Friday, March 31, 2017

Labour Government, Strikes and Arbitration (1947)

Editorial from the February 1947 issue of the Socialist Standard

The road haulage strike, which lasted for some ten days in the early part of January, brought out clearly the false position of the Labour Government and the impracticability of its policy.

Having undertaken the running of the capitalist system, the Labour Government is finding that it has got to do it in the only way it can be done. Capitalism will only work if the Capitalists can see the prospect of making a profit, so, in disregard of years of vaguely anti-capitalist propaganda, the Labour Government has had to come out in support of the "profit motive.” Having claimed it would raise wages, it urges the unions not to make wage claims, lest profits should all be swallowed up. It declared for shorter hours, but now says the time is inopportune. It condemned the use of troops in strikes, and has twice used them since it came to power. It declared that under Labour Government strikes were unnecessary because "impartial arbitration” would give all the workers wanted, but has repeatedly seen the workers defying unsatisfactory arbitration awards.

On the use of troops in strikes it is only necessary to recall the motion put forward by the Labour Party in Parliament on May 12th, 1939.

Moved by Mr. Shinwell, a Minister in the present Government, the motion would have freed conscripts from the obligation to “take duty in aid of the civil power in connection with a trade dispute, or to perform, in consequence of a trade dispute, any civil or industrial duty customarily performed by a civilian in the course of his employment.”

Faced with the road haulage strike, the Government used large bodies of troops to do the work of the strikers. Mr. Strachey, erstwhile left-winger and critic of the Labour Party, had the duty, as Minister of Food, of issuing the statement about the use of the troops. He assured the strikers that in using troops he was "not interfering in this industrial dispute” (Daily Express, 11/1/47) and hoped that the workers would not mind. That they did mind very much was soon shown by the fact that men not directly involved in the dispute stopped work as a protest, and by January 15th 35,000 road haulage strikers had been joined by 21,000 sympathetic strikers (Daily Express, 16/1/47).

Government spokesmen and the Capitalist Press made the usual reproach that the strike inflicted hardship on other workers. It certainly did, but then so does every strike in greater or less degree. If the argument is accepted as an over-riding objection it rules out all strikes; but what, then, is meant by the Labour Party’s own claim that it defends the right to strike?

One curious criticism of the strikers was made by the Manchester Guardian, which argued that the men’s grievances "are not substantial,” and “ there is no question of poverty or oppressive conditions of work ” (14/1/ 47). But if the matter in dispute was small, why did not the employers and the Wages Board and the Government promptly concede it? What about their responsibility for indicting suffering over a trivial matter? We can also imagine what the criticism would have been if the men had struck for something really substantial. Then the critics would have got hot under the collar about "unreasonable demands.” 

The Daily Herald did not agree with the Guardian. Their line (10/1/47) was that the strike was “a boiling over of bad blood which has existed for a long time; bad blood created by bad conditions of employment”; hut, argued the Herald, the men should have obeyed the Minister of Labour’s appeal "to go back to work at once and abide by the decision of the Board, with the assurance that it will be reached on the basis of a fair and impartial hearing of their claims.” This argument will not stand a moment’s examination. As the Board had already rejected the main claim and given what the Herald described as "only minor but nevertheless valuable concessions,” what reason could there have been for supposing that a re-hearing of the claim would have any other result, but for the pressure brought to bear by the strike? If the second hearing would have been different from the first, how “fair and impartial” was the first? Events proceeded to blow the Herald's case sky-high, for the men did not go back until a new, quicker-working Joint Industrial Council had been set up to short-circuit the Wages Board.

Lack of space precludes further comments. We will deal more fully with arbitration later. For the moment it is sufficient to say that the whole idea of arbitration as a substitute for strikes is based on an illusion, as the Herald itself once clearly realised. In an editorial (12/4/1924) the Herald pointed out that, "so long as the wage system exists,” and whether the workers are employed by a private employer of by the State, their capacity to "sell their labour-power . . . at a fair price depends on their capacity, through their trade unions, to refuse to work.”

The road haulage strike is just a further pointer to the impossibility of Labourism.

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