Editorial: The Present State of the Trade Union Movement
If numbers were all that mattered the trade union movement could congratulate itself on being in a very healthy condition. In this country there are now well over 8,000,000 trade unionists compared with 6,000,000 in 1939, and 4,000,000 in 1913. On the international field the expansion is much more striking because trade unionism is fast developing in countries,, such as South American republics, where it was formerly weak or non-existent. The International Federation of Trade Unions which had about 7,000,000 affiliated members in 1913, and 33,000,000 in 1932 (before the seizure of German trade unions by the Nazi Government) has just been replaced by the new World Federation of Trade Unions claiming some 60 million members in its affiliated national trade union centres.
Membership figures are, however, less than half the strength of organisation and in any event they will suffer drastic reduction in the stormy days ahead when unemployment eats into the unions and when the employing class no longer preoccupied with their urgent task of winning the war, turn their attention to fighting the trade unions over wages and working conditions. Once before British trade unions passed the 8,000,000 mark (in 1920), but by 1933, during the slump they had shrunk to less than 4½ millions. How large “normal” unemployment will be and how soon the next world trade depression will arrive only time will show, but it is interesting to read that “most American economists expect a severe economic depression in two or three years’ time.”—Manchester Guardian, September 26th, 1945), and that some of them “predict that there will be 12 million unemployed (in U.S.A.) by the middle of 1946 and possibly 18 million a few months later.”—Manchester Guardian, October 8th).
What is even more disturbing than the likely fall in trade union membership is the disunity among the unions, which in turn reflects widely held illusions about the nature of the struggle the trade unions are waging. Many unions are more concerned with fighting each other than in maintaining working-class unity against the employers. In the international organisation the affiliated groups are strongly nationalistic. At home inter-union disputes occupy a considerable part of the attention of the Trade Union Congress, and in U.S.A., two large federations, the American Federation of Labour and the Congress of Industrial Organisations, are openly at war and the former refuses to join the World Federation of Trade Unions because the Russian organisations are represented in it. At the time of writing two strikes in American industries, those affecting the telephone service and Warner Brothers studios at Hollywood, centre round clashes between rival unions.
In this country the effective functioning of the unions is hampered by the desire of officials to avoid strikes at all costs. In this desire they obviously have the backing of part of the membership that has been misled by the fallacious argument that strikes must be avoided at all costs because they “embarrass” the Labour Government. During October there were “unofficial” strikes, repudiated by the unions concerned, among dockers, London Passenger Transport Board employees (both ’bus employees, and power workers at a generating station), building workers, railwaymen and co-operative society employees. Two of these strikes deserve special mention because they involve the Port of London Authority and the London Passenger Transport Board, two public utility corporations that the Labour Party chooses to describe as ‘’Socialist.” It is these capitalist bodies that the Labour Government accepts as a model for its nationalisation schemes. (Incidentally, the Labour Government’s Minister of Labour announced on October 9th, that troops were to be used to unload the ships held up by the strike of dockers.—Daily Herald, October 10th).
It is quite obvious that a minority in a union has an obligation not to take action against the decision of the majority of members, but the idea is fantastic that the strike, which in the last resort is the workers’ only weapon against the employers on the industrial field, should be given up because capitalism is now being administered by a Labour Government (or, as in Russia, by a Communist Party dictatorship); that can only render the trade unions impotent. A particular instance of this is the decision of the National Union of Mineworkers to discipline their own members who, through absenteeism, lateness or other actions, fail to co-operate in the Labour Government’s drive for increased output. Mr. Arthur Horner, Communist. who is National Production Officer of the Mineworkers Union is demanding from the men at the coal face a 10 per cent. increase of output and in a speech in London, on September 6th,. he said:—
“If a Lodge was satisfied that individuals were persistently refusing to do their clear duty, then these individuals would have to be informed that they could no longer count on the support of the rest of the men if they found themselves in difficulties. Such persons would in future be reported to the pit production councils and branches of the union. . . .”—(Times, September 7th,. 1945).
Because the mines are to be nationalised (meaning that the mineowners will in future receive the proceeds of the exploitation of the workers through the Government in the form of interest on the money paid to them as compensation—£200 million has been mentioned as a possible figure—instead of receiving it direct as shareholders), Mr. Horner has said that the Union must no longer follow the old policy of trying “to get what they could out of the owners.” The miners will soon discover, as other workers employed by the State have discovered, that State capitalism is only private capitalism with a new name. It is the same exploiting system, and until the working class decide to abolish it and introduce socialism the trade unions should get back to the task, that of defending working class standards on the industrial field, for which they were formed.