1950s >> 1955 >> no-612-august-1955

The Only Remedy for Strikes

The Government and the Opposition are agreed about the merits of Sir Walter Monckton and both pay tributes to the way he has handled strikes since he became Minister of Labour when the Tories came into office late in 1951. Verbal bouquets have also been presented by the T.U.C. and by the Railway Unions’ officials.

 

It must be, therefore, that Sir Walter is thought to have been very successful. But what is it he is supposed to have succeeded in doing? He certainly has not been able to prevent strikes from taking place. During the period of three years and five months from January, 1952, to the end of May, 1955, strikes averaged over 1,900 a year; which works out at about six new ones every day of the working week. His admirers cannot even claim that his average is better than his predecessors, for during the last five years of Labour Government (1947—1951) the average was only five a day. (These and other figures are taken from the Labour Gazette, May 1955, the Annual Abstract of Statistics, 1954, and Labour Statistics, 1913).

 

Socialists hold that strikes arise out of the present organisation of society. In our day and in all other countries work is carried on by men and women who are employed to do it and are paid a wage by their employer. The employer is sometimes an individual who owns a business; sometimes a company controlled by a Board of Directors on behalf of the shareholders and sometimes a Government Department or a Board set up by the Government; but these forms of control are all alike in the important respect that in all of them orders are given to the workers, and discipline is maintained over them, by or on behalf of the employer or employing body. The workers do not own the factory, farm or railway, on which they work, nor the things they produce there. Their main concern is the wage they get and the conditions under which they work and this interest brings them into endless conflict with the employers’ aim of making profit and cutting costs. That is why workers strike; not because one Minister of Labour is more or less clever or more or less urbane than another.

 

Some Governments try to avoid strikes by arbitration while others (including the Russian Government) stamp them out by heavy penalties and force, but none of them can run this system of wage-labour without there being friction and discontent. The Socialist remedy is to change the basic organisation of society so that the relationship of employer and employed disappears along with the division into an owning class, the capitalists, and a working class, all those who depend for their living on selling their mental and physical energies.

 

The social reformers do not believe this to be practicable or necessary. One group, the Labour Party, believed for years (though recent events have shaken their confidence) that the setting up of Whitley Councils, Joint Industrial Councils, etc., and the encouragement of arbitration, would lessen industrial unrest and that the best remedy of all was to have the workers employed by a nationalized board instead of by a company board of directors.

 

More Strikes than Fifty Years Ago

 

So the Labour Party told us to expect that in this respect things would get better and better and strikes would disappear.

 

What has happened is quite different

 

In the five years 1900—1904 industrial disputes (strikes and lock-outs) averaged 495 a year; in 1947-51 they averaged 1,593 a year and in the period of Tory rule, 1,907 a year. The number has steadily increased since 1952.

 

In these three same periods the average number of workers, directly or indirectly involved, grew from 166,000 a year in 1900-1904, to 432,000 a year in 1947-51 and to 773,000 a year in 1952-5. It has steadily increased since 1952.

 

In one respect, however, the trend has been in the other direction. Strikes nowadays are often local and are usually shorter; in consequence, while the number of days lost through stoppages averaged 2,900,000 a year in 1900-1904. it was 1,850,000 in 1947-51 and 2,300,000 in 1952-5.

 

It is, however, rising and the Prime Minister said on July 5 that the recent railway, coal and dock disputes have cost 2,000,000 days between them.

 

Two of these industries are nationalized and in the third (the docks) employment is through the National Dock Labour Board, set up by the Government.

 

In the coal mines in 1954 there were 1,464 strikes, costing 468,000 days and involving 204,400 workers. (In these as in other figures the Ministry of Labour ignores strikes affecting less than 10 workers or costing less than one day unless the total of days lost exceeds 100).

 

The Labour leaders, like the Tories, are trying to think up new ways to eliminate strikes but their thinking in this field is bound to lead nowhere because they rule out in advance the probability of a fundamentally new classless, social relationship, that offered by Socialism.

 

Edgar Hardcastle