T. H. Wintringham
Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 4, No. 5, May 1923.
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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April, 1922, saw the first big development in the close-knit series of events that have led directly to the present industrial situation. Month only differs from month, in the industrial history of the two years that have passed since the miners’ lockout, by the extent and importance of the wage reductions forced upon the workers, and of the increases in working hours. But April, 1923, is an exception; within the last few weeks the rank-and-file workers in half-a-dozen industries or more have made it clear that they are eager to resist any further deterioration of their conditions, if given the opportunity. During the past month, in at least three industries, an actual struggle has been in progress. The farm workers in Norfolk and the jute workers of Dundee were locked out for four and five weeks respectively. The eastern counties building workers, whose struggle received little or no attention in the Press, whether Labour or capitalist, maintained an unwavering stand against the lockout of their employers, and seem, even after the builders’ truce has made it impossible for them to remain out longer, to have forced their employers to offer considerably better terms than were at first proposed. These struggles, three months ago, would have seemed merely single incidents in a series; to-day their importance is not due to any objective change in the situation, hut to the fact that in the trade union world as a whole there is a new spirit at work.
The builders voted by a very large majority against acceptance of the employers’ terms, and their officials’ action in accepting the settlement is in direct contradiction to every expression of opinion that has come fro the men. The insistence of the railwaymen has driven Mr. J. H. Thomas almost to tears; he states that his position has been made impossible because he has not been allowed to negotiate. The spontaneous nod scarcely organised action of the seamen in various ports has held up ships from sailing; another wage-cut, and the seamen will not be kept quiet much longer. The pottery workers seem to have reached an agreement (the union officials state that they gave way owing to lack of funds with which to fight), and the position in the cotton industry is obscure; but here also there is a stir of revolt. And among the miners there have been successful local strikes against non-unionism, the aims of which are admittedly to strengthen the Federation in preparation for the new struggle that cannot be very far off. Over forty per cent, of the miners’ delegates voted at the Easter conference in favour of an immediate denunciation of the present agreement.
THE attempt to secure lower wages and longer hours, which these workers are either resisting or preparing to resist, is not simply a normal product of “three years of trade depression.” It is not an accidental result of some temporary fluctuation in trade. It springs from deeper causes than these, and carries a much greater weight behind it. There is scarcely an employer in Great Britain who is not fully convinced that a reduction in wages and an increase in productivity is necessary in order to restore industry to health. But there can scarcely be many employers who really believe that such changes are really sufficient to secure an immediate revival. A stone slips in the crumbling ruins of Europe, exchanges begin to rattle down once more, and here in Britain the drive against wages and hours has to be begun all over again before an “economic level” is in sight. Nevertheless, the attack cannot be checked for a moment, if only to keep industry going even at its present level. There is less talk now of a trade revival in the immediate future than there has been since the beginning of the slump. But the pressure on the workers cannot be relaxed, because capitalism, even when it abandons immediate hopes of reconstruction, needs ever greater sacrifices from the workers in order to produce at all.
Capital’s need for cheaper production is so obvious to everyone concerned in industry that in this country, where more than in any other the workers are under the influence of capitalist agencies of opinion, there has been, during the past two years, a very general feeling in the trade unions that the wage-cuts demanded were inevitable. This feeling did not touch the question of longer hours, and here there have been far fever concessions made, and less ground lost. Increases in hours have been bought off at the expense of wages on several occasions. But the surrender of wage-gains—payment of Dane-geld—put the employers in a stronger position for the attack on hours that has developed later. The only big movement of resistance, since the miners’ fight—that of the engineers—was based mainly on the right to some small measure of control of industry, a right gained during the war, and swept away by the employers in their search for efficiency in production. To-day the process has almost reached its limit. Something has got to break under the strain. The thing that seems to be tracking, if not yet broken, is the psychological dominance of capitalist needs over the minds of the rank-and-file workers. Their spirit of resistance is vague and unformed as yet. It has no definite aims. There is simply the feeling that something has got to be done, that things cannot go on as they have been doing. There is not even a definite conception yet of the attack on wages as a single process that can only be turned back by some form of united action. But with the growth in the spirit of resistance there is growing up also a hazy feeling that it is time for a reconsideration of the methods and tactics of trade unionism. There has been a sudden growth in interest in the idea of “One Big Union,” and considerable pressure towards the amalgamation of the craft unions in various trades. Trades Councils in various parts of the country have been reorganised on industrial lines, and there are proposals for national conferences of the Trade Councils to organise the united action of all Labour. A campaign is on foot for a conference of all working-class organisations country to work out a national minimum of agreed demands and methods by which these demands can be secured. All these are signs of the new spirit at work in the rank and file.
But if the grip of capitalism on the minds of the rank and file seems to be breaking, under the pressure of continually worse conditions, the more obvious bonds that hold their leaders show no signs of slackening. Trade union officials are quite frankly reluctant to fight. They recognise the spirit of the members of their unions, but they are “willing to run the risk of repudiation by the men” (as a leading article in the Daily Herald pointed out, with approval, in regard to the officials of the Building Trades Federation). The phrase of pained disapproval with which Mr. J. H. Thomas greeted the cheers for a strike by a meeting of railwaymen—“no strike gets enthusiastic support from me”— has been quoted in almost every paper in the country, and ought to become a classic. In every case where a dispute is only developing the union officials are “holding hack the men,” and in many cases where disputes are or have been in progress the men’s leaders have offered or accepted terms that their followers have definitely rejected. How far their action is dictated by their own political opinions and hopes is not easy to determine, but they certainly lack the will to win necessary in order to prevent the disastrous intervention of the leaders of the political Labour Party, whose view of industrial disputes is dictated by their fondness for middle—class votes.
It was the intervention of one of these lenders that led the building workers to an agreement that is not very far from being a complete disaster. The position of the operatives was strong; the employers were divided, and those in the sooth might not have faced a lockout. The number who had actually posted lockout notices on April 7 was small as compared wide the member ship of the Employers’ Federation. The men were defending a principle—the forty-four hour week—that they had fought for in the past and were willing to fight for again. But now this principle is submitted to the hazard of regional negotiation or “impartial arbitration,” while a further reduction of wages below the level of the cost of living agreement seems almost certain. The workers are—wisely—given no chance to reject this agreement; their choice in the regional ballots is between local negotiations, in which they will not have the support of their Federation behind them, negotiation through the National Wages and Conditions Council, or arbitration by a representative of the ruling classes. This is Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s solution.
In another and not less important dispute the same thing has occurred. Mr. MacDonald has used his good offices to end the farm workers’ struggle in Norfolk. Here the solidarity of the men and their splendid temper had given real chances of success. Their leaders were carried with them into counter-attack; they put forward, to the amazement and disgust of the farmers, a demand for something that comes near to being a living wage—thirty shillings for a fifty-hour week. But the flush of fighting energy in the Union officials, did not last long. Through the mediation of Mr. Harry Gosling an offer of a futile “three months’ truce” was put forward. That failed; Mr. MacDonald succeeded. The terms which he induced the men to accept include a fifty-hour week, but the provision with regard to overtime make it certain that whenever the weather conditions are possible a fifty-four hour week will be worked. For the “overtime” hours up to fifty-four are to be paid for at the same rate as the ordinary working hours, and in practice will not be considered overtime at all. The men have gained two things: the guarantee of a minimum of twenty-five shillings, whatever the number of hours worked, and the shilling difference between the present terms per week and the employers’ last offer. To gain these they have had to give up the extraordinarily strong position in which a month of solid resistance had placed them. Mr. MacDonald’s intervention was not aimed at helping these workers in their fight for a living wage. He had other aims, and seems to have achieved them.
These interventions by the political leaders of Labour are not mistakes in tactics that can be passed over, or steps taken under the pressure of extraordinary necessity. The Labour Party is steadily developing a whole philosophy of mediation between employers and employed. “Mediation,” writes Mr. Arthur Henderson, “in the period of industrial unrest that appears to have started, will evidently be an important part of the work of the Parliamentary representatives of the working classes.” The Labour Party, in fact, only considers itself representative of the working classes when no particular issue is involved; when there is a struggle on, and middle-class opinion is touchy or definitely hostile to the workers, the Labour Party remembers its phrases about representing the interests of the whole community, and “mediates” between the workers and their opponents. The technique of class collaboration is evolving. A year ago Mr. Henderson secured the surrender of the A.E.U. with considerable difficulty; to-day Mr. MacDonald has settled the builders’ and farm-workers’ struggles with an ease that recalls the Lloyd George of pre-war days. The Labour Party has avoided the issue of the class war and deliberately excluded from its organisations those who have that issue continually in view. The result is that the Party can no longer help the workers in their industrial struggles, and its leader has come to play the part of an agent of the (capitalist) community.
* T.L. or ‘Tom Lincoln’ was Wintringham’s secret revolutionary nom de guerre within the party.—Transcriber