Harry Pollitt

The British Unions at Plymouth

Source: The Labor Herald, Official Organ of the Trade Union Educational League, November 1923
Publisher: 160N. La Salle St., Trade Union Educational League
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). 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 55th British Trades Union Congress opened at Plymouth on September 3rd. It had to reveal a decrease in membership as compared with the Southport Congress, last year, of 759,380; the 702 delegates representing 4,369,268 organized workers. The congress was the poorest that has been held for many years. The left-wing group numbered 13 delegates and, although very small, accomplished much good work on the floor of the Congress and inside the meetings of the various delegations. The machinery of the Congress militates against any length of time being given to debates on the important resolutions, as the agenda is full of routine matters that automatically recur every year and take up most of the time. In spite of all these limiting factors, some progress could be noted.

The General Council

What should have been the chief question before the Congress was a resolution, in the name of the Building Trades Workers, giving the General Council of the Trades Congress increased powers, so that a measure of unity might be achieved in disputes, and also that the Council should have powers to impose a levy on affiliated unions in the event of a serious struggle.

This is the first need of the British Trade Union Movement, the need of a General Staff to co-ordinate and direct the activity of the whole movement. George Hicks, of the Building Trades Workers, and J. Walker, of the Iron and Steel confederation, moved and seconded the resolution.

Opposition to the measure came chiefly from the Miners. The basis of their objection is a jealousy of the autonomy of their Union, and they have opposed such resolutions particularly since the failure of the other unions to help the Miners on Black Friday.

Mr. Clynes, M. P., President of the General Workers’ Union, also opposed the resolution, as did many other leaders who represent the conservative sections of the trade unions. It was, however, encouraging to note that a very substantial vote was recorded in its favor. Although the resolution was defeated, the issue has now come to stay, and with a vigorous campaign during the next year, a majority may be secured at the next Congress on this vital issue. The votes cast on the proposition were: In favor, 1,225,000; against, 2,847,000. This is the first vote on the issue, and shows clearly the tendency rapidly developing toward making the General Council a body with powers for some kind of action, limited as that may be.

Back to the Unions

During the past year a “back to the unions” campaign was conducted. Much money was spent and all available speakers engaged in the campaign to make it a success. It is generally admitted, however, that little was accomplished. Ellen Wilkinson, representing the Distributive Workers’ Union and a prominent Communist, showed very clearly that the failure was due, not to lack of money or energy, but to the absence of a definite program which offered something concrete for which the workers should rejoin the unions, some opportunity to, at least, struggle for better conditions. Others pointed out various difficulties, particularly the conflicting unions, competing for members in the same field of industry, a condition which is baffling to the workers. Sometimes as many as four or five unions compete for members in the same shops, like, as Mr. Bevin described it, “rotten insurance companies.”

In the debate that followed the basic weakness of the British labor movement was exposed. One union leader after another launched into bitter attacks upon the rival unions. It was a display of personalities and disunity not soon to be forgotten. Nor will it be lost on the rank and file, who are disgusted with this sort of thing, and are demanding that it shall cease. The left-wing groups are exposing this destructive sectionalism and jealousy of the “leaders,” and the public display at the Congress will assist greatly to develop a well-organized opposition within the unions based upon a common program to overcome the disease.

The future of the Daily Herald was a problem occupying much time of the Congress. The General Council had recommended that, owing to lack of finances, publication be discontinued on September 30th. Many big unions supported the proposal on the grounds of their depleted treasuries. A large number of delegates wanted to save the Herald, yet were anxious to see the present editorial control changed, and its policies brought into accord with the crying needs of the workers. They did not succeed, however, in bringing the discussion down to questions of policy. The Congress finally decided to assume responsibility for continuing publication of the Herald to the end of the present year, with the provision that a special Congress shall be called in December if the financial situation is again acute.

The question of the 6-hour workday was raised in a resolution from the National Union of Railwaymen. It was moved by C. T. Cramp, secretary of that organization, who, by the way, will be the fraternal delegate to the next A. F. of L. Convention. It was supported by Mr. Swales of the Engineers (metal workers). Opposition was voiced by Textile Union delegates, who argued that the 6-hour day would increase cost of production and result in unemployment. This reactionary argument was received very coldly, and the Congress endorsed the demand for the 6-hour day.

International Questions

Three resolutions on foreign policy were adopted, first on the Italy-Grecian crisis, second on the Ruhr situation, and third on the recognition of Soviet Russia. The Ruhr resolution appealed to the French and Belgian workers to bring pressure against their Governments to reverse their policy. On the recognition of Soviet Russia, Robert Williams in seconding the resolution, reminded the Congress that it could not expect to force the British Government to recognize the Soviets while the British Labor Unions decline to recognize the Russian labor movement—a very effective point that scored heavily in the Congress.

The outstanding feature of the Congress was a speech by Edo Fimmen, Secretary of the Amsterdam International. Fimmen is not a Communist; indeed, in speaking of the division of the working class in Europe, he failed to show that in every case the Communists have striven for the united front, which has been explicitly refused by the reformists. Nevertheless, he told the Congress the plain facts of the European situation, and his simple, inescapable statement of the revolutionary issue facing Europe created a tremendous impression. Fimmen, for his honesty, is likely to be hounded out of his post of Secretary for the Amsterdam International. In his speech he declared: “This may be the last Congress I shall attend in my present capacity.”

“I am sorry I cannot bring you good tidings,” said Fimmen. “I might, in addressing Congress on behalf of the international Labor movement, use some pleasant phrases, convey fraternal greetings from the Continent, extend best wishes for the future development of the British Labor movement, thank you for your kind reception, and then sit down.

“But you do not want me to do that. You prefer to hear the truth in preference to pleasant phrases. Therefore I declare, as the official representative of the I. F. T. U., that everywhere things are very bad.

“The workers of the world were hounded into the late war by all sorts of attractive slogans. They know now that they have been swindled and betrayed. The war has produced only one winner: the capitalists of all countries, and one loser: the proletarians of all countries, including those who thought they were victorious. The workers have been murdering each other for the profit and benefit of the capitalist class of their own and other countries.

“What was won or received by the workers immediately after the war, has now been lost. Working and living conditions are worse than before the war. The 8-hour day is going to blazes. In several countries it is already lost; in others the workers are still fighting for its maintenance with no great hope of success. Hours of labor can only be maintained internationally. Apart from that, reaction is growing stronger everywhere, aiming at the smashing of all independent labor movements. This state of affairs finds a weakened labor movement in all countries. Unemployment is heavy everywhere, the funds of the unions are gone, the membership is constantly decreasing.

“In the Balkan States, Greece, Roumania, Belgium, Yugo-Slavia, the workers are severely persecuted. All real trade unionism is impossible. The prisons are full of workers.

“In Hungary the same condition exists. The trade unions are only allowed to meet by police permission and under police control.

“In Italy immediately after the war there were 2,500,000 trade unionists wishing affiliation to Moscow because Amsterdam was too yellow. The unions have been split, and since the reign of the Fascisti workers have been murdered, trade union buildings burned down, and now things are so bad the leaders of the Italian trade union movement have been trying to come to an understanding with Mussolini to defend their very existence.

“In France after the war there were 2,000,000 trade unionists. The movement split over a quarrel between Left and Right. Both sides now number only 700,000. They are not even forming a united front to fight the capitalists, but are fighting each other, and by doing so allowing Poincaré and his ‘National Bloc’ to continue their criminal policy resulting in the slavery of both the French and German working class.

“In Germany the state of affairs is appalling. There we have 12,000,000 organized workers, representing the strongest trade union force in the world (so far as numbers are concerned). The position is infinitely worse than it was last year when I appealed to the British Trades Union Congress to stand by their German comrades. The German workers are on the border of sheer starvation, and their exploitation by the capitalists is keener than it has ever been before.

“I was in Germany during the recent general strike and met workers from all quarters. I know their spirit and realize their sufferings. One week’s wages for skilled workers, working 48 hours per week, was in many cases only enough to buy the equivalent of 3 pounds of margarine. The position of the German workers is in finitely worse than that of the Russian workers.

“This situation must lead to a new revolution as the workers are being driven into it by the persecution and provocation from the reactionares and monarchists, and by their appalling misery.

“The situation is most dangerous. Only a miracle can prevent Germany from going through another revolution. The people have been starved during four years of war, and starved even more during five years of peace. They are at the limit of endurance. I do not know in what way the Ruhr question will be settled, but it is certain that when it is settled there will no longer be any semblance of unity between the German workers and the capitalists. The capitalists will take out of the workers what is still left to them. Then will come the stabilization of the mark, and Germany will be stricken with unemployment more severe than the unemployment in this country. A starving working class seeing its women and children dying for want of food, will take it, and when the German working class is driven to revolt, the employing class, which is still armed, will turn their weapons against the workers.

“I appealed to the British workers last year to stand by the German workers in their need, and again repeat my appeal in the most emphatic way. Revolution must come. So stand by the German workers.

“Do not ask whether the methods will be democratic or not, as the conditions will not permit a consideration of democracy. The exploiting class has never cared a farthing for democracy, as may be seen in Italy and Hungary. They still possess arms, rifles, machine guns, etc., and they will show the German workers the meaning of national unity by asking for help from France, Britain, Turkey, and Poland, to assist them in crushing the German workers’ movement. The bloodshed will be terrible then, and at that time the international must stand by the German workers, and I hope that the British workers will do their duty.

“One thing more. This may be the last Congress I shall attend in my present capacity. I want to say with all the earnestness of my heart British workers, keep together; Right and Left wings, keep together; as this is the only possibility of fighting capitalism nationally and internationally.

“Take care that the fear of Red dictatorship will not compel you to accept White, Yellow, or Black dictatorship.”

This frank and honest speech by Fimmen was easily the most important event in the Congress. What effect it will have still remains to be seen.. Certainly it will help the left-wing to arouse the unions to the seriousness of the international situation. In sharp contrast were the speeches of the two American fraternal delegates, P. S. Shaunessy and A. J. Chlopek, who droned out the same speeches that A. F. of L. fraternal delegates have made for years and which mean nothing. The Congress will some day give a hearty welcome to the A. F. of L. delegate if a miracle should happen, and he should present a real picture of the American movement.

In practical achievements the British Trades Union Congress was poor indeed. No great forward steps were taken. Meeting at a time of depression and facing a winter that will surely witness increased unemployment and further attacks upon the unions, it did nothing to unify its forces and revamp its policies. The leaders had no policy to meet the situation, and most of them even refused to see the problems. But progress is registered in the strengthening of the left-wing inside the unions, in the sentiment, growing stronger and stronger, for a real effort to tackle the pressing problems of the movement, in the desire for new policies and programs, in the aspiration for international solidarity symptomized in Fimmen’s speech. Soon we may expect a powerful challenge to the old bankrupt leadership from the growing left-wing opposition in the British trade union movement.