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Workers’ International News, June 1941



Trade Unions and the State


From Workers’ International News, Vol.4 No.6, June 1941, pp.8-10.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A vast wave of uneasiness is spreading throughout the Trade Union movement at the new measures of compulsion recently introduced by the Government. This applies in particular to the “Essential Work order” which places the employees in scheduled industries under the complete control of a National Service officer who supervises their conduct. Absence or late arrival at work without a reasonable excuse can be reported by the employer to the National Service officer who may give the worker concerned directions under Defence Regulation 58A to perform his work and regarding the times at which he is available for it. A worker who failed to comply would be liable to prosecution and a maximum penalty of £100 and (or) 3 months imprisonment. In the words of the Manchester Guardian 7/3/41 this is “the most serious interference with the liberty of the subject the war has yet produced”.

So deep-rooted has been the reaction amongst rank and file trade unionists that pressure has already forced the following comments from leading Trade Union bodies and officials. An article in the monthly journal of the AEU reads as follows:

“Frankly we are perturbed at this sort of thing. We fear the spread of the infection of coercive methods ... Has not the time come for another conference of Trade Union executives to consider the whole situation afresh and to invite a full explanation from the movement’s representatives in the government ... We want to know where we are going and how this sort of thing will end.”

Mr. John Marchbank, General Secretary of the NUR comments in the Railway Review 11/4/41

“We have considered the matter from the standpoint of the Railway service. In our view this provision cuts right across the union management machinery we have in the service for dealing with disciplinary cases ... We insist that grievances and complaints affecting the Railway workers’ observance of rules and the way they do their work shall continue to be dealt with by our disciplinary scheme and not by any outside authority.”

Labour, the official magazine of the TUC states:

“It is quite easy to talk about compulsion, but compulsion itself will not solve any existing problems, and may well give rise to a large number of new ones”.

No one for a moment imagines that the AEU, NUR and TUC hierarchy have “seen the light”; on the contrary, the lip-service of these gentlemen is designed solely to sidetrack the fears of their memberships. What does emerge from these utterances is that discontent is growing, and the union bureaucrats are getting worried. Haunted by the experience of their French counterparts they dread the day when they should be of no further use to the British capitalists, so in order to justify compulsion they mildly “deplore” the use of such methods. Mr. George Gibson, chairman of the TUC, speaking at the Scottish congress remarked that no less than 9,000 trade union practices had been relinquished since the outbreak of war, but that a bill would be introduced into parliament pledging their restoration “after” it was over. Mr. Churchill in a recent luncheon speech declared:

“It is a matter of honour for the whole country that these privileges shall be restored and resumed when this crisis has passed away, unless some better arrangement can be made.”

No trade unionist, however, who remembers the role of Mr. Churchill during the General Strike can accept the “honour” of one who is the most stalwart defender of class privileges and the most ruthless opponent of organised labour. His remarks about some better arrangement after the war show that contrary to the pious outbursts of Mr. Gibson, the capitalist class and Mr. Churchill are thinking about “arrangements” which will suit their interests and not those of the trade union movement.

The Essential Work order and the industrial regimentation of wide sections of the community is the direct result of large scale monopoly capitalism and the growth of trusts and combines. The war has greatly accelerated this development. Long before it started the joint stock companies and the banks had complete control of the armament and heavy industry. Immediately after the outbreak of war, control passed into the hands of the State and the numerous committees which were set up to aid prosecution. One by one the Government transferred prominent company directors on to these committees and naturally their activity was concentrated in those spheres which coincided most with their private interests. By this means the State assumed the role of a giant combine. When Captain Lyttleton, the President of the Board of Trade, announced in Parliament that he was going to concentrate production in certain industries “ in order to facilitate the fullest possible transfer of resources to war production “ he was merely pursuing a policy of naked trustification long inherent in the present system. The Financial News 12/3/41 traces this development as follows:

“The last war changed a predominately competitive industrial structure in Britain to one in which cartels and monopolies were of great importance. In the period between the two wars (and especially after 1932) the influence of these cartels extended fast ... and now the development of monopoly is pressing ahead so fast that by the end of the war it looks as though the structure is going to be predominately monopolist ...

“When we return to peace conditions ... the industrial structure will consist predominately of trade associations and monopolies, affected but not seriously hampered by the activities of the government ... The result of present trends may well be to establish forms of organisation in these industries far removed from the public interest. Such organisations indeed, are likely to concern themselves largely with price maintenance (i.e. restriction of production) the prevention of entry of newcomers to the trade ... there will be ... a general tendency to restrict production in order to maintain the profit per unit of production”.

What is the meaning of this change? Put briefly it means that formally there is now only one trust (the state) to employ the workers. It means that the “freedom” which the worker formerly possessed to choose between one employer and another and the right to bargain for the price of his labour has gone forever. The State legally is now in complete control and therefore cannot tolerate the pretence of freedom or choice. The workers must either obey or be disciplined, hence the “Essential Work Order”, industrial regimentation and the abrogation of trade union rights.

This development marks the close of an epoch and the beginning of a new one for trade unionism. Whereas in the period of capitalist expansion; the growth and development of the productive forces; it was possible for the union to utilise the competition between small scale enterprises to wrest concessions for their members; to-day this is but a dream of the past. Monopoly has killed competition and with it the bargaining power of the unions. It is impossible for them to serve the working class and the capitalist state at the same time. They must sever their connections with the state and take the road of independent class action or become governmental institutions. Either the Trade Unions take the revolutionary road or they will be crushed. To accomplish this is the foremost task of the revolutionary wing of the trade union movement.

At the same time the trustification and concentration of the productive forces under the control and direction of the state, not only strips naked the organised class forces, but it brings the era of classical reformism to a close. Reformists have always pictured the state as a body existing independently of classes. This idea has been popularised for decades by the Fabians and other such schools of “peaceful evolution” both here and on the continent. They see in the State a “third power” which is impartial to the struggle between classes. The illusion is fostered that it is possible to win it from the influence of the capitalists if only sufficient positions can be captured. The wrangling that goes on can be understood from the following quotation taken from an article by Mr. Bevin in the October issue of the Transport Record.

“The assumption that the only brains in the country are in the hands of the Federation of British Industries is one which has got to be corrected, for as matter of fact, most of the delays and unpreparedness so apparent today are due to the reliance of departments of state upon the very limited advice of people, who, after all live in a very narrow world indeed.”

Here is the gist of reformism. Bevin and Co. bawl from the housetops, “that they are reliable fellows” and can operate capitalism very effectively if only they are given a share of the jobs and not the company directors etc.

The state is an organ of class domination which exists solely in the interests of the exploiters. The entry of the Labour leaders into the cabinet; like the spoonful of honey in the barrel of tar, changes nothing. They simply become the administrators of bourgeois law and order. Their sole use insofar as the capitalists are concerned, is that by blindfolding the workers with socialist phraseology, they temporarily keep them in check. Churchill and Co. do not employ them for their qualities of statesmanship. When they need “statesmen” they comb the Directory of Directors and the more recent issues of Debretts. In fact the Liberal Manchester Guardian is very outspoken regarding the capabilities of the Labour leaders as statesmen. In its issue 2/5/41 commenting on the entry of Lord Beaverbrook into the cabinet, it remarks: “This upsets the coalition hierarchy, but that has become very shaky since the Labour ministers have so conspicuously failed to shine in qualities of leadership in war.” It is clear that the main use of these gentlemen to the capitalists is for policing the labour movement.

In this connection, however, they become enmeshed in an insoluble contradiction. It is impossible for them to administer capitalism and at the same time remain at peace with the working class. The irreconcilable laws of the class struggle inevitably force a conflict. In an attempt to maintain their positions on the state and leadership of the trade unions they are forced to prepare for such an emergency: and start on by stifling all opposition inside the organised labour movement. They do not argue with left-wingers. All talk about democracy is brushed aside. Heresy hunting and expulsions are on the order of the day. Trades Councils and Labour Party branches are disbanded overnight without a word of explanation. In collaboration with the employers, militant rank and filers are weeded out under the “Transfer of Labour Scheme” and the “Military Training Act”. Morrison suppresses working-class newspapers, whilst Bevin, prosecutes strikers. If the trade unions are to survive this onslaught, and even maintain themselves as industrial organisations, the struggle for internal democracy becomes an imperative necessity.

At the present time the brunt of the struggle is being borne by the Shop Stewards movement. Assailed from all sides by the trade union leaders and the capitalist class, it is daily gaining ground because it represents the revolutionary elements inside the unions. As yet it is seriously handicapped by inadequate perspectives and the lack of a marxist policy). This to a large extent is due to Stalinist influence and the necessity for them to comply with the twists and turns of Moscow foreign policy. The New Propellor – a Communist Party controlled organ carefully refrains month after month from giving a concrete analysis of the new situation which confronts the unions in relation to the struggle against the capitalist State. At the National meeting of Area Shop Stewards held in Manchester on April 20th, very descriptive accounts of the opposition to the reactionary legislation being introduced by the government, were presented by the delegates. One by one they gave proof of how the union leaders were co-operating wholeheartedly with the employers in suppressing the activity of leading shop stewards. Yet, when it came to evaluating the trend of future developments which will undoubtedly arise out of this struggle, none was forthcoming. The remarks of the secretary that “the question of the fight for increased basic rates would become the central issue” together “with the fight against the tax on wages” whilst correct insofar as immediate problems are concerned, nevertheless, are not by themselves preparations for the future.

The tasks of revolutionary leadership is to prepare the working-class for the coming conflict with the capitalist regime. It is not sufficient to formulate a programme of demands which meet with the needs of the workers from time to time. These are absolutely necessary, but if they are to be successfully utilised in harnessing the workers to the struggle for socialism, then they must be accompanied with concrete directives which will outline the next stages of the fight against the repressive forces of the capitalists. It is such directives which are lacking in all Communist Party material dealing with the trade unions. Apart from advocating certain demands, the whole question of future developments is left suspended in thin air.

The monopolisation of capitalism in the hands of the State means that all struggles in the coming period will throw the organised workers into direct conflict with the State. Struggles which formerly used to be confined mainly to industries in which they had broken out, now become national issues involving hundreds of thousands of workers. All distinction between economic and political issues are broken down, and the working-class are confronted with a situation in which the overthrow of the capitalist state is the only solution to their problems.

If the Shop Stewards movement does not prepare now for such a solution it will be taken by surprise and ruthlessly crushed. To measure up to the tasks of the period, the minimum demands to which its present programme is limited must be linked to a programme of struggle which have the following aims.

  1. Break the Trade Unions away from official collaboration with the State.
  2. The fight against expulsions, victimisation of trade union militants, by trade union officialdom and the restoration of democracy within the trade unions.
  3. Workers’ control of production through the trade union and Shop Stewards movement.


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