1940s >> 1949 >> no-542-october-1949

Workers on the Defensive

One of the shrewdest comments on this year’s Trades Union Congress was made by the Manchester Guardian on September 5th. Reviewing the position of the trade unions since the Labour Government came into power four years ago the article pointed out in what a world of illusion trade union supporters of the Government have been living. Their feeling was that now at last they had the power and the opportunity to reach higher standards of living, but in fact “since the fuel crisis they have been for all their power and all the old illusions of what power would bring, on the defensive: the struggle has been to prevent real wages from falling.”

The Guardian, in keeping with its political outlook, argues that it is the “country’s economic weakness” that prevents the unions from gaining higher wages, but on a proper view the present despairing situation in which the workers find themselves is a confirmation of the S.P.G.B.’s contention that there are no ways within the capitalist system of ending the resistance of the employers, backed by the Government, to working class claims. The workers have to struggle ceaselessly to protect their standards and have in the last resort only one weapon, the strike.

This is not to say that the position will be fundamentally changed if the workers do resort to strike action, for the employers and the Government still have the power and the means of seeking to achieve their over-riding aim of cheaper production in other ways. Hitherto, and this was anticipated in these columns in September, 1945, the Labour Government has chosen to offset wage increases by withdrawing subsidies and allowing the cost of living to rise, while at the same time using the trade union executives in the campaign to clamp down on wage claims as much as possible. But the time is fast approaching when the present policy of the Government will have less effect and then we may see the Government forcing a showdown with the trade unions and being prepared to make more use of the threat of unemployment as a method of compelling the workers to work harder.

From the side of the trade union officials the dangers of the present position from their own point of view have long been seen. One delegate at the T.U.C., Mr. Bryn Roberts, stated bluntly the difficulty of trying indefinitely to restrain the workers for the sake of the Government.

“He warned Congress that to pursue the policy of wage restraints indefinitely would damage the mechanism of collective bargaining, destroy the workers’ confidence in it, and bring into disrepute the machinery of arbitration. It would bring conflict within the unions and between the unions. It would transform the class struggle so that instead of being between worker and employer it would be between the trade unionist and his own executive committee. It would provide opportunities for disruptive elements.”—(Times, September 9, 1949)

Mr. Bryn Roberts may or may not realise the full implication of what he said, but what it means is what Socialists have always contended, that a Labour Government administering capitalism cannot support the working class against the capitalists. This has been brought out into the open by the way four years of Labour government have sufficed to eliminate from the speeches of Labour Leaders all the old loose talk about getting rid of profit.

Mr. Tewson, General Secretary of the T.U.C., dealing with demands that profits should be reduced to raise wages, remarked that “It had not been possible to determine what were reasonable profits and dividends.” (Times, September 9th, 1949)

For Socialists, whose aim is Socialism, the problem presents no difficulty at all, for there will be no profits; but for a Labour Government running capitalism the answer has to be as Sir Stafford Cripps put it at a meeting in Manchester last November: “If you are going to allow private enterprise to run you must allow it to run on capitalist lines.” (Manchester Guardian, November 22nd, 1948)

How rigorously the needs of the capitalist system determine the policies of governments that administer it can be seen by the way the Labour Party and the Tory Party see eye to eye on the point that cheaper production must come first and higher wages must wait until some undefined future date. Neither Party now even promises an immediate rise of working-class standards of living. Both are now content to promise that they will try to prevent a fall.

“Higher production at lower cost without reduction of living standards is the main theme of Conservative home policy set out in detail in ‘The Right Road for Britain.'”

So speaks the Conservative Daily Telegraph (July 23rd, 1949)

And here is Prime Minister Attlee addressing the T.U.C. in almost identical phrases: —

“It is therefore vital that we should reduce costs by greater efficiency.

“I do not believe in lowering wages as a means of reducing costs. I believe that efficient work can only be got by paying adequate wages, but to reduce costs does mean that both employers and employed must seek in every way to attain the highest degree of efficiency.” (Daily Herald, September 8th, 1949)

Instead of asking themselves whether Capitalism is better under Labour Government than under Tory Government, the working class should consider how much better Socialism would be than either.

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