Editorial: Strikes and Lock-Outs Legalised

With the repeal of Order 1305 and the enactment of the new Industrial Disputes Order strikes and lock-outs are legalised again much as they were before 1939; though now, as then, strikers employed in public utility undertakings will in certain circumstances be liable to prosecution under the Act of 1875. One of the Government’s aims in changing the law is clearly to try to discourage “unofficial” strikes, for under the new Order disputes can be reported only by organisations of employers, individual employers or trade unions. Whether it will have that effect remains to be seen, and the “Economist” (11.8.1951) thinks that it may work in the opposite direction: “Breakaway unions or disaffected sections of unions, having little to hope from the official machinery, may be all the readier to resort to strikes.”


The Minister of Labour can also refuse to refer a dispute to the new Industrial Disputes Tribunal (or can stop the hearing) if either party to the dispute is trying to compel the other side to accept its claims and thus causing a stoppage of work.


The Minister candidly admitted that the old arrangement has been abandoned because it had become unworkable: “To take one instance, experience has shown that the enforcement of penal sanctions against persons taking part in strikes and lock-outs gives rise to extreme difficulties” (Daily Telegraph, 3.8.1951.) In other words, the old prohibition of strikes was increasingly being ignored by workers kicking against the Government’s policy of discouraging wage claims in face of rising prices.


Two aspects of the new legal position deserve particular notice. The first concerns the legalisation of strikes. Because strikes were prohibited many workers have come to assume that if only they could legally strike their problems would be solved. They will be in for a shock. The Labour Government for the past six years has been trying to keep wages from rising by the kid-glove method of persuasion through trade union officials and Labour politicians. The method has failed but the policy is still the same. The prospect is that the fight will eventually take on the more markedly brutal form it had before the war. It is not only strikes that are legalised, but also lock-outs, and those who are not deceived by mere appearances will note that Mr. R. A. Butler, for the Conservatives. “welcomed the statement that it contained no provisions for prohibiting lock-outs or strikes . . . ” (Daily Telegraph, 3.8.1951.) As Socialists have always pointed out, in the last resort strikers are up against the might not only of the employers but of the State, and when the interests of Capitalism demand all-out resistance to wage demands the employers, backed by the forces of the State, can in the end starve the strikers into submission.
The other point of interest to socialists is the way in which the new Order proves the emptiness of the Labour Party’s claim that they know how to abolish industrial disputes. After six years of experiment with compulsory arbitration and the almost complete legal prohibition of strikes they now have to admit that it would not work. What is more, instead of being able to fulfil their promise that Labour Government would create industrial peace and harmony all they can think of is to go back to the conditions that existed under Tory rule before the war. And even this is only an experiment, introduced as a temporary stop-gap and liable to be withdrawn if either the employers or the trade unions call for withdrawal. Labour Party administration has brought no solution to industrial war. The class struggle still goes on, as it will under Capitalism.