Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Then and now (1986)

From the June 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

In March, I went along to the Dundee Rep to watch the world premiere of They Farily Mak Ye Work, a play based on the life of Dundee's jute-mill workers from the First World War to the early Thirties. The play covered some of the important events of the period such as the Mill Workers' Strike of 1922 and the Means Test demonstration of 1931 but what impressed most was the quite remarkable resilience displayed by workers enduring quite dire poverty in their day to day lives.

When I left the Rep. I wondered if there were many people who had been left thinking, "Ah great, another fine play about the inter-war depression . . . I'm glad things are very different now". While in some respects life has become more comfortable for working people in the 1980s, it would be mistaken to suggest that there have been fundamental changes since the 1930s.

Today we are again witnessing record levels of unemployment: workers are laid off and those who remain have to work harder as their employers try to retain their share of the market. Commenting on this practice at the newly-opened Eagle Jute Mill in 1930, the Dundee and District Jute and Flax Workers' Guide (June/July 1930), stated that:
. . . a number of women were sent from the Labour Exchange on Monday morning, 30th June, and were told they had to do the work of four women. And as they declined to be "preyed upon", they left.
The large reserve of young unemployed workers proved a useful source of cheap—or even free—labour in the Thirties, as one annual report of the Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers noted:
. . . the Ministry of Labour Trade Boards Divisional Office, Edinburgh, drew attention to two recent cases in which Dundee Jute firms had had juveniles on their premises without paying wages. The matter appeared to have arisen through permitting the juveniles to "look round" for a few days on the understanding that no wages would be paid unless, and until, the juvenile was taken on in a regular capacity. It was stated it was understood the practice was not uncommon in Dundee. (Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Committee, 1933, p. 10)
Is today's YTS a great deal better? Employers may claim that they are taking on youngsters for social reasons, but they cannot deny that young workers are receiving pocket money for a week's exploitation.

The soup kitchens that were synonymous with the Twenties and Thirties have disappeared. So too have other features of capitalism's charity. Commenting on the dire poverty faced by some workers in Dundee in the 1920s, Mary Brooksbank recalled that:
Even the police had their Bootless Bairns Fund, for bootless bairns were a common enough sight in those days. (No Sae Lang Syne: A Tale of This City, p.29) 
Today you just have to stroll through the centre of any city to be confronted with numerous charities all with their collecting tins hoping that you will donate to the cause of Help the Aged, Shelter, Dr Barnado's and so on. All of them signs that workers suffer a great deal at the hands of this society that asks for payment before human needs are considered.

Since the 1930s, we have witnessed the proliferation of new generations of "luxury" consumer goods among working people. In the 1950s, workers increasingly began to possess televisions, cars and washing-machines—wow, the "affluent society" had really arrived! In the 1970s colour TVs and digital quartz watches went from being status symbols to commonplace items and the video seems to be heading the same way. The question is, can we really say that things have got better just because there are more consumer goods around? Often you will hear people claim that a new car is a sign that, "there must be a lot of money about" when in fact many people are up to their ears in debt as the home, the car and the household items are paid for on the never-never - mortgage or HP payments. The increase in consumer goods should not be related to what workers had in the 1930s, for it should be remembered that they then had more items than workers in, say, the 1850s. If we make comparisons we should be looking at the proportion of wealth the workers received then and receive now, from the total that workers in society have created. Now, as then, workers only receive a tiny fraction of the wealth they produce and while the employers reap the profits of our labour we are expected to be grateful for the tiny slice of the cake that is our wage or salary.

Class division
This, then, is the class divide: a conflict between owners of capital—be they mill-owners, land-owners, or shareholders in private or state-controlled industries—and the rest of us. This is the relationship that compelled our relatives in the 1930s to suffer the treadmill of wage-labour and poverty, to march for the "right to work" and which led to numerous demonstrations and cracked heads in strikes where the police clearly showed that their main function is to protect the capitalists' property rights. Looking back on the Means Test Demonstrations in Dundee on September 24 1931, Sara Craig recalled that:
. . . the policemen came on horseback and they were hittin' folk wi' their batons. They were hittin' the folk wi' their batons and chasin' them and breakin' up the crowds. (Ed. Billy Kay, Odyssey: Voices from Scotland's Recent Past. p. 13)
Only someone who had just crawled out from a hole in the ground, or had been beamed down from outer-space, would suggest that you can have a democratically accountable police force. Yet time and time again, the Labour Party and assorted left-wing romantics advocate precisely that. If anyone believes the myth of Dixon of Dock Green bobbies then they ought to ask themselves why the police's task-force was deployed against striking miners in the recent strike? Did they not defend the interests of the National Coal Board against the miners?

An alternative
The problems of poverty that we face today have led to so called solutions like "Right to Work" marches or voting Labour and expecting nationalisation to solve our problems. These "solutions" have been tried and they have failed and it is a tragedy that they have been repeated decade after decade. The sense of disappointment felt by Labour Party members and voters after 1945 must have been immense, watching the dream of the New Jerusalem fade as the Labour government showed it could not run capitalism any better than the Tories.

It is time we decided to get rid of employment and organise the production and distribution of wealth without the barrier of wages and money and the restrictions that capitalism places on our needs. One by one, this system of society stamps out the dreams, hopes and ambitions that we have at various points in our lives - they are crushed by the need to make ends meet. Common ownership is not some age-old dream of a perfect society but am immediate and realisable means of getting rid of the numerous problems that are our lot as wage-workers. The alternative to organising for socialism is the acceptance of our poverty where employers will continue to "fairly mak us work".
Derek Devine

The Wildcat Strike (1953)

From the July-August 1953 issue of the Western Socialist
(EDITORIAL NOTE: A wildcat strike is a work. stoppage which has taken place in violation of a contract with management, or which has not received official sanction from the authority - usually the International Executive Board - established under the Union's constitution. The author of this article has participated in dozens of wildcats in the automobile industry, and thus writes from first-hand observation.)

The workers mill around in small groups. A buzz goes through them rapidly. The huge steel-cutting machines lapse into silence. The conveyor lines halt as if struck dead by some unseen hand. Everything is at a standstill. A wildcat strike is being born. The workers await its delivery.

A chief steward has been fired. Or perhaps the line has been speeded up, and the workers walk off in protest. Or perhaps . . . rumors . . . facts . . .  confusion . . .  unrest . . . 

A group of men push their way through the workers. These are the committeemen, perhaps accompanied by local union officials. They listen to the workers' complaints. Go back to work. We will settle this through the regular grievance procedure.

Some of the workers nod in agreement. But they are pulled back into the circle by those who voice defiance and protest. We have followed the grievance procedure before and got nothing. This time we are going out.

The officials try another argument. The walkout has not been approved by the International Executive Board of the union. The workers answer: Hell, we voted 98% to strike three months ago, and the International still hasn't authorized the strike. We're hitting the bricks.

The situation is getting beyond the control of the local union officers. They deal one last card. They tell the workers: you will be violating the Taft-Hartley Act. The union will be sued, its treasury wiped out. This has even less effect than the other arguments. Washington is a long way off to these workers. Their immediate grievance looms larger. Suddenly someone cries what are we waiting for. Let's go. Survey the scene as if you were seated in a high crane with a view of the entire shop.

Large knots of workers formed here and there in the various departments begin to break up into small knots. The workers are arguing, discussing. Then they begin to leave the plant.

They merge like so many rivulets into small streams, then into large rivers, until finally all are swept out through the gates in a mighty flow. The company enters the scene. Telegrams are sent out to the workers. Return to work or be considered as having voluntarily quit your jobs. Still the workers remain away, in sullen defiance.

Momentarily the company has lost control of the workers. The union goes into action. A mass meeting is scheduled. The "big guns" from the International union scold the workers. They spend most of the meeting, talking, repeating, talking, and repeating. Very little time is left for the rank and file. When a rank and filer speaks, his limit his five minutes, while each International man speaks for half an hour, often longer.

The International tells the men: you will lose your jobs. The plant will move out of town. Other companies will get the work. The arguments have a telling effect. Thousands of workers have come to this meeting for one purpose only: to vote to go back to work. The motion is made and passed to return to work and "continue negotiations."

The militants who argued in favor of continuing the strike are defeated, the conservatism of the workers prevail. On this the International office had pinned their hopes to end the stoppage.

Wait. All is not over. The men return, but the following week other wildcats take place. The International officers apply a heavy foot. An administrator is placed over the Local union. Bargaining continues with the company, but the administrator has the final words on everything. The democratic right of the workers to make their own decisions has been abolished.

Despite this dictatorship over their affairs, the workers continue to strike. The "instigators" are fired. The union remains silent, in approval of the company's action. Gradually the strikes fade out until the administrator leaves. Then the process begins all over again. . . 

Not all wildcat strikes follow this pattern. The one above - an actual situation which took place in the auto industry recently - enables us to view a wildcat strike from beginning to end.

Some strikes never reach the point where the workers leave the plant. They are in the nature of sit-downs, where the workers stay at their machines without turning a hand, or let jobs go by until a jam piles up at the end, and the line must shut down. Still other actions take the form of slow-downs. The workers let every other job on the line go, or if running a machine reduce the speeds and feeds. They are working, but not producing their quotas. Both the company and the union terms this a strike.

Why do these wildcats take place? What significance do they have toward developing the thinking of the workers?

To some these wildcats are the work of an "irresponsible few," of a "small dissident element," or even of "Communists." This is the attitude, not only of union leaders, but also of many workers.

There is no use denying the facts. In certain isolated cases a few individuals might agitate for a wildcat and succeed in bringing it off, but can a few lead thousands, if the conditions are not present for these thousands to be led? What becomes of the "communist" arguments when wildcats break out in plants where there are no known "communists" and where the participants are all "loyal American workers"?

The point is that the wildcat walkouts, the sit-downs, the slow-downs have their origin in the economic system we have today. To allege the cause of these works stoppages to "leaders," and not to conditions, is to cover up the real nature of capitalism. Labor leaders do it from ignorance or from plan - because of their belief in and collaboration with the capitalist system - but the workers do it out of sheer ignorance of the real conditions.

In a system of society such as we have now where one class works for wages and another class reaps the profits from their labor, a struggle goes on continually between the two classes over the fruits of production.

Socialists call this the class struggle. This struggle embraces a multitude of matters. It takes place over wages and hours at work. It takes place over working conditions, safety, speedup, etc. It takes place over firings, penalties for being late and absent, even over the location of a time clock.

The outlets of this struggle are numerous and varied. Already we have mentioned the wildcat, the sit-down, and the slow-down. Other forms exist. When the worker reaches up and flips the counter on his machine a few dozen times without increasing his production, when he turns in production figures beyond what he actually produced, when he spends half an hour beyond that time necessary to perform his biological functions, he is engaging in a struggle against those who exploit him. When he tightens up a nut, takes it off, and then puts it on again to kill time on the line, he is carrying on a struggle against his capitalist employers.

The wildcat strike is just another manifestation of the class struggle. When workers have grievances over speed-up, these grievances arise out of the fact that a class is seeking to make more profit from them. When workers have grievances for higher wages, these grievances stem from the fact that the workers must struggle for their standard of existence against the class which seeks to keep wages down.

The wildcat takes place when the workers feel that the grievance procedure is too slow, when on-the-spot action is necessary, or when they have no confidence in the ability of their leaders to solve their grievances through the regular procedure.

The labor leaders may clamp down hard, may place one administrator after another over one local union after another, but the conditions of capitalism continuing, wildcats are bound to result. Not a day passes that a wildcat does not take place in some shop throughout the country. Still the union leaders are foolish enough, or ignorant enough, to believe they can suppress the class struggle. Even Hitler could not stop strikes under his dictatorship, nor as recent events in East Germany showed, could the armored tank divisions of the Red Army.

What is the political significance of these wildcat strikes? One school of thought in the working class political movement sees these wildcat strikes as bona fide rebellions, not only against the labor leaders, but against the capitalist system itself. This school views the wildcats as the beginnings of a real rank and file movement which will eventually result in the workers throwing out the union bureaucrats, taking over the factories, establishing workers' councils and ultimately a "workers society" based on these councils.

If one reads the newspapers - and at one time half of Detroit's auto workers were idle because of wildcats - he might gain the impression that a tremendous political movement of the workers was under way. To one directly involved in these struggles, and in daily contact with the workers, another, more accurate, picture enfolds itself.

These wildcats are purely economic struggles on the part of the workers. They have a grievance arising out of the conditions of their work, instinctively they bring to bear their only weapon, withdrawal of their labor.

For a brief period the workers are aroused. They assail their union leaders in no uncertain terms. But they learn nothing of the role of these union leaders in support of capitalism because they do not understand the society under which they live. In a few days, after the wildcat is over, the workers return to their routine thinking.

Another school of thought believes these wildcats can be used as a lever to push the workers along a political road, towards their "emancipation." How is this possible if the workers do not understand the political road, and are only engaging in economic struggles? The answer is that "leaders in-the-know" will direct the workers, much as a Seeing Eye Dog guides a blind person.

But these leaders can also lead the workers in the wrong direction, toward the wrong goals (nationalization and state capitalism), as the workers later find out to their sorrow.

The socialist approach of education -  rather than the non-socialist approach of leadership - is much better.

Through education it can be pointed out to the workers that wildcat strikes arise out of the nature of capitalism, but that they are not the answer to the workers' problems. These economic struggles settle nothing decisively because in the end the workers still wear the chains of wage slavery. It is the political act of the entire working class to eliminate the exploitative relations between workers and capitalists which can furnish a final solution.

Is not this giving leadership to the workers, to point these things out? In a sense it is, but it is a leadership of a different type. It is not the non-socialist leadership of a minority which knows (or thinks it knows) where it is going over a majority which does not know where it is going, and merely follows the minority.

It is the socialist leadership of educating workers to understand the nature of both capitalism and socialism, so that, armed with this understanding, the workers themselves can carry out the political act of their own emancipation.

The non-socialist leadership is based on lack of understanding among the workers. The socialist leadership is based on understanding among the workers.

This is the lesson of the wildcat strike and all other outbursts of class struggle among the workers. These struggles can be used as a means of educating workers to the real political struggle - socialism. They should not be used as a means to gain leadership over the workers, or to lead them along a political path they do not understand.

'Karl Frederick'

Nothing to offer (1968)

Book Review from the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Future for British Socialism? Ed. K. Coates (Centre for Socialist Education. 5s.)

Before the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough last year the Leftwingers organised a teach-in. This book—whose title is an obvious dig at Wilson—is a verbatim report of that meeting. Speeches never read well and these are no exception. Only two or three of the speakers seemed to have grasped what is going on: that the Labour Party government is out to cut living standards and, to this end, has also to hamper the weapons we have to resist such cuts, viz., our trade unions. V. L. Allen, author of Militant Trade Unionism, alleged that Labour was moving toward a Corporate State, and correctly pointed out:
"The Labour government in fact has rescued the capitalist system out of a crisis situation by doing things which the Conservative government were incapable of doing, by buttressing up the system with legislation which the Conservatives couldn't possibly have got through, concerning the unions and the control of incomes . . . In fact, the Labour government has been more loyal than the king in this respect. It's done things which I think even the Conservatives would not try to do to trade unions, and to the freedom to strike, and to the right to organise collectively."
J. Mortimer, of DATA, later said of Labour that "in a manner almost unprecedented in British political history, they have undermined fundamental trade union rights".

New Lefter Blackburn has realised that Labour is not even a gradualist party, that it no longer even pretends to be changing capitalism to Socialism by futile, piecemeal reforms.
"Some pessimists in 1964 said this was a Government which was simply going to solve the problems of British capitalism at the expense of the working class, and at the time that sounded like a somewhat dogmatic, possibly even ultra-Left, assertion. But curiously it wasn't Left enough, we can now see in the year 1967. In fact, the Labour Government, though it may have attempted to solve the crisis in British capitalism at the expense of the working classes, has quite visibly failed to do so." 
But still they are loyal to Labour! Blackburn goes on to raise the important issue of how anybody who stands for the interests of the working class can remain associated with Labour:
"Now it seems to me that in this situation, where there's been a wholesale sacrifice of even the attempt to reform capitalism, that we must ourselves ask what is our role in the Labour Party and in the Labour Movement. We must ask ourselves whether we, by our continued activity within this party, are actually encouraging the illusion that this party is a reforming party."
His answer is, wrongly, no. Of course the so called Leftwing, in staying with Labour, helps to keep that party in power and enable it to continue its attacks on our living standards and trade unions.
Adam Buick 

Proper Gander: Fascist Pepperpots (2013)

From the November 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘A thing that looks like a police box, that can move anywhere in time and space?’ This is the appealingly wide-ranging premise behind Doctor Who (BBC1), as described in the sci-fi show’s first episode. That was shown in November 1963, and fifty years on, the Doctor Who brand is still as robust as a finely-tuned TARDIS.

Wherever and whenever the Doctor and his plucky companions travel, the show’s storylines are often drawn from the real world. Many of society’s concerns have been dressed up as a tyrannical regime or an alien invasion. For example, the 1968 protests were mirrored in The Krotons (1969),set on a planet whose students rebel against an education system only feeding them enough knowledge to serve their alien masters. And in The Sun Makers (1977), the Doctor stirs up a revolution on Pluto, whose workers are stifled by taxes (albeit oblivious to the SPGB view that taxation ultimately isn’t an issue for the working class). The Doctor’s most enduring enemy – the Daleks – represent Nazis, motivated by a hatred for anything unlike themselves. Early stories feature sink plungers raised in fascist salutes, while the parallels are clearest in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which introduces their Hitleresque creator, Davros.

Throughout all eleven of his incarnations, the Doctor has remained an anarchic character, backing the oppressed with little regard for officialdom. The show’s libertarian streak feels at odds with how it is possibly the most commodified programme ever. Dalekmania hit the shelves of the nation’s toy shops not long after the show’s debut. And fans have been able to admire their Doctor Who DVDs, models and even Dalek condiment sets in rooms covered in Doctor Who wallpaper, wearing their Doctor Who underpants. Since its regeneration in 2005, the programme has settled back into being one of the BBC’s blockbusters, with audiences always above six million in the UK, and more across over 50 other countries. Despite, or even because of, its commodification, Doctor Who has fired the imagination unlike any other TV show, and offers escapism from life in capitalism as well as raising a few points about it.
Mike Foster