1940s >> 1946 >> no-501-may-1946

Editorial: The Friends of the Trade Unionist

The trade unionist who has simple faith and a long memory must wonder sometimes at the number and variety of self-proclaimed friends he has among the politicians. The Liberals have frequently “saved” the trade unions from the Tories. No less frequently the Tories have “saved” them from the Liberals. In 1927 both together claimed to have performed that righteous act against the Labour Party; and the Labour Party, by repealing the 1927 Act, has just restored the position as it existed under Liberal and Tory legislation before 1927. The I.L.P. and the Communists have also from time to time announced themselves as potential if not actual saviours. With so much unselfish attention the trade unions ought surely to be healthy, happy and carefree; but many trade unionists can find little about which to be happy in the present state of affairs. The unions have record membership, ample funds and more M.P.s than ever before. Their officials are consulted by Government departments, sit on official bodies and have a finger in every pie. Their names increasingly appear in “Honours” lists. Yet there is something amiss. The union officials seem to be forgetting what trade unions are for, and more and more members are dissatisfied. They see abundant activity concerned with increased production, export drives, savings campaigns, austerity appeals, and the defence of the Labour Government, but less and less concern with the trade union object which is the struggle with the employers over wages and conditions of work.

 

The trade unionist who starts by wondering at the number of friends he has among the politicians may end by suspecting that their interest is in his votes and his subscriptions to political funds. When trade union political activities were mainly in support of Liberal and Tory candidates the two parties never objected to the way trade unions raised and spent their political funds, but they discovered objections when they saw that tens of thousands of pounds every year were going to the Labour Party alone. So in 1927 the law was altered. Before then the trade unionist who did not want to pay political contributions to his union had to sign a form in order to be exempt. After 1927 it was the man who wanted to pay who had to sign a form. If all trade unionists were actively interested this would have made no difference, but as many were indifferent on this question the change of law meant the loss of over 1,000,000 affiliated trade unionists to the Labour Party. The unions and the Labour Party were worse off to the extent of over £100,000 a year. The Labour Government, by restoring the pre-1927 position, is hoping to get back for the unions and the Labour Party what was lost. But all is not plain sailing. Communist Party influence in trade unions has grown, and whether or not they succeed in getting enough trade union block votes at the Labour Party conference to gain affiliation there is the likelihood that some trade union political grants will go to the Communist Party. This the Labour Party leaders, naturally, do not like. For years the Labour Party has taken advantage of the apathy of trade unionists to get a big flow of money from trade union political funds that did not really reflect active support for the Labour Party. Now, to their chagrin, they see the possibility that the Communist Party may muscle in. While the two parties fight out their quarrel over trade union money the S.P.G.B. looks forward to the day when the working class, having become Socialist, will refuse to give financial or other support to either of those parties.

 

It will be known to our readers that we do not share the Labour Party view that the repeal of the 1927 Act will make a vast difference to the working class in their struggle with the employers. This is obvious common sense when it is recalled that the workers enjoyed all the benefits now restored to them during the period from the passing of the 1913 Trade Union Act up to 1927. We do not think that the Labour Government itself really imagines that the new position, apart from the change affecting political funds, will be much different from the old. In one respect they have clearly shown that they do not intend it to he different. Asked if a general strike would now become legal, Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Labour Government’s Attorney-General, replied:—

“The revolutionary strike should be and is illegal . . . . Under existing powers any revolutionary action, whether on the part of trade unions or any other body, would be dealt with adequately, effectively.” (Report in Daily Herald, 3/4/46.)

 

So there we are. The repeal of the 1927 Act will not make much difference to anyone, but the Labour M.P.s obviously enjoyed themselves over it and sang the Red Flag. Trade unionists will be well advised to give their attention to the more important question of getting the unions back to their proper function of looking after the economic interests of the working class as far as that can be done under capitalism.