Sunday, April 14, 2024

Letter: The Use of Trade Unions and 
Strikes (1933)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

A correspondent raises the question of the usefulness of strike action. As the letter is rather long and deals with other matters not directly concerned with the main point, we have omitted certain passages condemning the Communist advocacy of armed revolt, and the notion held in certain quarters that capitalist wars should be supported because, so it is argued, they hasten economic development and encourage the growth of the Socialist movement. The letter then continues:—
But precisely the same or similar arguments go to show that the strike is a weapon only advocated by anti-socialist elements of society. The argument usually put forward is that since wages are determined by the socially necessary time required to reproduce labour-power at the moral and historical standards of a particular epoch, there is a minimum level to which this tends under the pressure of the exploiting class. But wages are not the value of labour-power, hut the price of labour-power, that price being regulated by conditions of supply and demand. Thus, say the strikers, by temporarily withholding supply, we are able to resist the encroachments of our masters.

This reasoning is false. The practical results of strikes prove it to he utterly untrue.

The price of labour-power, like all other prices, is not determined until the buyers face the sellers on the market. Moreover, the price even then is not fixed until the actual transaction takes place. Does the strike give the workers greater bargaining power than they would have had without it ? The answer is “No.”

Until the workers strike they face the masters as an organised number of unions. They can hold their organisation intact by their economic power (the sum total of their subscriptions, and the discipline wielded within the union upon the members). Faced with the competition of the vast unemployed army, they have certain advantages in the form of sick benefit, pension, and other schemes which give them a certain extra bargaining power as long as they do not strike. As soon as a strike takes place, they lose those advantages. Their funds are depleted, the masters having far greater resources. A cunning compromise is usually the result of the strike, that compromise generally working in the favour of the masters because of the ineptitude of the average trade union leader. The unions go back to work, half- starved and without any financial backing. Then comes the real struggle. Now that they are thoroughly whipped by the strain of the strike, the masters insidiously undermine all the silly little concessions which .they thought they had gained, and within a few months the unions are back in their original position, except for the fact that they are now thoroughly demoralised and consequently less capable of thinking clearly on the real issues of the class struggle. Apart from all that, sectional frictions and the dead weight of the unemployed beat them every time. It is useless to argue that it hastens development, this strike business. Of course, it does, but that is no reason for a socialist to advise the workers to cut their own throats in the interests of historical development. That were merely suicidal insanity. I think that the socialist must look for some other weapon on the economic field. That weapon is Socialism. The only strike that could be successful would be a strike on the part of the majority of the workers, class-conscious and determined, but such a majority would have long since relegated the economic struggle to the background in their mighty fight for political control of armed force.

I am not arguing against ca-canny as a weapon. That is in a different category. But I think that there is some reason in the idea that to advocate strikes as an economic weapon is anti-socialist.

It seems apparent that the most important factor in the struggle for wages is not the bargaining power of an unconscious, unco-ordinated, uneducated. class such as ours is, but the necessities of capitalist production. When the wages of our class fall below the historical and moral standard of comfort, output falls with it, and capitalism has to rectify it. I don’t think we ever will get wages far above or far below that level. Certainly the strike will not help us.
Yours truly,
“ BARI.”

In order to remove any possible misunderstanding let us first make dear why the S.P.G.B. supports trade union organisation and strike action. It is not because these are the road to Socialism: they are not and cannot be that. The only road is the conquest of political power by a politically organised Socialist majority. The case for organising in trade unions is that the conditions of working-class life and labour could and would be worsened if no organised resistance were offered to the downward pressure of the employers. Failure to make this organised resistance would, in addition, make Socialist propaganda and organisation even more difficult than it is now, for these are not helped, but hindered, by a lowered standard of living and a condition of disorganisation among the workers.

The argument of our correspondent is faulty in several respects. In the first place the value of trade union organisation does not consist solely in the number of strikes that can be brought about. The very existence of the trade union (with the weapon of the strike, or ca'canny, to be used in the last resort) is itself a factor which influences negotiations about the level of wages, just in the same way that the existence of armed forces is a factor in the negotiations between governments, even although in most cases war is not resorted to, but only threatened. When the employers in an industry contemplate an attack on wages or conditions of employment, they take into consideration the possibility of a strike and the expense they will suffer by it. If the expense appears too great for the gain anticipated they will not push the claim to the extremity. One of the “expenses" they consider is making their employees disgruntled. They know quite well that disgruntled workers do not make for high output. For this reason, even when workers have been beaten in a strike, the employers sometimes prefer not to reap all the fruits of victory. Hence, the strike emphatically does give the workers greater bargaining power than they would have without it. The process is by no means the mechanical thing our correspondent appears to think it is. Even if the workers were beaten in every strike (and they are not) it would still be true that the strike is not futile as an economic defensive weapon.

Unless the condition of the market at any given time is such that the employers would welcome a stoppage of work, there is usually some margin about which they are prepared to bargain. If there is in existence an organised body of workers, able to bring about a strike, the employers will make some concession (an increase in wages or the abatement of part of a decrease) in order to avoid the strike. One factor in negotiation is, of course, the ability of the respective sides to weigh up the strength of the other side. If either side underestimates the strength of the other there will be a strike or a lock-out. On the workers' side there is a fairly narrow limit to such a war of starvation, but even then it often does not pay the employer to have his works held up for so long. So that in fact strikes do in many cases result in some gain for the workers, and lock-outs do sometimes end in the employers withdrawing all or part of their demands.

A second error in our correspondent's argument is the implication that there is a fixed "historical and moral standard of comfort" of the working class and that if they are forced below this standard their output falls and the employers then have to raise wages again for their own benefit and without any effort by the workers.

It is true that output would fall if the workers were forced below a bare physical minimum of subsistence, but in the main workers who are in work are above that standard. They could therefore have their standard of comfort reduced without being forced below the bare minimum of subsistence.

It may also be true that a lowering of the historical standard of living would, for a while, result in less capable work, but it has yet to be proved that the workers in a given industry would not get used to the lower standard and ultimately provide work of the same class as formerly, assuming they were not actuated by the spirit of resistance. The English employers during the 19th century were considerably helped by the emigration of large numbers of active and dissatisfied workers.

Expressed in terms of purchasing power, the English workers' standard of living is considerably higher than that of workers in certain other countries and considerably higher than it was in England, say, eighty years ago. Part of the rise in the English workers' standard of living between 1850 and 1900 may be explained by changes in the technique and methods of industry, but another part can only be explained by the organised efforts of the workers to improve their conditions.

It is quite true that the employer who pays a higher wage will be induced to maintain his profits by reducing his total wages bill in other ways—for example, by introducing more labour-saving machinery. Consequently the effort to raise wages, shorten hours, and improve working conditions are themselves factors which influence the development of industry. However, this does not mean that the efforts are not fruitful from the working class standpoint. It is unquestionably better to be exploited at a higher wage in a modern factory than it was to be exploited at a lower wage in a less efficient factory fifty or one hundred years ago. But for the standards won and maintained by organisation and strikes the workers would be exploited under worse conditions and at a lower wage than actually exist.

One reason for under-estimating the value of trade union organisation since the war is that the heavy fall in prices has been overlooked. When prices are rising a strike for, say, 5s. will appear to be a victory for the workers if they get 2s. 6d., even although this may be insufficient to compensate for the increased cost of living.

When prices are falling, as they have been since 1920, the opposite error is often made. If employers demand a 5s. decrease in wages, and the workers can get this reduced to 2s. 6d., it may in fact be a victory, for the workers if the fall in wages is less than the fall in prices.

Actually the whole tendency since 1926 has been for the purchasing power of full-time rates of wages to rise, owing to the fact that prices have been falling faster than wages. Although the so-called General Strike of 1926 was a failure in its immediate purpose, it probably had a very considerable effect in warning off the employers in the big industries from lightly entering on lockouts to enforce reductions.

It is beyond dispute that had there been no trade union organisation the employers would have taken far greater advantage of the crisis to depress wages than in fact they have been able to do.
Editorial Committee.

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

It's shocking how many (leftist) opponents of the SPGB down the years are under the mistaken impression that the Party's position on trade unions and strikes are what the letter writer expresses in this letter. There it is in black and white: the SPGB are not anti-strike or anti-trade unions.