What is wrong with arbitration?

Politicians and newspaper writers who say that they believe in the principle of the right to strike, but who always condemn workers in this country who come out on strike, are fond of saying that strikes aren’t necessary any longer because wage claims can go to arbitration; where, so they say, the claim will receive impartial treatment. As these opponents of strikes are not at all impartial themselves their enthusiasm for arbitration is suspect to start with. But among the workers, too, especially when a strike puts them to great inconvenience, there is a widespread belief that somehow the arbitration courts are, or ought to be, a substitute for coming out on strike.

The idea is that if you have the right sort of men on the arbitration bodies, and supply them with the right sort of supporting evidence, they will argue it out and reach a ” just ” solution. But who are the right sort of men and what is a “just” solution? The Tribunals usually consist of a President (with or without two other “ independent ” members), assisted by a member drawn from an employers’ panel and a member drawn from a workers’ panel.

The employers’ and workers’ members, and the independent members, no doubt, argue from their respective standpoints about the issues presented, and the award or refusal of an award is in the last resort determined by the independent members Tribunals or the President. While it is assumed that the Tribunals work on such conceptions as a “fair” wage and “what the industry can bear,” these are meaningless or vague, and individuals can have their own interpretations. The Tribunals are not (though many people think they are) under specific obligation to try constantly to push wages up, or even necessarily to keep’ them in line with the cost of living. Their essential purpose is to secure the settlement of disputes between employers and workers, with particular regard to the fact that if such disputes are not settled, production may be halted through strikes or lock-outs. Where it is a question of workers claiming higher wages one of the things the Tribunal is in effect considering is what price the employers will have to pay to avoid having their business (and their profits) brought to a standstill by a strike. The determination and intensity of feeling of the workers is therefore a factor in the issue.

From the organised workers’ standpoint if arbitration bodies are of any use it is due to the fact that behind the workers’ claims is the readiness to strike.

In recent years most wage settlements have been made without arbitration or strikes (though often with the threat of strikes in the background), but these settlements were largely a recognition by the employers of the fact that with rising prices and little unemployment they had to pay more or lose workers to competitors.

Those who oppose all strikes deny that the strike is a necessary weapon for the workers. A case in point was the provincial busmen’s strike in July, 1957. The Unions representing the busmen (those employed by the bus companies outside London) demanded an increase of 20s. to bring them more into line with busmen’s pay in London. Having been offered only 3s. they determined to strike. The Minister of Labour then referred the dispute to arbitration and the Industrial Disputes Tribunal awarded 11s. The Daily Telegraph (July 26th, 1957), which had condemned the strike, maintained that the award proved that the busmen would have got 11s. anyway, and that therefore, “the six-day strike is, and was from the first, headstrong, malicious and unnecessary.” Of course, the events proved nothing of the kind. If merely stating a case were all that was required to get an 11s. increase, why did the employers refuse to offer more than 3s.? and can it be doubted that in its purpose of getting the dispute settled the members of the Tribunal had to take into account the fact that the men were so determined in their claim, that they had decided on their strike before the reference to the Tribunal, and were still engaged in it while the Tribunal considered the case?

The workers’ victory was rather a vindication of the declaration of Mr. Frank Coyle of the Transport Workers’ Union: “I stand by my previous objection to arbitration in any form.” (Daily Herald, July 17th, 1957. Mr. Coyle made this statement on hearing that the Minister had decided to refer the case to the Tribunal.)

The Rôle of the Government
But let us not get this matter out of perspective. Arbitration without the readiness to strike is a broken reed, but there are also narrow enough limits to what strikes can do. Strikes cannot always be successful in the aim of getting a wage increase or fighting off a decrease: so much depends on the state of trade and the amount of unemployment. And behind the employers is always the government, with its steady purpose of keeping capitalism going—which means keeping it on a profit-making basis. Many workers fail to see this and expect the government to remain “neutral.” After seven years of Conservative government memories have grown dim about what preceded those seven years, and many workers believe that while the present government one-sidedly opposes the workers and wants to keep wages down, things were different under the Labour Government.

Not Different Under Labour Government
Things were not different under Labour Government. The same causes produced the same effects. The obligation to keep capitalism going led the Labour Government to assert the doctrine of “wage restraint,” and the Tories have carried it on. The next Labour Government will do the same.

But for those who have forgotten, it was all set down in the Labour Government’s “Statement on Personal Incomes, Costs and Prices” of February, 1948. Re-reading that document alongside recent declarations made by the Tories confirms Mr. MacMillan’s jibe in the House of Commons on May 8th, 1958, that the statements made by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the late Sir Stafford Cripps, “were very similar. One might almost think they were written by die same hand.”

The 1948 Statement asked individual employers not to pay wages above agreed rates; asserted that there could be no justification for a general increase of wages (or profits and interest) unless accompanied by a substantial increase in production; denied the claim of workers to have higher wages merely to keep relativity with other workers who had had an increase; declared that the Government would observe those principles in its negotiations with its own employees; urged all who were engaged in negotiations, or “decisions which might result in an increase in wages or other personal incomes” (i.e., the Arbitration Tribunals) not to depart from these principles; and stated firmly that if there was any departure, employers and the nationalised industries could not expect to call on the Government to provide the money or make it available through increased prices. (Just like the recent Government attitude to railwaymen and busmen.)

The 1948 White Paper had one clause saying that if at some future date there was a marked rise in the cost of living the level of wages, etc., would need reconsideration.

As the cost of living was rising more or less continuously the need arose soon enough, but not much more than a year later the Labour Government added another turn to the screw by announcing that there was no case for higher wages even if the cost of living did increase. This arose when the Government devalued the pound in 1949, knowing that this would raise the cost of living still further. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the late Sir Stafford Cripps said in the House of Commons (September 27th, 1949):-

“Especially and specifically there can, in our view, be no justification for any section of the Workers, trying to recoup themselves for any rise in the cost of living due to the altered exchange rate.”

All this time, under Labour Government and Tory Government, strikes were continued and will continue.

Those who think that the workers’ struggles over wages would cease if we had a different sort of government are deluding themselves; as also are those who think that strikes are no longer a necessary weapon of defence for the worker.


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