Editorial: A Challenge to Trade Unions

Ranking with football, cricket, and racing, one of the British national pastimes is baiting the trade unions. Along with editors, journalists, and angry writers of letters to the Press, it is played by comedians, parsons, radio and T.V.. commentators and politicians, and is always good for a laugh or a sneer. It is an easy game to play because, to an outsider, trade union behaviour often looks anti-social or ridiculous and trade union replies, when not suppressed, are frequently ineffective. The attacks often get a sympathetic hearing among workers not in unions and even, on occasions, among other trade unionists.

It does indeed look absurd that rival unions should strike over the question which union should control the boring of holes or the handling of a chalked string to mark out work. And trade unions appear stupid and reactionary when they resist the employment of women or foreign workers or when coal miners call on the Government to prevent the use of oil as fuel, and railwaymen demand restrictions on road transport.

Members of Unions resent being criticised and complain that their side of the case rarely gets a fair presentation. They say that from the standpoint of the workers concerned, their actions are logical and necessary.

What is this necessity? It flows from the purpose for which trade unions are formed. A trade union is not formed to help the employers’ customers or the workers in general but to serve the interest of its own members in their own particular job. Miners, railwaymen, printers and others are trying to get as high a wage as they can and are trying to keep their jobs. If in so doing they inflict incidental hardship on other workers or find themselves advocating restrictions on the growth of new industries that compete with the one they live by, that, they say is forced on them, and anyway this is how everyone else behaves in our competitive society.

From some loftier viewpoint of human ethics the trade union attitude may appear selfish and futile but the general body of critics are not at all in a position to throw stones, for they are all of them defenders of that social system which is itself a crazy jungle of contradictions. Nothing that trade union members do in trying to defend their immediate interests can equal the selfish policies of governments and employers about the problems of production and employment. What could be more anti-social than the accepted principle of our world that if the workers in a particular industry produce more than can be sold at a profit, they should be specially penalised by being thrown out of work? And on top of that, to have their intelligence insulted by being told, as the Manchester Guardian (28. 5.59) tells them, that “Nobody wants” the coal, when of course there are millions of people who “want” the coal but cannot afford to buy it.

Trade unionists have long been aware that to go on separately fighting their battles over their own wages and jobs is not enough: hence the formation of the T.U.C. and the backing they give to the Labour Party; and the thousands of resolutions, mostly pious, proposed at trade union conferences on everything from H bombs to the payment of wages by cheque. But these activities, too, have left untouched the problem that the worker’s life is an endless struggle to keep himself from being submerged by forces which he cannot control by the means he uses.

We too are critics, though with real justification, for we are neither hostile nor two-faced in our attitude to trade unions. We accept that they are a necessary weapon for the workers’ self defence under capitalism. Our criticism is on a different footing.

We ask trade unionists (and all workers) to realise the limited usefulness of going on indefinitely fighting the effects of capitalism. We ask them to accept that the whole basis of capitalism needs to be challenged and that this challenge must come from the working class—not from separate groups of trade unionists organised merely to defend their group interest, but from a working class which recognises the common interest of all workers in all countries. First their common interest in opposing employers and governments everywhere, and more importantly their common interest in getting rid of capitalism and establishing Socialism.

There is no future in merely struggling over wages and jobs, and no future in electing a Labour Government to perpetuate under different labels the same class-divided system of society.

But there is a future in seeking the abolition of capitalism and its wages system. The social arrangement by which one class (with the backing of governments) owns the factories and plants and means of transport and employs the working class for wages, is not something pre-ordained for all time. It is a phase in the development of human society and one for which there is no longer any need or justification. Trade-unionists, separately or together, and with or without a Labour Government, cannot make this arrangement function in their interest as workers, as many trade-unionists are already learning through frustrating experience. It is for those who are becoming aware of this to accept the further responsibility of thinking about the case the Socialist Party puts before them. This is the only fruitful line of advance.

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