Should the Capitalists support Trade Unionism?
Trade Unions do not pretend to be revolutionary organisations. They accept the capitalist system as part and parcel of this happy cosmos, and consider their function to be simply that of haggling with the master class about the price of their members’ labour-power. But even this limited work they do badly—the heads of the unions preferring soft jobs under the State to the grim work of bargaining with powerful monopolies.
Now a change has taken place of late in the attitude of employers towards trade unionism. Half a century ago their attitude was one of relentless enmity, but now the far-seeing and intelligent employers adopt a friendly tone towards the unions. Radical journals such as the “Manchester Guardian,” often point out that it is just in those, trades where the most powerful unions exist that we find the least friction ‘twixt master and men, and that it is amongst the casual and “unskilled” workers, badly organised, that the class struggle is waged the fiercest. Whether this charge be true or not, such a position, when taken up by capitalist organs, deserves examination.
Cute and underground methods were not used by the capitalists a hundred years ago. Workers who had the audacity to fight for higher wages by combination were handled in ways drastic and open. Take, for instance, the following extract from the “Observer” of a hundred years ago:
“Yesterday at Guildhall, John Stanley, Joseph Jeffery, Thomas Brean, and Thomas Brent, journeymen bootmakers, in the employment of Mr. Hale, of Fleet Street, were charged before Mr. Alderman Scholey and Mr. Alderman Maguay with conspiring to raise the price of wages. . . . The magistrates sentenced them to be confined in Newgate for two months each. Two others escaped on a point of law.”
According to the law at this time, any breach of contract on the employer’s part was a civil offence, on the part of the employee it was a crime. The Act of 1871 was hostile to the workers, and picketing was illegal. But much water has flowed under bridges since 1871, and there are signs that a new generation of employers look with not unkindly eyes upon trade unions.
In the early part of the 19th. century trade unionism was associated with Owenism, and the idea was wide-spread of a single trade union for all the workers in the country. But later a “New Model” of trade unionism sprang up. To quote Meredith’s “Economic History of England,” its “characteristics were the accumulation of large funds which might be employed either for general benefit purposes or, in case of need, as strike pay, the employment of a permanent, salaried executive to advise and carry out its policy, concentration of attention in the case of each union on the interest of the particular trade in which it was formed, and the absence of interest qua union in any social problems which had not a direct bearing on the wage contract in the trade concerned.”
It is towards this “New Model” of trade unionism that employers are looking with a winning smile; it is this unionism that they are watching with feelings of thankfulness. To again quote Meredith (who, writing from a bourgeois point of view, is especially valuable) :
“Down to the great Parliamentary struggle between 1867 and 1876, the opinion of employers in almost all industries was intensely hostile to collective bargaining. There were few who recognised a moral right of combination ; still fewer who believed that the exercise of the right was in the true interest of their employees, and a mere handful who saw in it a socially beneficient force. In the last thirty years a considerable change has occurred. In most industries where the system has long been established, a large minority of employers hold all the views indicated above, and a certain percentage maintain that unionism, in the long run, promotes the interest even of the employer. Especially in large-scale businesses many employers find in the organisation of their wage-earners a useful check upon the integrity of their foremen and departmental managers, and a conveniently impersonal way of bringing pressure to bear upon dishonest or idle wage-earners. Further, the employer who relies for his profits upon skill in organising his business, and marketing his output, is protected by the existence of a union against the competition of those who, whilst inferior to himself in these respects, excel him in the will or power to beat down the standard conditions and wages of the trade. Above all, the existence of a strong organisation makes it possible in a great measure to settle the general terms upon which labour shall be employed for long periods. The employer is set free from the risk of constant minor stoppages and disputes, and can concentrate his attention for months, or even years, at a time on other problems.”
In the “Shoe and Leather Record” of August 25th. appeared a remarkable proposal, a curious gem to find in the capitalist Press. After an appeal for Industrial Arbitration the editor said: “Those men who are already organised may be expected to stand up for their rights. Those who are not organised have few friends, and so it is with organised labour that we have to deal, at any rate in the first place. The first thing to do seems to be to so arrange matters as to give the unions an advantage over unorganised labour. As things stand, any advantage which the law gives is in favour either of the unorganised or the disorganised. It would be easy to enact that the advantages of the Trades Disputes Act of 1906 should only apply to organised labour—that is to trade unions. For example, Section 2 of that Act might be altered so as to read that ‘it shall be lawful for one or more persons acting on behalf of a trade union,’ etc., to do such and such things in relation to what is facetiously known as ‘peaceful picketing.’ At present the Section says that picketing may be conducted by ‘one or more persons acting on their own behalf or on behalf of a trade union.’ The words printed in italics could be erased from the statute book and other words consequential thereto inserted without exacting the antagonism of organised labour, and probably with the active approval of the Labour Party. The effect of this single alteration of the law would be to compel labour to organise or to lose the advantage of the Trades Disputes Act. And without organisation compulsory arbitration is a vain thing, because unless both employers and employed can be represented in a responsible manner before the tribunal it would be useless to consider complaints.”
“To compel labour to organise“. This phrase is truly an indication that capitalists have changed their attitude towards trade unionism. It is support of the view that the unions are reactionary organisations ; that bodies of lackadaisical men bossed by leaders with the gift of the gab and an inordinate ambition, are pleasing phenomena to capitalists, especially when these capitalists, by virtue of their being “The State,” can offer the men’s leaders soft emolument and tempting pensions. Capitalists are aware that arbitration, conciliation, and all the remaining fakes, are only applicable to those industries where trade union “leaders” can boss and bully non-thinking herds of workers.
The proposal of that “friend” of Labour, Mr. Will Crooks, is one more example of the dangers run by the workers in tolerating orthodox trade unionism. A Labour Disputes Bill has been concocted, backed by him and other Labour M.P.s. This bill proposes that in the case of a trade union and the employers agreeing on a Conciliation Board, any employee refusing to abide by that decision by “going on strike” will be liable to a fine of not less than £2 nor more than £10 for each day or part of a day. Such is the treachery of men who have reached fame and fortune on the backs of the wretched English proletariat.
This is the naked truth. The worker is to be “cribbed, cabined, and confined” in iron-bonnd trade unions, hedged around with conciliation, arbitration, “local and central boards,” and the like. Surrounded by such local threats he is to lose the right to strike, lose the miserable claim that even under capitalism he should be able to take advantage of economic conditions when selling his only possession—his labour-power, an advantage possessed by the owner of any any other commodity.
Yes, the men who propose to put English wage-slaves, during the whole of their working life, still more in the power of the tenacious tenacles of the capitalist these men are their own leaders ! What wonder, then, that capitalists beam on trade unionism ? Is it matter for surprise that they propose compulsory membership of a trade union to be the lot of the workers ? Remember the quotation before cited : “Above all the existence of a strong organisation makes it possible in a great measure to settle the general terms upon which labour shall be employed for long periods.” Workers, it is for you to say that you will no longer be “employed” or “sold” at the dictates of those who pose as your leaders, but who are, in reality, the most valued servants of the capitalists.
JOHN A. DAWSON