Book Review: ‘The Fed’
South Wales Miners
‘The Fed’, by Hywell Francis and David Smith. Lawrence and Wishart. £5.50
This book is not so much “a history of the South Wales miners in the twentieth century”, as its subtitle claims, as a chronicle of the so-called Communist Party in relation to the South Wales Miners Federation (to give “the Fed” its full title) in the 1930s. To give the authors their due though, while exaggerating the role and influence of the CP and its front organisations like the Minority Movement and the National Unemployed Workers Movement, they do treat the more embarrassing episodes for them—the period when the SWMF was denounced as “social fascist”, the zig-zags of the CP at the beginning of the last war and its anti-strike stance from 1941 to 1946 in a more or less objective fashion.
The SWMF had been formed in 1898 and was part of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). By the end of the first world war it had built itself up into a very strong position. The owners, however, were determined to regain the initiative and break the power of the union. It was their lock-out of the miners for refusing to accept a worsening of conditions (lower wages and longer hours) that led to the brief General Strike in May 1926. Betrayed by the weak-kneed leaders of the TUC, the miners heroically held out for a further seven months but in the end were forced back to work on the terms originally offered by the employers. The history of “the Fed” in the 1930s is the history of its struggle to rebuild its strength.
At the beginning it was very much an uphill fight. With unemployment among miners in South Wales at 35 per cent at the end of 1931 and at 42.6 per cent a year later, the SWMF was in a very weak bargaining position to put it mildly, but its unity was also under attack. At the end of 1926 a new “non-political” union (in fact led by Tory working-men types and encouraged by the owners) called the South Wales Miners Industrial Union had been set up and from 1929 till the end of 1931 the CP was also anti-SWMF though in South Wales they did not go so far as in Scotland, where they set up a rival “revolutionary” union (the United Mineworkers of Scotland). In Wales the CP confined itself to setting up pit “committees of action” to challenge the official SWMF Lodge committees.
The SWMIU really was the “scab-union” and the SWMF denounced it as such. Whenever the SWMF called a strike the employers called in blacklegs recruited by the MIU and then signed an agreement with them instead of the SWMF. They were able to get away with this because of the massive unemployment which existed at the time In a sense the MIU was a sort of trade union but one which, although serving the minimum interest of its members in finding them a job, was undermining the interests of the South Wales miners as a whole by selling the commodity “miners’ labour-power” too cheaply.
The high degree of trade union consciousness (nothing more) reached by the South Wales miners during this period is exemplified in the following reminiscence of Arthur Horner, the leading CP figure among the South Wales miners, who became President of the SWMF in 1936 and in 1946 General Secretary of the NUM as a whole. In becoming President of the SWMF Horner established a tradition that survives to this day—that one or other of the South Wales officials should be a CPer. In a radio broadcast on his retirement Horner reminisced:
“I was selling something—labour power, and they had to buy it. I was selling a perishable commodity—it had to work or it had to die. And the coal owners couldn’t remain the coal-owners unless they bought what I had to sell. That’s the real underlying purpose of 100% membership of the Union. It is to prevent the employers being able to buy in a market outside of your control. And labour power is as much a commodity as cabbages or potatoes, and very much of a resemblance to it because if it isn’t disposed of it will rot. Well, they used to fight their battle—I never depended on their goodwill. I had no social relations with them at all. I never had anything to do with them outside the meetings, and in the meetings themselves it was a very impersonal matter. And we depended on the outcome of the negotiations and that depended in its turn on the relative strengths. I never had any illusion that we’d get anything out of the owners because of kindness of heart—I knew that we’d get what we were strong enough to take.”
In its campaign for 100 per cent Union membership in the 1930s the SWMF was faced with a real dilemma since the economic circumstances made it inevitable that some miners had to be unemployed. The SWMF had to decide whether to try to recruit MIU members into the SWMF or to concentrate on getting back the jobs of their members which MIU members had taken. In the end they chose the former.
The MIU had two strongholds, with 100 per cent compulsory membership imposed by the employers, Bedwas and Taff Merthyr. The SWMF tactic was to recruit members at these pits and then, when they felt they had the majority with them, threaten a strike. This was the position reached at Bedwas in 1936 (from which the SWMF had been driven out after a strike in 1933). The owners eventually agreed to negotiate but the terms agreed were very harsh, so harsh in fact that considerable embarrassment was caused to the CP. For Horner put his signature to an agreement which was virtually the same as had previously existed between the employers and the MIU, including giving up the right to strike for the period of the agreement, five years!
In addition, a ballot was to be held among Bedwas workers as to which union should represent them: in order to have a chance of winning this the SWMF had to make it clear that it was not asking for their old members to be reinstated (it was in fact selling them down the river). The SWMF won the ballot, but the controversy over the agreement, both inside and outside the SWMF, was intense. The Socialist Standard was among those who questioned Horner’s signing away of the right to strike (see “A Communist and the Right to Strike”, July 1937, and the subsequent correspondence). Horner justified the agreement on the ground that the important point was that the SWMF’ had won recognition in place of the MIU and that the no-strike clause was the price that had to be paid for this important step towards 100 per cent trade unionism.
A similar agreement was signed, no strike clause and all, at Taff Merthyr in 1937—except that the MIU won the subsequent ballot, even if only by 5 votes. But by now the employers were coming round to the conclusion that maintaining an organisation like the MIU was not worth the trouble and that they would have to deal with the SWMF and them alone. The MIU merged with the SWMF in 1938-9 and disappeared from the scene. By the outbreak of the war the SWMF was back where it had been before 1926: the sole seller of the commodity miners’ labour-power in South Wales. In 1942 the employers agreed to 100 per cent union membership with automatic deduction of dues from wages, which has applied in South Wales ever since.
As, to their credit. Francis and Smith don’t attempt to hide, after supporting the war when it broke out the CP changed its line abruptly a week or so later to denouncing the war as “imperialist” . . . until the German invasion of Russia on 21 July 1941 when, overnight, the war became a “people’s war”. The SWMF called a special conference in March 1940 to discuss its attitude to the war. Two motions were before the conference: one pro-war, the other describing it as “being waged for imperialist aims and not for the defence of democracy against fascism”. The pro-war resolution was carried, but only by a 3-1 majority (1940 to 607 on a card vote). It would be nice to think that a quarter of the South Wales miners took up an anti-war position in 1940, but this vote was really only a measure of the strength of the CP in the lodges. An individual ballot would have given a much larger, probably an overwhelming, majority in favour of the war.
After July 1941 the SWMF leadership was solidly united in favour of the war which Horner even described as “the highest form of class struggle” (p. 396). In 1942 he was denouncing absenteeism, thundering that those concerned “must be dealt with ruthlessly and be treated as enemies of the miners and a menace to the country” (p. 402) and. as late as September 1945, was exhorting miners to become “Stakhanovites” (p. 431).
Despite this, and despite the fact that striking was illegal, strikes still occurred: “between September 1939 and October 1944 there were 514 stoppages, mostly of short duration, in the South Wales coalfield” (p. 398). Some men were even sent to prison in 1943 for going slow; they served their sentences despite sporadic sympathetic strikes. In 1943 at another lodge the men voted 2 to 1 to stay out on strike despite the personal intervention of Horner who “said it was the first time in twenty-five years that he had been turned down by a mass meeting” (p. 407). But the biggest war-time strike, which also spread to Scotland and Yorkshire, took place in 1944 to protest against an inadequate wage award; at one time almost the whole coalfield was out. The EC of the SWMF opposed all these strikes denouncing “pit consciousness” and “sectionalism”. No doubt these were elements in the strikes and they are indeed dangers from a trade union point of view, but they should be denounced from the point of view of the need for a more general class consciousness rather than, as was the case here, from that of the capitalist “national interest”.
On 1 January 1945 the MFGB became the National Union of Mineworkers and the SWMF its South Wales Area. When the coal mines were nationalised exactly two years later the South Wales miners shared in the general euphoria, perhaps more so because it meant the demise of the old owners (as managers of the industry, not as capitalists, it should be added, as they were generously compensated; the hated Powell Duffryn company still exists) rather than out of enthusiasm for nationalisation as such. Socialists said at the time that this was just a changeover from private to state capitalism but it was not until the 1970s that the miners’ leaders themselves began to use the term “state capitalism” in relation to the NCB (see for instance the statement on page 457 by Dai Francis—the father of one of the authors—who was General Secretary of the South Wales Area of the NUM from 1963 to 1976).
The real problem in relation to the South Wales miners is not why they should have acquired a high degree of trade union consciousness (that’s easily understandable in view of their experiences) but why so many of them should have been attracted, or rather diverted, by the myth that Stalin’s Russia was a Workers’ Paradise when it was clear even in the 1930s that this was not the case. Why were the Horners, the Paynters and the others duped in this way and eventually led to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of state capitalist Russia? Perhaps this is a measure of the extent to which the Russian Revolution put the clock back as far as the advance of socialist understanding is concerned.