Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

More about the 1859 Builders’ Lock-out

(October 1958)

From The Newsletter, 18 October 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Several excellent histories of trade unions have appeared since the war, but Raymond Postgate’s The Builders’ History (1923) retains its position among the best to date. The account there given of the 1859–60 lock-out rings some bells for today’s struggle around the Shell-Mex site.

After describing the attempt to make the workers sign a document renouncing their union membership Postgate writes:

‘The masters were surprised by the reception of this precious piece of paper. They had expected that their yards would be quickly refilled by men who had signed it; instead, they could hardly secure even any general labourers.’

The London building workers sent their representatives into the provinces ‘to stop, as far as possible, the arrival of worked or raw material’ for the builders’ yards, and had considerable success.

‘The greatest sensation, however, was caused by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which astounded the Conference [of building workers’ unions] and the employers by presenting the lock-out funds with £1,000 every week for three weeks.

‘Such a subscription had never been heard of before, and its moral effect in encouraging the men and flabbergasting the employers helped very greatly in defeating the attack.’

When the 1859–60 lock-out ended, ‘the impression which the struggle had made on the mind of every worker was deep. It was only a half-victory [for the builders had hoped to win the nine-hour day as well as beating the ‘document’], but it had shown to the non-unionists how a very powerful, wealthy and obstinate association of employers could be defied’.

Amalgamation without democratization

The articles in these last three months’ issues of Marxism Today, the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, on the current problems of the trade union movement, have concentrated on the need for further amalgamation of unions.

In the early years of the party, about 1921–24, the slogan of greater amalgamation and centralization of the trade unions (to make them potentially better fighting machines) was always coupled with the slogan of democratization and strengthening of rank-and-file control (so as to make sure the unions actually became better fighting machines).

But there is nothing of this second, vital aspect of the matter in the Marxism Today articles, which will remind older readers of the disastrous 1925–26 phase in communist trade union policy that made possible the betrayal of the General Strike.

How far Communist Party treatment of trade union questions has moved even from 1933, when the May number of the rank-and-file paper Busman’s Punch could write:

‘Safe positions and big wages is the great curse. If a housedog is too well-fed he becomes fat and lazy, and is useless for the job of looking after your property. And the same thing applies to our trade union officials ...

‘If you lay down these two rules: (1) Limited time of office, (2) Wages not to exceed those of the men they represent, then you would eliminate the parasitic place-seeking official.’

Or even from 1938, when John Mahon could write, in his little book on trade unionism, regarding the lesson of the General Strike:

‘The weakness of a Left which could only make propaganda and which was not so firmly organized in the factories and localities that it could take the lead in action, was exposed.’

Coshing round the Kremlin

A group of doctors at Moscow’s most famous hospital are quoted in the Daily Worker as stating that ‘ambulances frequently bring to our hospital people who have been wounded by hooligans, and usually the victims are people who have stood up to them to protect defenceless women and girls’.

It is perhaps a sign that the editor of the Daily Worker realizes that times – and readers – are not what they were that he makes no attempt to explain this phenomenon away by references to ‘survivals of capitalism in men’s minds’ or even to ‘the legacy of the war’.

In the middle twenties, when it was fashionable in what were to become Stalinist circles to dismiss the swarms of child gangsters as a mere heritage from the past which would duly wither away. Krupskava, Lenin’s widow, wrote in Pravda of December 2, 1925:

‘Most comrades, even in the party, believe that the abandoned children are the legacy of the Great War and of economic chaos.

‘In reality, 75 percent, of the abandoned children who are swarming this year, in the streets of Moscow are the product, not of past shortcomings and calamities, but of present conditions, due principally to the pitiable condition of the peasant classes and to unemployment.

‘Certainly the matter is connected with the war, but only by the bond that ordinarily links past and present.

‘I also wrote some time ago that the abandonment of children was a consequence of the war and of economic chaos, but now, after closely examining the question, I see that there must be end to such talk, that the origin of the scourge must be rooted not only in the past but in the present.’

And these last words are even truer of Russia today than they were in Krupskaya’s time.

Last updated on 11.10.2011