Stewart Purkiss 1929

RAILWORKERS AND REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLE


Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 10, October 1929, pp. 592-602 (3,571 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

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The fifteen months between August, 1928, and November, 1929, are registering the development of the conditions of revolutionary struggle in the railway industry.

In August, 1928, the railway owners demanded of the rail-workers “wage-sacrifices to save the railway industry,” which was declared to be “in an alarming condition.”

The rail union leaders then urged the workers to accept the wage-cut; the proposal was carried through. The leaders affected to regard the cut as a temporary sacrifice to meet a temporary crisis. When the agreement was accepted the mass of railwaymen awaited with confidence the return to their normal wage-scales at the end of the twelve months: “the year of the 2½ per cent."

Their confidence was stimulated last July by the half-yearly. statements of the four railway groups, which showed increases in profits: the L.M.S. and Great Western Companies raised their interim dividends above those of June, 1928; the L.M.S. from 1¼ per cent. to 2 per cent.; the Great Western from 1½ per cent. to 2¾ per cent. This position seemed to them to fulfil the conditions suggested by the Press in August, 1928, that when “better times had come for the railways no one would grudge the railwaymen the restoration to their full scale.”

Many railworkers are astonished to-day that despite the increased rates of dividend, our demand for the termination of the agreement is being opposed by the owners. The spirit in which our demand is being received is that of the writer of the “City Notes” in The Times for June 16, 1929:-

Railway stockholders felt that the railwaymen’s recent notice to terminate the voluntary cut of 2½ per cent. in wages made last August is in the nature of a telling blow to a staggering subject ... if a voluntary cut of that amount (2½ per cent.) was necessary a year ago, it cannot, in view of the experience of the railways this year, be regarded as less necessary to-day.

An examination of the more significant facts of the railway industry reveals that the economic position of the companies is not better but worse than in 1928. The national and local leaders who declared in August, 1928, that the cut was necessary; who applauded the statements of J. H. Thomas that the settlement was a “lesson to the world ... the best ever made,” have now to admit that it was unnecessary then or again to agree with the railway owners that it is necessary now. They cannot change their policy on the ground that the situation is better to-day because the situation is worse. Next month will doubtless dispel their doubts and they will be standing where they stood in August, 1928 - supporting the rail bosses’ demands for wage cuts!

The Revolutionary Policy

Our contention then was and now is: “Oppose the wage-cutting agreement.”

The case for the cut was, and is, the danger of immediate temporary difficulty, but the fact that the companies are able to pay annually in profits over £40,000,000 and, even more important, that they still have over £70,000,000 in reserves, makes ridiculous the talk of temporary crisis.

The insincerity of the union leaders in using such a plea was completely revealed by the fact that when the results of the economies effected in rail-working were employed in July by the companies not to strengthen railway reserves but to swell shareholders’ dividends, Thomas, Bromley, Cramp and Walkden uttered no word of protest. They did not even appeal to the shareholders to “sacrifice” their dividends to save “our” industry.

There was no “temporary crisis”; the “cut” was a stage in the persistent campaign against the wages of all workers in this period of declining capitalism. This was demonstrated by the present writer in an article in the LABOUR MONTHLY for November, 1928, “Temporary Crisis or Steady Decline of the Railways,” argued the case that “the facts of the railway position are not those of temporary difficulty but the cumulative facts of steady decline.”

The policy to which the facts pointed was not that of a “temporary sacrifice” but that laid down by the National Minority Movement in its Manifesto of August 5, 1928:-

There is not a single economic feature operating to-day that will not be intensified in twelve months’ time, and we refuse to accept any reduction in any of our existing standards.... The first essential test of any industry is its capacity to give a full and decent livelihood to those it employs.

If this is not possible under capitalist control then capitalist control must go, and our resistance to the companies’ demands is the first big step towards smashing that control.

The facts of the position to-day are not that an easy arrangement can be made between railway owners and railway workers. To take back the wage-cut; to terminate the agreement and to move against the stagnation and other consequences of railway rationalisation would mean an immediate inroad either on reserves or on profits: such an inroad would end the slight prospect of securing the new capital adequate for railway rationalisation: it would be fatal to the hopes of the railway capitalists.

To go further and struggle for the National Minority Movement railwaymen’s programme would be a struggle that could only be won by ending capitalist control. The ever-increasing body of railworkers which supports that programme is quickly realising that the alternatives are complete surrender or revolutionary struggle.

Meanwhile the significant facts of railway economy are those of steady decline.

The Basic Difficulty

It may be argued that the position of railway shares on the market offers a basis for optimism about railways; the last month or two are said to have “marked a revival.” It would be a mistake wholly to judge the position from such evidence, but for what the evidence is worth it is of interest that despite the use of the new powers for railways under the Road Powers Act, despite the 2½ per cent, wage-cut, despite extensive economies, despite the aid to raising new capital by cancellation of the passenger duty, despite the increases in interim dividends, despite the indirect benefits of “de-rating,” despite the rumoured “intentions” of the Government, despite the persistent Press propaganda for the purchase of railway stocks, their position on the market is worse rather than better than a year ago.

The many artificial aids brought in to stimulate the railway industry have not been able to affect the basic evil. Because the future of British railways depends upon the basic British industries, British railways continue to decline. The following figures, given in the Minority Movement’s “Another Year of Rationalisation” from the Board of Trade Journal, record the basic difficulty affecting British railways:-

INDEX OF PRODUCTION, 1924. - 100.

Group Year Year
1927 1928
Mines and Quarries 94.3 89.2
Iron and Steel Manufactures 110.0 102.3
Non-ferrous Metals 116.9 119.3
Engineering and Shipbuilding 115.2 113.3
Textiles 101.6 99.9

 

These figures, in conjunction with the fact that to compare with 1913 production they must be reduced by roughly 10 per cent. show that, far from British heavy industry being able to improve its position in relation to the other world capitalisms, it still has to attain to its pre-war production. The future of British railways rests with that of heavy industry.

Of the state of trade in relation to railways Sir J. Stamp said at the L.M.S. Annual Meeting in March, 1929: “The course of trade in 1928 was, in fact, even worse than appeared probable a year ago, and particularly from March to August the freight traffic receipts were extremely bad, Since August there has been, not an increase, but a progressive decline in the rate of decrease.

Because the main job of the railworker in an industrial country is to transport goods traffic it is clear that “only really active conditions of trade can restore prosperity to the railways”; the external conditions deny the possibility of prosperity to British railways.

Railway Figures

A striking indication of the unhealthy condition of British railways is revealed by many demands from the writers of the financial columns in the Press that a new type of information shall be given regarding home railways.

These writers complain that only “gross traffics” are published, and in consequence “unfortunate holders are frightened out of their holdings owing to the ‘half-truths’ contained in the published information.”

They now desire this change because the figures which for many years have given the key to railway profits now fail to carry out that function, and it is imperative that the new factor, the increasing economies effected at the workers’ expense, be brought into the picture. That economies become of such importance to investors marks the decadent economic position created by the decline of capitalism. Railwaymen will be interested to note that in addition to the economies of the 2½ per cent. cut and the many forms of “stagnation” which they are now experiencing an enormous reduction in staff is also being effected, as the following table shows:-

Railworkers Employed 1921 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929
736,000 702,000 689,000 683,000 677,000 642,000

This part of the truth of the trend of things under Mondist Rationalisation is of even more interest to the railworker than the “unfortunate holders.”

A comparison of the railway receipts for January-August, 1928, with those of 1929 gives a slightly more re-assuring picture for those who wish to be deluded:-

Passengers Goods
January to August January to August
1929 1928 1929 1928
G.W. 8,812,000 9,054,000 12,143,000 11,539,000
L.M.S. 19,826,000 26,678,000 29,119,000 23,790,000
L.N.E. 13,525,000 14,003,000 22,595,000 21,437,000
Southern 11,637,000 11,889,000 3,817,000 3,743,000
Total 53,800,000 55,624,000 67,674,000 65,509,000

The decrease in passenger receipts is disappointing after the “cheap fare” campaign combined with expensive work of avoiding road-competition by acquiring controlling interests in the companies. The best to be said is “cheap fares have resulted in a smaller decline than if the old arrangements had been continued.” The increase in the goods traffic is vastly more important than the decrease in the passenger, but its significance is largely minimised by the fact that it is mainly caused by coal traffic consequent upon the abnormally severe winter and the necessity to replenish stocks “particularly,” said Sir R. Wedgwood, “in the export trade”; “de-rating” also helps to make the comparison unreal.

The figures to which we must go for the final test are the figures of tonnage; the two subjoined tables inescapably demonstrate the steady decline of the railways:-

Year 1928 on 1927 Jan. Feb. March 1928 on 1927
1927 1928 1928 1929
Variations Variations
(in 1,000 tons) (in 1,000 tons)
Goods
General Merchandise 60,254 57,226 5 p.c. 15,123 14,345 -5.1 p.c.
Coke, Coal Fuel 195,772 187,334 -4.3 p.c 49,808 53,910 +8.24 p.c
Other Minerals 65,828 61,569 -6.5 p.c 15,168 14,341 -5.4 p.c
321,854 306,129 80,099 83,596

 

General Merchandise Coal, Coke, Fuel Other Minerals
Tons Tons Tons
1913 67,755,470 225,601,127 71,067,357
1921 50,529,878 128,298,861 39,066,544
1922 52,844,466 200,102,316 48,678,846
1923 58,979,989 222,234,412 62,002,237
1924 60,947,377 209,160,559 65,392,967
1925 59,739,284 193,661,991 62,549,965
1926 53,439,125 114,098,398 48,059,504
1927 60,567,490 199,306,792 65,586,367

These figures are the key to the developing crisis; railwaymen and railway owners are learning the mining lesson that wage cuts cannot create markets; the railworker faces the developing struggle.

The Task of the Labour Leadership

In this situation the owning class turns frantically to every method of saving itself. Rationalisation is its panacea; and the Labour Government its “saviour” which is to apply the rationalisation remedy.

Here and there among the workers faith in the leaders and their ability lingers on; some hope that partly by vulgar “bonhomie,” partly by State bribes in aid of railway development, Thomas will do the trick of winning concessions for the railworkers; some look to Walkden and Cramp, despite the Cotton Arbitration Award.

But the realisation steadily grows that all new capital development whether for labour-saving, for road development, or even for an ambitious large-scale electrification scheme could not be capitalised unless the burden of the new capital can be paid for out of the workers: and the understanding spreads that the task of the Labour Government is to reorganise capitalist industry for capitalism and that the trade union leaders are to act as the agents of Mondism in carrying through the task. The mantle of Havelock Wilson has fallen upon new shoulders together with a double portion of his spirit.

Cramp’s warning to rail workers not to look to the Labour Government to do what they would not have expected done by a Tory Government was hardly necessary: as Palme Dutt wrote in the Communist Review for September, “the Labour Government is able to build not so much upon the workers’ enthusiasm as upon their uncertainty of the alternative.”

That is as true of the trade union leadership as of the Labour Government. The scandalous award by Cramp and Walkden in the cotton dispute has disillusioned vast numbers of rail-workers as to the real character of their leadership. They realise that such leaders “cannot be made to fight.”

The trade union figures are indicating the swing to the Left out of the unions. Politically-backward workers are finding their way back into the Railway Clerks’ Association after the exodus in May, 1926 (4,000 increase last year), but the N.U.R - despite vigorous official recruiting efforts - reports a decrease of over 3,000. Carriage cleaners and platelayers are especially contemp¬tuous towards the organisation.

The figures of the whole trade union movement show a con¬tempt for the unions which makes impossible the organisational task of changing the leadership; but the struggle yields results which makes the battle well worth the effort.

But for this fight which is ahead - a fight with the new political significance which now marks all industrial struggles - new methods must be employed. The situation demands not only militant industrial action but a new type of industrial organisation under the leadership of a revolutionary political party

It is also essential that a new type of industrial organisation shall win the confidence of the workers. An important lesson of the strikes at Austin’s, at Braintree and at Leatherhead is that in crisis even the workers who have left the unions, disillusioned with their leadership, will, in the struggle, hand over the leader¬ship of their struggles to the old corrupt bodies if the new leadership is not forthcoming.

As the Labour Government builds not upon the enthusiasm of the workers but upon their failure to secure an alternative to support, so too with the trade union leadership.

As soon as possible in every shop, on every depot and siding it is the task of every rail and transport worker to strive to create rank and file shop, siding and depot committees that the workers will not turn to the corrupt trade union leadership, but meet the crisis with a leadership which will lead the struggle for the rail workers’ demands and develop the power to carry out the struggle for a revolutionary workers’ government.

Labour’s “Path to Power”

Many of the railworkers who admit that their leaders have now clearly abandoned the idea of leading industrial struggle; who go even further and agree that those leaders accept it as their role to carry through the reorganisation of the railways under capitalist control despite the wage-cuts that process will entail, bring forward their one remaining defence of the Labour and trade union leadership - they plead that the leaders are helping the capitalist to reorganise the industry, but that, when that process is completed, by means of Labour State action the results will be appropriated for the workers. They believe that, while the rationalisation process goes on, the workers’ representatives are steadily achieving control of capitalist industry. Three simple but significant points thoroughly expose the falsity of this delusion.

 

The first point, is the answer of Mr. Walkden, General Secretary of the Railway Clerks’ Association, member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, before the Royal Commission on Transport, held last January; his answer clearly shows the opinion of the rail union leaders and the General Council as to whether trade union leaders “controlling industry” would act as “workers’ representatives.” Walkden had argued that the railway unions should nominate three representatives on to a Board which should control Transport, and when asked, “Would they be there as representatives of the trade unions?” replied: “No. They would be nominated by the trade unions, but after appointment they would be detached from the union. They would be responsible Railway Commissioners with a knowledge of practical railway operations and the life of the railway workers.” To a further question as to the line to be taken by these trade union leaders when appointed as Commissioners, i.e., “Would they give up their tickets as trade unionists?” Walkden replied: “Certainly. Under the scheme I have suggested to you, a man could not remain a trade unionist and be a Railway Commissioner at one and the same time. He would certainly have to make his choice, just as Mr. Frank Hodges has no longer anything to do with trade union work: he is now an Electricity Commissioner.”

Labour’s “Path to Power”

Many of the railworkers who admit that their leaders have now clearly abandoned the idea of leading industrial struggle; who go even further and agree that those leaders accept it as their role to carry through the reorganisation of the railways under capitalist control despite the wage-cuts that process will entail, bring forward their one remaining defence of the Labour and trade union leadership - they plead that the leaders are helping the capitalist to reorganise the industry, but that, when that process is completed, by means of Labour State action the results will be appropriated for the workers. They believe that, while the rationalisation process goes on, the workers’ representatives are steadily achieving control of capitalist industry. Three simple but significant points thoroughly expose the falsity of this delusion.

 

The first point, is the answer of Mr. Walkden, General Secretary of the Railway Clerks’ Association, member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, before the Royal Commission on Transport, held last January; his answer clearly shows the opinion of the rail union leaders and the General Council as to whether trade union leaders “controlling industry” would act as “workers’ representatives.” Walkden had argued that the railway unions should nominate three representatives on to a Board which should control Transport, and when asked, “Would they be there as representatives of the trade unions?” replied: “No. They would be nominated by the trade unions, but after appointment they would be detached from the union. They would be responsible Railway Commissioners with a knowledge of practical railway operations and the life of the railway workers.” To a further question as to the line to be taken by these trade union leaders when appointed as Commissioners, i.e., “Would they give up their tickets as trade unionists?” Walkden replied: “Certainly. Under the scheme I have suggested to you, a man could not remain a trade unionist and be a Railway Commissioner at one and the same time. He would certainly have to make his choice, just as Mr. Frank Hodges has no longer anything to do with trade union work: he is now an Electricity Commissioner.”

Labour’s “Path to Power”

Many of the railworkers who admit that their leaders have now clearly abandoned the idea of leading industrial struggle; who go even further and agree that those leaders accept it as their role to carry through the reorganisation of the railways under capitalist control despite the wage-cuts that process will entail, bring forward their one remaining defence of the Labour and trade union leadership - they plead that the leaders are helping the capitalist to reorganise the industry, but that, when that process is completed, by means of Labour State action the results will be appropriated for the workers. They believe that, while the rationalisation process goes on, the workers’ representatives are steadily achieving control of capitalist industry. Three simple but significant points thoroughly expose the falsity of this delusion.

The first point, is the answer of Mr. Walkden, General Secretary of the Railway Clerks’ Association, member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, before the Royal Commission on Transport, held last January; his answer clearly shows the opinion of the rail union leaders and the General Council as to whether trade union leaders “controlling industry” would act as “workers’ representatives.” Walkden had argued that the railway unions should nominate three representatives on to a Board which should control Transport, and when asked, “Would they be there as representatives of the trade unions?” replied: “No. They would be nominated by the trade unions, but after appointment they wouldbe detached from the union. They would be responsible Railway Commissioners with a knowledge of practical railway operations and the life of the railway workers.” To a further question as to the line to be taken by these trade union leaders when appointed as Commissioners, i.e., “Would they give up their tickets as trade unionists?” Walkden replied: “Certainly. Under the scheme I have suggested to you, a man could not remain a trade unionist and be a Railway Commissioner at one and the same time. He would certainly have to make his choice, just as Mr. Frank Hodges has no longer anything to do with trade union work: he is now an Electricity Commissioner.”

Here is shown clearly the conception that the “workers’ representative would “sit” not as a representative of the working class to enforce workers’ control but to act as an expert adviser on the raw material of the railway industry – railwaymen’s labour power.

The second point is the part of the joint work of the Labour Government and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress displayed in the cotton dispute. In a situation in which the textile workers were united and steadfast in struggle the combination of Labour Government and General Council did their utmost to induce the workers to accept arbitration from an “impartial” tribunal. In such a struggle, against an attack on wages - and such wages! – no class-conscious worker could have argued for “impartiality.” A workers’ objective would be to use the workers’ readiness for struggle to effect a conquest of the industry. The workers’ leaders, however, worked instead for impartial arbitration. Whenever these “impartial” arbitrators appeared the body had a character openly and predominantly “pro-capitalist;” the man Swift, who acted as Chairman, is notoriously hostile to the working class. The result of this “impartiality” arranged by the Labour and trade union leaders to stop the workers’ resolute struggle was openly and insolently announced in a Times leading article as “a Swift decision.” Here we see the role of the Labour Government and trade union leaders: not as striving for “workers’ control,” but serving the cotton capitalists and the bankers.

The third point is the most striking of all. Taking up its task of Capitalist Reconstruction the Labour Government has appointed a Committee to “consider the advisability of obtaining a report upon the problem of the electrification of the main line railway systems of Great Britain.” This Committee is greeted by the Press as an inquiry which affords “prospects of far-reaching developments.”

Remembering the importance to the mine workers and the mine owners during their struggles of the approach to the conflicts determined by the reports of the many Committees and Com¬missions, all concerned with the developing railway crisis turn anxiously to see what approach to the coming crisis will be created by the new Electrification of Railways Committee, by examining its personnel. We find that for this tremendously important task the Labour Government has appointed:-

Lord Weir of Eastwood, one of the ablest of the capitalist class; Sir Ralph Wedgwood, of the L.N.E. Railway; Sir William McLintock, competent servant of the Bureaucratic State; Colonel Trench, of the Ministry of Transport, will act as Secretary.

The Labour Government no longer attempts to hoodwink the workers by putting even a sham representative of the workers’ interests on to this important body.

The Committee is important because when it is reported that the electrification of the railways is essential the question of new railway capital will come right to the fore. Then it will be made clear that new capital cannot be forthcoming until railway shareholders obtain the standard dividends permitted under the Railways Act of 1921. To obtain that extra £10,000,000 profit will become the objective of the coming struggles and in that struggle the Labour Government, the General Council, and the Railway leaders will play the role they played in the cotton dispute, the role not of winning “workers’ control” of the industry, not even of helping the struggle to better rail workers’ conditions, but of accepting the experts’ conclusions, of aiding the capitalist reorganisation of the industry by achieving the cuts in wages so essential to capitalism now fighting against its own decline.

These three points not only lay bare the futility of the plea that by Parliamentary and administrative means “workers’ control of the railway industry” will be won; but they also indicate that rail workers must not only face the industrial struggle, they have also to face the realities of political struggle: the struggle not only against the capitalist employers, but the struggle also against the capitalist State - whether it be served by Baldwin or by MacDonald.

Rail workers have not only the special task of creating a militant industrial leadership and organisation, but also they must play their part in building up a revolutionary political organisation preparing for the essential political struggle - the insurrectionary struggle for the conquest by the working class of State power.