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Jack Weber

Britain’s Labor Leaders – Their Actual Role

(April 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 14, 5 April 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most reliable and indispensable instrument to British, capitalism in the war is the trade union bureaucracy. It is through leaders like Bevin, Morrison, Citrine, Alexander that British imperialism entraps the working class into fighting solely for the interests of capitalism.

Suppose Churchill had tried to force the total conscription of labor on the English proletariat by himself. Suppose an out-and-out Tory government had given to itself the totalitarian powers enacted into law in the Emergency Power Act. This act gives the government the right to arrest and detain in prison without any charges, without any trial, without any explanation of any kind, any person it sees fit – for the duration of. the war! It gives Churchill the right to conscript all men and women, of whatever age, and to send them to work or to other duties anywhere in the land.

Workers Would Have Battled

Would the workers have entrusted such sweeping powers to a Tory government? Of course not! They would have put up a tremendous battle for their rights. They would have denounced a government which tried to put an end to all their democratic rights. Very wisely, therefore, Churchill put to use those labor “leaders” who dominate the trade unionists by use of their powerful machinery of bureaucracy. He established a Tory-Labor “Coalition” government; that is, a government in which the false representatives of the working class make the workers responsible for the functioning of the capitalist system.

Did the Tories completely and callously neglect to build air-raid shelters for the masses of people?’ Then put a labor man in charge of this department, and let him assure the working class that everything possible is being done – when nothing is actually done. Is it necessary to produce more in the factories, to have the factory hands put in long hours, to have them put up with ever worsening conditions? Then let good old Bevin take the matter in hand. Bevin lays down the (capitalist) law – no strikes or disputes during wartime! The workers must submit to compulsory arbitration, of course with their “own” man on the board that settles issues.

Hiding Signs of Discontent

War always means such suffering and hardships for the masses that their hatred for a system which imposes these unbearable conditions is bound to flare up sooner or later. In England elections are held periodically for members of parliament. Since the beginning of the war, there have been fifty-two such elections. To hide any signs of discontent, Churchill got a political “truce” from the Labor Party when he elevated its leaders into the government. Parliament must stay the same during the war – so many Tories, so many Labor members.

What have the workers to gain from all this? Exactly nothing. On the contrary, they lose all along the line. Capitalism strengthens itself at every point at the expense of the proletariat. The workers are tied hand and foot, not only at home but in the colonies as well where the same laws are made to apply with the benediction of Bevin and Company. Under the EPA (Emergency Power Act) the militant fighters for working class rights and for colonial freedom are seized and put in jail. Thus Wallace Johnson, President of the Sierra Leone Trade Union Congress, was jailed at once. So was Uriah Butler who led the militant West Indies strike of 1937. He was deported to a small island (Nelson) off Trinidad. Militant Hindu leaders were similarly disposed of.

A Capitalist’s Frank Remarks

The capitalists use these privileged labor leaders to tie the trade unions and the Labor Party to the capitalist state. But let no one suppose that the factory owners have anything but contempt for these tools! The English writer Crowther of the British financial journal, the Economist, expresses this contempt in the New York Times (March 23rd):

Trade union leaders are elderly gentlemen who want to get higher wages for their members, but otherwise wish to change nothing ... British trade unions occupy approximately the same place in politics today as the Church of England occupied in the last century ... The presence of trade union leaders in the Cabinet is no more a portent of revolution than the fact that Bishops of the Established Church sit in the House of Lords ... Nothing has been more noticeable in Churchill’s cabinet than the personal mediocrity of the labor leaders.”

Crowther would be quite wrong if he thought that the class conscious British workers enjoy the spectacle of these mediocrities pushed around with Churchill’s cane. It is these workers who are demanding an end to the truce between labor and capitalism. This question will come up at the Labor Party Conference to be held this June. But it seems unlikely that the British workers will have gone forward enough by that time to force their leaders to break off the truce and the coalition. Such a step would mean a tremendous sharpening of the class struggle. It would be the greatest news of the war.

Meantime the American working class can learn a great deal from the situation in England. Men like Hillman, Green, Murray, Lewis follow closely in the footsteps of their British prototypes, Bevin and Morrison. They must not be permitted to put over a truce with United States capitalism during the war. The workers would be completely at the mercy of their bosses in that case. The American proletariat must fight for its own interests!

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