THE SOCIALIST PARTY and the trade unions have a common origin in the class struggle. The former is the organised expression on the political field of the conscious recognition of that struggle by the workers. Its growth is the measure of their determination to end the struggle by converting the means of living into common property, thus establishing a harmony of interests within society.
The class struggle, however, does not commence with the conscious recognition of itas a fact. Long before the origin of the Socialist Party of Great Britain the class struggle was in progress. Strikes and lock-outs, machine-breaking and penal legislation have testified to the antagonism of interests in modern society for overa century.
With the rise of the factory system the workers found themselves involved in the struggle in grim earnest. It was no choice of theirs, but thrust upon them with relentless and increasing force with every step forward in industrial evolution. The Luddite machine-smashing in the early nineteenth century was typical of this phase of the conflict, but with further experience the need for some other form of organisation impressed itself upon the workers. The grouping together of the workers in the factories provided a basis for this. They began to realise that the machines had come to stay, and that the former independence which they had enjoyed, while still often working in their homes under the old system, had gone for ever. Hence the trade unions arose, uniting the workers in similar or allied occupations in order to obtain from the employers the best possible terms.
From the first, the strike was their most important weapon. Under the handicraft system, in its closing stages, workers sold the articles they produced to merchants and had to bargain with them about the price. Later all this was changed and the price of the workers' labour-power itself became the subject of dispute. They sold their energies by the hour, day or week, and the system of piece¬work, which was retained here and there, disguised but did not alter that fact. The workers had lost all substantial freedom, and their only alternative to working on the terms of the employer was starvation. Hence the right to withhold that labour-power in conjunction with their fellows became an essential means of resistance. Without it the workers would have been crushed beyond hope of recovery, and would have become, as Marx argued in his pamphlet, Value, Price and Profit, quite incapable of "initiating any large movement".
From the outset the trade unions found arrayed against them, not only the individual employers or groups against whom they were directly struggling, but the forces of the entire employing class, as represented by the State. For long the unions were subject to legal persecution as unlawful conspiracies and monopolies, and only by dint of considerable perseverance were those obstacles overcome. The workers indeed had their backs to the wall and only the fact that the unions were rooted in the new conditions saved them from annihilation.
By degrees, however, the employing class saw the uselessness of trying to destroy the new organisations and the unions were granted a legal status. In the course of time the employers discovered that 'respectable' labour leaders, whether in the field of industry or politics, were useful in helping to maintain industrial peace which they needed.
Judicious flattery aad the hankerings after political office have stimulated the ambitions of numerous leaders whom the workers have all too readily trusted. Underlying this process however has been the steady progress of capitalist industry. The constant developments in machinery, methods of working and financial organisation
of the employers have for generations set strict limits upon the effectiveness of the workers' struggles.
As the magnitude of the forces engaged in the struggle on either side increases, so the intervention of the State in industrial disputes is rendered more certain. The necessity for maintaining order on behalf of capitalism leaves governments no alternative. During the six years, 1945 to 1951, the Labour government on a number of occasions used troops to do the work of men on strike. This happened during the strike of workers at some London eletricity power stations in December 1949 and when London dockers struck in July 1949 and again in April 1950, and Bristol dockers in May 1949, when gasworks maintenance men came out on strike in September of the same year, and at Smithfield market in June and July.
These strikes, like almost all of the strikes that took place after compulsory arbitration was established in 1940 under Order 1305 were 'unofficial', that is, they were not backed by the men's unions and were also in fact illegal.
The Labour government, which had hitherto refrained from taking action on illegal strikes, prosecuted ten of the men involved in the gasworks dispute. They were sentenced to one month's imprisonment though on appeal the sen¬tences were altered to fines of £50 in each case. Because of the difficulty of enforcing the law against large numbers of such strikers, and in face of trade union demands for the repeal of Order 1305, the Labour government just before it went out of office in 1951 repealed the Order and made strikes and lockouts legal again.
When, late in 1977, the firemen came out on strike to get a pay increase greater than the 10 per cent which the Callaghan government was trying to enforce on workers generally, the government at once brought in the army to break the strike.
It is argued by defenders of arbitration that when workers have the legal right to submit their claims to an arbitration tribunal then strikes are unnecessary because the tribunal, being an 'independent' body, will give a satisfactory decision. This, however, is based on muddled thinking. It is true that the tribunals can be independent in the sense that they are not instructed by the employers or the government as to what awards they are to make on each claim, but they cannot and do not disregard governmental statements of general policy on wages.
In practice arbitration bodies exist for the purpose of preventing industrial disputes from taking the form of stoppages of work, and their awards on wage claims are bound to be influenced by the attitude of the workers. If workers were to abandon all idea of strikes the employers and the arbitration bodies alike would reduce still further the amounts they were prepared to offer. The strike remains the workers' indispensable weapon.
The relatively high levels of employment for some years after the second world war put the trade unions in a strong bargaining position. Unable to rely on widespread unemployment to hold wages down, governments sought to do this by means of an 'incomes policy'. The Tories relied only on moral appeals and them 'pay pause' was ignored by the unions. But when Labour was returned in 1964 some unions dropped this opposition to wage restraint and within a few months, along with representatives of the government and the employers, had signed a Declaration of Intent agreeing in principle to restraint.
Soon the Labour government took tougher measures. In 1966 they brought in the first of a series of Prices and Incomes Acts that gave them power to ban or delay negotiated wage increases and to fine any who defied such a ban. Many workers had their increases delayed but, although some seemed to break the law, the Labour government did not take any to court as they had done in 1950.
A new phase of wage restraint opened up under the Labour Government elected in 1974. The Labour (and Tory) policy of seeking to prevent unemployment by expansion of government expenditure — in effect, inflation — had completely failed. Unemployment rose to nearly 1 1/2 millions in 1976 but inflation had reached dangerous levels and, in order to maintain British competitiveness in world markets, it became increasingly urgent to curb it. The Labour Government negotiated a new restraint with the T.U.C. named "the social contract" designed, according to the Government, to hold down prices by limiting wage increases. It had little or no effect on prices — the rise of the price level between the return of the Labour Government in February 1974 and February 1977 was 71 per cent and it was still rising fast. Its effect on wage levels, however, was drastic. In the years 1974-77 'real wages', that is the purchasing power of money wages, had fallen materially. According to figures provided by the Trsasary, the purchasing power of the take-home pay of workers on the average wage fell by 12 per cent between December 1974 and February 1977 (The Times, 16 May 1977).
The workers' standard of living fell in the trade depression which began in 1974. just as it had in the trade depressions of the nineteenth century when openly capitalist Liberal or Tory Governments were in power.
The effectiveness of trade union action has clearly been blunted by support for the Labour Party, a link that has been justified by saying that Labour is the political arm of the trade union movement. But the experience of all the Labour administrations of capitalism since the second world war has shown that, far from using political power to force employers to grant wage increases, Labour governments had used it against workers to bring about wage restraint.
In the early months of 1969, the Wilson government announced its intention to push through legislation which would have empowered a minister to impose a twenty-eight day 'conciliation pause' on certain strikes and to enforce it by fines on workers who refused to comply with an order to continue at work. Only in face of widespread trade union opposition, and the threat of some Labour M.P.s to vote against it, was the proposed legislation dropped.
Trade union effectiveness has also been blunted by the extent to which the unions have been drawn into the administration of capitalism. During and since the second world war it has become customary for individual unions and the Trades Union Congress to associate themselves with the government and government departments in carrying out government policy. In return for consultation the TUC and the executives of the unions are expected to endorse policies and to undertake to recommend them to their members.
It may be argued that some of these activities are a logical development of the functions of organisations formed to protect the workers under capitalism but it is obvious that they, like the link with the Labour Party, distract attention from the principal purpose of the trade unions: to resist the pressure of the capitalist class on the workers' conditions.
What, then, is to be the future of the unions? At present appear to have become jumping-off grounds for Labour politicians, and to that extent less useful to the workers: but there is no obvious reason why, with the spread of understanding among their members, they should not be valuable centres of resistance to capitalist attack.
As we have seen, the trade unions arose from the resistance to the pressure on the workers in the early days of capitalism. They necessarily took the form most convenient at the moment, and have been slow to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. They have tended to overemphasise the distinctions between workers of different occupations and skills, origin, and sex. The Socialist Party, organised as it is for the emancipation of the workers as a class, insists upon the necessity for subordinating all distinctions to class solidarity. On the political field the workers of all countries have but one interest, and that involves winning political power and dispossessing the capitalist class. The supreme conflict with that class leaves no room for sectional antagonisms between workers.
Syndicalists (a name derived from the French word for trade union) argue that workers need not bother with political action to dispossess the capitalists and that instead they should organise into unions and in the course of a general strike 'take and hold' the means of production. Syndicalism is based on a dangerous illusion and is opposed by the Socialist Party. Though a general strike may be useful under some circumstances to resist attacks on living standards, it cannot be used to overthrow capitalism. The capitalists' monopoly over the means of production rests upon their control of political power. To leave this in their hands while attempting to carry out the social revolution would be folly and bound to lead to unnecessary bloodshed and suffering.
Syndicalism also, with such slogans as 'the factories to the workers' and 'the mines to the miners', suggests that capitalist control of industry should be replaced by that of a federation of industrial unions or workers' councils. This is misleading and shows the futility of drawing prints for a future society, since this proposal merely reflects occupational and sectional distinctions of capitalism.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, while recommending trade unionists to offer their utmost resistance to the worsening of conditions, never fails to point out that under capitalism the pressure on the workers is inevitable. It is not enough, therefore, merely to apply the brake to these worsening conditions. The system that gives rise to them must be abolished.
Trade Unions SPGB pamphlet, 1980 (.pdf)
Syndicalism - its origin and weakness Socialist Standard 1986 (.pdf)
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