Monday, August 20, 2018

Tightening union law (1983)

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
From the August 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Reform of trade union law continues to follow the pattern established early in the nineteenth century. Alternately the law is tightened by Act of Parliament (or by a new interpretation in the Courts) and the unions then do an electoral deal with one or other of the political parties to get it relaxed again. In this century the unions did a deal with the Liberals to obtain the 1906 and 1913 Acts, and then saw the law tightened against them by the Tory 1927 Act. This Act was repealed by the 1945 Labour Government, but the law was tightened again under the Heath Government's Acts, which were duly repealed by the 1974 Labour Government. Since 1979 new restrictions have been imposed and more are on the way under the new government.

It is not that the unions want no trade union legislation. They want a law which recognises them as legal organisations (before 1824 they managed to exist illegally) and protects their funds against employers' actions for damages and embezzlement by dishonest officials.

During the last Tory government (1979-83) certain forms of picketing were made illegal, and the law was altered so that after November 1984 ballots will have to be held to approve closed shop agreements. Also a new regulation was introduced into payment of supplementary benefit to the family of a worker on strike, which assumes that £13 a week strike pay is being received by strikers from their union whether or not they actually receive it, and deducts £13 from the benefit. (The strikers themselves cannot claim supplementary benefit.)

The new legislation to which the present government is pledged will require the governing bodies of unions to be elected by secret ballot, ballots every ten years to permit a union to have political funds, and ballots before strikes take place. It is not the declared intention of the government to make strikes illegal if a ballot is not taken, but if a strike takes place without a ballot the union will render itself liable to employers' actions for damages. The election manifesto also proposed special “procedure agreements” for the essential services (nursing, water, gas, electricity supply) to minimise the likelihood of strikes.

It appears that the main purpose of the new legislation is to threaten union funds and weaken the link between the unions and the Labour Party, thus hitting at Labour Party funds, eighty-five per cent of which comes from the unions. Counting on the fact that at the recent general election a clear majority of trade union members voted for the Liberal-SDP Alliance or for the Tories, Norman Tebbit, Minister for Employment, looks to ballots on union political funds to reduce trade union affiliation to the Labour Party. In addition, there is the threat that if the TUC refuses to discuss the issue with the government, legislation may be introduced requiring trade union members wishing to contribute to a political fund to “contract in" instead of the present arrangement under which objectors have to “contract out". This was one of the features of the Tory Trade Disputes Act 1927 and its effect, along with the prohibition of Civil Service unions affiliating to the Labour Party, at once cut Labour Party income by a third.

While the law plays a certain part in the effectiveness of trade union organisation and strikes in struggles with the employers the emphasis given to it by union spokesmen is out of all proportion. More important is the extent to which workers are organised, and more important still, the “state of trade": whether capitalism is in a phase of expansion, with profits running at a high level, or whether it is in depression, with heavy unemployment. Restrictive trade union laws have generally not prevented the growth of trade union membership, from about one in eight of the workers in 1900 to over half in 1977. Trade union membership continued to grow under Tory governments 1951 to 1964, and under the Heath government 1970-1974. It has been the depression which has reduced membership by over a million since 1979.

When capitalism is booming employers do not want the flow of profits to be interrupted by strikes and will be disposed to make concessions, with or without an actual strike. In a depression it is different. What impact can the union’s threat to close down a factory have when the employers themselves are about to close it down, temporarily or permanently, because the products cannot be sold at a profit?

The intended ballot before a strike takes place recalls the proposals made by the Labour Government in 1969 in the document In Place of Strife" issued by the Minister for Employment, Barbara Castle. While rejecting compulsory ballots in all cases, it proposed that the Minister should have power to order a ballot at his or her discretion and that 28 days should elapse before a strike could take place. In the event of the Minister’s order being defied, financial penalties could have been imposed on employers or strikers. In face of trade union opposition the clauses strongly objected to were dropped and a much modified Bill was never enacted owing to the defeat of the Labour Party at the 1970 general election.

The proposals in “In Place of Strife” and the present Tory proposals are both one-sided. They call for a ballot before the strike but say nothing about a ballot on ending a strike. When the Socialist Party of Great Britain, early in its history, urged unions always to have a ballot before a strike and another before the union officials could accept offered terms of settlement, it was in the interest of democratic control of union policy by the membership. At the same time we urged trade unionists to recognise the realities of the working class position in capitalist society. Power is in the hands of those who have effective control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces. If employers, with the backing of the government, consider an issue of vital importance and are therefore prepared to fight it to a finish, unions cannot hope to win. If a strike does not bring quick results the union should accept the reality of the situation, call it off and await a better opportunity. When the coal miners in 1926 continued on strike for five months they were doomed to defeat, and at the end they were bankrupt and witnessed the setting up of rival breakaway unions.

The reality of the political situation was pin-pointed in a curious way by Lloyd George when he was Prime Minister in 1919. Threatened with a general strike by the triple alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers he met their leaders and informed them that if they struck they would win, because “the Army was disaffected and could not be relied upon" (Times, 16 November 1979). He asked the union leaders if they were ready to take over the government of the country; which of course they were not, and the strike was called off.

For trade unions to contemplate strikes to overthrow the newly elected government is suicidal and a policy of despair. But it does not mean that there is no way out. They should recognise that while capitalism lasts, whatever government administers it, they are only fighting over and over again the defensive battles of the past two hundred years — and getting nowhere. We endorse what Marx wrote over a hundred years ago:
  They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto "a fair day’s wages for a fair day's work”, they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the Wages System".
In other words the only solution is worldwide socialism.
Edgar Hardcastle

Debate—Marx v. Christ (1984)

Illustration by George Meddemmen.
Letter to the Editors from the August 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors.

I feel you must be entirely misinformed as to what religion is if you dismiss it all as “primitive superstitions” for, though that may apply to some religions, and even to some Christian denominations, the basic message of Christ in relation to our fellow humans was “love your neighbour as yourself". You may say, “What about the Old Testament?”, but a lot of what is said there was “updated" by Christ and the whole Christian code in relation to others summed up in the above-mentioned quotation. The early Christians lived in a community where "they would sell their property and possessions and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed” (Acts 2).

The meaningless ritual and the hierarchical structure which some churches indulge in is, I suppose, what you Editors object to and. as a Christian, I object to it myself; but those are merely the trappings of religion, the peripheral details. The basic message, the real living truth, is to forget oneself for the common good of all — obviously to love God with all one's might, but that is not the issue at stake here — and that is all that really matters. There is no place for selfishness, or greed, or indeed any desire for personal gain at the expense of others, in Christianity, and neither is there in socialism.

The early Christians formed a socialist society which worked perfectly when everyone cooperated, until it grew too large. The links between socialism and Christianity are too strong for you Editors to brush them aside — or are your theories so firmly entrenched that you will not back down? If that is the case, you are hypocritical and therefore no better than any other political party and I will not join you.

Yours in anticipation of a considered reply to a carefully considered comment.
Alison F. Hayes,

The first point in your letter accuses us of being entirely misinformed regarding the origin and evolution of religious beliefs. But you surely cannot be unaware of the mass of anthropological and historical evidence which informs us quite unequivocally that all religions, including Christianity, evolved from and are founded on nothing more substantial than primitive superstitions. Whatever personal experiences or inner visions you and others may have had, however revered the words of the priests and prophets as handed down to us. when closely examined they never amount to very much.

"Gods” are literally inconceivable, literally indescribable, literally indefinable. There are no steps you could take or investigative action you could engage in to bring these fantasies into focus or into a semblance of reality other than by an irrational abandonment of all normal verification procedures. Hence you are left with merely a belief, a faith handed down to you by people less knowledgeable, less informed than yourself and whose motives and intentions are totally irrelevant to your life. And one must always bear in mind that those who claimed the authority to vouch for "Divine Revelations" are the very same people whose over-heated imaginations and demented devotions gave birth to the "revelations" in the first place. What an abject denial of the dignity of intellect and reason it is to respond, in the face of all this, with the cry ". . . leave me alone — I’m content in my ignorance and feel safer being told what to believe than thinking for myself".

"The basic message of Christ” to which you refer was an exhortation to believe in a meaningless (even though up-dated and humanised) God and not the commendable, well meant homilies you quote. The very core of Christianity lies in the former and you cannot escape the consequences of that by emphasising the latter. We cannot tell from your letter how much of Christianity, as traditionally understood, you have already discarded: does your unloading extend to the mysticism, the "miracles". the claims made by the founder and the so called supernatural events attending his birth, death and after? If so, then you’re in the dubious company of other retractors who, mindful of the absurdities of fundamentalists, attempt to renounce the 90 per cent they find unacceptable and take on board merely the 10 they find congenial. But as the whole edifice is of a piece and you are not in a position to pick and choose, you take the lot or you leave the lot; logically you have no other choice. You, it seems, wish to pick the nice but ineffectual ethics.

The links between socialists and some Christians, to which you refer, have always been tenuous although they were forged in the heat of common hopes, desires, and expectations of a better life and an end to inequality. hunger, suffering, fear and all the other avoidable afflictions and indignities both are subject to. But socialism is one thing and Christianity quite another. The early Christians could not have had any comprehension of socialism as understood in this and the last century; it serves no useful purpose and only confuses matters when attempts are made to dilute the one and up-grade the other.

Above all, socialists work to lift the burden of ignorance and in this endeavour we must be implacably opposed to all religions because all require ". . .  the blessed state of innocent, undoubting, unquestioning faith. . .”; whereas, in our view, social progress can only be achieved by the very opposite intellectual stance. Behind the many bastions defending capitalism and obstructing progress towards socialism lurk authoritarian theologians who peddle anti-democratic attitudes, who belittle the strengths and self-developed abilities of "mere mortals" and. in condemning us all as “weak vessels", seek to undermine workers’ confidence. Their doctrinal claptrap has always been an obstacle to progress and the advancement of science.

Regrettably, your concept of Christianity is a minority view. You say that it is ". . . to forget oneself for the common good of all . . . There is no place for selfishness or greed or . . . desire for personal gain at the expense of others . . .” You claim that this is the true Christianity, but throughout its history, from the first parables to the recent blessing by the Chief British Christian of troops on their way to kill (Christian) Argentinians, it has upheld the domination by a minority ruling class over the majority subject class; it has reinforced and defended the political and legal powers of that dominant class at the expense of the majority; it has always sought, through charity and by extolling the virtues of suffering, to excuse poverty and thus ensure its continuation; its holy writ calls on the poor and downtrodden to abjure protest and political action and to “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s". It has served and still serves as an apologist for every and any cruel autocrat, tyrannical despotic regime, every exploiter and ravager since the Romans realised it was tailor-made as the best unifying, pacifying and thus the best controlling agent they could hope to find.

The world would undoubtedly be better, pleasanter, more tolerable, less stressful. if everyone abided by the tenets you outline. But this wouldn't touch the basic problems or their causes. How could it be otherwise when the nature of world capitalism requires of us and inculcates entirely opposite attitudes and behaviour. This system, which we seek to replace, dominates all aspects of life including the toleration or active promotion of religions, so long as they serve a useful purpose. Modifications, twists and turn-abouts are fairly easy to engineer as and when required: in the hands of skilled manipulators employed by the ruling class and its agents in the bureaucracy and religious hierarchies, the believer is a pushover. Witness the case with which workers are hyped up on the heady cocktail of religion, patriotic jingoism, nationalism and monarchy (or its equivalent). The intention is patently obvious: to ensure that the populace identify their own needs and aspirations with those of their class enemies.

You want to see a change in people's behaviour and attitudes. Good, so do we. But behaviour and attitudes spring from social and economic structures not from the condition of the "soul": relationships and roles are geared to the particular way the production and distribution of goods and services in any given society arc organised — to the particular requirements of those who possess the means of production and, of course, the right to cease production if it suits, never mind about needs or moralities. Socialism, on the other hand, would be conducive to the kind of harmonious cooperation you envisage. Satisfaction of one’s own needs would not have to be at someone else's expense; and the results of common effort, ingenuity and inventiveness would be commonly owned and freely available, not privately owned and only available if profitable.

There cannot be any receivers, responses or answers “up there", only an infinite succession of question marks. You may ask. “. . . but in that case, what is it all for; how did it all start; where did it all come from; what is the (its) purpose; where is it all going; where will it all end; what are we all doing here?" To these and similar questions there is only one possible answer: of all the past and present explanations, answers and accounts proffered, the least tenable, the weakest case, the proposition which accords with the fewest known facts, the claim which is the hardest to swallow, the assertion which requires the highest suspension of all reason and rationality for the longest period, the theory riddled with the most holes, stitched together with the greatest number of non-sequiturs and perverse presumptive leaps, is the one which invokes an “Almighty Personage" or “Being'’

You need not remain wrapped in the suffocating, mouldering bunting and handouts left over from a 2,000 year old Billy Graham Crusade, however acceptable some of that philosophy of "social concern and personal responsibility" may still be. Christians do not have exclusive claims to such a philosophy. We also seek to change hearts and minds — not by force or convoluted mysticism but by the only practical method open to the human race: self-help.

Greasy Pole: Naming the Day (1996)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Will he, or won’t he? Should he, or shouldn’t he? Can he or can’t he? All over the country millions of people will be asking these questions, agonising in sympathy with John Major as he grapples with a historically vital dilemma. Should he call a general election in the near future—this summer, for example—or should he wait until his government has run its full term in 1997?

Advice for him will come thick and fast, to Downing Street, Chequers, Huntingdon or wherever he may be. Some of it will doubtlessly come from Tory MPs who sit nervously on vulnerable majorities. There will be much reference to precedent—to Wilson’s misplaced confidence in 1970, Heath’s misreading of the political situation in 1974, Callaghan leaving it late in 1979 . . .  All of this will have a common theme. The timing of an election is all-important, in fact it can make the difference between winning and losing. People who vote are so fragile in their political knowledge, have such puny memories, are so pliant in their intentions, that they can be easily induced by promises and deceptions into changing their minds about which way they vote. So with a bit of clever calculation, some well-crafted bribes and a canny sense of timing, any government can win its way back to power—again and again and again. Even a government like John Major’s, which day-after-day is exposed for its impotence and cynicism and contempt for the workers.

Interest rates
For example the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently announced some reductions in the base rate—the last one on 1 January. This is seen as good news, as a promise that soon the economy will boom, unemployment will reduce, everyone will be happier and more prosperous. There is no factual reason for workers to think like that; reality is that whether interest rates are high or low has no significant effect on our living standards.

But reducing base rates is seen as good news for the economy and so for people's welfare and so for the Tory Party. As the Guardian put it: "the intense political pressure on the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to boost the government’s fortunes was underlined yesterday when he brushed aside Bank of England misgivings and cut interest rates for the second successive month.” Bank of England governor Eddie George is, said the Guardian, ". . .  plainly wary that it is the political timetable, of an election in the next 15 months, which is governing the Chancellor's monetary stance . . ." Another one to be wary was Labour's shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, who sulkily tried to play down the change in the rate. In fact, whichever side of this bogus argument they took, both Labour and Conservative were agreed that there are votes in the matter of interest rates and they both want to grab as many of them as they can.

Falkland factor
What is important about this bogus argument is what it tells us about how the parties of capitalism regard elections and the people who vote in them and how to manipulate the whole timing to their own advantage. The government of the day treats an election as a time to try to divert attention away from its obvious failure to do anything about the problems characteristic of capitalist society and towards what it represents as its successes That is why the government tries so hard to convince us that people who are suffering the more extreme poverty do so because of some intrinsic personal fallibility while at the same time they tell us about how many fraudulent claimants of state benefits their investigators have uncovered. That is why in 1983 the Thatcher government submerged the memories of the problems they met in 1981 in a neurotic, reactionary hysteria as Thatcher handbagging the Argentinians. (Of course at the time she did get some help from the Labour Party with its splits and its election of Michael Foot as leader . . .)

By the same token whenever Tory ministers review conditions in Britain in 1996 they do so on the assumption that all reasonable people know things are getting better and better, everyone getting more prosperous, more healthy, more secure. Crime is falling day-by-day. If we believe enough of this often enough the Tories will be encouraged to give us a chance to show how grateful we are for all they have done for us by voting for them in an election.

Except that it is not quite like that. For one thing Britain is fast gaining a reputation as the sweatshop of Europe, as workers are forced to put in longer hours under the stress of unemployment. This kind of pressure produces its own problems. apart from physical illness such as cancer and heart disease (according to the Health and Safety Executive, stress-related sickness results in 90 million days absence from work annually). There is also a human cost, in mental breakdown, broken families and. in some cases, suicide.

None of this will be highlighted by Major, when he finally tells us the date of the election. Neither will he address the question of why, if his government had been so successful, he has to worry about the timing of the election. Why can’t he just leave the success to speak for itself and let his government stay in power for its full term, confident that the success will bring in the votes?

Perhaps he knows how impotent his government—like any other—really is to affect the course of capitalism and it does to the lives of human beings. Perhaps he knows that the timing of elections is a massive exercise in cynicism, which reveals the contempt which capitalism’s parties have for the workers and the support they regularly give to this social system. There is an effective response this. The voters—the working class—can realise the power they hold to radically change society, to make parties like Labour and Conservative a sordid irrelevance. If that happens John Major will be relieved of the stress of choosing a date for polling, like a gambler hoping he’s on a lucky streak.

Material World: Co-operatives no way to socialism (2018)

The Material World Column from the August 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

The International Cooperative Alliance was founded in London on 19 August 1895 by delegates from cooperatives in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, and the USA. Co-operatives Unleashed  is a recent report from the New Economics Foundation which calls for a co-operative development agency and a 'John Lewis law' compelling larger private companies to transfer a proportion of profits into a worker or a wider stakeholder-owned trust. In the report is a call for a 'profound transformation in business ownership'. 

Under this proposal:
   'All shareholder or larger privately-owned businesses would transfer a small amount of profit each year in the form of equity into a worker or wider stakeholder-owned trust. Once there, these shares would not be available for further sale. 'Partnership stakes carry with them democratic control rights over the management and direction of the business. In many respects, our proposal for an Inclusive Ownership Fund can be thought of as a John Lewis law.'
Our fellow-workers should, rather, face up to the reality that socialism is the only remedy for the poverty problem yet too many seek merely to ameliorate the misery of their lives under capitalism and one such palliative that continues to persist is cooperatives. Some have viewed the cooperative as an aim in itself, as a means of self-defence against management repression. Our job in the Socialist Party is not to tell fellow-workers the way to live, but to demonstrate that a genuine non-capitalist society is actually possible to achieve. 

 We do not see socialism coming about by 'socialistic' cooperatives gradually becoming more and more self-sufficient and eventually squeezing out the entire capitalist production-for-profit system. This argument goes right back to the origins of the workers' movement in the first part of the 19th century. 

 However, the our view is that political action for social change is the most effective way to achieve a co-operative commonwealth. We are not saying that people shouldn’t establish cooperatives if they want to, but that it’s not the way socialism is going to come.

We can imagine that, when socialists are in the millions rather than thousands and it is clear that socialism is imminent, people will be making plans and projects in anticipation of the coming of socialism, but we are not there yet. Cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system. 

 So at the moment, we need to concentrate on spreading socialist ideas rather than promoting experiments in lifestyles.

While many cooperatives’ administrative structures are admirable, in the marketplace they become simply another kind of small enterprise operating in their own interests, competing with other enterprises and even with other cooperatives and which are obliged to conform to marketplace dictates, regardless of the intentions of their advocates and founders. 

 As long as capitalism exists, competition will always require the enterprises within it to look for lower costs, including the cost of labour. A cooperative must still buy its raw materials and other inputs and sell its products on the market, competing with every other producer of the same product, even if the members of cooperatives are nominally their own bosses. There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single business or a chain. Cooperatives cannot break the laws of capitalist production. The most important such law compels an enterprise, whoever owns or 'controls' it, to minimise costs in order to remain competitive. Society remains under the despotic direction of capital – even if it is the workers’ themselves rather than CEOs who serve as the new 'personifications of capital'.

 Although Marx mentioned workers’ cooperatives as possible harbingers of the new society, he cautioned that, as long as they exist within capitalism, the cooperatives 'naturally reproduce in all cases… all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them… the opposition between capital and labour is abolished here… only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalist.' In other words, the workers end up exploiting themselves. When Marx turns to socialist society, he envisions a sweeping revolutionary transformation of the relations of production, from the very start. Although cooperation of some sort is a necessary part of production cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system.