Editorial: The Printers’ Strike

During the past few weeks the equanimity of London Printmgdom has been disturbed by a strike of some magnitude on the question of hours. The men have taken action in support of a demand for a 48 hour week, and though at the time of writing the strike is not at an end, it looks very much as if the employees will succeed in obtaining the demand they put forward as a compromise: 50 hours immediately, and a future consideration of the 48 hours question.

Now the attitude of the orthodox Press toward this strike is full of significance. Silence can be more eloquent than speech, and their silence carries an important testimony as to the reality of the class struggle to those that have ears to hear. But of more significance than this, and of infinitely greater importance, is the attitude taken up by the men’s leaders, and reflected in the organ of the movement, the Daily Herald.

We have said that silence can be more eloquent than speech. This paper which the printers have founded to be their mouthpiece in the struggle, no less than the silence of the men’s leaders, is further evidence of that.

The dumb capitalist Press by its very silence proclaims in thunder tones the class struggle, while the quiet tongues of the strike leaders, and the still columns of their organ are vehement charges of treachery and cowardice against those who do know the true position, and a pathetic index of the ignorance of those who do not.

In every quarrel between masters and men, we take up the position that, as between masters and men, the latter can never be wrong. But in the matter of their conduct of the fight, we have seldom found a British trade union in the right—and the present strike affords no welcome exception.

Granted, in the first place, that workingmen must, however little it may affect their class position, struggle continuously to secure the best price and conditions for their labour-power, granted also that at the moment trade unions may be the most effective means to that end, still the vital thing has not bsen said.

After all, where does trade union effort land the workers ? After each “famous victory,” after the most famous victory that any trade unionist, as such, and under the affliction of the most violent form of palpitation of that imagination, ever dared dream of, where do the victors stand ? They may have held their own ; they may have recovered a little of what was their own. “Simply that, and nothing more.”

This much is confessed by the men’s leaders when they admit that they have been driven to the present action by the great increase of unemployment consequent upon the advance of machinery and the general speeding-up that has taken place in all branches of the printing trade. For if that is so, it is an admission that all they can hope for from victory is the regaining of some of the ground lost of recent years.

Of course, as far as the men’s action goes it is sound enough. Everyone who has anything to sell must fight for the best terms—that is a presupposed condition of the competitive market—and those who have only their labour-power to sell are no exception. But if after each battle the workers have only regained something of what they have lost, or let us even say all that they have lost; if each succeeding conflict is to find and leave them in the same state of mental torpor, with, the same paralyzing faith in the union and the strike as their economic salvation, and no outlook beyond a stronger position as sellers of labour-power, then indeed Hope may sit down by the wayside and turn her eyes backward over the way we have come—for there is nothing to gladden them in the way we are going.

For, think ! These men demanded a reduction of 4½ hours per week, and the limitations of their union are shown by their compromising, in the midst of a “winning fight,” for a 2½ hours reduction. That is less than 5 per cent. of the week’s hours. Those who know anything of the printing trade do not need to be told that this 5 per cent. reduction does not anything like counterbalance the increased output per head which has taken place in the decade or so that has slipped away since the last reduction of hours. The speeding-up and the development of, machinery in all departments have been astounding, and new processes are discovered almost daily.

In the composing department there are the Linotype and other machines, for which it is claimed that the output per man is six times that of the hand compositor. In the machine room speed has been enormously increased, and in addition mechanical contrivances are pushing the workers aside. In the case of cylinder machines, first the “flyers” got rid of the taker-off, now automatic feeders make the layer-on a superfluity. With regard to platen machines the same tale is to tell—first self-delivery, now self-feed. In newspaper production, you give the Hoe Double Octuple press half a ton of ink and a few miles of paper, and it will deliver to you 192,000 8-page papers, folded, per hour.

Magazines and the like are trimmed on all three sides simultaneously at a fearsome rate ; in the stereoing departmeat equal strides have been made ; the process block has banished the old pictorial wood engraver so that not one of his kind now practises in this country. Even the artist and designer, who was wont to comport himself with a leisurely dignity, as one whom mechanical contrivances could not touch, has been brought to a chastened frame of mind by the camera, and may be seen plying the air-brash like a man in a mighty hurry.

In face of all this who will dare to assert that trade unionism, in winning a 5 percent. reduction in a decade, has maintained the workers’ position ? At the very moment of the strike there enters the market a new composing machine of improved form at £200 less cost ! Meanwhile the older machine develops new capabilities which enable it to eat its way into the jobbing offices. And one City firm has in position on one of its printing machines, at present under cover, lock, and key, an American automatic feeder that is going to strike consternation into the hearts of the men.

In the past this development has cheapened production and increased demand. It has given us the halfpenny morning paper—which we all read nowadays—and extended the use of advertising matter. Else had the effect of machinery been even more severely felt. But there are limits in this direction, for few of us can read two papers at once, and it is not wise to count on the abnormal increase of the cross-eyed, even to keep trade unionists in work.

And it must not be lost sight of that it is the machine the workers have to compete with. Machinery is adopted because it is cheaper; hence the very fact that this shortening of hours raises the cost of labour-power must give a fillip to the development of machinery. There is a circle of profitableness to every grade of machinery. On the fringe of that circle stand the doubters, who hesitate to adopt it. But raise the cost of labour-power and they are decided—the circle takes on a larger circumference, and the advance of machinery tumbles men out into the streets to starve.

While this in no way lessens the fact that the workers (it applies to all trades) must continually struggle against the encroachments of the masters, it shows them that the struggle is a hopeless one, and that they must look elsewhere for the true remedy for their troubles. There are among their leaders men who know this—why do they not say so ? There are among those producing their daily newspaper, men who are well aware that Socialism alone is the only hope—why, then, is no mention of the fact made ?

One reason is this—the constituencies are not ripe yet to return Socialists to Parliament, and should enlightened trade unionists demand that their officials run as Socialists, they would surely lose place and pelf.

Printers, when you have won your strike your advantage will immediately begin to slip from your hands. Socialism is the only remedy for working-class ills. We earnestly invitc you, therefore, to study Socialism.

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