Labour Unrest

The most striking feature of the wave of unrest sweeping the working class to-day is the chaotic, and even contradictory, character of the claims put forward. The Clyde engineers struck—”unofficially,” it is true—for a 40-hour week; the Belfast workers for 44 hours. The Engineering and Shipbuilding trades in general having accepted a 47 hour week with the following as a condition:

    “The unions will take all possible steps to ensure that in the critical state through which the country has to pass the greatest possible output will be secured and maintained,”

were surprised to find the employers at once endeavouring to obtain as large, or even larger, an output in the 47 hours as under the 54, by speeding up, and cutting time for refreshment and so on.

Meanwhile the railway men had obtained recognition of the “principle” of the 8 hour day. Then the motor men on the London Tubes suddenly found that the half hour for meals allowed under the previous system was knocked off. Failing to get satisfaction through their officials they struck. Then ensued one of those situations that on the theatre stage would have caused roars of laughter, but which in real life is almost tragic. The main body of railway workers (apart from the clerks, etc.) are grouped in two unions—the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and the National Union of Railwaymen. As usual where two unions recruit from one body of workers, considerable jealousy exists between the officials. At first both unions refused to recognise the motormen’s strike. Then, seeing a chance to score off the N.U.R., the A.S.L.E.F. declared the strike “legal.” Following this they signed an agreement with the Railway Executive that left the situation practically as it was before the strike. Now the officials of the N.U.R. saw their chance. They repudiated this agreement and declared their men as “officially” on strike. In the course of a few days this farcical situation was ended by the N.U.R. officials signing an agreement similar in all respects to that signed by their rivals, except that this empty phrase was added:

    “The companies are to offer reasonable facilities to meet the ordinary physical needs of the men.”

The Shipbuilders and Repairers of the Thames are on strike for a 15s increase, while the Miners are balloting as to whether they shall strike to enforce their claims of a 6 hour day, 30 per cent. on wages, and nationalisation of the mines.

It is a favourite dodge of the capitalist hacks to lay the cause of these actions of the workers on “Bolshevik agitators.” But one simple fact put this nonsense out of court. If the unrest were due to any organised agitation, clearly it would have one object or set of objects and follow a co-ordinated policy to obtain them. It is true that a few Anarchist agitators, some of whom call themselves Bolsheviks, are taking advantage of the struggles to shout themselves into a brief notoriety, but they are no more the cause of the trouble than a cork bobbing in a stream is the cause of the water’s flow. A couple of incidents proved completely how small was the influence of these people.

The Government decided to break the strike on the Clyde. Well informed as to internal matters of the men’s organisation, they determined to deprive the strikers of their leaders, believing that this would collapse the strike.

A deputation had been appointed to interview the Mayor of Glasgow to try to persuade him to use his influence to obtain the intervention of the Government. A mass meeting of the strikers was to be held outside the Town Hall to hear the result. Instead of following the procedure usual when peaceful demonstrations are taking place of ordering vehicular traffic to suit its movements to the demonstration, the police first allowed a motor to drive into the crowd, injuring two persons, and then tried to force some trams through the meeting. Upon protest being made against this the police charged the crowd with batons. The men’s leaders rushed out and two of them were struck down by the police. After being taken inside the Town Hall and having their wounds dressed, they were allowed to speak to the meeting, and told the men to peaceably disperse and avoid all rioting. These leaders were then locked up and charged with inciting to riot!

Such a farcical charge exposes the police plot in its entirety. But this was not enough. Pretending that they feared an extension of the “riots,” the Government cynically sent Scots soldiers, provided with machine guns, bombs and wire netting, and later some Tanks, to protect the property of the master class. The plot succeeded and the strike collapsed.

Meanwhile a meeting of Electrical Workers in London decided to cease work and cut off all electrical power there to force the Government to introduce a 40 hour week throughout the country. The Government replied by issuing a new regulation under D.O.R.A. making it an offence to leave work on any electrical power plant supplying electricity to public and other services. The Electricians took the hint and nothing occurred.

These collapses show how small was the influence of these “agitators.” Still more clearly they show the overwhelming importance of the control of political power.

A calm examination of the situation will reveal that the main factors behind the great unrest are, the high cosy of living and, of greater importance, the dread of increase in the large amount of unemployment already existing with the further demobilisation of soldiers and closing down of various Government department. These are the great common causes manifesting themselves in the different and uncoordinated efforts of the workers in various parts of the country. They are trying to fight, more or less blindly, some of the effects of a system, while solidly supporting that system as a whole. Even in its immediate details they fail to see the absurdity of the terms they accept. Thus a child could understand that if production is maintained at the old level when hours are reduced, not a single extra worker will be employed. Yet the Engineering trades accept the condition that “the greatest possible output  will be secured and maintained,” and thus do their best to prevent the absorption of such of the unemployed as might have found work under the reduction of hours.

To the other factors causing unemployment may be added the shortage of materials.

The problem thus becomes intensified, and the expedient of shortening hours, good as far as it goes, cannot do more than act as a temporary check, while private ownership of the means of life continues. Not until the working class own and control the means of production and distribution will they be able to adjust the hours of labour to the requirements of society and the number able to work. To do this they must first understand and accept the principles of Socialism, then set to work to establish it by organising to take control of political power for the purpose of wresting the means of life from the hands of the master class. Only then will the “unrest” disappear—through its cause being abolished.

Jack Fitzgerald

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