The Worker January 1916

Wanted, 50,000 Fighters

By Councillor John Wheatley

Source: The Worker, No. 2, 15, January 1916, p. 2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

To understand military conscription you must consider it as part of a general policy, and not as if it were complete in itself. The driving force of this general policy is, in my opinion, a desire for cheap labour. Before war broke out wages were fixed by the law of supply, and demand modified slightly by trade unionism. While there were more workers than jobs this method suited the capitalists, and they spoke of it as a law that contained a big spark of divinity. But the war turned the tables. The demands of the Army for men and munitions exceeded the supply, and the capitalists realised that if the old system continued and men were free to sell their labour to the highest bidder, and only work when and where it suited them, there must be a great boom in wages. The men would supersede the masters as dictators of terms, and engineers who were indispensable and scarce might demand one shilling, or even two shillings an hour for their labour, just as capitalists have doubled the prices for ships and eggs, so a Munitions Act was passed to prevent a worker leaving his employer without permission, or an employer for offering higher wages to tempt a worker. For industrial purposes the worker came near to being the property of his employer; he dare not leave, but might be discharged. It was all done in the name of patriotism, which now, as in Doctor Johnson’s day, is the refuge of scoundrels.

The Munitions Act has served its purpose, although all the enlightened engineers on the Clyde, and many of the managers, agree that it has retarded production, and thus assisted the Germans.

With such other parts of the policy as suppression of free speech, public meetings, and popular newspapers, I will not deal beyond stating that such suppression was necessary to prevent the ventilation of inevitable grievances and the exposure of injustice, and so weaken the resistance of the workers. “Gag, bind, and rob” is time-honoured rule with the enemies of the people.

When war broke out, the wealthy were panic-stricken and behaved stupidly. In raising an army they did not, in their terror, discriminate between married and single, skilled and unskilled. But as they recovered their senses, and began to reckon the cost of the army and the duration of the war, murmurs of dissatisfaction appeared in their newspaper.

The cry for conscription, faint at first, swelled in volume as the months rolled by and the debt accumulated. They sighed for cheaper soldiers. Mr. Asquith tricked the workers by giving a pledge that if any considerable number of single men availed themselves of the British freedom which we are at war to defend, these would be “fetched” before calling up the attested married men. In this way he cleverly gave every attested married man a personal interest in passing conscription.

There is no sentimental, moral, or military reason for preferring the single man. But having no dependents, he costs less. We may be sure that when the turn of married men comes under conscription, if the workers permit it to operate, they will be selected in order of cheapness.

There is a further and more profitable reason for the introduction of conscription. Just now the State divides the workers into two classes; one controlled by the Munitions Act, and the other free. The free section while at liberty to fight and go on strike, will steadily force their wages up, and, though largely composed of unskilled workers, become higher paid than the controlled engineers.

To prevent a development of this kind which would be costly to outside employer and create discontent among skilled workers. To prevent a development of this kind, which would be costly to outside employers and create discontent among skilled workers, it is necessary to bring all workers under control. For this purpose legislation is necessary, and whether it be contained in the present Compulsion Bill, or the next one, matters little. Once on the slippery slope to slavery the descent is rapid.

All men attested, the next move will be an all-round reduction of wages whatever form this takes, and military discipline for workers who object. Already we hear loud grumbling about certain workers receiving more shillings than are required to buy their meals with. The worker’s wife who purchased furs in Sauchiehall Street, and the labourer with a lever watch, receive regular pars. in the daily press. It pains the wealthy to hear of a worker having a shilling to spare. So we read articles in favour of compulsory saving, legal thrift, and the superiority of margarine to butter. These are the pioneers of early legislation. Well-paid wiseacres will show us scientifically on how little we can live; the politicians will show us on how little we must live and the masters will see that we get no more.

The proposed scheme of legislation is the fiercest attack that has ever been made on British freedom, and its defeat can only be accomplished by the most powerful organisation. The Clyde Workers’ Committee should be representative of every worker on the Clyde. With an active membership of 50,000 behind it our liberties would be secure.

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“Let us preserve what rights still remain and refuse steadfastly to surrender another inch to our allied foes – the capitalists and politicians. The liberty and freedom of the organized worker is the one thing; our fight is the fight that matters, and now is the time to act.” – Trade Union Rights Committee’s Manifesto.