1960s >> 1961 >> no-683-july-1961

To strike or not to strike?

“If I had my way,” said the gent in the bowler, “I’d chuck the lot into gaol.” “A bunch of layabouts, if you ask me; afraid to work. They don’t give a damn for the country’s exports, either. Do you know, I heard a case the other day . . . ” He was talking (need we say?) about strikers. .


This is fairly typical of the irritation which strikes provoke. When they occur frequently in one particular industry, irritation turns into exasperation. In the last London dock strike, the City’s commercial interests made a strong demand for government action against the strikers. There were not many stiff collars in the coffee shops around Leadenhall Street who could be found to disagree with this demand.


This last fact is rather depressing, because it indicates a lack of class interest among a section of the working class. (Tell Stiff Collar that he is a member of the working class and watch him splutter over his coffee!) But those interests exist and sooner or later they operate, whether they are openly recognised or not. Stiff Collar is often compelled to do battle (well-manneredly, of course) for a rise in pay. He sometimes manages to screw a little extra out of his job in expenses, free entertainment and the like. Yet tell him that this is exactly what the docker, with his militant attitude and his little fiddles is doing, and you will find yourself in argument with an angry man.


So let us try to put this strike question in its place. Strikes are inconvenient: we know that. Transport strikes, for example, can cause a lot of suffering to the workers whom they leave stranded. But the strength of a strike is often measured by the inconvenience which it causes: there would be no point in coming out if the strikers’ labour was easily dispensed with. The strike, in fact, is a weapon. If conditions make a weapon necessary, then there is every reason to make sure that it is the most powerful that is possible.


Is there, then, any need to have such a weapon? Are strikes really necessary, or are they just the work of disgruntled and childish layabouts? We all know that we go to work because we must have wages in order to live. Stiff Collar needs them. So does the docker and the dustman. Our employer does not give us our wages as a favour, or because he thinks we have done a good job. They are the price of something we have sold to him; they are the price of our working ability. Whenever something is sold, there is immediately set up a mutually antagonistic relationship of buyer and seller. The buyer’s interests are in paying as little as he can for whatever he is buying and the seller’s are in getting the highest price he can. This applies to the sale of a worker’s labour power; it expresses the division of interest between employers and employees and the unity of interest among the working class. This is what forces Stiff Collar to ask for his rise, and to work his expense account. This is what brings the docker to strike.


But, says Stiff Collar, some workers are always coming out on strike—and for such silly reasons; does it do anybody any good, to use a weapon so indiscriminately? He has a point there, For, apart from the tactical requirements of a strike—that it should be solid, short and simultaneous—workers should make sure that they only strike for a worthwhile reason. They should strike only for something which is of value to them as workers.


Unhappily, this does not always happen. There are strikes by one set of workers against another, often over trivial disputes. We have all heard of the demarcation strikes in the shipyards, when men downed tools over who should bore holes or who should chalk lines. There have been strikes by ’’white” workers against the employment of ”coloured” workers. Last October, for example, the dustmen of Westminster City Council threatened to strike because a Jamaican had been promoted, so that instead of emptying the dustbins into the dustcart he would be driving the cart. Such strikes are deplorable, because they are aimed against other workers instead of against the employers, and because they ignore the unity of interest which all workers, everywhere, have with each other.


The most recent example of this sort of strike—or threat to strike—came out of the application of the Steel Company of Wales for an import licence to import American coal. S.C.O.W. wants the coal because it is at present about sixteen shillings a ton cheaper than Welsh coal. We might have expected the National Coal Board to contest the application; it is a threat to one of their big markets. But Mr. Robens was dead-heated in his protest by the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers, who also had strong words to say on the matter. “ So long as we are able to produce all the coal we need at home, imports are unnecessary,” said Mr. Will Whitehead, president of the South Wales N.U.M. The next day, a delegate conference at Porthcawl passed a motion which threatened to use the miners’ “industrial strength” to prevent the importation of the American coal.


We may appreciate the fact that the Welsh miners are anxious to keep their jobs, which they fear will be jeopardised by the cheap American coal. But this, at best, is to see only one side of the coin. For every export from one country is an import into another. What if American car workers struck against the import of British cars into America? Over 130,000 such cars went to the States during 1960. Or if the miners in the countries which import British coal came out on strike in protest? A monthly average of 455,000 tons—including bunkers—went out during 1960. And what about the steel workers in this country? Most of them probably agree with the theory that cheap coking coal means lower steel prices (it doesn’t), which means that more British steel may be sold and that their jobs may become more secure. What if they struck in favour of the import of cheap coal from the States?


There is a simple way out of this maze The working class throughout the world, whatever their job or colour of skin, should realize that only one sort of strike is worthwhile. That is one which is aimed at protecting or advancing their interests against their capitalist employers. Such strikes are worthy of wholehearted support from all sections of the working class. Strikes which are directed against other sections of workers can only damage working class interests as a whole, because they attack the very unity in which workers must find their strength.


There is even more to it than that The miners who are resisting the imports of American coal are lighting their employer’s battles. The National Coal Board want to protect their markets, and at the same time they would like to take over the markets which are exploited by the coal industries in other countries. They would also like to control the market for fuel in this country—witness their smart advertising campaign and the financial inducements they offer, in competition with the oil companies, to householders who are thinking of installing central heating. In this, they are just like any other capitalist concern. Certainly, they are no different from the steel companies, who are all in favour of making their own product as cheaply as possible and exporting as much of it as they can but who, as Mr. Whitehead cannily points out, would not like to see cheap Japanese steel pinching the market in Great Britain.


Capitalism is rife with divided interests. The working class, who depend for their living upon selling their mental and muscular energies, should ignore them all, save one. That one is their own interests as a subject class. When they have come to grips with that, they will get down to some fundamental questioning of society. We shall see them all at it. The miners will be doing it, and the steelworker. So will Stiff Collar and the gent in the bowler.