Rout of the Railway Men

The “Metz” of the A.S.R.S.

Curious indeed are the parallels that history furnishes us between incidents and events, often apparently unlike, and separated by time and position from each other. History, of course, does not actually repeat itself, and the parallels must not be pushed too far, but in the salient points of likeness valuable lessons may be learnt and deductions drawn for out future guidance.

Bazaine and Bismarck
It will be remembered how, in the Franco-GermanWarof 1870-71, Marshal Bazaine had been surrounded by the German Army and driven into Metz fortress, with 180,000 men and large munitions of war. Instead of using this immense force to break through the lines and join the other French armies, as every canon of military and national expediency demanded, he tried, as he afterwards confessed, to negotiate with Bismarck for the surrender of France on the condition that he (Bazaine) should be allowed to retain his own army and establish himself as dictator after the peace. Bismarck played with him till the opportunity for a successful sortie had passed and then became adamant. On October 27th, 1870, Metz was surrendered unconditionally, and the immense army passed into the possession of the Germans and remained prisoners until it suited the interest of the German ruling class—personified in Bismarck—to set them free to crush the Communards in Paris.

At the opening of the war between France and Germany, it was claimed by the French generals that it would be a triumphal procession from Paris to Berlin. Sadowa was forgotten. But the results showed a reversal of the procession, and it was Paris, not Berlin, that was beseiged.

Attempts have been made to defend Bazaine on the ground that the huge war stores were largely “fake” ; that the contractors had swindled the commissariat by supplying barrels of sawdust for food, empty cases for cartridges, and brown paper for boots. We need not now inquire whether Bazaine was a party to the frauds and received his share of the plunder. The revelations made in this country a short time ago show how far up as well as how low down these “business operations” extend. But the very shortage of real supplies should have been an added incentive to rapid action on Bazaine’s part, and the excuse only emphasizes his guilt.

The Parallel of Metz
The parallel of Metz with the recent struggle between the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and the Railway Companies is remarkable. Firstly, preceding the conference held on November 6th, the officials of the A.S.R.S. had declared that it must be “recognition” of themselves or war. The men had been asked to vote upon this point, and an overwhelming majority declared in favour of enforcing this “recognition” by a strike if the companies refused to accept their demand. To-day, despite this vote, “recognition” is swept out of existence for seven years. This by itself would be a small point were it not coupled with the fact that the rank and file of the Railway Servants—union and non-union alike—have been surrendered, bound hand and foot, to the companies for those seven years. Never was “victory” so disastrous.

It is unnecessary to go into the full details of the Conciliation and Arbitration Scheme agreed to by the officials of the railway servants and the companies, but the essentials may be stated. For the purpose of this scheme each company is a unit that sends its representatives to the Sectional and Central Conciliation Boards, as well as before the final arbitrator, when any matter is carried so far. The men, however, employed by each company, are divided first into sectional groups along trade lines, and then into geographical groups for the purpose of electing their representatives. The whole of the employees are concerned in this election, and their representatives must be chosen from among themselves, and their power is rigidly confined to dealing with the hours and wages only of the particular section they represent. When a Sectional Board fails to agree, the Central Board, composed of the representatives of the company and one or more chosen from the employees’ side of the Sectional Board, shall consider the matter. In the event of this Board disagreeing, the matter is referred to a single arbitrator, appointed by agreement between the two sides of the Board, or, failing this agreement, by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Master of the Rolls. The decision of this arbitrator shall be binding upon all parties.

Here, then, we have not only no “recognition” of the Union or its officials, but a deliberate flouting of the latter in that all representatives are to be elected from the employees themselves. Both Mr. Bell and the Daily News claim that the officials may represent the men before the final arbitrator, but while Lord Claud Hamilton says “recognition” has been completely abolished, the scheme is silent on this point, leaving the deduction to be drawn that it is the members of the Central Board who will argue before the final arbitrator.

Why Official Recognition?
In attempting to defend his claim for official recognition by the directors of the companies, Mr. Bell pointed out that if an employee were to go forward with any grievance his position of dependence upon the very people he was meeting almost paralyzed his efforts, but the trade union official, with a security of living outside the company, could argue every point. Moreover, it was stated, and numerous instances given in support, that an employee going forward to complain of the grievances of himself and his fellow workers, was thence a marked man and, if not discharged at once, some technical point would be found and used as an excuse for discharging him a little later. The whole of this contention has now been thrown overboard by the signing of this scheme.

It is exactly at the first move where this protection is most wanted, and even if Mr. Bell were correct in saying that officials could appear before the arbitrator, this would leave the men completely defenceless in bringing forward any complaint, as it must pass through the other stages first. Moreover, these Boards only deal with “hours and wages,” thereby leaving the other conditions of employment completely in the control of the companies, while in case of victimisation the men have absolutely no chance of redress, or even of discussion, under this scheme. A man who pushes forward the claims of his fellow workmen vigorously may he elected to the Board, and the company could then discharge him, while the men would be unable to lodge any protest through that Board.

Secondly, the excuse of the “faked” stores at Metz is parallelled by the position of the “stores” or fighting fund of the A.S.R.S. The officials boasted of having £362,733 in their funds. But, according to the Railway News, £192,422 belong to the provident fund, and, under the Friendly Societies Acts, could not be touched for strike purposes. This would leave £170,311 for a fighting fund for over 100,000 men, as not only would the actual members of the A.S.R.S. require support, hut the non-union men who might have come out would also need keeping. Even this does not reveal the whole truth, for the A.S.R.S. have over £120,000 invested in municipal loans, and £51,000 in railway companies’ stock !

Incompetency or Insanity ?
Could incompetence or insanity go further ? Here is a sum, nearly one-third of their theoretical fighting fund, placed in the hands of the very people they have to fight. It is as though Bazaine had placed a portion of his ammunition in the German camp “to be kept dry.” With so small a fighting fund at their disposal the necessity for swift and decisive action on the part of the A.S.R.S. was imperative. Yet not only are the negotiations—or rather attempts at negotiations—kept dawdling about for over twelve months, but the chance to strike a blow in the busy season is, as the Daily News stated, deliberately thrown away by the officials.

More important, however, is the fact that the agitation was originally for an “All Grades” advance of wages and shortening of hours for all employees. This was pushed on one side at the first opportunity and the question of “recognition” put in its place, while the men were gulled into believing that “recognition” was all important. As though the example of the Boilermakers’ Society a short time ago was not at hand for them to see the value of “recognition” without the power to enforce their demands. When the Boilermakers refused to accept the conditions that their “recognised” officials had agreed to, they were served with a week’s lockout notices, and, frantically appealed to by those oificials, finally accepted the employers’ terms.

The engineering employers on the Clyde “recognise” the A.S.E. to such good purpose that the “recognised” officials were used to keep the men at work after they had twice voted in favour of a strike to improve their conditions. The A.S.R.S. is itself recognised by the North Eastern Railway Co., with the results that were dealt with in our August issue. In spite of all these facts the men were fooled into believing that ”recognition” was of more importance than better wages or shorter hours; that dawdling about and sacrificing their chance of an effective blow during the busy season was more “diplomatic” and likely to obtain “public sympathy” (whatever that may mean) than insisting upon their original demands would have been. They voted in this belief, and back with terrific force is sent the answer : “seven years shalt thou serve in complete bondage.”

HowBismarck Recognised Bazaine
As far as any work, other than that of a sick benefit society, on behalf of its members is concerned, the A.S.R.S. is practically dead for the next seven years. Mr. Bell’s pathetic appeal to all employees to join the A.S.R.S. can hardly evoke a hearty response seeing that the Boards, after the first election, will manage their own details. There is absolutely no place in the scheme for, and therefore no reason for the existence of, the A.S.R.S., while the scheme lasts. It may be objected that the officials were recognised seeing they were asked to sign the Scheme on behalf of the men. Yes ! exactly as Bismarck “recognised” Bazaine—until his operations were complete.

The union officials—for it must be remembered that the men have not been consulted at all on this Scheme—have been used as the tools of the companies in signing an agreement binding upon both union and non-union men, and then have been completely flouted in the Scheme itself and the unions ignored.

It needed but the last cynical point in the scheme to show how completely the companies have triumphed. The months of August and September are the favourite holiday months of sections of the capitalist class, including railway directors and managers, and with supreme irony it is laid down that the conciliation Boards shall not be called together during these months.

In the Franco-German War no single disaster—not even Sedan—was so completely crushing as Bazaine’s treacherous surrender of Metz.

In the history of trade unionism no parallel can be found to this crushing disaster called “The Settlement of the Railway Crisis.” Never before has so large a body of workers been delivered over to their masters, bound hand and foot by such a cast iron scheme of “conciliation,” without their being allowed any voice or vote in the settlement. It is the greatest victory for the employers on record, and will act as a great incentive to other large employers to adopt the beauties and powers afforded to them by such “conciliation” schemes.

Between the working class producing all the wealth that exists in Society, on one hand, and the capitalist owning, through the robbery of the workers, that wealth on the other hand, there must of necessity exist a bitter struggle for life itself. For the workers to own the means of life means the abolition of the capitalist class and system; for the capitalist class to exist means the continued subjection and slavery of the workers. There can be no “conciliation” or “arbitration” between the robber and his victim. The working class has nothing to arbitrate or conciliate but has itself to emancipate. Let the railway servants study these facts and realise the necessity for depending upon themselves instead of allowing “diplomatic” leaders to guide them to ambushes and disasters. Let them learn from their own past history how the employing class will use any and every means, from bribing so-called leaders with an office under Government to pouring troops and Maxims into the troubled areas as at Featherstone and Belfast, for the purpose of preserving their own position. Then, while organising upon the class basis for the overthrow of capitalism, they will organise upon the same basis for the purpose of fighting their battles upon the economic field, and, ignoring such phantoms as “public opinion,” use every available opportunity to strike sudden and far-reaching blows for the improvement of their conditions and wages. Along with the Labour misleaders will be swept away the superstitious nonsense of “conciliating” or “arbitrating” robbery ; and if only this lesson be learnt, then the parallel to Bazaine’s action at Metz in the signing of the Scheme at Whitehall will not have been in vain.


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