Harry Pollitt

A Challenge

Source: The Communist, September 30, 1922
Published: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
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.

THE demand of the Shipbuilding Employers’ Federation that the wages of the shipyard workers shall be reduced a further 10s. per week, raises once more the problem of how far are the employers to be permitted to go in their steady lowering of wages, before any united action taken to challenge their continual encroachments.

For sheer callousness and brutality the action of the shipyard bosses in launching this further demand at their workers is surely unparalleled in Labour history. First it was a demand for a reduction of 6s. per week immediately after the defeat of the miners last year. When this demand was made, the Press simultaneously launched a campaign to emphasise what reduced labour costs meant to the coal markets and how that factor would stimulate trade. The same arguments were used in reference to shipbuilding and the atmosphere created favourable to accepting the 6s. cut in two instalments.

When this was finally accepted without any resistance being offered, the employers soon worked for the 12½ per cent. to be taken off shipbuilders’ wages. After lengthy negotiations a settlement was agreed on that the 12½ per cent. should come off in three instalments: again no effective resistance was offered and the very week that the last instalment was taken off, saw the shipyard unions in conference with the employers to discuss the demand of the latter that a further 26/6 should be taken off the shipyard workers’ wages. This was the last straw, and on a ballot being taken there was a large majority in favour of refusing to accept this reduction and a lockout of all shipyard workers took place. This was contemporary with the engineers’ lockout on managerial functions and, whilst it was known that all previous reductions had afterwards been forced on the engineering unions, and whatever terms were arranged so far as the 26/6 was concerned would afterwards be forced on the engineering unions, no attempt was made to combine these two forces.

After a short struggle, the union leaders submitted the employers’ modified terms of a 16/6 reduction in three cuts, without prejudice to a further claim of the 10/- reduction to their members. The result of the vote was a majority in favour of continuing the struggle, but the officials declared there was not a two-thirds majority, and the men were ordered to resume work on a reduction of 16/6 in three cuts.

The last of these cuts has taken place, and now the shipyard bosses demand their full pound of flesh—the further 10/-, and a ballot vote is being taken on three questions:—

1. Whether the reduction shall be resisted by a strike.

2. Whether the reduction shall be accepted.

3. Whether the E.C. of the Federation shall be empowered to get the best possible terms.

We strongly urge that the proposed reduction should be rejected, and that the Executive Committee of the Engineering and Shipbuilding Federation be instructed to demand that the General Council should immediately organise a united resistance to this arrogant demand of the shipyard bosses.

We know full well the state of the shipping market, we know the suffering that will be caused by a strike, but unless the shipyard workers are to sink to a lower level of living than they have yet experienced and, in being lowered, bringing other industries with them, the General Council must take the job in hand. This is no time for the niceties of Constitutions and the principles of autonomy; the very life of trade union organisation is at stake.

The fate of the engineering and railway workers is bound up with the shipyard workers. Every reduction that the shipyard workers have had, so have the engineering workers. The railway shopmen have not yet had the 16/6 reduction, but after October 1st, the railway companies are to put in a demand that this 16/6 should be taken off railway shopmen. If they succeed, then it gives another lever to the railway companies whereby to try and force down the bare rates of the traffic men.

If the shipyard workers were to accept this proposed reduction of 10/-, it means the engineering workers will have to accept the same reduction immediately they are out of the 16/6 wood. And with the present structure of the unions and the varying arguments as to rates of pay for railway shopmen, it is clear that attempts will also be made during the winter to impose it on them, again this will react upon the traffic men.

Therefore, the united action we ask for is not for any reason of sentimental solidarity, but as a vital necessity if the other unions are not to be dragged down into the pit along with the shipyard workers. If no effective resistance, is put up, the employers will demand another reduction later in the winter. We are not concerned with the state of the market, and the rest of the arguments used by the employers. The present offensive on the workers exposes capitalism in its worst form, and if it is good and popular for trade union leaders like J. T. Brownlie to say at Southport, “Damn your Political Economy,” it should be good for them to commence organising their forces with a view to putting the platform slogans into operation.

The present situation in the shipbuilding industry gives these leaders their chance. The rank-and-file will support them, the unemployed will support them, and the whole union movement could be rallied together and the present demoralising atmosphere dispelled.

This is organised Labour’s final chance. The General Council can, if it will, retrieve the defeats and set-backs of the past, by organising a united resistance to this latest demand of the shipyard bosses.