Editorial: The Engineers Lock-Out.
For nearly two years there has been a rapid and persistent worsening of the conditions of life of the working class. In every industry there have been large reductions of wages, often accompanied by the extension of working hours. So enormous has this fall become that Dr. Macnamara stated (Daily News, 17/2/1922) that wages had fallen in 1921 by £6,000,000 per week. That is over £300,000,000 per year ! Geddes looks small beer alongside this, for while his Committee were trying to reduce Government expenditure by £100,000,000, the employers succeeded in “saving” more than three times that amount from wages.
Naturally the employers are feeling jubilant. The only serious attempt to stop this landslide in wages and conditions was the threat of the Triple Alliance last April in connection with the Miners’ lock-out. The foul treachery of J. H. Thomas, Robert Williams, Frank Hodges, and the rest of the official crowd, who study so strenuously the interests of the masters when any dispute occurs, saved the situation for the employers, and prepared the way for further drastic reductions in wages on every hand.
Finding the workers in retreat on all fronts, the masters have now decided to try a “big offensive” in certain selected industries, with the deliberate intention of continuing this “offensive” in every industry till the standard of the workers as a whole has been forced far below the 1914 level.
For this purpose they have chosen to attack the Engineers directly, and allied industry of shipbuilders indirectly. The point of attack on the Engineers is on the matter of overtime that had been the subject of agreement in September, 1920. To talk of the need for “overtime” when millions are vainly seeking work is not Gilbertian, it is drivelling idiocy. Even the employers seem to recognise this, for they are stating that the issue is : —
“We are going; to know where we arc. We are going to manage the shops, or the shops are not going to be run. We are going to make it an absolute condition of employment for all hands” (Employers’ statement, Daily News, March 20th, 1922.)
In the House of Commons Mr. A. Henderson quoted from a document the following instruction :—
“Men will have to resume work on conditions that we will lay down” (Daily News, March 21st, 1922).
The employers trot out these statements pompously and endeavour to convey the impression that it is a brand-new discovery they have made. In their bone-headed ignorance they have no idea that their argument is as old as the institution of private property in the means of life. In the antique civilisations and, centuries after, in the cotton fields of South America, the slave-owners claimed the right to do “as they liked with their own”—in these cases the chattel slaves. The Feudal barons bewailed the few manorial and guild restrictions as interfering with their liberty to do “as they liked” with the serf. And the early capitalists, Christian and Atheist alike, fiercely denounced any interference with the “liberty of the subject” when they dragged children of three years of age and upwards into the hell of mill and mine.
The employers certainly have logic on their side so far. All the wailing about the “cruelty” of the employers, in choosing a time suitable to themselves to enforce such conditions, is waste of breath and ink. Grant the right of private ownership of the means of life or of persons, then one cannot deny the “right” of the owner to “do as he likes with his own.” But let us carry the argument a step further.
Upon examination it will be found that the employers only rely upon this “right” so long as the workers accept it meekly. If, under the stress of want, the workers were to attempt to use the means of production for their own benefit, the masters would drop talking of “right” and would openly use the might they control. They would at once call in the forces, of the State, and machine guns, aerial bombs, tanks and troops—à la the Rand—would be launched against the unarmed workers. Like so many other things to-day, “right” will be used by the employers as far as it suits their interests. When it fails to do this, then, like “humanity,” “brotherly feeling,” “mutuality of interests,” and numerous other catchwords and phrases, it will be kicked aside with contempt.
Yet with all the present and past facts around them in overwhelming quantities to prove the truth of this point, the fakirs like Brownlie, Thomas, Clynes & Co. chatter about conciliation and the “duty” of the Government to intervene. Neither they, nor Sir Allan Smith, need turn a hair on this point. If the capitalists fancy their property is in any danger, then the Government will intervene with the speed of greased lightning.
Is the situation then entirely hopeless ? To answer this question it is necessary to grasp clearly what the situation is. Despite the empty-headed rant of the Communist Party and of J. C. Gould and Sir Allan Smith, there is no disposition on the part of the mass of the workers to-day to “control production.” The most demanded by the workers is that they shall have some say as to the details of the conditions under which they are to work. The situation then is one of conditions of employment. Once this is understood it becomes a matter of discussion as to what hope exists. On the one hand there are some firms outside the Masters’ Federation. Sir Allan Smith and J. C. Gould may be taken as extremists of the latter organisation, but if the workers make a real attempt to put a brake upon the landslide that is taking place in the worsening of their conditions, there may be sufficient members of the Federation who would rather call a halt than face a real fight.
For one thing stands out clearly : Even if the masters win all along the line, if unlimited overtime is allowed and wages are reduced further, these things of themselves would not bring a single order into the shops. In reference to the Shipbuilders’ case, the Daily News, 9/2/1922, says :—
“It is not contended that the proposed reduction in wages will restore that part of the demand which has disappeared, because of the abnormal rate of world building since the Armistice, the operation of the reparation clauses requiring the handing-over of German ships, and the general slump in world trade.”
How can the situation be tested ? There is only one way. The organised workers must take united action to hold up Industry. It is not a sectional question. The whole of the workers are involved, and if they remain divided, they will be attacked, and beaten, in detail by the employers. If the workers are prepared to stop the wheels of industry for the purpose of putting a check on this attack they must grasp the facts before them.
First, the stoppage must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely. If it does not effect its purpose in a short, sharp action, then it will have failed and the men must accept the inevitable for the present.
Second, it must be carried out peaceably. Any attempt at riot or destruction must be sternly repressed, as it would at once give the signal for the use of the armed forces against defenceless men. All nonsense about “taking possession of works, etc.,” must be repudiated or ignored, as that way leads to disaster.
Third, the decisions to come out and to go back must be in the hands of the rank and file. No power should be given to leaders—revolutionary or otherwise—to decide these points.
Such action would cause practically no increase in the misery that already exists, and it would be a real test of the situation. And the hope of success within the limits laid down is at least such as to make the effort worthwhile.
But should this effort be successful, even then the workers would still have to realise that they are only fighting effects, while the cause of their troubles remains unaltered. That cause lies in the private ownership of the means of life—the land, mills, mines, factories, railways, canals, etc.—and the resulting enslavement of the non-owners, the property-less workers. This enslavement is maintained owing to the masters’ control of political power whereby they can use the armed forces to protect their property. But this political power is placed in the masters’ hands by the workers when at each election—whether general or bye-election—they vote the supporters of capitalism into Parliament. It does not matter in the least whether that supporter be Sir Allan Smith or J. H. Thomas, Lord Devonport or Ben Tillett, the result is the same.
Not until the workers understand the above facts and organise to gain control of political power for the purpose of establishing the common ownership of the means of life, will the days of strikes and lock-outs be over.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, April 1922