Reflections on the Cotton Lock-out

The cotton lock-out has been ‘‘settled,” accompanied by the tedious Te Deums of our sycophantic clergy, the benedictions of our prosperous trade union organisers, and the “we are glad both sides are reasonable” sermons of our Liberal newspapers. To-day every strike and lock-out gives clear proof of the bankruptcy of trade unionism, of its utter inability to permanently raise the standard of the workers’ existence. In Lancashire the big unions are monsters of indifference, organisations bossed by mediocre bureaucrats, with a rank and file taking little interest in the working of the union, save when the mill “breaks down,” and they become entitled to a few week’s “break-down pay.”
Some of these unions resemble the mediaeval guilds; jobs are handed down from father to son ; it is sure that one must possess family influence, either lineal or collateral, to be able to enter the union and learn the trade. At their best these unions are looked upon as attempts to preserve the status quo to try to preserve, if possible, even the present “heavy and varied condition of the operatives’ breakfast table.”
The boisterous crowds whom we read of as patrolling the streets of Oldham during the first day of the lock-out were not enthused and noisily happy because of a coming fight on some vital question with their bosses, but simply because they were confident of the “give and take” policy of their leaders bringing the lock-out to a speedy end.
Their leaders! What an array of altruistic capacity passes before our vision when we think of the men who “led” the workers during the lock-out! Working-men J.P.s ! Is there anywhere such another anomaly ? In Lancashire they flourish abundantly. These leaders conceive it to be their duty to punish the small, petty, found-out thieves who are the natural product of capitalism. “Justice of the Peace” is almost a synonym for “labour leader” in Lancashire. If the workers put their trust in such mental small fry, what wonder that their condition shows no sign of alleviation!
In the Manchester Guardian of Oct. 5 1908, referring to meeting of “Oddfellows” at Nelson, Mr. Shackleton’s constituency, that gentleman in the course of speech is thus reported:

  “Alluding to the presence on the platform of Mr. Wilkinson Hartley, chairman of the Nelson Cotton Manufacturers Association, Mr. Shackleton said that he and Mr. Hartley had often met before, and had had some tough battles. That night they could shake hands and welcome each other as brothers desirous of furthering a great movement. As long as they could get on with men like Mr. Hartley, there was security for the peace and well-being of Lancashire, and its principle trade might be carried on to the best advantage of the community.”

In the same paper of Dec. 28, 1908 a photograph was published of Mr. Shackleton occupying the position of chairman at a meeting of the Labour Co-partnership Association, with Mr. A. J. Balfour and Sir. C. Furness on his right and Mr. Henry Vivian and similar “men of thought who waged contention with their times decay” on his left. One understands Mr. P. Snowden’s remark, in a speech to his constituents during the lock-out, that “He had followed this dispute, and he could not call to mind any form of industrial dispute in which one side had showed a disposition to be reasonable, to compromise and to make sacrifices in order to avoid a stoppage of work to the extent that the operative leaders had.” (Manchester Guardian, 10.4.10.)
The results obtainable from the capers of these leaders of the Lancashire operatives are manifested in that speech of Mr. Snowden’s. Continued penury exists in spite of Labour M.P.’s teetotal sermonising; an inability to improve their economic position to even the least extent is inevitable when the workers’ leaders fraternise with their enemies the bosses on so-called neutral platforms, and truckle and accept defeat when any dispute is in “progress.” Strange that a Socialist platform never becomes a “neutral ” one !
Let the labour leaders learn from a bourgeois historian. “The warfare of capital and labour in England has been more prolonged than any other historical struggle. Dynastic wars, wars of religion, wars on behalf of balance of power, wars for supremacy in commerce have been waged in Europe for lengthened periods. But none has been so lasting as that between employer and labourer. The history of the contest is to be extracted from the Statute Book in laws long since repealed or modified, or become obsolete.” (Prof. T. Rogers, “ Economic Interpretation of History”. Vol. 1.. p 23)
After such an admission by a Liberal of the type of Thorold Rogers we reach the limits of inanity when it is seriously contended that our labour leaders are on the road to Socialism! There is no class struggle! say those gentlemen. Well then, we may ask. what has your class fraternity led to but the tighter grip of the capitalist on the means of life?
Other lines of thought are stimulated by this lock-out. Our “Industrial Unionist” friends seem to expert miraculous results from a “unified” working class bound together in a few large trade unions. I ask, what if these unions continue to be collared by leaders whose only qualification is their safe mediocrity and the extraordinary vitality of their tongues? What if the working class is still non-Socialist ? Given a non-Socialist proletariat we can bind them, or they can bind themselves, into either a dozen large unions or a thousand miniature ones, but the leaders would still be Shackletons, Snowdens and Gills, and the promised land would still be afar off, for not even Industrial Unionism can make bricks without straw, or create the Socialist Commonwealth without Socialists.
John A. Dawson

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