Trade Unions—the Birth of a Policy

There is much irony in comparing the history of trade unions with their present status. Whereas formerly Governments and employers hounded and persecuted workers for forming unions their modern counterparts now welcome their co-operation. The stage has even been reached where capitalist employers and government departments are compelling unwilling workers to join a trade union under the threat of dismissal if they do not comply. This patronage gives the mistaken impression that all previous differences can be sorted out so long as all are united in the common aim — the prosperity of British capitalism. Unfortunately for employers and politicians, it takes more than the willing co-operation of the trade union leader to avoid strike action by their members when economic pressures become too great to be alleviated by the trade union leader’s oratory.

Friendships and alliances tend to collapse when the forces of the class struggle assert themselves. The conflict between capital and wage labour forms the basis of all social antagonisms. We agree with Mr. Callaghan, the Prime Minister, that strikes are a wasteful and obsolete means of conducting industrial relations. However we go further and state that the capitalist relations of production in their entirety are themselves wasteful, harmful and obsolete; that they are a positive hindrance to economic and cultural development. Employers, wage labour and trade unions represent a social system which has outlived its usefulness.

The class struggle is both political and economic in character. It is political because workers to gain control of the world’s economic resources, that is, the means of production and distribution must first capture the machinery of government. It is economic because workers must resist the power of capital, in day to day struggles over wages and conditions. Trade unions cannot progress towards any goal because there is no goal for them. They are born out of the conditions of the class struggle, and can only exist in a class divided society.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain laid down its attitude to trade unions in our first manifesto in 1905, re-printed in 1909.

  The basis of the action of the trade unions must be a clear recognition of the position of workers under capitalism and the class struggle necessarily resulting therefrom. All action of the unions in support of capitalism, or tending to sidetrack the workers from the only path that can lead to their emancipation, should be strongly opposed; but on the other hand, any action on their part on sound lines should be strongly supported.

We did not, and do not, take the view that trade unions should push their interests, to gain favourable legislation through the Labour Party, and we condemn any action by trade unions which is reformist and consequently non-Socialist.

A few years later in the May Socialist Standard of 1912, a correspondent asked the question “I should like to know what you would call ‘sound lines’ ”. The following reply was published:

   Sound lines means that while fighting the daily battle, the toilers must adopt a policy of no compromise. They must have no regard for their masters’ interests or property. Conciliation and arbitration schemes and long notices must be strenuously opposed. They have got to teach their members that the interests of workers and employers are in direct opposition. Above all, trade unions must use all their powers to increase the solidarity of the revolting working class, and show the need for the toilers acting as a class. There must be no blacklegging of one section upon another, and the grievance of one part must become the interests of all. Thus only can the unions be moulded into a body capable of assisting in the revolutionary change.

Again, we did not believe that trade unions should be free to carry out their activities without regard to the overall interests of the working class. The employers had to be attacked on both economic and political fields. In Britain at that time there were about 1¾ million workers in trade unions, that is about 4½ per cent of the population. Today there are about 11¾ million workers in trade unions, approx. 50 per cent of the total labour force. The whole approach of the SPGB was that workers in trade unions should learn to control their own organisation, and get rid of the so-called trade union leader who, for the most part, was more interested in the politics of the Labour Party than in trade union affairs. This anti-leadership view lies at the core of our whole approach to trade unions and other political parties.

In 1907 the SPGB opposed the action of the Executive of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and its secretary Richard Bell, in accepting an arbitration award against the decision of the membership. The Socialist Standard carried the headline: “Found out — Labour leaders sell the union members and their apologist gets a warm reception’’. On this flimsy ground Bell sued the Party for libel, and was awarded £2 damages by Mr. Justice Darling. Anderson and Fitzgerald, the then editors of the Socialist Standard represented the SPGB, as we were unable to afford Counsel. Both were unemployed. Needless to say, no order was made for costs as it soon became obvious that we had nothing. In reporting the case, the August 1907 Socialist Standard said “This is our first libel action, but it may not be our last. We will take that risk and others that may arise”.

For several years we criticised the leaders of the Railway Union. In the Railway strike of 1911, which we supported, Asquith’s Liberal government used troops and backed the railway directors. Several railway workers were imprisoned. The dispute was over wages and hours of work, and for recognition by the employers of the union’s right to negotiate. The Socialist Party stated that the railway workers should have formulated substantial demands: First, the release of all imprisoned strikers as a preliminary, then improved hours and wages, and lastly recognition. The workers put recognition first, thus allowing the leaders to negotiate on that issue. The Socialist Standard commented that recognition was unnecessary, for a union which can win a strike for shorter hours and increased wages is sure to be recognised. It added that the union, which appeared to consist of officials, should recognise the members.


In the November 1910 Socialist Standard the question of the political levy first arose out of the Osborne judgement. Briefly, the Osborne judgement declared that political action to be outside the scope of legitimate trade union activity, and that consequently the members may not be levied for such a purpose. Then, as now, the political levy was being paid to the Labour Party, and was helping pay the expenses of Labour MPS, the cost of elections, and also salaries at that time. The General Federation of Trade Unions, with the enthusiastic support of Ramsay MacDonald, and the Labour Party, were endeavouring to overturn the judgement. The Socialist Party referred to them as “Labour ghouls” and a “gang of place hunting tricksters who have now fastened their hungry jaws on the vitals of the Labour movement”.


We welcomed the judgement, and said that those responsible for it had done no harm to the working class or to Socialism, because without compulsion Labour MPS salaries could not be raised, and this was no bad thing.


These outspoken criticisms of the shortcomings of the Labour leaders did not endear us to these individuals. In 1913 the Socialist Standard was blacklisted by the London Society of Compositors on the spurious ground that it was not set up in a Fair house, that is, works where the employer pays the wages and fulfills the conditions approved by the London Society of Compositors. Our Executive Committee met Mr. Davies, the union organising secretary, who admitted that the LSC did not know where or how our journal was produced, and it would have been better had they found this out before blacklisting us. It was pointed out that the LSC Fair house definition could not apply to the Socialist Standard. Mr. Davies was asked to publish a retraction and an apology. He declined to do this, and said he would use his influence with the editor of the London Typographical Journal to publish a letter, the text of which was agreed between him and our Executive. The letter appeared, but with a dishonest comment by T. E. Naylor, LSC Executive member, that while the party had not deliberately used an unFair house, negotiations were under way to resolve the matter, in the meantime we must remain on the blacklist. Naylor, and many of his fellow Executive members, were Labourites and the Socialist Party accused them of deliberately trying to damage the sale of our journal:


  Although our organ is not set up in a non Society office, and although it is actually printed in an office that has for years appeared on the Fair List of the LSC, we wish it to be clearly understood that we do not worship at the shrine of trade unionism, most certainly not at that of such a perversion of trade unionism as is typified by the LSC.


The article went on to expose the practices of the LSC in allowing their members to pose, during hard times, as non unionists and obtain work in non union shops below union rates, and by restricting membership of the union. By keeping out strangers they were condemning them to perpetual unemployment, or making them blacklegs. The article concluded:


   They put us on the objection list, we return the compliment. We put the LSC and the Typographical Journal on our objection list. In view of the above, we object to Messrs. Naylor & Co interfering with us. To the rank and file of the LSC we say ‘read the Socialist Standard and think for yourselves’. Soon you will arise and sweep out the Augean stables of St. Bride’s Street—the sooner the better, if you wish to save your society for trade unionism. (Socialist Standard, August 1913)


Not to worship at the shrine of trade unionism is only logical to an independent revolutionary socialist organisation. The tremendous development of the trade union movement in the last 70 years has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in class consciousness. If anything there is more muddle and confusion as rival political groups fight for control of the unions. The utterances of most of the leaders on the economics and politics of capitalism are as stupid as they are ignorant. Witness the unending drivel about inflation, and the futile “cures” for unemployment. Yet trade unions, with all their bureaucracy and pigheadedness, are still the only effective organisations workers can use to fight the employers over wages and working conditions. Our regret is that they are not more class conscious.


The working class both inside and outside trade unions are ignorant of the Socialist case, and trade union militancy is not going to alter that. There can be no Socialism without majority understanding. Isn’t it about time the trade unions made some contribution towards this?


Jim D’Arcy