1920s >> 1923 >> no-228-august-1923

Editorial: the dockers’ strike

Once more the broadcast lie about the “high wages” of the working class has met a refutation in the strike of dockers in various British ports. The poor pay of these workers, coupled with the casual character of their employment, had driven large numbers so close to actual want that the threatened reduction of a shilling a day formed the last straw that caused them to take strike action, even though they would not receive any support from their Union funds because their action was not in conformity with the rules.

The employers claim that as the Board of Trade “cost of living” figures show a reduction of 11 points under the agreement entered into by the Union officials and the employers, wages should be reduced by a shilling a day. The dockers reply that retail prices where they reside have not fallen, and they challenge an enquiry into these figures.

For good reasons the challenge has not been accepted. A short time ago some employers were questioning the Board of Trade figures, but now, when these figures happen to fit in with the employers’ case, the opposition is dropped. Moreover, these figures may be handled in different ways for the purpose of obtaining desired results.

Students of economics know that there is no rigid connection between wholesale and retail prices. The classical instance is that of agricultural produce, where the difference is often fantastic. Another illustration is given to-day by the food merchants who have raised the prices of various articles held in stock, under the excuse—for, of course, no reason for such action can be given—of the strike. A humorous sidelight is given to this point by the complaint of the wholesalers against the wicked retailers for raising retail prices before the saintly wholesalers have had a chance to raise theirs. (Daily News, 18/7/23.)

As wholesale and retail prices move not only at varying rates, but often in different directions, it is quite easy to take wholesale figures when they are favourable and use them as a base for calculating the “cost of living.”

With a most surprising, not to say suspicious, unanimity, the capitalist Press and the Union officials have joined forces in abusing the dockers for “violating the agreement” by refusing to accept the re-duction.

Bully Bevin, grovelling Gosling, and hysterical Williams have all joined in the chorus :—

“Mr. Ernest Bevin, secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said the Workers’ Union was to regard their ten shillings a day as a stop figure. Sporadic fights in single ports were wrong. The agreement ought to be honoured, and if there was to be a fight to maintain their conditions and their stop figure, care should be taken that it should be a complete and well organised one.”—(Daily News, 4/7/1923.)

This statement contains two pieces of bluff. The first is the yarn about the “stop figure.” Neither the Workers’ Union nor Bevin have ever made any claim about a stop figure in the negotiations, and the Agreement is wholly silent on the point. The second piece of bluff is where Bevin says, “if there was to be a fight, etc.” As he has done all he could to prevent any fight taking place, has urged the acceptance of reduction after reduction in the men’s wages, his talk about “if there was to be a fight” is just bunkum.

The Daily News for 5th July says :—

“It is clear, however, that under the agreement the shilling must come off, and the men can do little good to their cause by dishonouring their leaders’ signature.”

All this looks convincing on the surface, till one takes notice of a couple of facts. One is that the men have no check on, nor even information, as to how the figures are compiled. The second and more glaring fact is the one-sided character of the claim. All over the industrial field employers have been treating agreements with contempt and breaking them whenever it suited their purpose. The officials of large organisations, like the railwayman and the building workers, have meekly accepted, and even defended, the violation of agreements by the employers. The Agricultural Workers’ Union claim that 500 men are being victimised for taking part in the late strike in direct violation of the agreement accepted at the closing of the dispute. (Daily News, 16/7/1923).

The men, of course, must rigidly keep to the agreements, but the employers may break them when they will ! Can anyone be surprised that the men are beginning to see through such a flagrant piece of hypocrisy? Even the Daily News is beginning to hedge a little, for on July 12th it says :—

“Great injustices can be perpetrated under the demand for respect of agreements . . . and the spontaneous nature of the revolts of the dockers and the miners against their agreements suggests, perhaps almost proves, that they need at least a careful examination.”

It is a healthy sign that the men should at last take action to resist any further worsening of their conditions. The refusal to accept the advice of officials and the turning down of the clown, Ben Tillett, would be encouraging indications that the men are at last awakening to the folly of “following leaders,” if these actions were based upon knowledge of their case. Unfortunately the backing down of the “unofficial committee” seems to show that the movement is a blind resistance against a reduction of wages rather than a reasoned attempt to take control of affairs into their own hands. Even so, such action is better than mere apathy and a continued acceptance of the hero worship that was shown when presentations of large sums of money were made to Bevin for successfully negotiating reductions in wages.

The chief danger at present is that the men may be deceived by the lies of the union officials into dribbling back to work. Let the men decide to act as a whole, whether to stay out or return to work. When appointing representatives to discuss terms with the employers it should be made quite clear that these representatives should have no power of deciding the terms, but that they should be submitted to the vote of the men in every case.

It is the men who pay the Union officials their salaries—often reaching £800 per year—it is the men and their wives and families who have to bear the suffering caused by these struggles, not the Union officials. Clearly, then, it should be for the men to decide what conditions they will accept.

There is no real remedy for these evils while private property in the means of life continues. The dockers and other workers should study the conditions under which they exist; how they are dependent upon the employers’ permission to live at all, and then learn how the master class rule society through their control of the political machinery. Then they will set to work to take such control into their own hands and so have the ordering of their own lives.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, August 1923)

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