When Labor Bosses Labor
MY LAST London Letter was written from Scotland. Now I am afraid I must ask you to journey with me some two hours by train to the salubrious and popular seaside resort of Margate. Perhaps we shall be in London when the next Letter is written.
It is a peculiarity of the English, and especially Londoners, that when they go to the seaside they prefer a place so popular that there is hardly room to sit down on the sands or immerse themselves in the sea. So this year when the mighty Trades Union Congress decided to hold its annual conference the unanimous choice was for Margate. Strictly s|>eaking the holiday period was over but the machine had not quite run down and it was still possible in the balmy sunshine of early autumn to pretend that they were stealing an extra, belated holiday from t lu* calendar. It seemed therefore a good idea that 1 should also visit Margate, disguised as a gentleman of the press, and see what was happening.
It is not without historical interest that this was the Hist annual conference of the British Trades Union Congress. More than a century has passed since the Tolpuddle martyrs were sentenced to deportation for conspiring together as workers to demand t heir rights. ()ver the years since those dark days, the trade union movement has grown steadily in strengt h and, on the whole, has been wisely led by sensible, sober men. Ahead of other nations Britain realized the justice and essential sanity of trade unionism.
The great major blunder of the TUC came in 1926 when, after much provocation, it declared a general strike. I can remember how Ix»rd Beaverbrook rang me on the telephone in my editorial office at the Daily Express the night before the strike and said: “Put this
on your front page ‘There is nothing new about a general strike. It has often been tried before and always fails. This strike will be over in a week. Put your trust in the Government for it has the situation well in hand.’” And so it Continued on page 33
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When Labor Bosses Labor
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proved. The nation rose up to defend itself against a threat from one section. Miraculously there was no bloodshed ind, although deeply resentful and humiliated, organized labor had to accept the terms of the victorious Conservative Government. Those terms were embodied in the Trades Disputes Act which made a general strike illegal, prohibited picketing or coercion, banned sympathetic strikes and ruled that trade unionists would aave to contract in rather than contact out of the political levy.
The last item may need a short explanation. Some years back the Trades Union Congress decided to affiliate the movement to the Socialist Party. Accordingly every trade unionst, regardless of his politics, was autonatically docked roughly two shillings t year for the political fund to aid the Socialist Party. Anyone not wishing o pay the weekly subscription would lave to “contract out” by giving lotice.
Three things should be private—a man’s religion, a man’s politics and a man’s relations with his wife. For a worker to contract out was to brand himself as an enemy of Socialism. Thus tens of thousands of Liberal and Conservative workers contributed to the funds of a party to which they were opposed.
So in the Trades Disputes Act of 1927 the Tory Government made it imperative that any workers desirous of supporting the T.U.C. political fund must contract in to pay a weekly amount. The result was that the contributions fell to almost zero and the Socialist Party went hungry to bed.
However, time alters more things than the calendar and women’s fashions. In 1945 the Tories were swept far out to sea, the Socialists took over Treasure Island and they brought in a repeal of the Trades Dispute Act. This gave back to labor all its former rights, and once more made the political levy automatic unless the individual decided to contract out.
I suggest that this was a tempting but gross blunder on the part of H.M.’s Socialist Government. No doubt there are readers of Maclean’s who will not agree with me and will write letters to the editor protesting against propa-
ganda from a Tory. Let them not worry, but sleep quietly at night. The purpose of this article is neither to praise nor bury Caesar, but to try to explain the dilemma of the trade union movement at Margate.
The mistake of the Socialist Government in repealing the Trades Disputes Act was in the fact that it convinced the workers that they had their own Government in power, separate from the rest of the community. This, in turn, led the trape union movement to back up the Government until its fortunes were inextricably involved with that of the Socialists.
It must be perfectly obvious to any thinking man or woman that a Government cannot represent one section of the community and hope to survive. To the credit of Mr. Attlee and his colleagues, they were determined to legislate along Socialist lines but with due regard, as far as possible, for the rights and the usefulness of those elements of the nation which were traditionally opposed to them on political grounds.
Thus when they nationalized the Bank of England they put it under the governorship of the capitalist banker, Lord Catto. When they nationalized the coal mines they appointed to the board, at big salaries, outstanding managerial figures in the coal industry. The Socialist Government bought the best brains at top price to guide the state-owned industries. It is true that here and there a Socialist politician or trade union chief was rewarded with an appointment to the board, but, in the main, it was left to capitalists to manage the enterprises.
So a growing clamor began to be heard from the trade union camp. Who, they asked, understood an industry as well as the man at the machine? Where could you find better administrators than the foremen who knew the men and their problems and how to get full production? Was it for this that trade unionism had bartered its independence?
Don’t Divide Profits
Sir Stafford Cripps was put up by the Government to allay the clamor. “An honorable trade union experience,” he said, “does not necessarily equip a man for management.” This, of course, was against every slogan of the political Left. Was it not known and recognized that managements were just parasites living upon the toil and sweat of the workers? Who was this rich lawyer Cripps who dared to speak against the Labor bible in this manner?
Cripps was not finished. In April this year he brought in his “disinflationary budget” in which he deliberately put on taxes that would reduce the purchasing power in the hands of the community. “I also ask,” he said, “that there shall be no increase in the distribution of profits or in the wage level.” It was true that he left it to both sides to act voluntarily in this self-sacrifice but he left no doubt that if they failed to do so he would enforce it by legislation.
The trade union leaders looked at each other and blinked like people who have emerged from the dark into harsh tropical sunlight. If a union could not fight for better wages or for improved working conditions what was its purpose in life? They had believed that they would be the masters of the Government, and now the Government was giving orders to them! But having committed themselves to the Socialists they could do nothing but agree to freeze wages as Sir Stafford had asked.
Every schoolboy knows that nature abhors a vaccuum. Therefore the
enforced paralysis of the Trade Union leaders opened up the gates of opportunity to the shop stewards movement. Which again requires a brief word of explanation.
The shop stewards movement began innocently enough before the war. The idea was that the various groups in a factory would choose one of their number to put their case to the trade union representative or to the foreman. Their purpose was to keep the workers happy and to increase efficiency.
But the Communists realized that this was what is known as money for jam, or money for old rope. Here was the chance for the despised Communist Party, rejected by the Socialists, to establish cells in every factory. Thus they permeated the shop stewards movement, not completely but very near it, and began their congenial task of fomenting trouble, exaggerating grievances, posing as the workers’ friend, and particularly causing unofficial strikes. The trade union officials! committed to Government policy,| became more and more remote while their system of consultation and enquiry grew increasingly cumbersome
The culmination of all this was in the dockers’ strike last June which was only ended by the use of the troops and the radio appeal of Mr. Attlee. Not since the end of the general strike had trade unionism been so utterly ineffectual.
Toast to Management!
Therefore when the 1,200-odd dele-: gates gathered at Margate it was not in any festive spirit. No wonder the chairman—motherly, good-humored, West of England Miss Hancock— wondered if she would get through the week without some turbulent scenes.
On the first day Mr. Shinwell, the Secretary of State for War, turned up and urged them to continue to suppori the Government. He told them tha: Sir Stafford Cripps would come dowi the next day and he hoped that they would receive him cordially. Having thus prepared the way Shinwell re turned to London and the next daV Sir Stafford Cripps and I went t Margate, not together or in collusion but merely as traveling statistics. Bj no means lacking in courage he was going to put his head in the lion’s mouth.
This is an amazing man. When h$ came on the platform he looked as un; perturbed and as fresh as if he had been on a fortnight’s holiday. Yet on his diet of nuts and vegetables he works s 17-hour day, directing the economic and financial affairs of Britain in he: period of trial. The strain of office has taken toll of Bevin, Morrison and Attlee, but iron man Cripps is unmarked.
The delegates gave him a restrainec but friendly greeting. He command their respect as he does in every sectio: of the community except the Com munists. I wondered, as Cripps begai his speech, if he would have th; courage to be nonpartisan or whethe he would succumb to the temptation o playing to the audience. But I did no have to wonder very long.
In his calm, legal voice he told of th improvement over the last 12 month in the nation’s battle to increase outpu and exports. “I pay full tribute to th workers, the technicians and th managements.” A Tory Chancello: could have not said more and would no have said less. I looked around to se how the delegates were taking it. Th history of trade union oratory is tha speeches should come from the hear and not the head, but here was a ma using such dry, unemotional terms a
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“the credit structure,” “balance of payments,” “inflationary tendencies,” “the trend of markets” and, at the same time, proclaiming the nation’s debt to the managements!
But Sir Stafford had only begun. Without any warning he calmly uttered the supreme blasphemy of the workers’ philosophy. “Attractive as it might seem,” he said, “the workers cannot improve their position by looking to the profits of industry.” In fact the golden egg laid by the industrial goose was too tiny to be divided among the millions of workers. “After income tax has been deducted from the declared profits of corporations,” said the Chancellor, “the amount is so small compared to salaries and wages that if we took it all it would only mean four pence in the pound.”
The sun was shining outside on the beaches but there was gloom in the chamber. Was it for this that the delegates had traveled from the four corners of the kingdom? For 80 years employers and shareholders had been denounced as exploiters who robbed the wage packets of the workers and here was their own Socialist Chancellor saying that it was not true.
“No,” said Cripps. “There are only two ways that the workers can increase their standard of living—by more muscle or more brains. Personally I am for more brains.”
That, at least, brought a sigh of relief. As long as it was only the brains that would have to work harder the outlook wasn’t too bad. So the Chancellor came to the end of his speech and, to the credit of that great gathering, it gave him a full minute’s applause. Whatever they thought of his arguments they recognized the integrity of the man.
Yet hardly had he left the platform
on his way back to London when the reaction set in and one delegate after another tried to raise the question of more wages. Soon it was apparent that the Communists among them were not afraid to raise their voices against the Iron Chancellor especially as he was no longer there.
The hierarchy on the platform held solidly to their support of the Government and turned down every extremist suggestion, but they looked uncomfortable and unhappy. They had never foreseen this situation when they made common cause with the Socialist Party. Here they were, gathered together for four days’ deliberations, yet a minister of the Crown turns up and issues orders! Was it for this that the Tolpuddle martyrs bore their chains? How and when would the mighty trade union regain its freedom? The Communists grew more daring although they were contemptuously outvoted. Across the country you may be sure that the shop stewards were telling the workers that the T. U. C. was now just a Government stooge. Truly it was a conference of one hundred headaches.
However, my day there ended pleasantly when a fraternal delegate from the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress turned up in the person of British-born Mr. Sam Lawrence who, I gather, is the mayor of Hamilton and a former M.P. in the Ontario House. He made a good robust speech and was much applauded but I was startled to hear that Prince Edward Island is the blackest spot on the Trade Union map. In fact Mr. Lawrence became so angry about Prince Edward Island that I was afraid he was going to suggest that Britain should break off diplomatic relations with that section of the Dominion.
It must be the mountain air of Hamilton ... if