1920s >> 1924 >> no-237-may-1924

Ten Days that Shook Suburbia

On April 1st the strike of tramwaymen came to an end. London heaved a sigh of relief, and returned with gladness to the daily dodging of sudden death, when her ’buses and trams were restored to her. Rather congestion than absolute famine seemed the general feeling, and the average citizen turned to the morning paper to learn what he was required to think about it all. All the following extracts are from leading articles of the periodicals named, on April 1st. Thus the Daily News :—

“No attempt is now made to blink the fact that the railway, dock and tram strikes are the forerunners of a succession of critical wage disputes with which the present year is threatened. They are an inevitable sequel to the fierce and successful attacks which were made on wages when industry was in the lowest depths of depression. The same reactions follow each other in recurring cycles, with the same disastrous injury to the trade of the country. The popular suggestion at the moment is for “an exhaustive scientific inquiry” into the question of wages in all industries, and particularly into the relation between the wages of skilled and unskilled workers. Such an inquiry might have valuable results if it were accompanied by an inquiry also into the question of profits. But a scientific solution cannot of itself avail much. The course of industry will continue to be disturbed by these volcanic eruptions until employers and employed revolutionise their attitude to each other and agree to submit their differences as a matter of course, when they occur, to the judgment of a competent and impartial tribunal. . From that ideal we are unhappily still very far distant.”

Note the gloom in the last sentence. Perhaps they secretly realise that an “impartial” tribunal under Capitalism is about as likely as a “fair trial” in a political case.

The Daily Express, usually the vehicle of hollow skulled hysteria, was singularly mild. It confined itself to commenting upon the good-tempered manner in which the dispute had been conducted, and hoped “Mr. MacDonald’s Government” (lése majestie !) “will now lose no time in pushing through the Traffic Bill.” Advocacy from such a quarter is sufficient in itself to damn anything. One sentence from their leading article is worth embalming :— “Ten days have been lost, to say nothing of the enormous sums that have been wasted in this futile strike.” So that a strike that results in 17,000 men getting a rise of either 4s. or 6s. per week is futile ! What will they call it when, in the next industrial depression, the masters knock it off again?

The Daily Mail—well, you know what the Mail would say, don’t you ! Not that it was futile. Oh ! no. “Mr. MacDonald has by his feebleness presented Mr. Bevin with a great success . . . .” The Mail has a tiresome, senile habit of referring to movements in terms prominent individuals. In the present instance it obscures the fact that Bevin took the lead because the men compelled him. Curiously enough the “great success” was given the heading “A Bad Settlement” and follows :—

“Mr. Bevin, by the merciless use of force, has obtained an immediate increase in wages of 6s. a week for skilled and 4s. for unskilled employees, though it was admitted that the industry cannot afford such a wage rate. The settlement is therefore a bad one in itself. It has a further grave disadvantage of offering direct encouragement to the methods which Mr. Bevin has employed in demanding money whether it is there or not.”

It is said that immediately prior to the strike Lord Rothermere was travelling by his usual tram, when the conductor had the temerity to ask him for his fare. His proferred twopence was refused until by a merciless use of force he was compelled to pay threepence, although it was admitted he could not afford it. The conductor admitted that his employers expected him to demand the money whether it was there or not. It is a sad world.

Further search through the leading article mentioned reveals another relatively lucid interval. Remember the Daily Mail is a Tory paper:—

“The Government’s duty was to recognise that a transport strike differs fundamentally from other industrial disputes. A transport strike is not like an ordinary strike, because it aims its blows at the whole body politic and because it attacks the public rather than any body of employers. It is a political movement, not an economic struggle, and it ought to be dealt with accordingly by the authority which represents the public and the nation.”

We seem to recall the same criticism in connection with a coal strike, a dock strike, and any strike that is big enough to give Capital a severe jolt, and then whilst that is still fresh, read the Manchester Guardian’s leader, particularly the following extract, remembering that the Guardian is a Liberal paper:—

“The men had a legitimate object, but the method is one which no community will tolerate for long. Traffic strikes are not industrial disputes between employers and employed, but attacks upon the public, and especially on the working-class public, who are forced to travel to their work and have not the means to command private conveyances. There ought to be full and proper machinery for the just settlement of all working conditions, but the method of securing justice by holding up the public ought to be ruled out. It can only be described as the tyrannical exercise of monopoly power, and if persisted in it will meet the fate of all monopolies. Step by step the public will organise itself against such emergencies. Struggles might ensue of a kind which we do not care to contemplate, and eventually the public would win.”

Notice the great gulf that yawns between Tory and Liberal ! The article is singular in that it incorporates a very, fair statement of the ordinary workers side of the case: —

“On the one side, let us do justice to the men and their leaders. The men had a case, and the Court of Inquiry pronounced it a good case. To underpaid workpeople when they complain, it is not an adequate reply to urge the necessity of their work in the public service. Their very natural rejoinder is that, while it is very gratifying to find themselves so much needed, the more the reason for recognising their necessities as well. If work is particularly useful, why not pay the workers enough? If some departments of it are not earning the wherewithal to pay so much, that, in the view of the worker, is a reason for re organisation, conceivably in extreme cases for the closing down of unprofitable services—services which by the test of figures the public do not, after all, need to the extent of being willing to pay for them adequately. In short, the worker makes a fair remuneration the test of public as of private industrial service. For this he cannot be blamed as long as his views of “fair” remuneration are reasonable, as in this case they have been held to be.”

Then lower down follows the piece first quoted, where the Manchester Guardian prophesies that the “public” will win. You are naturally curious as to who the “public” really is. The Guardian anticipates this question :—

“When we say the public, we do not mean, as is so often meant, the middle classes. We mean all the people except the particular section of the workers interested.”

This is refreshing candour, to say the least of it. One might hastily assume that the best course of action before the workers would be for them all to go on strike together, when, of course, the “public” would have ceased to exist. If the “public” is this shifting entity; if, for instance, when the Lots Road electricians go on strike, the tube railwaymen are part of the public, and when vice-versa, a strike on the Tubes makes the electricians part of the public, how is the public going to “step by step . . . . organise itself against such emergencies?” It is somewhat bewildering.

But the Manchester Guardian has a remedy :—

“What will have to come in the public services is something on the analogy of a Wages Board, in which the workers will themselves take a responsible part, and which will be instructed to have regard not merely to paying capacity, but to movements in the cost of living and to rates prevailing in other occupations comparable in respect of the skill and the efforts demanded of the worker. What has gone awry in our industrial system since the war is the disturbance of the balance between one occupation and another. Where the workers have a pull on the public they have maintained the relatively high standards to which the war brought them. Where they have had no such pull they have fallen, and we have the spectacle of skilled engineers, the very pride of English industry, working for less than unskilled labourers. If we ask for the workers respect for order we must show them our respect for justice.”

This is a tremendous advance. This, surely, is the first rosy flush of the dawn of Utopia—Liberty variety. Wages in future are to be determined not merely by “paying capacity,” but also by the cost of living, and by what “the others” are getting. Now, of course, as is well known, wages are determined by the state of the tides, the average rainfall, and the height of Ben Nevis :—

“What has gone wrong with our industrial system, since the war is the disturbance of the balance between one occupation and another?”

Oh that war. What a happy, happy world did it terminate. “Before the war,” has become a phrase signifying bliss unimaginable. Who does not remember that golden period before August, 1914. No unemployed ; high wages; short hours; cheap food; everyone lived in his own house; sickness unknown and no one ever died. Even the weather was better then. The coal strikes, rail strikes, engineering strikes, building lock-out, unemployment crisis, etc., recorded in the newspapers of the pre-war period—pah ! we have forgotten them, therefore they do not exist. There was the uniformity with which workers in all trades approximated to the poverty line. So obvious, so uniform was it, that Campbell Bannerman served up the refreshing statement that thirteen millions of the nation were constantly on the verge of starvation. That unfortunate war, which only killed a million or so of them, has upset the balance. How annoying. We must have “something on the analogy of a Wages Board,” to get us all back to that delightful pre-war balance arrangement.

The Daily Graphic, that odd Victorian survival, badly grafted with a latter-day bud, felt the situation called for a leader from them. Peppered with the muddled cliches of rotund surburbia : “Irritation,” “disgust,” “disgrace to trade unionism,” “intimidation,” “bludgeoning,” it is nevertheless, not without humour. Compare “The same, or very nearly the same, result would have been achieved had the men, in¬stead of striking, merely threatened to strike . . . . ” with this :—

“It is possibly true that he (Mr. Bevin) has extorted a shilling or so more than the men would have accepted if the strike had not been in operation. That may be a “triumph” for him, but it is a triumph for force, and force will not always triumph.”

Dear ! Dear ! ! Thoroughly naughty boys these strikers are, to be sure.

And now for the Daily Herald. This paper did not deem the strike worthy of a leading article that day, but contented itself with comments in the news columns. Nothing is specially worth preserving except the following :—

“The strike has also been remarkable in that the Government felt compelled to prepare to invoke the powers of the Emergency Powers Act.
Had the underground railways been stopped, a Royal Proclamation was ready to have been issued on Saturday last, declaring it “state of emergency.”
The Prime Minister and other members of the Government took an active part in arranging the negotiations which made that step unnecessary.”

Need we remind you that the Emergency Powers Act was the legitimate offspring of Dora, the ruthless measure by means or which all criticism or independence was bludgeoned into submission during the war for freedom? No Act was so plaintively reviled by the Herald and the sentimental pacifists, than Dora. As the war receded and conditions approached “normal,” its place was taken by the Emergency Powers Act, a measure which provides for practically dictatorial government, on the declaration of an “emergency.” We hope the workers will not allow themselves to forget that it was a Labour Government that enjoyed the signal honour of being the first to invoke the Emergency Powers Act. You will be wondering what different action a “Capitalist” Government would have taken. Wonder no longer. Simply reflect that a Capitalist Government could do nothing worse. There is nothing worse. It is Capitalism’s trump card. Labour played it—nearly. Do not forget that.


(Socialist Standard, May 1924)

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