Is the Time Opportune?
Along with the shipbuilding workers who came out on strike on 16 March, millions of workers in the engineering, building, railway and other industries have claims awaiting settlement. The newspapers and politicians urge the workers to be moderate and to submit their case to arbitration and they profess to be shocked that a trade union official, Mr. Hill of the Boilermakers, should say "No arbitration. We are going to fight" and that Sir William Grant chairman of the Engineering and Allied Employers, West of England Association, should declare:—“This time we do not want government interference. That is quite positive. We want to fight it out ourselves. We have got to stand firm and prove to these fellows that things are not done so easily." (Daily Mail, 13, March, 1957.)
In the same quarters tears are shed because there should be a hold-up of industry “just now,” the idea being that strikes are all very well in the past or in the future but not (as the Daily Mail puts it) “just as Britain is coming out of the Suez squeeze and the gold reserves are climbing up again." This is humbug and is a line of argument that should be totally ignored by workers considering strike action. If at any time conditions are relatively favourable for workers to strike be sure the Government and the employers and the Press will find reasons why it should not take place then. But workers with long memories will recall the many times past when they have been lulled into delaying action while the employers prepared for battle. It happened in 1922 with the engineers in a dispute over an overtime agreement. Negotiations broke down in April, 1921, but the employers waited seven months before they delivered their ultimatum that led eventually to a weeks long lock-out—they were waiting for the heavy unemployment to undermine the resistance of the workers and to deplete the funds of the Unions through payment of unemployment benefit.
Are the Employers Bluffing?
The present engineering dispute is being fought against a background that is very different from the lock-out of 1922, and the difference is not that, because of the so-called “Welfare State,” the wages war has changed its nature or that arbitration has made strikes unnecessary. The difference lies in the state of industry and of unemployment, the factors that workers do need to study closely. Strikes are not won by bull-headed bravery; the employers, with the Government behind them, if they regard an issue as vital, cannot be starved into submission, and in a long-drawn-out battle of that kind are bound to win. But if trade is good and employers do not want to have profitable production interfered with their first blunt refusal to make an offer will prove to be bluff. That may well be the situation now and short sharp strike actions may be successful.. A few months ago with motor car and ancillary plants on short time many employers may have contemplated a show-down over wage claims but with the motor trade recovering and engineering and shipbuilding profits and exports on a high level it is more likely that employers generally will be prepared to pay a wage-increase rather than have plant shut down and contracts interrupted.
The Daily Mail in a leading article (13/3/57) has admitted that “there is little question that the shipbuilders could afford higher wages . . ." They were doubtful about some engineering firms but it is rather surprising that they should have gone so far as this.
The Labour Party and Strikes
Labour spokesmen have attacked the Tory Government for their handling of wage disputes and in particular have blamed the Government for allowing the cost of living to rise. But no one should be deceived into thinking that things were any different when the Labour Government was in power. In 1948 there was also an engineering wage claim, which likewise the employers turned down. The engineers then too threatened strike action and their case was based on the rise of the cost of living and the general inadequacy of pay. But far from the Labour Government giving them encouragement, this was the time of the “wage-freeze” policy and the workers were being told that they should not ask for more pay although prices were rising.
But the engineering workers persisted and their threat to strike brought results, for a court of inquiry specially appointed by the government recommended a wage increase, though it did so with the explanation that it was only because of “particular circumstances" in the engineering claim and was not to be a precedent for other workers and so upset the Labour Government's “wage freeze" policy. It did in fact open the way for other workers to claim.
Don’t worry about the Germans and the Japs
The workers who demand more pay and threaten to strike are being told, as they always are on such occasions, that British export prices will be pushed up and foreign manufacturers will capture all the markets. The obvious working class reaction to this factor ought always to be that of strengthening international trade union organisation so that workers in all countries can act together on wage claims, this time some sort of all-round movement is in being for wages are rising fairly generally in Europe, U.S.A. and elsewhere. In Germany it is the engineering and shipbuilding workers who are leading the way and Japanese workers also are striking:—
“In Germany, organised labour is growing steadily more militant; Its appetite has been whetted by the success of the 16 week strike of engineering and shipyard workers over sickness payments and annual holidays, and similar claims are expected from other branches of the Metal Workers Union. In Japan, this year's labour troubles look like being worse than last year's. . (Financial Times 14/3/57).
Nonsense abort Nationalisation
Some engineering and building workers are deceiving themselves with the notion that the long-term way out of their wages difficulties and the threat of short-time or unemployment when sales fall off, is to press for nationalisation of their industries. They should think again and drop this nonsense. Nationalisation has solved no problem for the working class and they have before their eyes a striking example in the railways. The railwaymen are among the worst paid industries. They have just rejected a miserly offer of a three per cent. increase and appealed to arbitration for more. And at that arbitration on 26 February of this year the spokesman of the Transport Commission, opposing the claim, gave the same reason as does every group of employers, “the duty" of the Commission to resist the claim on the ground of their financial difficulties, the fact that they are making a loss instead of a profit (Daily Telegraph, 27 February, 1957).
Nationalisation is not deserving of working class support and to raise the issue in relation to a wage claim is worse than useless.
But that is not to say that workers should go on year after year imagining that there is no other way except to strike for higher pay when trade is good and go down fighting when trade is bad. The way is open whenever a socialist working class wants to use it. It is to take democratic political action to get rid of capitalism and establish socialism in its place. Then there will be the certainty, through the ending of the destruction and waste of capitalism, of bringing about a vast increase in the production of useful things and no propertied class to stand in the way of that so much promised and never arriving "higher standard of living.”
The suicidal action of the workers every few years at general elections is of far greater and more lasting importance than the strikes for higher wages that occur in between. At elections the working class places in power the Tory or Labour politicians who use their office to keep in being the social system which makes the workers a propertyless class producing wealth and profits for the capitalist minority. Given this situation, with the government in the background safeguarding the position of the propertied class, the industrial struggle over wages and conditions of work can go its up and down way indefinitely without ever settling anything. Socialism is the only way to end it and open up a new horizon for society.