1920s >> 1927 >> no-271-march-1927

Can Trade Unionism Save The Workers?

One welcome result of the mining lockout of 1926 is a revived interest in proposals to reorganise the Miners’ Union and draw up new programmes. Chiefly, the discussion centres round the substitution of one national union for the existing loose federation of county associations. It is not the purpose of this article to examine the details of any of the proposed schemes; the miners themselves can best do that. It is, however, not inopportune to state some general considerations which are too little present in the minds of many trade unionists. First, it need hardly be stated that any change making for an increase in the strength and efficiency of working-class organisations should, and does, receive the support of the Socialist. The elimination of the present multiplicity of miners’ unions can hardly fail to strengthen the miners in their struggles with the employers, and is therefore a wise step. Against that, however, it must not be assumed that the setting up of one organisation in place of several will in itself solve the problems of the miners. One great union which is internally divided into warring groups is no more effective than 10 small bodies similarly divided. Clear heads and a united purpose are worth more than all the machinery that was ever devised. Apathy would undermine a single union one million members strong and paralyse it as a striking force just as surely as it would the separate bodies in a federation, and apathy is a danger particularly to be feared in the formation of big centralised organisations whether political, trade union, or any other. As the point of control recedes from the locality to the more distant centre, so the member is apt to lose personal touch and interest, especially if the machinery makes him feel that decisions are made above his head by an executive over which he has no effective hold. The danger is great, because there is a common and plausible doctrine among the more active elements that national organisation is of little value unless it is accompanied by centralised and more or less arbitrary power in the hands of a small executive group. The theory—based on analogy with the machinery of the fighting forces—is that industrial struggles demand quick decisions, and that these are incompatible with complete democracy. Can a union afford to lose precious time consulting its members before calling a strike, or afford to have negotiations hampered by the necessity of submitting offers to rank and file vote? Answering these questions in the negative, many advocates of national organisation find themselves committed willy nilly to something savouring of dictatorship. This we are sure would be a fatal mistake.


In fact, especially in such an industry as mining, the need for quick decision is greatly exaggerated. True, the miners have almost invariably found themselves striking months after the employers had taken every precaution by accumulating enormous stocks of coal, but this has been the fault, not of democratic machinery, but of indecision and proneness to accept the specious time-gaining arguments of the owners or of the Government, or of the leaders of the Labour Party.


Ballots of members need not take long, and any slight delay is amply repaid if by such means the members can be kept actively interested in the course of any threatened dispute. Another essential means to this end is that negotiations with employers be completely reported to the members stage by stage and endorsed by them, so that they know to the full that they are responsible for decisions taken by the delegates they instruct and have the duty of keeping themselves fully informed.


This, we are told, is cumbersome, but it is infinitely less disastrous than to have halfhearted strikers and men who do not know when to strike or when to leave off—the latter perhaps the most tragic of all.


And this brings us to the wider question of the power of trade unions. Upon what considerations should trade unions act and what should be their aims? Is it good to fight merely “because our case is just ”? Is the sympathy of the “general public” worth anything? Should trade unions support the Labour Party? And can they solve all of the economic problems of the working class? We, as Socialists, would answer all of these questions with a decided No!


The most powerful—in fact almost the sole—weapon of the trade union is the ability to withhold their labour, but in the nature of things, this can have only limited effect. The worker is up against semi-starvation almost immediately he strikes. The employer faces no such threat. The worker can be starved into surrender. The employer cannot. This would seem to be an obvious statement, but rarely are trade-union policies based upon it. They are unconsciously based upon the false notion that employees and employed meet upon equal terms, and that an undefined something called “justice” will prevail. In truth they meet as property owners with security versus a propertyless class always living from hand to mouth. In addition, and this is decisive, the property owners have behind them all political machinery of the State. The working class sell their labour-power to the employing class. What the trade unions can do is to secure somewhat more advantageous terms in the sale of that labour-power than could be obtained by individual bargaining, and they can also act as a protection for individuals against victimisation. Sometimes employers rather than lose profits and break contracts will yield to the threat of a strike. Sometimes, as is shown by the thriving American custom of paying Labour leaders to call their members out on strike in slack times, no pressure whatever can be brought to bear on employers by the threat of a strike. And always the effect of the pressure is circumscribed. The margin of wage increase which it will pay the employer to give is conditioned by his estimate of the cost of starving his workers into submission, less the increased profit he will gain through lower wages. In almost every industry and at all times another limit is imposed by the possibility of substituting machinery for labour. To pay a higher wage to a small number of workers giving the same or greater output by the use of better machinery is almost always a means at the employers’ disposal for countering a movement in favour of higher wages.


These, then, are the limits within which trade unions function. The state of the market should be of chief importance when considering the advisability of a strike. “Justice” is irrelevant and meaningless, and “public sympathy” is a broken reed.


Trade unions are useful and necessary within capitalism, but can they abolish the wages system which of necessity involves the exploitation and poverty of the workers. Obviously, no! To do so requires the acquisition for society of the means of wealth production, and this in turn can only be done when the majority of the workers become socialist and decide to obtain control of the machinery of government for the express purpose of depriving the present propertied class of all their property privileges. A minority of workers cannot by either political or economic action stand up against the forces of the State. A majority can obtain control of those forces through control of Parliament. Economic organisation can aid, but it cannot substitute political organisation.


Here it may be asked why we oppose the Labour Party and urge trade unionists to do the same. The miners in particular should appreciate the first part of the answer. When the Labour Party went into office in 1924 the miners were instantly appealed to through the official “Labour Magazine” not to embarrass the Government by making demands for higher wages. The justification for trade unions is that they help the workers under capitalism. Anyone or any organisation, trade union or political, which urges the workers not to take advantage of any opportunity which offers itself is deserving only of working-class hostility. That is the position of the Labour Party.


Secondly, as has been pointed out, the workers can solve their problems only by gaining control of Parliament for THE EXPRESS PURPOSE OF INTRODUCING SOCIALISM. A party which seeks to gain political control for any other purpose must therefore be anti-socialist and anti-working class. The Labour Party seeks to gain control for a variety of reforms, including such capitalist schemes as nationalisation. Some reforms may in themselves be good, most are indifferent and some, like nationalisation, are for the working class wholly bad. But whether good, bad, or indifferent, they are not Socialism, and do not, and cannot, aid in hastening Socialism. Socialism presupposes a socialist working class. The propagation of reforms does not make socialists. First, it makes reformers and then drives them through disillusion to despair. The Labour Party has not socialist aims. Its guiding belief is in its ability to administer capitalism better than the capitalists themselves. This may be true, but it is not Socialism. Trade unions, both from the point of view of progress to Socialism, and in the day-to-day struggle will gain, not lose, by severing their connection with the Labour Party. In fact, while their members are politically divided, as at present, the trade unions would gain in cohesion and effectiveness by concentration on trade-union objects, leaving politics alone until the organised working class is ready to use Parliament for socialist instead of reformist purposes.


Edgar Hardcastle