Editorial from the December 1945 issue of the Socialist Standard
Hypocritical Attitude of Labour Spokesmen
A great deal of cant has been spoken and written about the dockers' “unofficial ” strike which ended on November 5th, but with the threat that they will come out again if the negotiations now resumed do not give them satisfaction. The line taken by the daily Press and by the spokesmen of the Labour Government has been that there can be no recognition of “unofficial” action not endorsed by the central executives of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the other unions involved. The pious attitude of the newspapers would be more convincing if there was the slightest reason to believe that they would have given their support if the strike had been official,—but experience shows that if it had they would have opposed it just the same. After the last war the same problem arose of the attempted stabilisation of wages at war-time levels, and there were innumerable strikes, official and unofficial. One of the biggest official strike# was of railway men, and it took place after long negotiations. The strike was widely condemned by the newspapers, though it was official, and Hr. Lloyd George’s Government refused to negotiate while the men were on strike. That is the typical attitude of the employers, the capitalist press and governments. Trade union officials, who are quite familiar with it, ought to have something better to do than lend themselves to sidetracking capitalist propaganda about unofficial strikes. If members of the unions think that negotiations are being needlessly prolonged by the employers, or if delays and lack of contact exist because of the unwieldy machinery of huge composite unions like the Transport Workers, with its million members and dozen separate trade groups, or if there is a suspicion that the men's interests are being sacrificed in order not to embarrass the Labour Government in its task of administering capitalism, trade union officials cannot justifiably disown responsibility.
If the Press has been hypocritical so have the Labour Ministers. Many of them in the past have been engaged in activities likewise denounced by the capitalist Press or by the men who at that time controlled the Labour Party and trade unions. Some of them on occasion have been active in unofficial strikes and have incurred the displeasure of the officials they were repudiating.
Many of them were associated with the national strike of 1926 and would be wise to remember how the politicians and lawyers denounced it as “unconstitutional." Mr. Shinwell, as Chairman of the 40-hour Committee in 1919, was charged with inciting to riotous conduct and imprisoned for five months, and Miss Ellen Wilkinson was once a fiery advocate of “direct action." The Labour Government should also explain how they square their use of thousands of troops to do the work of striking dockers with their traditional opposition to the use of soldiers in industrial disputes. Have they forgotten that on May 12th, 1939, when the Government was introducing the Military Training Bill to conscript young men for the coming war, the Labour Opposition moved an amendment which would have freed the conscripts from liability “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.’’ It was Mr. Shinwell, now Minister of Fuel and Power, who moved the amendment and said that his Party would “resent very strongly the use of conscripts who might be employed . . . . either to assist in supporting men who were on strike and bringing the dispute to an end, or to take their places in any particular department of industry."—(Hansard, 12th May, 1939. Col. 690.)
The principal cause behind the present dispute is the reduction of earnings with the ending of the war. A correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (3rd October), writing on the dockers at Liverpool, states that “during the war they have been working hard and drawing good wages—£8 to £10. . . . Now they feel that they are faced with a peace-time cut to about half that amount." Overtime has ceased and the dockers are seeking to offset the big reduction of earnings by claiming a daily wage of 25s. in place of the present 16s. (15s. in smaller ports). What helped to aggravate the situation was the fact that at Liverpool 500 dockers had just been discharged as redundant—a bitter pill that fine words about “full employment" did not make any sweeter.
One aspect of the dockers' dispute is of general application and deserves the closest attention of trade unionists, that is the dependence on leaders. They found themselves denounced and opposed by their own elected officials, men whose salaries are paid by the men's contributions. Leadership is of no use to the working class movement. Officials should not be made, or allowed to make themselves, into leaders. The members should decide themselves exactly what they want done and see that the officials carry out their instructions. What counts in the last resort is the pressure that can be exerted on the employers by the strike, and the object, time and duration of strikes should be solely in the hands of the union members. There is no magic art of leadership or negotiation that will take the place of the workers' strike weapon. Lastly, the workers should realise—and if they don't, experience will teach them—that nothing essential is changed because a Labour Government is trying to run capitalism. Long ago the Daily Herald (then only an “unofficial" Labour organ) stated the truth of this. If the price of nationalisation is giving up the strike, then “under capitalism a nationalised industry would actually be worse off than those left in private hands" (13th September, 1922).
Again the Herald said:—
“We do not believe that there is any fundamental distinction so long as the wage system exists between the relationship of a private employer to his workers and the relationship of a municipality or State to its workers. In each case the latter sell their labour-power and their capacity to sell it at a fair price depends on their capacity, through their trade unions, to refuse to work."—12th April, 1924.)
There is particular point in this in view of the fact that dock work at present is to a large extent under the control of the Government, and that some of the dockers are employed by the Port of London Authority, a body once denounced by Mr. Herbert Morrison as a “capitalist soviet," but now used by him and his Government as a model for nationalisation, and wrongly described as “socialism."
Those who fancy that employment by the State or by a public utility corporation is the solution of the workers' problems should think over the action of the P.L.A. when its workers came out on strike. “A notice warning Port of London permanent labourers that they would be 'deemed to have left the service of the Authority without notice' if they did not return to work . . . was posted outside the Royal Albert Dock yesterday."—(Daily Herald, 13th October, 1945.)
Capitalism runs true to form even if a Labour Government chooses to pretend that it is different because it now runs under different colours!