1910s >> 1916 >> no-137-january-1916
The Old, Old Story
A trade-union conference was recently held at the Central Hall, Westminster, at which three ministers addressed the delegates with the avowed object of gaining their influence against any movement by munition workers for an increase in wages. The ministers, with their usual contempt for the representatives of the workers, delivered their speeches and took their departure. What they had said, though economically unsound, contradictory and absurd, was to be taken as gospel and transmitted to the workers. The delegates made no attempt to expose the ludicrous mistakes and wilful misrepresentations contained in the statements of the three ministers. They came to heel, and carried out the instructions of their masters—as good labour leaders have always done in the past.
Asquith figured first, and destroyed the case of his colleagues before they spoke. Four-and-a-half million workers, one-third of the total, had received an average increase of three and sixpence per week. An increase of a fraction over 5 per cent. for the whole of the working-class. He then showed that the cost of living had risen in the same period by 30 per cent. Thus proving that the working class of this country had sustained a reduction in wages of 25 per cent.
No wonder that Mr. McKenna followed with the remark: “I am not sure that I am very fond of explaining to an audience of this kind why, in the present circumstances, it is contrary to the interests of the State to put forward claims for higher wages in particular trades.” The State having, without friction, achieved a 25 per cent, reduction all round could, of course, afford to pay for the overtime worked in those particular trades and even grant a substantial increase in wages but, that would not be business, and besides, the rest of the workers might want a rise as well. We pass over the insinuating remark that the speaker dislikes the task of dissuading the workers from attempting to improve their conditions. He is no doubt fully alive to its contemptible nature. The insinuation is only one trick in the miserable game played by professional politicians and their colleagues the labour leaders.
Mr. McKenna then proceeded to argue that higher wages means higher prices. He may or may not believe in this oft exposed fallacy. But he is confident of one thing: it is a convenient doctrine to impress upon the workers. Especially that section of the workers completely at the mercy of the masters because they are unorganised. Millions of workers, who’s wages are below the average, and who are unable to distinguish the real cause of their poverty, are easily persuaded that their fellow-workers are responsible for some of it when they strike for higher wages.
“Very large wages” said Mr. McKenna, “have been earned in many cases. Now, half the trouble would never have arisen if those large wages had not been lavishly spent.’’
Mr. Asquith had previously demonstrated to the delegates that the workers had sustained a 25 per cent. reduction in wages. Thereby proving that their purchasing power had been reduced. But Mr. McKenna bad the audacity to tell them that four-and-a-half million workers whose actual wages have only fallen by 15 per cent. instead of 25 per cent, are responsible for half the trouble, because they spent this fictitious increase, together with their overtime money, instead of saving it. Note, too, the concern of the little brother of the very poor. “The larger demand amongst that section of the community which was enjoying higher wages and higher income sent up the price of the article and diminished, therefore, the power to purchase of their poorer neighbours.”
The whole burden of Mr. McKenna’s speech is summed up in his concluding sentences. “Those who demand higher wages must show themselves worthy of higher wages. They must show they can save in the interests of the State and their neighbours, their families and themselves . . . That is the demand you have to make, and, until you can do so, you are not justified in asking for higher wages for a special trade to the injury of all other classes of the community.”
His speech was a transparent attempt to raise a popular outcry against that section of the workers who, in the present crisis, could by organised action demand and obtain a substantial—though temporary increase in the price of their labour-power.
It was reserved for Mr. Runciman to insult the intelligence of the assembled delegates. Many labour leaders profess Socialism. Mr. Runciman, of course, knew the extent of their Socialistic knowledge—nationalisation of industries and the like so, after informing them that the Government had spent forty millions buying up sugar, he gravely informed them that it was “one of the greatest Socialistic experiments ever entered upon by any government.” They also purchased wheat from India, the United States, Canada, and the Argentine in enormous quantities. “That” he said, “was Socialism again, but it was Socialism on a business basis, and I should always be prepared to do business on those terms.” And the delegates, well, they quite appreciated these profound remarks because they coincided with their own limited knowledge and confused ideas of Socialism. We read, therefore, without a symptom of surprise that the conference “decided to send to the members of all trade unions copies of the speeches and commend the appeals to their earnest and favourable consideration.’’