first time in the history of the unions the way is clear for a concentrated drive of the organised workers into the factories. And at no time has there been a more urgent need for such a drive.
Let us see. What are the outstanding needs of the trade union movement? First, to recruit the ten million workers eligible for membership. Where is the main line of approach to these ten million? At their work in factories, mills, mines, &c. Second, to unite the workers in common defence against the attacks now being prepared against them. Where must this unity find expression to be of any avail? In the factories, mills, mines, &c. Third, to eliminate the confused muddle of union organisation and establish organisation by industry for the purpose of exercising control in industry. How can this be brought about other than by mass pressure expressing itself in organised form in the mills, mines and factories which are to be controlled? Any real attempt to tackle a single leading issue before the unions points us at once to the problem of workshop organisation.
This statement of the position in the form of question and answer is not simply a theoretical statement to be proved in experience at a later date. The questions have been put before and the answers are on record. Who were the greatest recruiting agents in the heyday of trade union recruiting during the war years and immediately afterwards, other than the shop stewards? Who overcame the divisions and antagonisms of the unions in the factories more effectively than the shop stewards through their workshop committees? While it is beyond dispute that they were responsible for bringing the whole question of the ways and means of execising control in industry to the forefront of trade union experience.
On all these questions, therefore, there is a vast amount of experience from which we can draw. It is true that unemployment is still with us, but it is beyond question that against unemployment as a factor retarding the efforts to create workshop and factory committees can be set a number of advantages hitherto absent. There is no question of an unofficial shop stewards movement competing with the union apparatus. The circumstances which fully justified such a movement during the war are non-existent to-day. The unions are not tied to the State as they were then, but are free to function as instruments of the workers’ struggle.
They are not only free to struggle, but possess a greater degree of centralisation and co-ordination of activities than at any previous time. The leading features of this process having been mentioned there is no need for me to emphasise them further. It is sufficient to say that the position of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in relation to the Unemployed Workers’ Committees and the Trades Councils places the whole trade union movement in an exceedingly favourable position to carry out the decision of the Scarborough Congress.
I propose, therefore, to outline, on the basis of my own experience in the shop stewards movement, how I think the Congress decision can be effectively applied. The initiative should come from the General Council of the T.U.C. and its sub-committee of Trades Councils. Not that these bodies are the only people concerned, but they are in a position to prevent sporadic and sectional efforts which would simply break themselves against victimisation. Both need, of course, the complete co-operation of the trade union executives, and this ought not to be difficult to obtain if they are at all intent upon defending their own interests.
To illustrate this permit me to recall the manner in which we overcame this phase of the problem in 1916. At that time I was a member of the A.S.E. District Committee in Sheffield. It was through this committee that the first move was made, paving the way to the workshop and factory committees in that district. The A.S.E. constitution at that time provided for shop stewards, but there were very few actually functioning. The District Committee decided on an attempt to alter this state of affairs. An agitation was begun in the branches of the union which rapidly spread to other unions. This was followed by a complete registration of the members as to the place of occupation. This was done through the branches.
Meanwhile a set of instructions to shop stewards were drafted and submitted to the Executive Committee and approved. The instructions were simple and clear. They dealt with—show of pence cards, recruiting members, reporting and dealing with grievances, and included the proposal to co-operate with other trade unions in the workshop to maintain the conditions agreed upon by the unions. It should be clearly understood that there was no question of “joint committees” for the interpretation of trade union rules, but the application of the trade union agreements.
This paved the way at once for other unions to take up the question of shop stewards in a similar way and provide for cooperation in the workshops, and the only possible form in which the co-operation could express itself was in the formation of workshop and factory committees. I think there are but few important unions that have no provision in their rules for shop stewards. or shop delegates. It should be no great task on the part of the executives of the unions to co-operate with the General Council in facilitating this process to-day.
But this is only one phase of the problem. In the case I have cited the initiative was in the hands of the District Committees of the unions and not the Trades Councils. This throws into relief at once a situation which threatens to become more confused unless immediate steps are taken by the local organs of trade unionism.
At the present moment we have not only the local centres of the unions, i.e., the District Committees, unco-ordinated, but the projected scheme of a quadruple alliance must have its local expression as well as its national. And this comes on the scene just at the time when the Trades Councils have assumed much greater prominence, and under the leadership of the General Council are awakening to a sense of their responsibilities to the struggle in industry. The moment is, therefore, opportune, even as the problem is pressing, for a clearing up of the situation.
To get the workshop and factory committees we need much more than propaganda from the Trades Councils to be effective. As they stand at the present, they do not possess the authority to establish anything effectively in the factories. A first essential in this respect is the co-operation of the District Committees of the unions. This I think can be secured if the plan of the General Council to apply the Congress resolution includes within it, besides the co-operation of the union executives, the convening of conferences of the Trades Councils with the District Committees of the unions to consider how best to pursue common action and centralise in the Trades Councils the power expressed in the conferences.
It is time the District Committees of the unions were definitely affiliated to the Trades Councils so that when the councils speak they do so with the full authority of the unions affiliated. With the union representation grouped in the Trades Councils in the same manner as they are grouped in the General Council, the way would be clear for making more effective the joint activities of the General Council and the Trades Councils. At the same time it would prevent the overlapping and possible rivalry of the Quadruple Alliance machinery by bringing it at once into the apparatus of the Trades Councils.
The advantages in these directions could be elaborated further, but here I wish to stress the urgency of the co-operation between the Trades Councils and the District Committees of the unions for the united drive into the factories. I am convinced that it is essential to give every member of the union the consciousness of the united backing of the whole of the union machinery to gain the confidence necessary to carry out the work of the workshop committees. We do not want the situation to arise that the Trades Councils take the initiative and the district organs of the unions deny responsibility and leave their members stranded, or that the same District Committees attempting to carry out the Congress decisions only find themselves deserted by the Trades Councils and the other unions who do nothing. That is the way to demoralise the workers and give the employers the full benefit of the demoralising effect of unemployment. A concerted effort from the beginning is the best guarantee of success and the surest weapon against victimisation.
With such a beginning the next steps are clear—from experience. Under the direction of the Trades Councils and the District Committees the whole machinery of the unions should be set to work to summon meetings of all workers in each workshop and factory in the district. These meetings should elect the shop committee on which each union should be represented. The committee that is elected should be endorsed by the Trades Council, whose endorsement should be supported by every union concerned. It may be argued that each union should meet separately to elect their particular representative. I am confident, however, that if this course is adopted it will only accentuate union divisions instead of liquidating them. A full shop meeting, including even the non-unionists, secures the full confidence of the shop to every member of the committee and facilitates the recruiting of members into the unions as nothing else can. It is not only the way to 100 per cent. confidence, but to 100 per cent. unionism.
This is the method we adopted in the Sheffield district during the war period, and I venture to say there was no district better organised both from the standpoint of the trade unions or the workshop committees; and at that time we were not supported by the Trades Council. It is true that the movement was then confined to the engineering industry. But the experiences in this industry are experiences in an industry where there are probably more unions and more confusion than in any other. To overcome these difficulties, as we did overcome them, gives us confidence in the application of the same methods in less difficult circumstances, especially after the general acceptance of the principle of workshop organisation.
The chief problem is that of a united effort of the unions to carry out the Congress decision that is accepted as a most pressing question of the day, both for recruiting, establishing unity of action and overcoming the sectionalism of the unions. The above proposals based upon our experience of workshop organisation are put forward as a contribution to the solution of the difficulties the trade union movement has got to face.