1920s >> 1923 >> no-225-may-1923

Editorial: Building workers trapped again

For about two years the employers have been having a triumphal march in enforcing wage reductions all round. So-called “skilled” and “unskilled,” “manual” and “mental” workers, have all suffered from these reductions. The excuses given are monotonous in their sameness. “It is necessary ‘to revive trade” ; “Costs are too high and must come down”; “Prices cannot fall till wages are lower” ; such are the slogans.

These statements are repeated despite the notorious facts that prices have not only not fallen after the reductions, but in many cases—i.e., milkman—the price of milk went up as wages were reduced.

In some cases the workers have at last decided to resist further reductions, and have made ready to fight the masters, even though conditions, as among farm labourers, could not be considered too hopeful. Another case was that of the building workers.

Some time ago these workers were bluffed by their officials into accepting a “Sliding Scale Agreement.” which, these officials said, would guarantee that wages would never fall below the Cost of Living as given by the Board of Trade. Last year the falsity of this claim was completely exposed, and the Agreement cynically broken by the workers’ officials, accepting a reduction of wages, against the wishes of the men, that in some cases went as low as 2d. per hour below the Cost of Living Scale in the Agreement.

Delighted with this success—that did not influence prices of buildings, but was so much extra profit to the employers—the masters put forward another demand, a few months ago, for a reduction of wages of 4d. an hour, and an increase of hours. The officials tried by trick and subterfuge to swindle the men into accepting this demand. They specially stressed the point that a refusal to accept might mean a strike or a lock-out. Of course, it might. Every resistance to a reduction of wages, or a worsening of conditions, necessarily means the risk of a strike or lock-out, and there is no particular difference in this case from the thousands of struggles undertaken by the Trade Unions in the course of their existence. But the men decided to test the situation, and by a huge majority voted to resist the demand. Ihe figures were : —

For acceptance … 42,606
Against……………. 140,952
Majority against… 98,346
(Daily News. 21/3/1923.)

The officials started a Publicity Campaign of a particularly weak kind, perhaps purposely. They claimed that the employers were—technically—breaking the Agreement. Even if this claim were true, the answer is crushing. The officials had already, against the vote of the men, broken the Agreement last year when they accepted a reduction of 2d. an hour below the Cost of Living Scale.

After considerable negotiation, the masters abated their demands from 4d. per hour reduction to 2d.

The men’s officials demanded that the question: “Had the Agreement been broken,” should be submitted to arbitration. The masters agreed, if their case re wages and hours was included. As the men had voted so decisively against any reduction, the officials were at first afraid to accept this condition. When, however, the Builders’ Notice to the men was nearing its end, the officials offered to include wages. This was refused. But about 2½ hours before the expiry of the Notice (13th April), the services of slimy Ramsey McDonald were successful in arranging a withdrawal of the Notice on the following—among other—terms :

“Conditionally upon the employers withdrawing their notices, it is agreed that interpretation of the National Wages and Conditions Council document and the question of wages be referred to the arbitration of an arbitrator appointed by the Lord Chief Justice, together with two assessors, one to be appointed by the operatives and the other by the building employers, the arbitration to be held on the above within seven days.” (“Star,” 13/4/1923.) (Italics ours.)

The question of hours is to be balloted upon by regions—not nationally—another dirty trick upon the men.

This arrangement is a deliberate swindle by the officials upon the men. It is a flat contradiction of the latter’s vote. The President of the Building Trades Federation—Mr. G. Hicks—has stated that the Arbitrator will first interpret the Agreement, and if he endorses the men’s view of it, the employers’ wages demand will be ruled out of order. This is another piece of bluff, as the terms quoted above distinctly state, “and the question of wages.” The matter has now been settled by the Arbitrator, Sir Hugh Fraser, deciding to hear both sides, “not merely on the interpretation of the Agreement, but on the wages reduction claim.” (Daily News, 23/4/1923.)

Under all the circumstances the men stood quite a fair chance of successfully resisting the masters’ demands, and of putting a halt, for a time, at any rate, upon the rush down of wages that had taken place. As the men had given their decision, knowing the results of their vote, it was a distinct act of treachery on the officials’ part to accept terms contrary to that vote. The curse of “Leaders” once more. It is to be hoped that the ballot on hours will be as overwhelming against any increase as the former vote.

It may be interesting, as showing how hard up the poor employers are, and how they are quite unable to pay even present wages, to quote the following from the Daily News, 23/4/1923, re the Marriage of the Duke of York :—

“Preparations have been made everywhere for Londoners and London’s crowd of visitors from the provinces, from the Continent, and from America to make merry.

DINNERS AND DANCES.

All the leading hotels and restaurants are arranging for gala dinners and dances in honour of the occasion.
There will be dancing every night during the week at the Savoy Hotel, and on the wedding night a special gala dinner, supper, and ball. The menu that night will include two new dishes in honour of the bride—a poussin de printemps Glamis Castle and fraises glacées Elizabeth. The hotel will be decorated with white roses, symbols of York, red roses for St. George, and white heather for Scotland.
Six Indian Princes are arriving at the Savoy on Tuesday for the wedding.
The Berkeley Hotel, on the route of the wedding procession, is giving a gala lunch, guests at which will be able to see the return of the Royal couple from the Abbey. The outside of the hotel will be brilliantly decorated.”

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, May 1923)

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