50 Years Ago: A Travesty of Trade Unionism

A correspondent sends a packet of literature explanatory of the objects and methods of the Railway Clerks’ Association. It is claimed that this Association will serve to secure some betterment of the conditions of clerical workers on railways. It is a Trade Union for railway clerks.


Now a trade union is an organisation rendered necessary by the pressure of the capitalist or exploiting class upon the class they employ and exploit—the working class. This pressure is the result of the constant endeavour of the capitalist-class to squeeze ever greater profits from the labour of the working-class, and expresses itself in the prolongation of working-hours, in the reduction of wages, or if an increase of hours or a reduction of wages are not possible, in the maintenance of both in. so far as is possible, a stationary condition, irrespective of the increase in the productivity of labour.


In exercising this pressure the capitalist-class are but functioning as a class of exploiters whose wealth is derived solely from the labour of those they exploit. In combining in a Trade Union to prevent, if possible, any reduction of their standard of comfort, any hardening of their conditions of life, or to obtain, where practicable, some larger share of the wealth they create, the working-class are but taking the precautionary defensive or aggressive measures natural to an exploited class.


The capitalist-class are fighting to increase or maintain their powers and privileges; and as these can only be maintained or increased at the expense of the working-class, their greatest concern is to keep the latter in subjection; to prevent them improving their position, except in-so-far as that improvement is necessary to capitalists. On the other hand, the working-class are fighting for the best conditions they can get; to improve those conditions if possible, and to prevent them being adversely affected in any event. And as they cannot improve their position, or for that matter maintain it, except in opposition to and at the expense of, the class above them, they are in necessary conflict with that class.


Obviously then, the antagonism of interest existing between these two classes must prevent any intermingling except in conflict. It would be absurd for the officers of one army to be in the innermost councils of the other. Hitherto, although the working-class combined in English Trade Unions have been very far from conscious of their class interests, a sense of hostility has kept them from fraternising with their natural enemies to the point of admitting them to an intimate acquaintanceship with the internal affairs of their fighting organisations.


The idea of employers being admitted to membership of Workers’ Unions has ever appealed to the most hard-headed, hide-bound and mentally atrophied trade unionist as absurd—and the clearer the comprehension of class-interests, the greater the growth of class-consciousness among the working-class, the more grotesque must the idea appear.


How then may we designate the working-class organisation that, coming into existence at a time when the antagonism of interests between the classes was too sharply defined to escape the notice of any man with an eye to see, yet admitted to the domination of its affairs, the representatives of the very class it came into existence, ostensibly, to fight. The Trade Union of the clerical workers of the railways of the United Kingdom (the Railway Clerks’ Association) has done this. Its President and Vice-Presidents are of the capitalist-class, several of them company directors, with at least one railway company director.


From the May 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard.