Trade Unionism, Wherin it Fails, and How it can be Rendered Effective

Many are the discussions that have taken place on this subject between Socialists and non-Soeialists alike. The question is, does Trade Unionism as we know it in Great Britain, help or hinder the development of the workers into class-conscious Socialists ?

The answer undoubtedly is that it materially hinders it. It does not necessarily follow that because any Trade Union or body of Trade Unionists elect a supposed Socialist to an official position that Union has progressed in a Socialist direction. On the contrary, it is generally because this particular individual has swallowed those Socialist principles he may have understood, or because it is hoped his election to office may close his mouth and cause him to refrain from the fearless advocacy of Socialism within the Union and the exposure of the unsound position in which Unionism stands today that he is elected. It is then, not the capacity for securing jobs that is the test of Socialist activity, but the number of Union members who understand the root principles— economic, political, and historical—of Socialism, and are prepared to take action consistent with that knowledge.

Let us briefly examine what has come to be known as


with the object of seeing whether Socialists can honestly support it.

Socialism implies a knowledge of the class war which is being waged between the working-class on the one hand and the capitalist-class on the other, a war which can only be fought out by labour organised in a proper manner.The “pure and simple” Unions do not organise workers for that struggle.

Paradoxical as this may seem, it is nevertheless the fact. In evidence let us take what is generally considered the wealthiest and most powerful union in the country the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

In the Annual Report of this Union for 1904 we find an increase of 703 members. This is the smallest increase since the days of the eight hours strike, a significant fact in view of the development in recent years of the motor industry. Mr. Geo. Barnes, the general secretary of the A.S.E.—fairly well known to readers of this journal as one of the many “labour leaders” who delight in rendering assistance to the capitalist-class wherever possible emphasises this significance and urges upon existing members the importance of securing fresh members. But as the report shows, 4,517 have been excluded from membership ! These are men who, by the aid of improved machinery, continually being introduced, can do work that previously only highly trained men could do. They can work for less money, and the A.S.E. excludes them therefore. All over London this spectacle of a Union working its own destruction by the


can be observed, while at the same time in the shops of Harland and Wolff of Belfast, A.S.E. members themselves act as blacklegs to the electrical workers by working under price, and this after having refused to undertake the organisation of the electrical workers, who are really engaged in a branch of the engineering industry !

In the slate club (or coffin club) side of this Union impending disaster is again apparent. It returns a monthly average of 5,427 unemployed members, 2,444 in sick benefit, while 4,696 are superannuated. Altogether a total of 12,567 members drawing upon the financial resources of the Society. On the year’s working the average income per member is shown to be £3 15s. 9½d. against an average expenditure of £3 16s. 1d. !

The case of the Operative Bricklayers’ Society is not more inspiring. During last year they lost 2,333 members, and the returns of the preceding three years show decreases also. The amount expended in strikes and lockouts for 1904 was £5,105 5s. 11½d. in excess of the previous year, while sick, funeral, and superannuation funds all have increases on the expenditure side. The jealous eye with which the bricklayers regard the masons, plasterers, and even the labourers, and the disputes which the Unions of these trades have engaged in, do not compel the conclusion that the O.B.S. is desirous that all workers in the trade should be in their Union, but even if it could secure the additional membership for which it is asking, on its present base it could not escape bankruptcy unless subscriptions were raised considerably. An appreciable increase of subscription, however, woidd inevitably result in the withdrawal of many existing members through sheer inability to pay, and the last condition of the Union, therefore, would be as bad as the first.

A further instance of how


the workers can be found in the six organisations which the builders’ labourers consider necessary in London. These, together with the three other unskilled workers organisations also existing, necessitate the payment in the London district alone, in salaries, rent, etc., of eight times the amount that would otherwise be sufficient. In addition, of course, an enormous quantity of quite unnecessary work is caused, and much jealousy and strife engendered. Attempts at amalgamation have, it is true, been made, but without result, the officials of existing Unions being in the nature of things opposed to alterations that would affect them detrimentally, although Mr. Davenport, the general secretary of the United Order of General Labourers—the Union that opposed federation about three years ago—has fathered a scheme of his own. However, as the principle plank in his platform seemed to be the appointment of himself to the post of secretary at £3 10s. per week, the idea was not taken up with enthusiasm.

All the evidence, therefore, points to the fact that the existence of the Unions grows more and more precarious owing to the inability of Trade Unionists to appreciate the requirements of industrial warfare. Assailed on the one hand by capitalism, and on the other by the competition of the ever increasing number of men whom the Unions will not admit, they cannot in their present form survive. The question therefore arises:—


to the working-class ?

The answer is undoubtedly yes. But their object must be the organisation of the working-class, not a select two millions out of an adult working-class population of sixteen millions as at present. All the members of the trade, whether they can pay dues or not, whether they be unemployed or not, must be taken in. Otherwise the Union will, as previously pointed out, be creating its own blacklegs. Moreover, organisation must involve the closest of associations between members of allied trades, otherwise, as happened in the case of the Operative Bricklayers’ Society—which records 67 disputes to maintain trade customs, and four actions against reductions in wages during last year—we have the effect of any action nullified by the workers in allied trades remaining at work while the strike is in progress. The workers must be organised on a class war basis, that is, on the principle that there is and can only be, hostility between labour and capital. They must be organised to fight, not to form committees after the manner of the Bricklayers’ Society for “closer union” with the employers—surely as absurd a proceeding in view of the fact that this Society expended about £6,000 last year in struggles against the encroachments of these same employers, as it is possible to conceive.

The position of Socialist Trade Unionists is clear. They should, it seems to me, endeavour to effect the


of the workers by systematic propaganda of Socialism inside existing Unions—a work which, it must be remembered, has, hitherto, never been seriously undertaken, in the result should it be found that the “pure and simple” element, aided and abetted by Trade Union leaders, many of whom are interested in maintaining the present sectionalism among the workers, and are, as can easily be demonstrated, consciously playing the capitalists’ game, are too recalcitrant for satisfactory progress to be made, there will be no other alternative left than that of forming separate Socialist Trade Unions and crushing the existing Unions from the outside.

Trade Unions will play an important part, perhaps the most important, in the overthrow of the capitalist-class and system. The political party of the workers,—the S.P.G.B—while building up the political side, bears in mind the fact that both are essential. As we get nearer and nearer to the time when there will be a Socialist majority on the administrative bodies, particularly the executive of the nation, the capitalist-class will not sit quietly and watch themselves legislated out of existence. When we


Hull, Michelstown and Grimsby it stands to reason that they will oppose by all the means in their power the attempt of the class-conscious workers to capture the State machinery in working-class interests, and undoubtedly if the Trade Unions have not achieved their highest purpose—capacity and readiness for the organisation of production and the carrying on of industry—they will, when the Socialist working-class have secured their majority, endeavour to effect a counter revolution by closing down all works of importance.

Therefore it is all important that the economic organisations of the working-class should be as sound as their political organisations. Neither can be sound unless founded upon a clear recognition of the causes underlying and


Well grounded upon knowledge and thoroughly organised, the working-class, in the day when they have attained to the position of the dominant class in the legislature, need have no fear of any measures the capitalist-class may take in their endeavours to secure themselves a longer lease of life. They will be able to take over and work the industries of the country which the capitalist system itself is even now rapidly ripening for the change in face of any difficulties capitalism may attempt to thrown in the way, and so usher in the Socialist Republic.


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