Stewart Purkis

Railworkers and the Coming Struggle

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 11, February 1929, No. 2, pp. 551-557 (1,722 words).
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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 General Strike of May, 1926, was the great turning point in the class struggle for us: that event answered the question “Where is Britain Going?” May, 1926, was the point at which the capitalist class decided that the attack on workers’ wages must be persisted in—even at the risk of civil war—if British capitalism was to survive. May, 1926, was the point at which it was proved in conflict than not only the struggle to win wage increases, but the struggle merely to maintain the wage-levels in large-scale industry endangers the very existence of capitalism. May, 1926, proved that every large-scale defence of existing standards becomes a revolutionary issue. This revolutionary view of the class-struggle lay at the root of the discussions of the recent National Conference of Railwaymen called by the National Minority Movement.

In the mining industry, it is now evident that resistance to wage reductions would menace the continuance of capitalist control of the industry. It is, however, not yet so obvious that this position is now being reached in the railway industry. (Even Left-wing industrial journalists indulge in such headlines as “The Railway Companies Can Pay.”) The discussions of the militant railworkers, however, were not based on this facile but futile type of propaganda; they were based on a realisation of the present economic position of the railway companies: a position of great difficulty resulting from (1) the declining receipts of the companies, (2) the falling share-values, and (3) the cost of the imperatively necessary large expenditure of capital which the process of rationalisation renders necessary.

The conference took the view that, if railway companies are to continue the payment of dividends, 2½ per cent. wage cuts and further wage-cuts are inevitable, or it will be impossible for the renewal and improvement of the plant of the railways to be carried through. Wage-cuts were agreed to be the methods by which the companies are raising and, unless opposed, will continue to raise capital for the plant which is to reduce working costs.

It was also agreed that the balance of railway capitalism has now become so sensitive that the employers dare not risk the upset which the workers’ opposition to rationalising methods and to wage-cuts would entail; hence their new device—Mondist Rationalisation—the form of rationalisation which is carried through with the active co-operation of the Trade Union leaders.

Despite all the efforts to secure smooth working, railway rationalisation is proving a tremendous strain on the successful working of the railways: the recent succession of railway disasters cannot be dismissed merely as a series of coincidences; they are not to be viewed reverently as “Acts of God”: they are for the main part the direct consequences upon men and machines of the speeding-up processes. Railway disasters are the consequences of railway rationalisation. Railway rationalisation is also creating unrest among all grades of railway workers.

The three railway strikes that have recently taken place have been unofficial strikes: indeed, anti-official strikes in that they are opposed to the whole industrial peace policy of the leaders. They have been the direct reply of the depots to the policy of rationalisation.

The Conference itself—despite the official opposition and embargoes of union executive’s—was the most successful unofficial railway conference yet held (sixty-two delegates, of whom forty-seven were provincial delegates, is a marked contrast to the twenty delegates who were gathered together at the All-Grades Movement Unofficial Conference in 1924). The success of the Conference is an indication of the movement developing against railway capitalism and its servant the official leadership of the railway unions.

These three phases of growing tension (disasters, strikes and unofficial conference) all point the moral that an opposition is developing in the railway shops, depots and engine-sheds, which cannot fulfil its defensive and offensive purpose without becoming revolutionary.

The two main organisational issues around which the Conference debates ranged were settled on lines which the casual observer might judge to be a triumph of reformism over revolution: but close analysis shows that the decisions were in correspondence with the needs of the developing revolutionary struggle.

The outstanding organisational issues were (1) Shall we repudiate the negotiating machinery of the Sectional Councils by ignoring it; or shall we attack the machine from within and build up against it from without by the creation of new machinery which can serve the workers’ needs? (2) Shall we drop our demand for one union for all railway workers; a united militant policy for all grades; and the formation of a joint National Committee and joint local committees to lead united action by all sections of road-workers, or shall we go forward with one union for all transport workers.

The case against the Sectional Councils of the negotiating machinery was emphatically stated: it was shown that the machinery worked slowly; it was shown that it was viewed with disgust by the railworkers, but it was also agreed that the reformists are still in almost complete control of the machinery. The arguments advanced for the immediate decision to ignore the machinery were not that it was agreed by all to be bad machinery, but that it was known by us to be bad machinery, and agreed on all sides, was working badly. It was only after vigorous debate that the conclusion was reached that, though the machinery is bad for the workers, it is good for the railway companies and is working remarkably well for them.

The best evidence of this is that of Mr. W. Clower, Chief Officer for Labour and Establishment, L.M.S. Railway Company, who speaking of the joint machinery working in his own Group, said on January 4, 1929:—

The staff had certainly developed a new outlook on the problem of railway business.... During 1928 there were 1,450 meetings of local committees; three times as many as in 1927. The real significance was in the fact that the meetings in 1927 were mainly concerned in discussing the alleged grievances of the men, while those held since the development of co-operation had been devoted to the question of making co-operation increasingly successful. The men had pointed out numerous ways in which business could be managed with greater economy and since the adoption of the plan for receiving personal suggestions over 8000 of them had been received and considered. Many of them had proved to be of particular value and had been adopted with the direct result that thousands of pounds were being saved to the Company annually.

On this issue, despite the temptation to be dramatic and to indulge in sensational and futile repudiations, the Conference resolved to bring every pressure on the machine; to expose its real nature by making upon it the genuine working-class demands which it cannot serve and which it is intended to frustrate; thus exposing the local leadership wherever it is corrupt, and also exposing the fallacy of co-operation at the same time.

But the decision was not merely to effect the exposure of negotiating machinery and leave it at that, but to follow the exposure and rejection of this sham workers’ machinery with its replacement by the genuine workers’ machinery—the shop, depot or station committees. This decision commits the railwaymen to the unofficial strikes and struggles which will undermine not only the reformist leaders, but also railway capitalism. On the other issue of one union for all transport workers, the same realism and the same trend of organisation was shown. The Conference turned away from the proposals advocating the type of organisation which appears most “Left” and most logical and faced the realities.

To have concentrated agitation round fusion of all transport workers as a principle would have ignored the vital question of what unity can be secured, by uniting from the top, unless there has first been secured a basic unity. The railway workers made real steps towards basic unity in the nine days of common struggle in May, 1926: that has brought a desire for unity so basic that it justifies the demands for one railway union at the moment.

But the demand for one transport workers’ union has not yet been created in common struggle. So the Conference turned to the practical tasks of devising means to further the end of securing the unity of rail and road-workers in the local councils which can be created in and for local struggle: a unity which the efforts of officialdom cannot bring to nought because it is essential to the road and rail-workers in the joint struggles with which they are faced.

The proposals were accepted in the resolution on organisation and read:—

The Conference, therefore, declares that one industrial union for railwaymen with a united militant policy for all grades, is an immediate necessity, and urges the workers in the three existing unions to bring the necessary pressure to bear on their E.C.’s and annual conferences in order to secure complete amalgamation. The Conference further considers that in view of the position on the railways and of road transport, the formation of a joint National Committee and of local committees to lead united action by all sections of workers involved is an immediate necessity.

So on both the organisational issues, the Conference proved itself to be realist. The Railwaymen’s Conference responded to the lessons of the General Strike. It accepts the fact that the struggle ahead is a revolutionary struggle; it is not prepared to look to the linking-up of reformist trade-union officials to lead that struggle, but is planning to work in the sphere of struggle the shop, the depot and the yard—the places in which it can best take the leadership out of the hands of the Mondist leadership and keep it in the hands of the men on the job.

In these places of local struggle, railway capitalism is increasingly vulnerable: it cannot face a succession of such minor conflicts. But local struggles are arising naturally and inevitably; and railworkers are now consciously seeking to develop and extend these struggles that they may lead to the overthrow of capitalism and the setting up of a revolutionary workers’ government.

The recognition of practical possibilities in these struggles is good revolutionary tactics. For railway capitalism there is danger ahead.