The Bread that Perishes and Those who Make it

Like Pouring Water in a Seive.
Far back in the last century the Baker’s Union was formed, and although it has never enjoyed the confidence of a majority of the men engaged in bread-making, or, with the single exception of the ’89 agitation, has it contained more than a remnant within its ranks, yet probably 95 per cent. of the London bakers have been members at one time or another. They have entered its ranks, paid one or two quarters’ subscription, then, generally through disgust with the internal management, have gone to swell the lapsed, and been lost. The remnant who remain in the union recognise it for what it really is—a provident society—though they do not all understand that, in the final analysis, it operates in the interests of the master class.

The capitalist, in permitting trades unions to have a legal status, demands that they shall serve him further than the mere friendly society. This is done by all trade unions guaranteeing that their members shall not strike spontaneously, thus giving the capitalist time to prepare himself for any eventuality. The bakers do even better. In every district they have a house of call, where the unemployed foregather and await the masters’ convenience. As journeymen bakers invariably go in to work on Sunday evenings with curses on their lips, and as that is the time usually chosen to give the rack another twist, it sometimes happens that a spontaneous strike takes place. When this occurs the master rushes off to the nearest club house, where he can obtain all the men he wants. Thus trade unionists are always available to break the strike of non-union or union men. The most stoney-eyed can see how useful this is to the masters.

Putting Their Faith in the Enemy
It is necessary for the officials of trade unions, in order to maintain their positions, to advertise themselves, and to prevent the dry rot of apathy among their followers putting a period to their existence as leaders, to invent at intervals a new slogan, such as the “All Grades Movement,” “Abolition of Night Work,” etc. The latter has been the rallying cry of the Bakers for several years past, and the pence diverted from the semi-starved wives and children of the operatives, have been spent in organising public meetings to force the bill for the abolition of night work and the limitation of the hours of labour through the Imperial Parliament, and also to pay the expenses of delegates to the House of Commons. These genuflected before Liberal, Lib-Lab and Lab-Lib M.P.s, humbly beseeching their help in pushing the “Charter of Emancipation” through. At the public meetings the men were assured by hired speakers that no compromise would be considered. The damnable system of night work was to cease. The abominable slavery of 80 to 100 hours a week was to be kicked into the limbo of the past. Many arguments were advanced to show the sweet reasonableness of their “demands,” the most nauseating being the cant of the “Christian Socialists.” Everything was working up for the final onslaught, when, as invariably happens in trade union agitations, as the hour of deliverance was about to strike, there came the anti-climax.

Dilly, Dilly Come and be Killed
A cold douche quenched any hopes that might be still, flicking in the breasts of the oft-deluded operatives in the form of a circular letter to the branches of the union. This letter ran as follows :

“I am directed by my Committee to ask your members to approve of the proposed alteration in the Eight Hours Bill.
We consider that the Bill stands an infinitely better chance of passing with the clause deleted and personally I believe that even if the Bill in its present form was to pass its second reading that particular clause would come out in committee. By deleting it we at once disarm three-fourths of the opposition to the measure which has hitherto been based largely upon the alleged impossibility (if the Bill were passed) of supplying the early morning roll and restaurant trade.
Factory bakery proprietors say, not without reason, that it would handicap them in competing with the small shops, and some of the larger shops object on the score of the very large amount of capital they would have to spend in building additional bake houses.
Some of the Liberal M.P.s whom we recently interviewed expressed the opinion that as a matter of policy there is no doubt that it would be far and away the best to make the issue a clear and straight one of Long Hours v. Short Hours, and not to give the employers the opportunity of going off on a side issue.
Of course, the districts which have day work would still be able to retain it by trade union action, and others might regain it by the same method.
Yours very truly,
29 May, 1908.”

Absurbity can go No Further
Can anyone conceive of a document drafted with a more tender solicitude for the welfare of the enemy, the capitalist wolves? It abandons the main position under cover of presenting a straight issue. The one clause that did stand a dog’s chance of getting on to the statute book, and being enforced when there, was the night work clause, for the very cogent reason that an overwhelming case could be made out to prove that it is necessary in order to ensure that foodstuffs should be produced under wholesome conditions. Many bakers have collected ample materials to prove that bakeries, not only the catacomb bakeries, but some of the more modern factories, are centres for the propagation and dissemination of loathsome infections and contagious diseases, and that this state of affairs is the lowering of the vitality, and consequent disease among the operatives caused by night work and the long hours which are possible only under that system.

Let Criticism Begin At Home
That, and the question of wholesome ingredients, must be dealt with from a Socialist workman’s point of view. When I have leisure, and as I am fast approaching the “scrapping age,” it shall be done. Once get the howling pack of Christain profit-hunters, who shriek anathemas at Leopold the Amorous from our garden city suburbs for the atrocities perpetrated in the collection of “red rubber” on the Congo, and who view with callous indifference the cruel slaughter of their compatriots in the production of white bread, to realise that this system re-acts against their material interests, the only chord to which they respond, that these flagrant outrages against the laws of Nature spell for them, too, impaired health, disease, and its consequent loss of treasure, and your precious reform is accomplished, nay, is forced on you, willy-nilly, and you would not be consulted on the matter.*

As regards the straight issue, Long v. Short Hours, the veriest political tyro knows the powerful interests which oppose the principle of limiting men’s labour by legal enactment, knows that the bell-wethers of the miners, those “gaseous vertibrates,” called labour leaders, cannot lead their followers to victory. Miners number many more thousands than bakers do tens, are splendidly organised from a trade union point of view, and have been “demanding” the eight hours’ day for twenty-five years, If the miners are in such a parlous state what chance do the poor bakers stand, except by frightening the capitalist parties through their stomachs ?

Twenty Four Hour Day Not Sufficient
The peremptory stoppage of night work would automatically curtail the hours of labour, as is well known to the masters’ spokesmen. If a man started work at 6 a.m. and wrought till midnight he would only then have completed an eighteen hours’ day, whereas it is not uncommon for a baker to see the clock round twice at the week-end. Every baker knows that it breaks a master’s heart to see his men go home at ten o’clock in the morning, after having done twelve hours slogging. The day is at its busiest, and under a score of pretexts first one hour then another is added to the night’s work until one night is driven into the next, and the baker is robbed of all that makes life endurable. He comes out late in the day completely exhausted, his eyes are dazzled by the daylight; and if he takes one “half ale” he is fuddled, two and he is “blindo.” The nasty, drunken beast !

The last sentence in Mr. Hill’s letter is comic in view of the position of the cotton operatives, the awful plight of the railway men, and the utter rout of “the most powerful and the most perfect type of trade union in the world,” the engineers. The fact is the bakers can obtain nothing by trade union organisation, nor could they if 95 per cent. were organised. Their position has gradually become worse, their skill is fast becoming needless, they are being reduced to the status of the unskilled labourers, who can, and are, taking their places as machine tenders. They are a diminishing number, owing to the introduction of machinery doubling and redoubling the output per man in what is a limited trade, and while their nominal wages have risen slightly, their real wages have gone down considerably, for they have lost their allowance of bread and flour, sack money (which at one time amounted to several shillings weekly), yeast money, millers’ Xmas boxes, and other extras, and by mid-week many of them are “broke to the world,” as they phrase it—yet they never spend any money. Their jobs are more precarious, and they are “scrapped” at an earlier age as regular hands and become jobbers—especially now they are so inconsiderate as to lie down and die in the bake-house, or drop down in the street as they wend homeward.

No reform or series of reforms can touch that position. No trade union can act even as a brake to steady the downward rush. As the years roll by capital gets more aggressive, more relentless and its engines of death act with more deadly precision. The trade union is a spent force: capital can no longer be fought with the velvet glove. The only effective means is an economic revolution. The issue has too long been obscured by the thousands of tricky liars who prostitute their talents for grub. None have done it so effectively, or so cheaply to the capitalist, as those who have posed as labour leaders and dissipated the energies of the working class by focussing their attention on this or that trumpery reform that does not matter, while pumping an income from the stomachs of the starving women and children of the proletariat. Signs are manifold that their baneful influence is at last waning. We are now face to face with the fact that the class ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth, in the final analysis, spells, not “race suicide,” but race murder. There is no other name for it. There is no social problem to the Socialist. He has the key to the situation. He alone recognises with joy that society is in the melting-pot of the Social Revolution, and that the issue will be— must be—Socialism or annihilation.


* Since this was written Mr. Haldane has said (Ladybank, Sept 26) that the Government “had to deal with the prevention of diseases among the poor, in the interest not merely of the individual, but of the State.”

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