Editorial: Strikers Struck. How the Railway Servants were Betrayed

“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.”

So said we in our issue of December 1907, concerning the “settlement” arrived at in the railway dispute of that year. The pronouncement was the summing-up of an unflinching exposure of the trick that had been played upon the railwaymen of the country. The judgment of Time bears handsome witness to the truth of our assertion, as it has, during the troublous days of the past month, to so many other things of vital working class importance that we have said.

In 1907 the railwayman’s leaders claimed a victory. We, however, were under no such delusion. We put our finger on the spot, and showed clearly the fraudulent nature of the leader’s claim that they had won “recognition.” “To-day,” we said, “recognition is swept out of existence for seven years.” “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 on both union, and non-union men, and then have been completely flouted in the Scheme itself and the unions ignored.”

Was our judgment correct? The answer is furnished by the tragic events which have lately shaken the country. If it be not too flagrant bathos to descend from the instance of the great labour upheaval to the words of the trade union leaders themselves, we may quote the “Railway Review” of August 18th. last, which declares :

“The momentous hour has come. Unless the Railway Companies are prepared to concede to their employes the elementary but important right of being represented by their unions, a general railway strike will take place.”

So it is quite clearly admitted in 1911 by the leaders, that they have still to fight for that “recognition” which in 1907 they claimed to have already obtained.

We speak of “leaders,” but it is gratifying to observe that the term needs some qualification nowadays. In 1907 we said : “Let the railway servants . . . realise the necessity for depending upon themselves instead of allowing ‘diplomatic’ leaders to guide them to ambushes and disasters.” That is the message we have given all workers, as a safe guide alike upon the economic field and in the political arena. There has been a marked tendency for the workers of late to act upon this wholesome advice, at least in regard to their activities in the industrial struggle. Everywhere trade unionists have become restless under the supine folly, procrastination, and even, we dare to say, downright treachery of their so-called leaders. They have gone on strike against the “advice” (for which word we may read “commands”) of these latter, and so the would-be leaders have found themselves in the queer case of trying to lead men who had left them behind.

A study of the facts of the present instance the great railway strike of August will undeceive those who suppose the trade union leaders have led. They very cunningly made a virtue of necessity. Long before they issued their ultimatum the ranks of all grades were seething. The time was opportune. So much unrest was manifesting itself over the whole field of labour that the chances of success were enormously increased. And then it was the height of an unprecedentedly busy holiday season. The men, apparently, though so woefully lacking in that class consciousness and political and economic knowledge which alone can guide them safely through the struggle for emancipation, so far thought for themselves and gripped these hard facts. They remembered how, in 1907, valuable time had been deliberately frittered away, with disastrous results, and they determined to be judges of their own interests.

So came it about that on the 15th. strikes of railwaymen were, in progress at Sheffield, Birmingham, Rochdale, Chester, Nelson, Warrington, Cardiff, Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, the West of Scotland and elsewhere, while in a number of other places resolutions to strike were being carried and ultimatums launched.

In these circumstances the “leaders” had no option. They had played the procrastination game to its lull limit. The occupation of sitting on the safety valve was getting risky, so they had to get off. They came to the conclusion that they had either got to lead or get left. Hence the sudden and frantic scramble to the front, the ultimatum and the declaration—their nerveless hands had loosed the lightning.

Out of such a beginning what could be expected ? If the men continued to think and act for themselves, much ; if they allowed “leaders” to again take the reins, nothing. They did make this terrible, this fatal, mistake, and they were lost. The pusillanimous hands which loosed the lightning in fear and trembling, allowed the thunder-bolt to be snatched from their palsied grasp.

The men struck for “recognition” : the “leaders” sent them back to work with a promise of an enquiry. The masters had recognised the leaders to the extent of discussing the proposed inquiry, just as they recognised them four years ago up to the point of their signing the agreement, though they ignored them after. And on this the strike was smashed !

No wonder the Manchester men declared at a meeting on the day following the “settlement,” that they had been “sold again !”

What was the position ? The Companies had bluffed and failed. They were surprised at the effectiveness of the strike. The Government had bluffed and failed. They had thrown the whole military might of the nation against the strikers, and the only result had been to demonstrate the weakness of their position. The crude incapacity of their leader, whose traditional remedy for every difficult situation is butchery, had got them into a blind alley. They had no another move left. Where actual rioting took place they were able make a bit of a show with their old and well tried expedient, murder. But over the whole field they hadn’t a safe move left. True, they bluffed about mobilising the army reserves, and ordering them to work at their trades, but there was a good chance of the mobilisation order being ignored, and the Government, in the face of the remarkable solidity of the workers in all directions, simply did not dare to play this card. Its success would not have helped them greatly, for it would have been promptly replied to by such a paralysing strike of organised labour—and for that purpose all labour, union and non-union, alike, would have been organised—as would have demonstrated once for all the power of the workers, when they act as a class—even though without the class-consciousness essential to give the definite revolutionary aim.

Already the miners were preparing to come out. Thousands of engineers only awaited the opportunity of meeting on the Saturday afternoon in order to throw in their lot with their fellow workers against the armed forces. The strike was never allowed to develop. At the very hour of its birth the Labour Party in the House of Commons and the Union leaders in their chamber of incapacity and treachery, worked with diabolical persistency to break it down.

The railwaymen were in a strong position. Threat would have been answered with action, blow with blow. The strike which on Friday surprised the. railway directors, would have staggered them on Monday. Then if the Government had proceeded to play their mobilisation card they would have signed their own death warrant. They would have met with widespread defiance on one hand, and with the full fury of the outraged workers of the nation on the other.

The strike might, have gone down in a sea of blood—that is problematical. But what is certain is that the Government would have been drowned in it—for the working-class hold the political power.

The Government dared not invite this inglorious termination to their nefarious career, notwithstanding the ghoulish encouragement of the Opposition, who would gladly have established themselves on the reeking debris of a working class slaughter. The awful powers which the Government possess in the armed forces under their control, are not, to be exerted to their full on such an issue by any Cabinet that desires to live.

In these circumstances, then, the policy of the men was clear. They should have formulated substantial demands. The release of all strike prisoners as the preliminary. Then improved hours and wages. After that “recognition.” The policy of putting “recognition” in the forefront was ruin. It gave the opportunity for the Judas kiss that betrayed them. In addition it was entirely unnecessary, for a union which can win a strike for hours and wages is sure enough of “recognition.”

So the unparalleled opportunity is gone. No great body of workingmen ever bad such favourable circumstances. But they have been undone by the evil genius of the whole business—their “leaders.” While they held the reins in their own hands they were masters of the situation, but when they allowed those whom they had forced to declare the strike, to make agreements which they had no chance to discuss, then they put their feet on an inclined plane. Their descent was swift and ignominious.

It looks suspiciously like a bit of American “graft.” It looks very much as though it was a put up job to let off the steam of the railwaymen’s discontent. It looks like a deliberate scheme to let loose a threatening flood and head it off into a lower level. However, whether it was designed or not, that has been the result of the fine enthusiasm of the strikers, and their great effort has ended in a great tragedy.

The most they may snatch from the ashes of their ruined hopes is the lesson that, whether on the industrial or the political field, their struggles must be grounded upon democracy. Their position must be democratic, their methods must be democratic, their weapons must be democratic. Even under capitalism democracy is no empty word, and its first interpretation is that the representative is the servant, not the leader. Had the railwaymen given this reply to their so-called leaders when the latter sent the fatal message : “All men must return to work immediately,” they would not now be chewing the cud of their disappointment, marvelling at the difference between recognition of the unions and recognition of their officials, and wondering if they had not better set about making the unions (which appear to consist of the officials) recognise the men.

If ever the Labour Party in the House of Commons were called upon to justify their existence; if ever they had an opportunity to retrieve some of the blunders and idiocies of their Parliamentary career and rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of their dupes, it was during the Labour troubles of the past few weeks. The occasion, however, has only served to expose them further as what we have always said they were—job-hunters and henchmen of the Liberal party.

One who knew them less perfectly than we do would have expected that, at a time when every available soldier in the country was being marched against struggling Labour, something of the passionate disturbance would have reflected itself on the Labour benches in the Commons, One would have expected that, at least, the rumpus would have equalled that which they created when the historic Osborne judgment challenged their right to put thieves’ hands into the pockets of the same trade union men whom their Liberal hirers were now threatening with bayonet and ball cartridge.

The Labour Party’s duly, if they were what they pretend to be, is very clear. They should have raised hell. There was not one of them but knew what was going on when the Railway Directors were, seeking the promise of military blacklegism. That was the time for the Labour Party to have spoken.

They claim to hold the balance of power. If the claim is true, they should have demanded in the House the neutrality of the Government. They should have gone into the streets and pledged themselves, in unmistakable language, to the overthrow of Asquith and his Administration, as the penalty of a single soldier being moved. This they could have done in the certainty that, had they been compelled to carry out their threat, they could have gone to the constituencies absolved from all their sins —the heroes of the hour. Every man of them would have been returned, and every additional candidate they could have put into the field.

But no soldier would have been moved, the companies would have made a graceful concession, the managers would have “shaken hands” (which is about all they have done) with their servants’ “leaders” earlier; there would have been no strike.

But since there was a strike ; since the Liberal Government had launched its policy of bluff, threatening what it dared not carry into effect, in the interest of the railway proprietors, still there was a duty left the Labour Party. Now they should have given the strikers a lead, denouncing the Government’s threats for the bluff they were. They should have told the strikers to stand firm, that the directors only wanted a soft spot to fall down on, that all they had asked for was theirs if only they would let their masters do the grovelling. They should have pointed out that Asquith & Co. had only two courses open—mobilisation of the reserves, or the throwing over of their friends the railway directors, by the withdrawal of the military support which they had so rashly provided. They should have urged them to stake all on the Government’s instinct of self-preservation, and formulate demands worthy of the occasion.

Instead of which they played into the Government’s hands—lent themselves as a cloak to save the face of that beaten bluffer, butcher Asquith.

Mr. J. R. Macdonald, realising that he was compelled to take action, moved in the direction of asking for a day to move a vote of censure on the Government. Provided that the Labour Party could have been depended upon for once to support, solidly, their own motion—and the unprecedented circumstances might have given them this unprecedented unity—the fate of the Liberal Administration was sealed. Anyway, the immediate effect proves conclusively that had this step been threatened at the time the companies were seeking Government support, the directors would never have received that monstrous document, and therefore would never have dared to provoke the strike on such an issue. That is as clear as daylight.

But, the State having openly and flagrantly declared for the capitalists, the masters having done their worst, the men having launched their strike under such favourable conditions as may not for years occur again, the honest policy of the Labour Party was the fighting policy. They should have seen that the men demanded substantial amelioration as an answer to the use of troops. They should have cut off all escape for the Government which had so palpably tried to coerce Labour ; should have compelled them to climb down in the fierce light of their criticism, or forced them on to their doom.

All this they could have done had they urged the men to make demands and stand firm on the one hand, and persisted in their vote of censure on the other. For the Government, in placing the armed forces of the nation at the disposal of the railway companies, had taken a line of action that they could not persist in and live, and the spectacle of a capitalist Government learning a lesson from the workers should have been held up to the eyes of the world. Featherstone and Tonypandy would have been avenged, and the brutal bludgeoning of Manchester and Liverpool. It would have cured Cabinets of their nonchalant way of looking at these things, and it would have calmed the fiery spirits of the police for many a year to come.

But instead of following this common-sense policy, the Labour Party from the first busied themselves to undermine the strikers, and the tragic result is that the men, who might have won so much when they had the masters at their mercy, have gone back with the shadow, not of what they struck for, but of that for which they were willing to refrain from striking—they have gone back empty-handed, as many of them pathetically remark.

Nor is this the only evil. An even worse feature, perhaps, is the, fact that the Liberal Government, who so openly declared the State to be—what we have always said it is—a class instrument, have been allowed to slither out of an untenable position with all the kudos of having acted the part of preservers of order and makers of peace, when it was their action alone which plunged the country into the conditions of war. And, most depressing fact, the strikers go back to their drudgery crushed by the conviction that in future they are to accept, the masters’ terms at the point of the bayonet.

This, the most disastrous blow that has been given to Labour in any country (for even Briand was made to bite the dust), has been struck by the treachery of a few jobhunters calling themselves the Labour Party.

Make no mistake about it. The fighting policy was demanded by every consideration but one. It would have secured the strikers an unparalleled victory ; it would have taught all Governments a wholesome lesson in restraint; it would have strengthened the hands of Labour in a hundred ways ; it would have absolved the Labourites from much of their blundering incapacity and shameless treachery in the past; it would have trebled their numbers at the next election. But, alas, it would have been fatal to their chance of getting emolument out of the Liberal Party. That is why they clutched at peace ; that is why the strikers were betrayed.

Mr. Macdonald threatens to prosecute those papers who say he is after a job. So we will content ourselves with the remark that, by happy chance, the gentleman is going just the right way to get a job thrust upon him.

But every member of the Labour Party stands for capitalism, therefore not one of them can repudiate the instruments of capitalism. Hence, when the Government claimed that it was their (the Government’s) duty to preserve “order,” the Labourites could only “challenge the way it was done,” and when Lloyd George flung in their faces the taunt that they would have done the same, not one of the piratical crew could deny it.

So much for the treachery of the Labour Party. Those who pin their faith to such have got their answer. These men reflect the views of those who elect them, and this explains their toadying to the Liberal Government, Their treachery should teach the workers that political action, though so necessary, is useless unless they understand their class position and the politics which that position dictates. When they know the class antagonism, no elected person dare, or can, betray them.

When the Government gave the railway companies a guarantee that the whole police and military forces should be at their disposal in the case of a strike they made a blunder that should have resulted very differently. No doubt the directors played a trick on them by understating the strength of the men’s organisations, but that is not an important detail. They had only to look around upon the seething mass of discontented workers that boiled from one end of the country to the other, to realise that they had quite enough trouble on hand, without looking for more.

But no, Liberal Governments for generations have bluffed through so much that it would have been a gross departure from the “glorious traditions of the party” to cease to rely on the old tried and trusty policy. So, without giving due consideration to the fact that, everywhere, the trade-unionists were getting out of the hands of their “leaders,” and that therefore a new situation had arisen, the muddling Liberal Government took a step in support of the railway interests that they are only warranted in taking when the capitalist class supremacy is threatened by a revolutionary insurrection.

It is claimed by the Government and the Press that the employment of troops was in the interest of order and to secure the food supply of the community. This, however, is a deliberate lie. Whatever may be said about the duty of a Government to perform these functions, the unquestionable fact that only the provision of military aid to the companies made the strike possible rules all such arguments out of court.

The time and place to preserve order and secure the food supply of the community was when and where it could most easily and effectively be done. That was when and where the companies asked the Government to arm and fortify them for the strike. If the Government’s defence had been that they had acted in the interest of their class, we should have been the first to acknowledge the force of the argument, but when they way that with a view to preserving order and maintaining the food supply, they had provided the one lucking essential to disorder and famine—troops, then we say they lie.

Even the plea that property had to be protected does not support the Government’s action, for the only thing that could jeopardise property was a strike. Therefore neither the preservation of order nor the protection of property, nor even the securing of the food supply of the people was the real reason for placing the country in the hands of the military, since every one of these objects was defeated by that very act.

No, the troops were called out to maintain the companies’ right to rob their employees; men were to be murdered, men were murdered, in the interest of the profits of the railway shareholders. The Liberal Cabinet, from Asquith to Burns, have blood on their hands, and an even application of the law of the land would award them the same fate as Crippen.

Let the workers learn from this the futility of General Strike tactics. The recent case was not a General Strike in any sense of the word. The Government’s mistake was in taking measures called for by a General Strike. But in the chaos, and brutality, and bloodshed, and suffering, ay, and failure, of those few hours is a great lesson for the working class. The shade of anarchy, the spectre of starvation, looming in the the adjacent background, did not threaten the masters, but brooded over the workers. On them was to fall all the horrors of the situation. Just because the issue was not worth either the launching or the bloody suppression of a General Strike, the railwaymen’s strike was good for more than it brought them ; but where the issue from the workers’ standpoint is worth a General Strike, it is from the capitalists’ standpoint worth crushing out in a Niagara of blood.

That the master class will always have ample powers at their command for this purpose while they hold the political machinery they will make sure, and that they will use them the thirty thousand victims of the Commune massacres warn us. And again the need for wresting the control of the armed forces from them by political action, by voting Socialists, and Socialists only, into Parliament, is demonstrated.

The capitalist Press has taken up the usual hypocritical attitude. Liberal and Tory join in a chorus of condemnation of the men for striking at a few hours notice. They conveniently forget for how many years they had been struggling for consideration which was utterly denied them until they did strike; they conveniently forget that what notice was given was taken advantage of for filling waiting rooms with beds, putting points on bayonets, serving out ball-cartridge, and moving troops ; they conveniently forget that the companies were merely reaping the harvest of their trickery of 1907.

One of the most ludicrous statements of the Press, and one of the most wide-spread, was that the directors were obsessed with their feudal prejudices and traditions. The falsity of this is demonstrated by the announcement that the directors have obtained a Government promise of legislation permitting the companies to raise their charges to meet the anticipated increased cost of labour-power. This clearly shows what it is the directors feared from “recognition.” There is nothing feudal about railway directors.

All their traditions, all their prejudices, are purely capitalistic. They are the very types of classic capitalism. They are the guardians of the £47,000,000 dividends (and many other millions which do not appear as dividends) which are annually wrung out of the railway workers by those who do nothing. And to keep these millions intact the directors were prepared to flood the country with blood.

Of course, it could not be expected that capitalist newspapers would say this. Better ascribe the directors’ ferocity to feudal prejudice, barbaric combativeness, savage blood-lust, original sin itself—to anything rather than to capitalist greed for profit. No, the issue must be obscured, and for this reason the Press talks of feudal prejudices. For the same reason it talks of the sacredness of the food supply and of the milk of innocent babes—talk of these to men who are withering in the endeavour to supply food to their families, and milk to their babies, on 17s. a week. Pugh! Of all forms of prostitution, literary prostitution is the most foul.

Among those hardest hit by the great events of August are the “Industrial Unionists.” They have witnessed a strike in the industry most able to paralyse society. That it could paralyse society has been amply demonstrated—but then, we have never denied that they could accomplish this. However, events have gone on to prove our claim that, considered as an instrument for “taking and holding” the means of life, Industrial Unionism, with its most perfect weapon, the General Strike, can accomplish nothing more than general paralysis. The “riotous mob” of August 1911 were an appalling power for destruction—everybody knew that. Had they been sufficiently desperate, had they felt that sufficiently inclined to suicide, they would have been irresistible for ruin. They could have laid London in ashes in a night; they could have made the country an Inferno of blood and fire ; they could have performed prodigies of destruction, in spite of police and military. But when it comes to taking and holding and operating one shillingsworth. of the productive wealth of the capitalist class, they are powerless. They can destroy and die, but to hold and operate they must live—and in the difference between these two Industrialism finds its grave. This would have been abundantly shown had not the Government remembered in time, that it had not a revolution to deal with, but only a strike.

The final lesson, and the greatest of all, is to be found in the crushed hopes of the Industrialists, the Syndicalists, the Anarchists. These claim that the means of production must be seized in the teeth of the armed forces ; the Socialists hold that the preliminary must be to get control of the armed forces by capturing the machinery of government. Which contention is correct the present Cabinet has made clear.

Leave a Reply