Has Trade Unionism Failed?


In the “Penny Pictorial” (4th March), Lord Askwith gives his answer to this question. He writes as an “expert”; for, as chief Industrial Commissioner, 1911—1919, he negotiated in more than 100 trade disputes, and whatever his knowledge of Trade Unionism, he must know a great deal about the Trade Unions. Nevertheless, his answer does not add to the discussion much that is likely to be useful or illuminating to the many workers, who, while equally interested, lack his special experience.


It is really not surprising that Lord Askwith’s statement is unsatisfactory, because he never troubles to explain the object of Trade Unionism, and without that in mind, how can it be decided whether or not there has been a failure?


It is remarkable that such an omission is made, for it must be clear, after a moment’s consideration, that unless there is an accepted basis of judgment, in this instance the aim which brought the trade union movement into being, there can be no useful discussion, and the only criterion possible is Lord Askwith’s own view of what Trade Unionism ought to have done. For instance, if a number of people joined together to bring the heathen to abstain from cannibalism, Lord Askwith might examine the evidence and make the charge of failure if, after years of preaching, the heathen were still eating missionaries; he could not, however, allege failure merely because they killed the missionaries, although he personally and many of the members (the missionaries included) objected equally strongly to murder.


The only measure of the success or failure of trade unionism is the progress made towards its goal, whatever that may be.


Lord Askwith points to the following, which appear to him to be signs of failure: Recent falling membership, exhaustion of funds, the hampering of trade by working restrictions, unemployment, direct action, lack of co-ordination, strikes instead of conciliation, and the consequent raising of prices, and lastly, in his eyes doubtless the most serious, the failure of some unions to “lead the way” to lower wages! On the other hand, he notes with approval the more orderly conduct of strikes, fewer strikes, amalgamations, and better informed members.


Now on examination, we find that this is not so much the success attained for trade unionism, but the methods particular unions have adopted, and the difficulties of maintaining effective organisation, with which Lord Askwith concerns himself. These might be causes of failure, if there has been failure, but they are certainly not evidence that there has been failure.


While the organisation of the workers is a necessary activity for trade unions, it is not an end in itself, and loss of members, while it may reflect on the wisdom of certain policies, is not a proof of the failure of trade unionism. It may, for example, be caused by general trade depression. It may be remarked here that had the trade unions not lost in membership, there might as a consequence have been more strikes and greater resistance to wage reductions, yet Lord Askwith classes together loss of members and too many strikes as signs of failure.


Again, it is doubtful if even the most anti-working class of the trade union officials would proclaim wage reducing as an object of organisation.


As for the few things which meet with his approval, even if good in themselves, Lord Askwith does not show them to be the conscious product of trade unionism.


In short, he does not seem to be able to help us much, and we must go elsewhere for information.


First, what are trade unions, and why do they exist? Sidney Webb defines a trade union as “a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the condition of their working lives.” To understand their origin, it is necessary to have a clear idea of the conditions from which they spring. They are found to grow up wherever and whenever the capitalist system of society comes into being. Capitalism has not always been, and is, in fact, of only recent development in human society, and the rise of the trade unions coincides nearly enough with the industrial revolution which marked the change from individual handicraft to large scale factory production. As Capitalism extends its area over the hitherto undeveloped countries, Japan, India, and China, for instance, so do the workers, whose status is more or less violently upset by the changing economic conditions, combine to form trade unions.


The outstanding features of the capitalist system are these: The ownership by a class small in numbers of the bulk of the means of producing wealth, the land, the railways, mines and factories; and the total absence of property from the hands of the remaining members of society, the great majority. The wealth by which both classes live is produced by the larger class only, by the workers; but the latter may not use the means of producing wealth except by permission of the capitalists who own them. The condition of such use is that the capitalists who produce nothing own the whole of the product. Of this they return a relatively small part in the form of wages. The capitalists are able to live on the wealth which they do not produce, because they own the machinery of production, while the workers, being propertyless, must sell their bodily energies for wages.


We have here a dominant and a slave class, the gulf between them being no less marked than that between chattel slave and slave owner. The main difference is that the wage worker faces the employing class apparently as an equal, because he has the political status of a citizen. He, the seller of his labour power, and the employer, the buyer of his labour power, dispute about the price of sale as do buyers and sellers of other commodities, but with important differences. He, the worker, must sell his commodity week by week or month by month, or he will starve, whereas the merchant who sells goods can usually wait his time without being subjected to the pressure of dire necessity. He can diminish or stop production if the market is unfavourable, but the worker cannot stave off the pangs of hunger until a more fitting opportunity.


Now, just as boot manufacturers combine to keep their prices up, instead of competing with each other, so workers organise to raise or maintain the level of their wages. Where one man is helpless, a body of men may succeed in enforcing certain demands on their employers.


These organisations are trade unions. They are the product of capitalism, and are to be found wherever capitalism is. They could not arise nor continue except where the capitalist organisation of society prevails.


Now “maintaining and improving the condition of working lives” covers a wide field indeed. It has included raising wages, shortening hours, bettering workshop and factory conditions, obtaining more holidays, and, shortsightedly enough, preserving restrictions which are held to protect certain skilled crafts. Perhaps that which loomed largest in the minds of the early trade unionists was simply the desire for a shield against the ruthless exploitation to which they were subjected in capitalism’s early days. Now, has trade unionism done these things? A brief examination of the facts will show to what extent it can be said to have failed. It is only needful to give a few illustrations, which, however, are typical of the position all over the capitalist world.


Take this country first. Real wages, that is, the amount of food, clothing, etc., that money wages will buy, have fallen during the war, and are now generally less than in 1914, which again showed a decline on the closing years of the nineteenth century. While shorter hours have been won during the war, an attack seems to be brewing to bring about an increase again, and in many industries concessions have already had to be made. It is frankly admitted by Sidney Webb, in his “History of Trade Unionism,” that trade union restrictions lost during the war were not regained in anything like their entirety afterwards; as he tersely puts it, the workers were “done.” There is at the same time a constant endeavour by employers to remove protective machinery set up by Act of Parliament to deal with wages and conditions of labour. The Factory Acts themselves are in undoubted danger. Skilled craftsmanship is now rapidly ceasing to give a guarantee of comfort and security, a tendency hastened, no doubt, by the experiences of the war period in the employment of labourers on tasks hitherto regarded as the province of trained men only. The A.E.U., in its October, 1921, Report, admits that during the war, ‘‘the average time rate of the skilled fitter and turner never kept pace with nor equalled the increased cost of living.” (‘‘Industrial News,” March, 1922), and the Boilermakers’ report for September of the same year contains this: ‘‘It took us six years to get 100 per cent. on wages, with the cost of living on an average of 133 per cent, up over the whole period.” Again in 1851, the A.S.E. (now the A.E.U.) was demanding : (1) The abolition of piecework; (2) the abolition of overtime, and (3) the discharge of labourers on self-acting machines, while in 1922, 71 years after, the officials of that union are recommending their members “ to accept an agreement recognising the unlimited right of the bosses to control overtime. The operating of machines by ‘semi-skilled’ labour is involved, so also are the piece-work prices for such operating ” (“Industrial News,” March, 1922).


Lastly, there are 2,000,000 workers out of regular employment, and the fear of dismissal is an ever present nightmare in every trade. It is this prevalence of unemployment which is at the same time the terror of the worker, the goad which makes him organise, and the immediate cause of the weakness of his organisation. No trade union can successfully fight unemployment. The latter is a necessary feature of the system inside which trade unions function, and it marks the limit of their usefulness.


In America, the standard of living in 15 chief industries has been declining since 1896; between 1896 and 1907, by 6 per cent. and over the whole 24 years to 1920 by nearly 25 per cent. (“American Economic Review,” Sept., 1921). America, too, has its 6,000,000 unemployed. This is, in fact, a common experience in the victorious as well as the defeated and neutral nations, in spite of the fact that in 1920 the number of workers organised in trade unions reached a record figure, and represented a much higher percentage than ever before of the total number of wage earners.


Wages are still rapidly falling, without hope of a break, and even the most solidly established unions cannot hope to resist effectively. The engineers are crippled by unemployment, the miners shattered by unsuccessful strikes and the decline of the coal trade; the railwaymen forced to accept merely with protest dismissals and wage reductions. The unskilled and agricultural unions, and others who had artificial growth stimulated by the war-time labour shortage, and by the setting up of Wages Boards, Trades Boards, etc., by the Government, have to face disastrous withdrawal of members, discouraged because unable to understand the failure of their officials to prevent wage reductions. The position is desperate, and, owing to lack of real knowledge of the system of society, some of the effects of which they are organising to counteract, the workers as a whole are apathetic and despairing, of the future.


Can we then agree that because the workers’ position is wretched, that trade unionism has failed? By no means. The wretchedness is the outcome of the exploitation to which the workers are subjected inside the capitalist system, and it can with truth be said, therefore, that trade unionism has not touched the root causes of the evils which it fought. As against that, however, the workers’ position could and undoubtedly would have been much worse than it is if they had not had what protection their trade unions did provide. Furthermore, it would indeed be suicidal to discard the existing weapon while the need for it continues.


Yet the fact remains that the workers are still wage-earners without comfort or security or hope of advancement.


What is the cause and the remedy?


We may first reject most of Lord Askwith’s brilliant notions. A recognition of the class division in society shows them to be untrue and often simply ridiculous.


The capitalists as a class do no useful work in the social production of wealth, but by virtue of their being owners of property they draw revenue from the mass of wealth produced.


The more they receive, the less there remains for the workers, and vice-versa, at any given moment.


The relative amounts will depend on the amount of pressure each side can apply in the constant struggle.


Unemployment is a necessity for the continued existence of the capitalist system, for the removal of its cause would mean the cessation of the production on a capitalist —that is, a profit-making—basis.


The advocacy of conciliation instead of strikes is based on the foolish idea that there can be an ideal basis of negotiation between Capital and Labour, between robber and robbed. Each is, in fact, entitled to what it can get, and as external circumstances, trade prosperity, and the condition of the labour market change, so must the quantity of force at the disposal of each of the combatants change. Permanent equilibrium is therefore impossible, and perpetually recurring disputes inevitable.


Lastly, prices are dependent on factors which are not directly altered by variations in wages, as is implied by Lord Askwith. A seller will ask as much as the market will stand, and the condition of the market is not directly affected by the payment of an increased wage to his operatives. For instance, according to the Royal Commission on Grain Markets (Saskatchewan, 1913), the average cost of producing wheat in Canada in 1909 was 48 cents per bushel and the selling price 81 cents. Both cost of production and prices showed a steady alteration during the four following years, and in 1913, while cost had risen to 55 cents, the price had fallen to 66 cents. 


Again, it does not even follow that the cost to the manufacturer is increased by the raising of wages, as the increased wage per head of the employees may be balanced by a reduction in the number employed, while at the same time the introduction of improved machinery correspondingly raises the output of each worker. If the cost does rise, then the employer’s profits suffer.


There are other explanations offered. The form of organisation is attacked, and industrial unionism and workshop committees, etc., are held out as remedies. Now while it is agreed that the present unions have not made the most effective use of their power during or since the war, no change of form can solve the problem of unemployment. No industrial organisation can hope to meet with success the state forces at the disposal of the employers, or wring appreciable concessions at a time when there is a great excess of workers over the number the employers are prepared to engage, or when trade is so bad as to make it more economical to a considerable section of capitalists to close down altogether, or severely to restrict production. Solidarity alone is not an effective defence against the weapon of starvation.


Then it is alleged that many officials are traitors to their members, but the treachery of certain labour leaders cannot disguise the fact that the pressure of the overstocked labour market so far affected the masses of organised workers that they did and still do loyally follow these betrayers, accepting as correct the necessity for their actions and the reasonableness of their explanations. Treachery in leaders is itself an effect, and not an important cause of failure. J. H. Thomas is a wolf because his members are sheep he is also a particularly bold wolf, because he knows his members have a powerful liking for his howl. J. H. Thomas is a defender of the capitalist system, and its mascot the monarchy, because he knows his members are also defenders of the capitalist system. He attends court functions because his members are still more interested in the wedding of “our Princess ” than in the starvation and humiliation which wage slavery means for them and their daughters. Leaders are followed because they say and do those things of which members in the main approve. The members approve because the capitalist press approves, and the press is their chief source of information. Does anyone believe that the workers would follow a lead in an opposite direction against their present inclinations, and in face of opposition from all the organs of capitalist propaganda? No, not if Thomas himself led them. While leaders have jobs to consider, they will play for safety; that is, as long as there are workers who, lacking knowledge, wish to be led.


In workers organisations, as in modern states, only those actions and policies are in the last resort possible which meet with the active approval or at least the acquiescence of the rank and file. The moonshine of the theory of leading the masses to revolution is sufficiently exposed by its adherents, Eden and Cedar Paul, in the “Communist Review,” March, 1922, where they write of Russia in these words :—

    “Despite the dictatorship of the proletariat, her policy is in a large measure dictated by the peasantry—a reactionary class constituting four-fifths of the population.”

The dictators are dictated to!


The trade unions have not aimed at overthrowing capitalism. They endeavoured to make capitalism tolerable for the workers; a hopeless endeavour, because there can be no salvation for the workers inside the system. The continual existence of the exploitation of the one class pre-supposes, as well, as their robbery, also their subordination to another class. The condition of the workers could not even improve relative to its previous state, because the tendency— too obvious to be ignored—of capitalist development is in the direction of simplification of labour from skilled to unskilled, and the replacing of the craftsman by the factory hand, and the trained specialist by the routine worker, the replacing of the man by the machine, on which he becomes increasingly dependent.


To maintain and improve the standard of living or to increase security in face of this would have necessitated power greater than that of the capitalist class, the use of which power must have revolutionised society. The trade unions had no such power, and what is more would not have been prepared to use it if they had. The workers have not wanted and do not want to abolish capitalism. When they wish to do so, the power is at hand for their use, but before they have the will to abolish capitalism, the workers have first to understand what capitalism is, and that its replacement is an immediate possibility.


The workers are kept in subjection by all the forces and institutions of the state, and these in turn are at the disposal of the capitalists because the workers permit them to be. The state power of the capitalist class is derived from the representative assemblies elected for the most part by the votes of the workers. The workers do not organise on the economic field in order to overthrow the capitalist system, nor do they take part in elections for such a purpose. Even if they had the will to face the issue out to its logical conclusion, and recognised that their fight must be against the organised might of the capitalist state, they would yet be doomed to failure if they did not understand the working of the machinery of government; if, like the South African miners, they pitted the puny strength of a few men armed with sporting rifles, and a few more “armed” with pick-axes against well-equipped, numerous and adequately supported troops. That the workers mentioned did lack understanding, even of their class position, is evidenced by their attempt to exclude the unorganised black workers, and by their inviting alliance from the Nationalists; an alliance, that is, which would have put control of the forces which defeated them into the hands of another section of the capitalist class.


When the workers understand the social system, their exploitation, and their relation to the capitalist class, they will organise for the specific purpose of capturing the machinery of government from the capitalist class, in order that they may build a new social system based on the common ownership of the means of wealth production, under the protection it will afford.


The workers have the remedy for their sufferings in their hands; only when they are class conscious will they use it. 

Edgar Hardcastle

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