When the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain were arguing their claims before the body known as the Sankey Commission, they put forward a strong plea for the Nationalisation of the Coal Industry. The representatives of the miners stated that such a measure would benefit industry and commerce as a whole, and enable a “fair” wage to be paid to the miners. How these two things were to be achieved was not made clear.
Indeed, a short examination would show that the two things were, in many respects, contradictory. Industry as a whole could only benefit if the price of coal was reduced. From the ordinary Capitalist point of view this can only be done by lowering the cost of production. In general, there are two methods by which such a result could be obtained—one by increased efficiency in the management and methods of production; the other by cutting down the amount paid in wages.
Nationalisation certainly could increase efficiency to a very large degree, by coordinating the business of the various mines, by abolishing competition, and by a better system of distribution whereby customers could be supplied from the nearest pits. Moreover the familiar sight of long trains of empty trucks passing each other on their way across the country to distant collieries, would disappear under any sensible scheme. But how would this affect the workers in both mining and transport ?
The more efficient the methods became, the fewer the number of workers required in the production and transport of each ton of coal. Unless trade and industry increased to such an extent that the larger demand for coal allowed of the re-employment of these redundant workers, the effect of the improved efficiency would be an increase in the number of workers unemployed—hardly a desirable result. Nor is the matter of wages in any better position.
If a margin existed from which better wages could be paid the Capitalists as a whole would object to the Government “pampering idle and lazy workers with extravagant wages.” This stunt is being pushed forward by the capitalist with great vigour at the present moment, and demands would be made upon the Government to bring those wages to what is sweetly termed “an economic level.” The increased number of unemployed would be used to enforce this demand in more ways than one. All this was pointed out at the time of the Sankey Commission in the pages of the Socialist Standard, but just now there is a very striking practical illustration of these truths.
In Belgium, in addition to post office and telephones, the railways are nationalised. The wages paid to the majority of the workers employed in these nationalised industries are so poor that :—
“During 18 months efforts were made to increase wages by means of deputations to the Ministers of the Departments, but six months ago this method of discussion was summarily ended, and since then the discontent having no constitutional outlet, has steadily grown.”— (“Daily News,” 17/5/1923.)
The discontent has now reached the stage where thousands of these workers decided to strike for the purpose of trying to improve their conditions. Among other pleasures Belgium enjoys conscription. The answer of the Government to the strikers was to call up 6,000 of the army reserve from among these workers and to order them to carry on the work under military orders.
Here is a splendid example of the “benefits” of nationalisation, and of how well off the workers are in such cases. It shows how much more rapidly and effectively “discontent” can be dealt with when the workers take strike action to enforce their demands.
It may be said that as conscription is not in operation here, the Government could not use the same means against any of their employees in case of a dispute. This is a fallacy. The Government could declare the matter one of “National Emergency,” and would call upon soldiers, sailors, etc., to carry on the industry for the time being.
The Belgian State workers have one point in their favour. The holiday season to the Continent is now beginning, and the Capitalists in Belgium, who, apart from their own resorts, take a substantial toll from those travelling through the country to Switzerland, Italy, etc., may consider it more profitable to give way to a small degree rather than run the risk of losing on the stoppage of holiday traffic.
We hope the men will win in their action, but the position they occupy should be a complete lesson to those of the Miners’ Federation and the Labour Party here, who imagine that “Nationalisation” can cure any evil the workers surfer under to-day.