Harry Pollitt

The Issues Before the Trades Union Congress

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. V, No. 3, September 1923.
Published: 162 Buckingham Palace Road, London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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 Fifty-fifth Trades Union Congress opens at Plymouth on September 3. It will be the usual type of congress, with the usual type of delegates in the majority: comfortable, full-time, well-paid trade union officials, who look on congress week as a holiday and a reunion to look forward to from year to year.

Whether the agenda be long or short, whether it contains unimportant or important resolutions, it is all the same to the majority of the delegates: the discussion of resolutions is the only thing that mars the “holiday.”

The Congress at Southport was faced with three important issues, all of which were inadequately discussed and finally shelved. These same issues come up again before the Plymouth Congress, but in a more serious and aggravated form; and they will be shelved again, even though the future of the trade unions represented at congress, for many years to come, depends upon how these issues are faced.

We refer to the problems of

(1) The Ruhr occupation.

(2) Unemployment.

(3) The future of the General Council.

All the other matters on the lengthy agenda are of minor importance compared to these.

At the Southport Congress Mr. Edo Fimmen was sent with a special mandate by the German workers and by the Amsterdam International to ask the Trades Union Congress to lend its support in any international action taken, or needing to be taken, in the event of the occupation of the Ruhr by the French army. In the course of his speech, which received great applause (chiefly because the delegates never thought they would be called upon to take any action), he said:—

“I have to request you, British comrades, to stand at their side (the German workers) and help them in the most distressful time through which they are passing since the war broke out. At this moment the German proletariat is at the limit of its powers against the reactionary powers in that country. They expect international Labour, from the Trade Union international and the political international, to come to their rescue and help them, not only to save their Republic, but also to save their economic life. I think such an appeal will get an answer from British Labour. I read in the ’bus this morning the resolution your Congress adopted in regard to the German situation. I am happy to say that this resolution as it stands will meet what the German workers expect from you; but, friends, I also know that resolutions always sound very nice when they are spoken and when we see them on paper, but they have no value if at the moment it is necessary the people who pass resolutions are not prepared or able to stand up for them and to fight for them;

and afterwards, in letting the German workers know of the enthusiastic support they could depend on from the British trades unions, Mr. Fimmen said, on September 15, immediately after his visit to Southport:—

In the event of the Ruhr being occupied, it would be met by a strike of 25,000,000 workers of the International Federation of Trade Unions.

And when the Ruhr had been occupied, and the I.F.T.U. had done nothing, Mr. Fimmen, Secretary of the International to which the British Trades Union Congress pays 7,418 yearly in affiliation fees, made a speech in Paris on the Ruhr situation, in the course of which he said:—

It must be recognised that we have not been able to do what we said we would do. There is a danger that the present International may prove as helpless in facing this crisis as the old International was in 1914. If we cannot organise resistance in every country, civilisation is doomed.

Well, the French have been in the Ruhr eight months. The result is seen in the misery of countless thousands of German working-class homes, in the appalling increase of unemployment that faces this country, and in the tense political situation, making any faith in a trade revival a palpable absurdity so far as this country is concerned. And all the time the British Trades Union Congress has done nothing to prevent the occupation from taking place, and has even refused to support any movement to bring about the withdrawal of our troops from Germany.

It is obvious that in any crisis which forces the German workers to strike either against the French occupation or against their own capitalists these troops will be used to suppress the German workers. In the debate on this question at the Labour Party Conference, Mr. Thomas, President of the I.F.T.U., stated that it was the wish of the German trade union leaders that our troops should be kept there. Finally he asked the conference to remember that the German trade unionists had another enemy besides the French: “they were the Communists.”

The inference is very clear that the use of British troops would be welcomed if they were used either to suppress the Communists or any movement for which the Communists were responsible.

How will Congress face this problem of the Ruhr? Will it decide to organise mass demonstrations of the workers of this country, calling attention to the Ruhr situation, which is the logical sequel to the Peace Treaty? Will it send delegates to France and Germany bearing fraternal greetings from the British workers and demanding common action between the workers of all the countries that can help in ending the present situation? Will it demand that the I.F.T.U. convene a world conference of all trade unionists to organise defence corps against the growing danger of war and Fascism? These dangers are growing as a result of the Ruhr situation. Will it give a lead and call a one-day general strike of British workers to demonstrate practically to the Government our detestation of the Peace Treaty and our demand that it should be scrapped and that all our troops be withdrawn immediately from German territory?

It is safe to say that Congress will do none of these things. It will confine itself to passing a composite resolution on foreign policy, in which there will be a reference to the Ruhr, and the hope expressed that we won’t force the Germans to pay more than they say they can pay. If half an hour is devoted to this resolution congress will get restive, especially if it is near dinner time, and delegates will want to know “What’s all this to do with England?” and so the problem will be shelved again.

Meanwhile the Ruhr problem grows more serious; the German Workers will be sacrificed either to Fascism or to a Franco-German combination of capitalists. The increased exploitation that will ensue will react upon our own workers, the capitalist offensive against our own conditions will increase in intensity, and our standard of living will be brought down to the German level. Unemployment will increase, the goods now being produced in Germany will be thrown on the markets. This must affect our own production, and yet, despite all this, the Trades Union Congress will shelve the problem, because it is not courageous enough to face up to it and boldly carry out the special demands that fall upon the British Section of the Amsterdam International.

The second grave problem is that of unemployment. Everywhere it is now acknowledged that there are not only no prospects of any trade revival, but on the contrary that unemployment will increase to a tremendous extent during the coming winter. Sir Allan Smith has, on behalf of the big industrialists, expressed this view in two memoranda to the Government. In the last of these the following significant passage occurs in reference to the recent speech of the Minister of Labour. Sir Allan Smith says:—

Undoubtedly, there was such a decline for the first five months of the year, but then the weekly decrease became less and less, and the latest figures available show that a turning point has been reached, and the figures have now started to increase. If the present rate of unemployment is maintained (and there was nothing in the Minister’s speech to encourage the most sanguine to hope that the rate will be checked) this relief will be quite inadequate to prevent even larger numbers than last year from becoming workless again. The gravity of the position cannot be exaggerated.

These extracts show how serious the position is, but what will Congress do? The Congress will probably receive a speaker from the unemployed organisation. It will listen very sympathetically and take up a collection when he has finished. Then the General Council will put up one of the “big men” of the Congress. He will move a long resolution deploring the evils of unemployment, and putting on record the fact that if the Government had only adopted the policy of the Labour Movement all would have been well. The resolution will probably talk about great relief schemes, and also demand that recognition be given to Soviet Russia. After the resolution has been seconded Congress will begin to wonder how much more time is going to be spent on this unemployment, and then the resolution will be passed unanimously and Congress will probably adjourn for dinner or pass on to a resolution demanding old age pensions.

The treatment of unemployment by the General Council of the Congress is a sorry tale. The only time any attempt has been made to co-operate with the unemployed was during the Hunger March, when the question had reached such vast dimensions that the Council thought they would reap some publicity out of it—after all the spade work had been done by the men whom previously the Council had refused to look at. They therefore co-operated with the unemployed organisation and held a special Unemployed Sunday, and after that—nothing further has been done. But with the appalling prospects that lie ahead the unemployed will again begin to agitate, and October and November will again witness mass agitation by the unemployed all over the country. What can Congress do in this situation? Its duty is very simple. It must instruct the General Council to commence a joint campaign with all working-class organisations around the slogan: “Work or Full Maintenance at Highest Trade Union Rates.”

The past policy of letting the unemployed look after themselves should cease. The idea that the unemployed are a class apart from those workers who happen to be at work must be killed. These things and defects in our present methods can be altered by the General Council calling together representatives from all workers’ organisations, forming a joint committee, and then using the whole resources of the movement to bring about a successful conclusion to this campaign for “Work or Full Maintenance for the Unemployed.”

If this is done we shall find that the ranks are rapidly closed and that complete unity will prevail. Enthusiasm would be roused as a result of the unemployed problem at last being tackled in a practical manner, instead of light and airy talk and resolutions of pious sympathy. Let every delegate remember that this is the fourth winter we are facing with this problem of unemployment before us, and that the three past Trades Union Congresses have failed miserably in their treatment of the question. Is the Fourth Congress going to do the same?

At the Cardiff Congress in 1921 the old Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress was liquidated and the General Council of the Congress elected. This step was hailed by the Labour Press and the trade union officials as a big step forward. At last, we were assured, the trade unions had a General Staff that was going to stop the old sectionalism and lead us forward to victory.

After a year’s working the General Council were forced by two causes to apply to the Southport Congress of 1922 for increased powers. In practice they had found they had no power at all, and such a General Staff must be powerless, which of course is exactly the case with the General Council. They have not the power to take a levy, to demand even consultation before a strike takes place, nor can they call one union out on strike in support of another union. This was the first cause that compelled Congress to apply for an increase in its powers. The second was the insistent demand of the rank and file for a General Council that could lead and direct the trade unions in a united manner. The spokesman of the Council admitted that they had been influenced by this rank and file pressure.

Mr. Swales, of the A.E.U., speaking on behalf of the General Council, moved a long resolution, the essence of which was that the Council should have power to make financial levies to help unions whose members are on strike, and also that they should be consulted and kept informed of all developments in regard to strikes or the possibility of strikes. Quite a modest resolution, but when discussion began an amazing spectacle was witnessed. The resolution was fiercely attacked by the very men who never tire of talking about the “need for unity and solidarity.” Mr. Cramp, Mr. Clynes, Mr. Hodges, Mr. Bevin, all did their best to strangle the new baby just as it wanted to try and walk. In an immortal passage, Mr. Hodges, with eyes ablaze, said:—

In the nature of the human mind everyone of those thirty-two persons (the General Council) looks at every dispute as to how it is going to affect his trade, and in that degree he unconsciously steps in, saying, “I will do my best to prevent that stoppage,not because of the principles that are in dispute, but because of his fear of the consequences to his members.

In that passage Mr. Hodges touched the spot. He showed quite plainly and truthfully that the leaders don’t want unity of action, because it might mean they lose a little power in their own union. The proposal of the Council was naturally defeated.

This year the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Unions have placed exactly the same resolution on the agenda. The weakness of their resolution is that it seeks to give the Council power to do everything except the one essential thing that is wanted, namely, the power to be able to call other unions out on strike in support of a particular union whose members are out on strike, and whose action is being weakened by the members of other unions remaining at work. And Congress will discuss this resolution faced with a practical example of where the movement is going wrong and where it could be altered if Council only had the power to take definite action.

The Boilermakers have been locked out of the Federated shipyards for months past. The longer they are out, the more men of other unions, shipwrights, blacksmiths, engineers, labourers, are being stood off. Yet they are not helping the Boilermakers to win because they are not actually fighting with them, and because half of the members of their various unions are still at work.

It is in such a case as this that the Council ought to have the power to call out on strike all the shipyard unions in support of the Boilermakers and stop the industry altogether, then levy all the other unions to support all the men locked out or on strike in this industry.

Congress will, of course, not agree to any such power being given; and even if it did, it is doubtful whether the General Council would use it, composed as it is of men of sectional ideas and craft prejudices. But this is the only line it is possible for any serious-minded delegate to take. The need of the movement is unity. Everyone recognises that. Move among any section of workers, in any industry, during a sectional strike, and again and again you hear the cry, “We all ought to be out together.“

This is the cry that will gather force, and soon it will compel the Council to build the organisation that will make it possible for the workers “to be all out together.”

The other issues before Congress are many and varied, but the three chief issues are those indicated, and on the manner of their treatment depends the future of the trade unions of this country. The Plymouth Congress may be remembered either as a landmark when the Trades Union Congress changed from a holiday week to a live congress, dealing with pressing problems in a bold and militant way, or, if it fails to do this, it will be remembered as the congress that registered another failure and gave new encouragement to the capitalists to renew their attack upon the unions during the coming winter.