1920s >> 1926 >> no-261-may-1926

The Engineers’ Strike

The strike of engineers at the Hoe Printing Works presents problems that merit the serious consideration of working men. The union leaders gave ample illustrations of their anti-working class policy, and the tricky way they forced the national committee to support them should enlighten members of the unions who are willing to pause and ponder a little.


The position ultimately taken up by the unions was the policy advocated by their paid officials and was an obvious policy of defeat.


In the “New Leader” of the 5th March W. M. Citrine, acting secretary of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, had an article on the subject headed “Back the Engineers.” The following are two quotations from the article which throw light on the circumstances surrounding the dispute.


  It may not be out of place, however, to observe that although the Hoe dispute would appear to furnish the excuse for a lock-out, that incident cannot be dissociated from the negotiations which have dragged their weary way over the past two years. Men who are in receipt of wages entirely out of proportion to their degree of skill, and labourers who receive 37s. per week for 47 hours’ work, cannot reasonably be expected to exhibit Job-like patience. The . average time rates in the sixteen principal districts are: Fitters and turners, 56s. 6d.; unskilled labourers, 40s. 2d.
The interminable negotiations have created the impression amongst rank-and-file engineering workers that the employers were deliberately operating a policy of procrastination and had no real intention of making any concessions. From time to time during the past two years district applications have been presented for advances which appear to have had substantial justification, but practically everywhere the districts have been met with refusal on the plea that, while national negotiations were proceeding, nothing could be conceded locally. (Italics ours.)

There one can plainly see the advantage to the employers of the Agreement known as The Provisions for Avoiding Disputes, the interminable Government Commissions of Inquiry, and negotiations between Union Committees and Employers’ Councils. These are different ways of delaying improvements in workers’ conditions and yet they have the whole-hearted support of Trade Union leaders. J. H. Thomas gave public expression to this when he said :—


  The trade union leader who wants a strike is not fit for his job . . . Talk of class warfare can lead nowhere but to hell. (Quoted in No. V. Labour Research booklet from “The Times,” 28/4/23.)

Since the end of the war the wages of the engineers ‘have gone down until they have now reached a figure that will hardly keep “body and soul” together. While the employers see no sign of vigorous opposition from the workers’ side there is little likelihood of their making concessions. Under such circumstances how humiliating has been the attitude of the officials the workers appoint and pay with the avowed object of safeguarding their interests. From the posting of the lock-out notices the union leaders have given a public exhibition of their fear of the employers. They have been running to Sir Allan Smith for private conferences and then after each meeting issuing their instructions to the Hoe workers to return to work.


The assertion that the Hoe workers were acting in a way that broke the Agreement can be met from two points of view. The Hoe workers meet it by the contention that their employers had already broken the Agreement themselves. From the other point of view an agreement that allows months and years to pass before a union can take strike action renders the strike (the workers’ only real economic weapon in industrial disputes) abortive.


On Sunday, March 7th, a meeting was held at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, to consider the Hoe dispute. This meeting consisted of London District Committees, Branch Secretaries, and Shop Stewards of the unions concerned. The executives desired the meeting to back their policy and instruct the strikers to return to work. The meeting, however, not only refused to do this, but it endorsed the demand of the London Engineering Trades Committee for a wage advance of £1 a week, and failing a settlement that the executives be asked for permission to take a district strike ballot.


They further moved that the executives be asked to take a ballot on the ending of the York Agreement, containing the Provisions for Avoiding Disputes, and endorsed the demand for a consultation on the question of a national strike ballot.


The executives were not satisfied with the conclusions of the meeting so a special conference of the National Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union was held at Manchester on Saturday and Sunday, March 13th and 14th. At this meeting J. I. Brownlie, President of the Union, presided and three other executive members attended. A motion was put forward in support of the men who had ceased work at Hoe’s. Before this motion was put to the vote Brownlie stated “that the Committee regarded this resolution as a direct challenge, and if it were carried it would be construed as a vote of no confidence in the executive ” (“Observer,” 14th March, 1926). After that statement, an obvious trick to sway the delegates over to the side of the Executives, the motion was of course lost by a large majority. The next day a motion was carried supporting the policy of the executives.


Since then pressure has been exerted from all quarters on the Hoe workers—even to the extent of a threat to expel them from the union—and yesterday’s (Saturday, 20th March) papers announce that they are resuming work on Monday under protest.


The attitude of the leaders, the daily papers, and the “New Leader” that the men should return to work and allow things to take the “constitutional” course, rather than do anything that would break the agreement, merits a few further remarks.


The leaders want a nice, properly-arranged strike that could proceed peacefully on its course without disturbing anybody or doing any real harm. This is evidenced by their concern for so-called essentiaL services and the opinion of the “public.”


The “public,” about whom there is so much concern, is really the shopkeepers, the Press, and the “salaried” workers, the groups to whom the workers in general need pay no attention. They are the hangers on and blind supporters of the employers in their attacks upon the workers, and from their ranks often come the blacklegs that help to defeat strikes.


The engineers, the coalminers, the railwaymen and others ought to know by now that a strike means the disorganisation of essential services or a failure. It is an attempt to force from the employers something the latter are not prepared to concede willingly. If all the essential services are arranged so that a strike will not disturb them; and if the employers are to be given weeks to prepare for the struggle, then how can the workers possibly expect success? Obviously they will only inflict minor discomfort on the employers, who can await with equanimity the rapid collapse of the movement owing to the privations suffered by the strikers.


As we have so often in these columns pointed out the limits of trade union action, I will forbear using up any more space on the subject.