Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Communist Leader and the Right to Strike (1937)

From the July 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

What appears to be an amazingly retrograde step in the history of trade-union agreements is reported in the Manchester Guardian for March 1st, 1937. In anticipation that the agreement would be referred to in Labour and Communist newspapers earlier, comment here has been deferred until now. No reference to it has appeared, or—to be pedantically correct—has been noticed.

The South Wales Miners’ Federation staged a “stay-in” strike at the pits of the Bedwas Navigation Colliery Company in order to force the company to recognise the Federation. For many years the company recognised only the Miners’ Industrial Union, an offshoot of the Nottinghamshire “Spencer Union.” After the intervention of the Mines Department, the Bedwas management agreed on a ballot, which was overwhelmingly in favour of the Federation. As a condition for agreeing to the ballot the Bedwas Company obtained from the Miners' Federation an agreement which, to put it very mildly, is unique in being the opposite of everything considered to be sound trade-union tactics.

The Manchester Guardian quotes as follows from one clause in the agreement: —
The parties signatory hereto and the workmen undertake that no restriction of effort or strike action of any kind shall take place, nor shall any stoppage of the colliery be brought about by them under any circumstances whatsoever, provided that any and every dispute which may arise is dealt with in the manner provided in the foregoing (i.e., clause 13), and that the ultimate decision is accepted and applied by the company.
The same clause says:—
It is mutually agreed that the dismissal of any workman or workmen guilty of a breach of this agreement shall not be regarded as victimisation, but as a protective measure to safeguard the colliery and the general body of workmen from the action of irresponsible individuals. Provided, however, that the question of whether a workman is guilty as alleged may be dealt with in accordance with clause 13 hereof. To this end the workmen are assured of the assistance of the colliery company in fostering complete cooperation between the employers and the workmen engaged at this colliery.
It will be seen to be full of dangerous implications, though that clause in its practical application might be modified by clause 13, which is referred to twice. We reproduce the Guardian's Labour correspondent's summary of this clause:—
Clause 13, which lays down the conciliation procedure for the pit, is also interesting. There is to be a pit committee composed only of workmen at the colliery. The duties of miners' agent under the agreement are to be undertaken by Mr. A. L. Horner. The duty is assigned to him, apparently, in an individual capacity and is not dependent on his tenure of office as president of the Miners' Federation. If a dispute occurs it must be first discussed between the workmen and the management, then by the pit committee and the manager; if still unsettled, the facts must be reported in writing to the colliery agent and the miners' agent. If the two agents fail to agree, then— still failing settlement the aforesaid miners' agent shall have the right to communicate and endeavour to settle the matter with the company’s consulting engineer or other accredited representative of the owners, and failing a satisfactory agreement the matter in dispute shall be forthwith referred to an arbitrator to be agreed on, or, failing agreement, to be appointed by a statutory body, and his decision shall be final and binding on all parties to the dispute.
Note how the last word is with an independent arbitrator, whose decision is binding on all parties. If this is not giving up the right to strike then what is! This agreement lasts until September, 1941, until which time “ there shall be no stoppage."

If agreements like this are going to be made the existence of trade unions would seem illogical. It certainly appears that the Miners' Federation thinks so. For, read this clause in the agreement:
“The Miners' Federation and the signatories hereto jointly and severally agree not to interfere with the management of this colliery directly or indirectly or to refer to it in any way in their discussions with outside parties."
Embodied in the agreement are “guarantees and assurances required by the company" which were given to it by the Miners' Federation. Under these the Federation undertakes “not to support the claim of any man not now employed at the colliery." That seems to be anticipating awkward claims for compensation from miners unable to work through sickness or injury.

Another provision in the agreement says double shifts “shall be worked when and where required by the company, and the company shall, at their own discretion, be at liberty to introduce machinery and any method of working, notwithstanding that the same may involve a change in the then existing system of working."

The important question of pay raised by either party “must be dealt with between the company and the workman." Failing agreement in that manner, the procedure is to be in accordance with the treacherous “clause 13."

This slipshod agreement, which, with great imagination, at best could be described as compromising and dangerous, which so shocked even the Liberal Manchester Guardian that it headlined it “Right to Strike Given Up," was signed by Arthur Horner, Communist President of the South Wales Miners' Federation. The howls of execration which would have gushed from the Communist Press had A. J. Cook or J. H. Thomas or E. Bevin signed away the powers of bargaining to an independent “arbitrator appointed by a statutory body," whose decision should be binding, can be well imagined. Is this an example of the Communists’ claim that they lead the day-to-day struggles of the workers to drive home their revolutionary lessons?

If it is, then it is hoped that Mr. Horner signs a few more agreements like it and gets himself signed out of trade union leadership for good.
Harry Waite

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