The strike on the Underground
“Representations had been made by the shopmen to the N.U.R. over a period of two years for action to be taken on their behalf.”
The Strike Committee Statement,
Daily Herald, June 9th.
The, strike of 7,000 men on the Underground Railways was “unofficial.” And the reason is given in the above quotation. Reduction of wages since the war caused the men to strike against the London Traffic Trust. The Press, the employers, and the National Union of Railwaymen united in denunciation of the men. Mr. Cramp, the Secretary of the N.U.R., says it was “mob law,” and advised the railway owners not to negotiate with the strikers. The union leaders were paraded by the Press as safe and sane, and commended for their strong stand. Continual orders were issued by the N.U.R., telling the men to return to work at once. Without strike pay, and with the employers, the Labour Government, and the Union arrayed against them, the men returned to work.
The Labour Government played its usual part of promising protection to those at work during the strike and to maintain the services if the strike spread. Here is the pledge given by the Labour Minister (Mr. Tom Shaw) in the House of Commons :
“My answer is, ‘Yes, undoubtedly the fullest protection will be given to the men who work.’ The noble lord further wanted to know whether in the event of the dispute spreading and certain public utilities being threatened, the Government will maintain these public utilities. Again I answer quite as frankly that the Government will do all it possibly can to maintain the public utilities. When I say that I am speaking of food, lighting, water and power, the Government will do all it possibly can and will take every step possible to maintain all these essential services. There will be no question about the fullest possible authority being given to every department of Government to take the steps that I have said the Government are prepared to take, and I hope that the noble lord will admit that my answer has been as frank as he desired it to be.”—Official Parliamentary Debates, June 6th, page 1695.
Thus the strikers were awed into submission. The Secretary of the Strike Committee stated in the Daily Herald (June 9th) that he had received information that naval ratings would probably be introduced in the power stations. The capitalist Daily Mail also stated that, had the strike spread and the tube stations been forced to close, naval ratings would be used.
The electricians in some of the stations struck with the consent of their union, and the last night of the strike they had arranged to meet to consider withdrawing all men from the power stations. Instead of striking, they decided to remain at work. The reason given by the Secretary of the Electricians’ Union in the Daily Herald (June 13th) was that misapprehension existed in the public mind that the Craft Unions’ dispute was connected with the unofficial strike of the members of the N.U.R.
This is a very unconvincing reason, and after the Daily Herald’s announcement of the certainty of the power house stoppage it caused a good deal of surprise. But the Evening Standard (June 13th) representative has the following comment:
“What influenced the Electrical Trades Union meeting as much as anything, I understand, was the hint which some of their leaders had received that the Government might take very firm measures, even to the length of using, naval ratings in the power houses. No actual decision to take this course had been made by the committee of Ministers, but there can be little doubt that it was expected last night by those present at the conference should the sub-station men be withdrawn.”
The companies issued a forty-eight hour ultimatum to the men to return to work or face dismissal, and threatened them with legal proceedings for breach of contract. The men returned to work within the time given.
The Strike Secretary stated after the strike :
“Our masters have changed. We have been beaten not so much by the companies as by the National Union of Railwaymen.” Daily Herald, June 13th.
The length to which the Railway Union officials Went in order to defeat the men is stated by one of the striking N.U.R. men :
“The Central Strike Committee had their headquarters at the Labour College, Penywern Road. After being in there for some time, without trying to hide the fact, a letter was sent to the Governors of the College, from Unity House, asking them to throw the Strike Committee out, or else H.O. would withhold the Students’ fee, and the usual grant to the College.”—Workers’ Weekly, June 20th.
He states that the Labour College gave them a month’s notice. This throws a lurid light on the strike-smashing efforts of modern Labour leaders, and it also shows how much the vaunted independence of the labour colleges is worth.
The fact that the strike was largely unofficial has been used to excuse the Labour Government’s promise to protect those at work during the strike. This is sheer hypocrisy. During the recent official bus and tram strike the Labour Government prepared to use the Emergency Powers Act (see MacDonald’s statement, Parliamentary Debates, March 26th). They then had the Proclamation of a State of Emergency signed ready for publication.
The fact that during that strike they were prepared to carry on emergency services was admitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Philip Snowden, who wrote :
“Industrial troubles are causing the Labour Government a good deal of embarrassment. The strike of the London ’bus and tramway men threatened to develop into a stoppage of all the services on which the vast population of London have to depend for transport. Faced by such a possibility, as this the Government had no option but to take immediate steps either to bring the strike to an end, if that were possible, or to organise some kind of emergency service. It was a disagreeable situation for a Labour Government, but one which had to be faced. The Government had to avoid even the appearance of strike-breaking, but they had an obligation to maintain essential services on which the livelihood of the community depends.—Quoted in Parliamentary Debates, June 6th, 1924, page 1679.
This statement of Snowden’s was used by Conservatives in the House of Commons as a basis upon which action should be taken during the Underground strike.
The action of the union leaders should be a lesson for the men. But mere attacks on union leaders count for little. The rank and file have supported these leaders continually because they do not understand the class struggle in which they are engaged. “Loyalty to the leaders” has been a favourite rallying-cry of these highly paid officials, when loyalty to the interests of the working class should be the men’s watchword. No real advance will come in union activity until the workers know enough about their real interests and no longer, therefore, need to be led, until they insist on their officials carrying out their instructions. How futile it is merely to change leaders, is shown by the Communist who laments in the Workers’ Weekly (June 20th, 1924) that some years ago a minority agreed to work for Mr. Cramp to get him into the position of Industrial Secretary in order that the power and influence of Mr. J. H. Thomas “could be smashed.” As if the power of Thomas could be broken by electing a different official to act with Thomas ! The power of these leaders can only be broken when the rank and file themselves know enough to expose and oppose their betrayers. They thought Cramp was a revolutionary because he said, “I do not believe Parliament can do anything for the workers” (quoted same paper).
The limitation of strike action to win lasting advances is shown by all these recent strikes. The supremacy of the employing class, their financial strength, and the slender means of the workers all contribute to the defeat of the worker. The use of political machinery against them should show how necessary is its control, by a revolutionary working class. The support given by the railwaymen to the same Labour Party which works against them during strikes is another example of their lack of class-consciousness. And the bitter denunciation of the Labour Government and Labour leaders by the Communist Party during strikes is a ludicrous “joke,” Considering that the Communist Party tells the workers to vote this Government and these Labour leaders into power.
The fact that the workers have continually to struggle for the most miserable advances in wages, and even then seldom obtain them, should be a lesson to the workers not to establish a Labour Government carrying on Capitalism, but to abolish Capitalism and the wages system it involves.
(Editorial, Socialist Standard, July 1924)