Strikes have been increasing in recent years and from all sides we are offered advice about how to reduce them; another Royal Commission, new laws to enforce ballots before strikes or to make “unofficial” strikes illegal, more discipline by union executives over their members, or more effective control by members of the unions and the TUC, compulsory arbitration, and so on.
None of it is new except that the name-calling alters. At present the “Communists” are the scapegoats; it used to be the Trotskyists, or Anarchists or Syndicalists, or some other group of agitators who were supposed to be hypnotising the otherwise happy and placid workers into troublesome actions.
The number of days lost owing to strikes in l962 was 5,794,000, the highest number in any year since the war. The annual average in the years 1945 to 1954 was about 2 million days. Since 1955 it has averaged about twice as many; but compared with years 1910 to 1929 the current level is very small in spite of the big increase in the number of members of trade unions from about 3 million to nearly 10 million. The peak number of days lost by strikes and lockouts was 162 million in 1926, the year of the General Strike, but over the whole twenty years from 1910 to 1929 the annual average was about 23 million days, nearly four times as many in 1962.
Every time there is a wave of strikes the demand goes up for inquiry and legislation. The Royal Commission set up in 1891 to enquire into relations between employers and employed led to the Conciliation Act of 1896, aimed to encourage the setting up of conciliation boards. The Government also established a branch of the Board of Trade to look after disputes and try to bring about peaceful settlements.
The wave of unrest during the World War, and notably the activities of the shop stewards and the numerous “unofficial” strikes, led to further inquiry and reports (the Whitley Reports) which recommended the setting up of permanent joint industrial councils and factory committees. Another innovation was the Industrial Court of Arbitration.
Some well-meaning (and some not so well-meaning) advocates of arbitration wanted the unions to renounce strikes entirely, and to rely on the benevolence of arbitrators. Fortunately most trade unionists continued to regard the readiness to strike as their necessary and proper function. They accepted the conciliation and arbitration in some measure, but they kept their powder dry.
Some idea of what happens when workers refrain from using strike pressure in the wage struggle can be seen by comparing two periods in recent history in which trade conditions and the amount of unemployment were much the same, but in one of which government propaganda in favour of “wage restrain” had more effect. In the years of Labour Government after the war many workers were persuaded that they ought not to embarrass the government by pressing wage claims. In that period average weekly wage rates were more or less continuously falling behind the rise of the cost of living. With the advent of the Tory Government in 1951, the argument for wage restraint had lost most of its pull; the earlier trend was reversed and wage rates have been rising more than prices.
While many of the panaceas that were popular earlier in the century are still being preached there is one that has hardly survived in face of experience, that is the old Labour Party belief that once industry was nationalised unrest would largely disappear. Ramsay MacDonald. Prime Minister in the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929, wrote about this in his book Socialism: Critical and Constructive (1929 edition, pages 168-9). He tells of having met the managers of industry that had been privately run and was then nationalised, the same managers having been in post before and after.
Then the change came and the relations were revolutionised. They met the men round a table and not across it, they had to discuss with the men the whole problem of management; the men made suggestions to them, which when settled they all took part in carrying out, men and managers became co-operators . . . They would never dream of going back to the old bad relationship. . . . The men had abandoned of their own free will the most provocative restrictions which they had enforced—or tried to enforce—as a protection against capitalism, and which inevitably hampered production.
MacDonald did not identify the industry or even the country in which it was supposed to have happened: it certainly does not happen now in the nationalised industries in this and other countries as the repeated strikes testify.
One of MacDonald’s colleagues, the late Sidney Webb, gave his views on the subject in an address he delivered to a gathering of employers, managers and foremen in 1919, “The Root of Labour Unrest.” He named a number of things the workers wanted, including the usual claim for higher wages and shorter hours, but insisted that these were less important than the workers’ desire for equal status and partnership in management. Like MacDonald he thought that nationalisation by a Labour Government would bring about this change, because, as he put it, industry would then have a new function “to produce not profits, but products.”
There is nothing wrong with this conception, it is indeed the basic idea of Socialism. What was, and is amiss with the advocates of nationalisation is that they fail to see that capitalism, whether private or State, can only operate on the basis of production for sale and profit.
Unrest and strikes are not the result of faulty ways of regulating the relations of “labour” and “capital” (one of Webb’s charges was that the employers showed “bad manners” in their attitude to the workers), but are aspects of the class struggle between the owning class and the non-owning class. Webb and MacDonald and all the other tinkerers are trying to abolish the symptoms while retaining their cause.