The Passing Show column from the October 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
The BMC Strike
The recent strike of workers employed on the new small car produced by the British Motor Corporation evoked some curious statements by the employers. The employees were dissatisfied with the rates of pay offered them for the work on the new car, alleging that they meant a reduction in wages. To this, a representative of the management replied:—
The company regard this as blackmail and want it to be understood clearly that they are not prepared to hold any discussions until normal work is resumed. The Guardian, 1-9-59.
Those who defend capitalism sometimes do so on the grounds that free bargaining is the best way to reach fair prices for the goods or services that everyone has to offer. The workers, they say, are not forced to work for any particular employer, or for any particular wage; they are free to bargain, and thus arrive a "fair" wage. This ignores the fact that the workers are in the nature of the case exploited by their employers; no business-owner will employ a man to work for him unless the man brings him a surplus over and above the value of his wages.
But even ignoring the exploitation of the workers, on which the whole capitalist system is founded, and even accepting the arguments about “free” bargaining and “fair” wages, how can the BMC defend its attitude? The workers are not prepared to accept the pay offered them for this particular job, and so stop work until agreement can be reached between the two sides. In doing this they are merely acting in accord with the teachings of the classical laissez- faire capitalist economists (“each acting to forward his own interests will produce the greatest general good”). But the BMC refuse even to discuss the question until the men resume work on the BMC’s terms! When that happens of course, the employers are free to spin out the talks as long as they want to— negotiations, adjournments, deferments committees, re-appraisals—and all the time the men are working on the BMC’s terms. It is exactly as if the men were to say that they would not even start talks until the BMC employs them at the higher rate of pay they are asking. If the men did this how Fleet Street would gasp in horror; how the leader-writers would lash themselves into a frenzy, denouncing such a departure from the established ways of behaviour! But when the employers do it, that’s all right. Fleet Street certainly gasped in horror at the latest BMC strike; but, the reason was that the workers had dared to cease work, instead of accepting whatever the management graciously decided to pay them, and touching their forelocks in gratitude that they were paid anything at all.
Fleet Street denounces forced labour when practiced by the Russians in faraway Siberia; but the only thing which appears likely to satisfy the big newspaper owners, and their class-comrades the big industrialists, is to forbid the workers to strike in any circumstances, and establish forced labour in this country as well.
Religiously inclined people present many problems to the inquiring mind. After the recent crash of a Dakota near Barcelona, which resulted in the deaths of all on board, a man who narrowly failed to catch the plane is reported to have said “God saved me” (Daily Herald, 21-8-59). Does he, one wonders, really believe that the Almighty personally intervened in his case, and put difficulties in his way so that he wouldn't catch the plane? If the Almighty went to this trouble, why didn’t he stop the other passengers catching the plane, or indeed simply prevent it crashing? Perhaps the Christian theologians could answer this question—they must have had a lot of practice—but to the rest of us it remains puzzling.
In the East
Another event reported the same day is also difficult to understand. At a Buddhist procession in Ceylon an elephant ran amok and killed fourteen people, including eleven women and a child. The Guardian, 21-8-59. Christians pondering on the Barcelona air crash can reflect that their Buddhist rivals will have an even harder time explaining this disaster away.
A correspondent of the Daily Herald (26-8-59) raises the following point:—
I read . . . the other day that there is a plum glut in Worcestershire, and that the fruit would be left to rot. Why can’t they be picked and sent to orphanages, children’s homes and hospitals?
It’s a comment often heard. If there is too much food at a certain time or place, why can’t it be given to those who really need it ?
The answer is that we live under a capitalist system. It wouldn’t pay anybody to transport the surplus fruit from Worcestershire to the people who could eat it. And, by capitalist ethics, what doesn’t pay isn't done. Besides that, to distribute free fruit to institutions like those mentioned in the letter would mean that they would reduce their purchases through the normal channels. This would strike at the profits of the middlemen and the farmers. However generous and kind-hearted such men may be personally, they can only stay in business if they play the capitalist game; and they would have to resist any suggestion which would have the effect of destroying their own trade.
There is a way in which we could distribute the products of society freely to the members of society; and that, of course, is the establishment of Socialism.