1920s >> 1929 >> no-304-october-1929

The 61st Trades Union Congress

Ben Tillett’s Day Out.
The 1929 Annual Congress of the T.U.C. was held this year at Belfast under the chairmanship of Mr. Ben Tillett, M.P.


What decided the choice of Belfast, we do not know. That Belfast is far enough away to preclude the embarrassing presence of embittered workers from the mining and cotton districts is fairly certain. Windy platitudes, therefore, had free play.


Mr. Tillett’s presidential address was received by the Press with more than the usual flattery that is doled out to the trade union and Labour leader.


Says the Daily Herald: “He acquitted himself in a manner which has given the keynote to the Congress—that of business efficiency tempered with humanity.” Mr. Tillett’s form—on the one occasion when the present writer heard him, corresponded more closely to Billy Sunday revivalism, tempered with acrobatics. But different audiences call for different turns— as variety artists know.


Mr. Tillett, pre-war firebrand, war-time jingo, and recent communist pet, delivered a flamboyant speech, whose main argument was a characteristic piece of nonsense. He declared “with an air of triumph ” that “To-day the trade unions are an integral part of the organisation of industry” (Daily Herald report, September 3rd).


    They negotiated as equals, and did not deal only with hours, wages and conditions, but with policy and economic organisation in the widest aspects. . . . They hold an unchallenged position as representatives of the working class in all negotiations affecting conditions of employment. . . . There is nothing in the organisation and direction that can now be regarded as the exclusive concern of the employer.

What comforting news to miners and cotton-workers in the desolate poverty-stricken villages of Northumberland, Lanarkshire and Manchester. It might, of course, strike them as curious that there are ever industrial disputes at all. And, more curious still, that disputes of recent years have led to an encroachment on their already low standard of living.


If Mr. Tillett meant that many employers have now learned that it is an advantage to them to deal with an organised body of workers, and that they sometimes negotiate with trade union officials about adjustments of wages, conditions and hours, his statement is not untrue; but why the “air of triumph”?


What cause is there to be triumphant because the cotton masters consulted cotton trade union officials and allowed other trade union leaders to negotiate the recent wage reduction?
If Mr. Tillett’s words were intended to mean what they say, then they were just bluff. The trade unions are not to-day, and never have been, an “ integral part ” of the organisation of industry. They do not, and never have, been able to negotiate “as equals nor do they deal “with policy and economic organisation in the widest aspects.” The trade unions do not do any of these things because they have not the power. They neither own nor control the machinery of production and distribution, and those who own and control have no need and no intention of relinquishing their ownership or their control or the power over policy which accompanies ownership and control.


Turning to rationalisation, Mr. Tillett said:—


   They had already given official support to the rationalisation of industry provided adequate safeguards were given to the workers . . . rationalisation meant the most complete application of science and scientific organisation to industry—in plant, processes and production.

Rationalisation is a new name for a process as old as capitalism. Improvements in machinery are introduced by the capitalists for the benefit of capitalists. They are the outcome of competition between sections of the capitalist class, and can only have the effect of reducing the human labour required in production. The less labour-power required for the production of a given quantity of wealth—the more profits there are for the capitalist. This process is, and always has been, a feature of Capitalism. To-day the only difference is, that the pace has become quicker, and the trusts and combines more powerful. The smaller capitalists are vanishing; the position of the working class grows more insecure ; and their relative portion of the wealth produced becomes less and less.


Mr. Tillett went on to say of rationalisation that, “It was their duty to see that the results of the tendency were beneficial to the workers.” But he omitted to explain how this is to be done. The rationalisation of their industrial organisation is dictated by the employers in their own interest. The trade unions have not the power to stop it (Mr. Tillett himself described it as “ inevitable ”) and they have not the power to impose conditions on the employers. Point was given to this by the admission of Congress that is impotent to save the musicians from the unemployment and other effects of the introduction of sound films. The unions have not succeeded, and cannot succeed, in making it a condition of rationalisation that it shall take place only if the results are “beneficial to the workers.” Trade unions can perform a useful and necessary service to the workers under Capitalism, but—not being the owners and controllers of industry—they cannot control industrial development; and when Mr. Tillett states that they can, he is doing a definite disservice to those whose interests he is paid to represent.


Mr. Tillett’s further contribution to our knowledge was a boost of Empire trade and Empire development “in the interests of the workers,” and in imitation of the U.S.A. In answer to this dangerous doctrine that working-class interests may be promoted by the development of capitalist industry and trade, whether in Great Britain, Europe, the Empire or in any other geographical unit, it is only necessary to consider the U.S.A., which, for the moment, is the object of Mr. Tillett’s admiration. In the U.S.A. every feature of capitalism as we know it here, is faithfully reproduced— with some aggravations. Inequality of wealth is even more striking than here, unemployment is no less—some estimates place it higher; insecurity there is as great, pauperism, overcrowded slums, the brutal crushing of strikes, and, last but not the less harmful, Yankee Ben Tilletts—all the features of triumphant capitalism exist in their profusion over the water.


At the same time, it is wonderful how ideas catch on. Sidney Webb dines with the King, Snowden stays with the King, Macdonald visits the King to say good-bye when he goes abroad—and, not to be behind, Tillett does his bit and becomes “Imperial.” Of course, Tillett has drunk much that inspires since the celebrated Devonport Farce on Tower Hill years ago.


Industrial Unionism.


Congress rejected a resolution, moved by Mr. A. J. Cook, asking the General Committee to try to promote organisation on the basis of “ one union for each industry.”


Mr. Ernest Bevin, on behalf of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, opposed the resolution, and pointed out that it would mean breaking up his organisation into 180 separate unions. He instanced the difficulty even of defining an industry in the face of continued capitalist combinations, in which financial control extended over all kinds of processes. He stated that “one of the associated companies of the Imperial Chemical Industries controlled 78 distinct processes ” (Daily Herald, September 4th).


The Daily Herald.


On Wednesday, September 4th, it was announced in the Daily Herald that the T.U.C. in private session had agreed, by 3,404,000 votes to 47,000 to make certain new arrangements for the development of the paper. Other newspapers announced that the new arrangement contemplated the handing over the the Daily Herald to a private company, with, however, explicit guarantees that policy will remain under the , control of the T.U.C.


Workers Banks.


A Fraternal Delegate from the American Federation of Labour did his best to outshine Mr. Tillett’s home-produced nonsense by advocating “workers’ banks.” He described experiments in this direction which have been made in the U.S.A., and expressed the opinion that if all workers patronised their own banks “a chill would be sent along the spinal columns of the financial captains.”


How perfectly simple! How is it that nobody has thought of it before! So easy, fellow workers; just put your surplus wealth in your own banks and show Rothschild and Sassoon what you are made of. What puerile inanities. It is difficult to believe that such piffle comes from paid representatives of the workers. The working class receive as the price of their labour power just that which will purchase the barest necessities in the form of food, clothing, and shelter. They simply cannot save enough to matter. The capitalist class appropriate the enormous remainder.


Then he gave the answer to his own hot-air by informing Congress (Daily Herald, September 5th) that in U.S.A. they are faced with the “difficulty of keeping men of 50 and over employed . . . particularly where labour-saving machinery had been introduced.”


It looks very much as if U.S.A. workers of 50 and over are not likely to have any savings or anything else, and those under 50 will be busy enough, when they are in work, trying to provide for their over-fifty relatives.


The Cotton Arbitration.


Attacks were made on Mr. C. T. Cramp and Mr. A. G. Walkden for their part in the arbitration, which resulted in a 6¼ per cent. reduction in wages for cotton operatives. They made the extraordinary defence (see Daily Herald, September 6th) that they “did not believe, and had never believed, that any wage cut would improve the cotton trade,” but that the terms of arbitration gave full power to the Chairman, alone if necessary, to “give the award both on the principle and the amount of reduction.”


This is, of course, no defence at all, even taken in conjunction with their further plea that if they had not agreed to a 6¼ per cent. reduction, the “cut would have been double.” Since this term of the arbitration was not known to the operatives, but was known to Mr. Cramp and Mr. Walkden, they could either have refused appointment to the Board or have insisted on the operatives making their own decision. It is at least probable that the latter would have rejected arbitration on such terms.


How does this square with the Chairman of Conference’s speech?


The Turner-Mond Conferences.
A resolution calling for the discontinuance of the Industrial Peace negotiations between the General Council and the T.U.C. was rejected by a large majority. Peace! for whom?—robber and robbed? Are the workers to abandon the only industrial weapon they possess, and leave themselves open to the systematic attacks of their masters? What else can peace mean? To babble of peace whilst the cotton dispute is still fresh in the memory and another attack on the miners is impending, is sheer hypocrisy. Peace—who asks for war anyway? The workers cannot afford to strike from pure frivolity. It is they who suffer during a strike, not their masters. It is they who see their children go hungry and without adequate clothing, who see their homes depleted and sold up.


The tone of the Congress was quiet and expectant—their friends now being the Government and A. J. Cook having dropped the game of sniping at the General Council and coining silly slogans. But throughout the five days the cause of all the evils from which the workers suffer were not even glimpsed by the delegates. The cause is the private ownership in the means of life and the only solution is common ownership. Then those parasites who live by robbing the workers and exploiting their ignorance will disappear.


Harry Waite