J. R. Campbell

Were the Miners Let Down?

Publisher: Labour Monthly, Vol. VIII, August 1926, No. 8
Printer: 162 Buckingham Palace Rd., London, SW1
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE publication, by Mr. John Bromley, in the Locomotive Journal of extracts from the report which was to have been presented by the General Council to the meeting of Trade Union Executives called for June 25, has at last given the working class an opportunity of examining the reasons for the conduct of the General Council during the recent General Strike.

The extracts from the report of the General Council, in the article in question, are mixed up with rhetorical and, in some cases, hysterical interpolations emanating from Mr. Bromley himself. Some of these interpolations have been seized upon by the Capitalist Press as representing the considered opinion of the General Council, an action against which the General Council may have protested by the time this article appears in print.

In examining the General Council’s case we have gone over the article exceedingly carefully, have excluded anything which might be regarded as an interpolation by Mr. Bromley, have endeavoured to give the General Council the benefit of the doubt in every doubtful instance, and yet the only result is that in considering the bare quotations from the Report itself we are led to the conclusion that the General Council’s apology constitutes the most damning indictment of a leadership in the history of the Trade Union Movement of this country.

In order to approach the discussion in a realistic way, it is necessary to ask ourselves what is behind the attack on miners’ wages and hours. Is this attack due to the fact that the mining industry, owing to bad management and to circumstances over which it had no control, got into a difficult position, while the rest of British Industry is moving along in a perfectly satisfactory fashion?

In other words, is the crisis which provoked the attack on miners’ wages a mining industry crisis, or a crisis in British Capitalism?

Any intelligent worker will agree that what we are faced wife at the present moment is a crisis in British Capitalism; that not only in the mining industry, but in the basic industries of the country also, there is a condition of absolute stagnation.

Out of this stagnation the employers only see one way, “The wages of all workers must come down.” We need not remind the readers of the LABOUR MONTHLY that the mining employers attacked the miners’ wages in the summer of 1925 at a time when the wages of the workers in the metal and cotton industries and on the railways were also being challenged. The victory of “Red Friday” stopped the capitalist offensive elsewhere except for the slight worsening of conditions forced upon the railwaymen, but no one with any intelligence could possibly doubt that if the miners go down in the present struggle the wages of all other workers will be attacked also.

It is shameful to be forced to occupy the space of the LABOUR MONTHLY in stressing this elementary fact. We do it not for the benefit of the rank and file who have grasped it long ago, but for the benefit of the General Council who had not apparently grasped it during the period of the General Strike. The whole case of the General Council in its Report to the Conference of Executives is based on the assumption that the workers in other unions who supported the miners were merely nobly and self-sacrificingly engaging in sympathetic action on behalf of the miners, whereas the truth of the matter is that they were engaged in resisting a mass attack of the capitalists directed not merely against the miners but against themselves.

This offensive of the capitalists was prepared openly under the noses of the Trade Union leadership. The recruitment of the O.M.S. and of special constabulary, the establishment of emergency strike-breaking machinery, were all undertaken in the open, and ought to have convinced the dullest individual that the Government was preparing to back the employers in a mass attack upon the working class. No one will dispute that the O.M.S. and the emergency preparations generally were weapons of the capitalists against the workers. What the General Council has not yet grasped is that the Coal Commission were equally a weapon of the offensive against the working class. Unless we believe that the present Government is composed of madmen, it is impossible to conceive of them at one and the same time setting up emergency machinery to be used against the workers and setting up a Coal Commission to be used against the employers. Obviously, the Coal Commission, as its wholly capitalist composition showed, was a weapon of the capitalist offensive.

The case against the General Council is that it refused to prepare against the O.M.S. strike-breaking weapon of the Government, and that it absolutely succumbed to the Coal Commission strike-breaking weapon of the Government. In all the months between the granting of the subsidy and the issue of the Coal Commission Report, the General Council refused to elaborate any consistent wage policy to be pursued in relation to the mining dispute. The reason for this was obvious. Nothing that the Coal Commission could do could alter the basic facts of the mining industry, namely that present wages could not be paid without either the adoption of a drastic system of nationalisation and unification without compensation, or by a continuation of the subsidy. Both of these methods of retaining mining wages were ignored because both of them involved a challenge to the normal principles on which capitalist industry is carried on, and involved preparation to bring pressure to bear on the Government.

The result of their refusal to adopt a consistent wage policy was that the General Council simply drifted along, hoping that the Report of the Coal Commission which the Government intended to use as a weapon against the miners would in some miraculous way turn out to be a weapon directed against the mineowners and the capitalist offensive.

The development of this policy is clearly outlined in the General Council’s document. On February 26, the Industrial Committee of the T.U.C. made a declaration in favour of no reductions in wages, no increase in hours and no interference with the principle of national agreements in the mining industry. On March 10, the Coal Commission issued its report which proved to be, as all intelligent rank and file workers expected it to be, a weapon directed- against the miners and the working class. The General Council, afraid to enter into a struggle, persuaded themselves that this report was of value to the miners and their whole as policy from the issue of the Report was one of forcing its acceptance upon the miners’ leaders.

On April 8, the miners asked the Industrial Committee of he General Council to give again a declaration in favour of no reductions in wages, no increase in hours, and national agreements, The Industrial Committee refused to do so. In conveying its decision to A. J. Cook in a letter of April 8, Mr. Citrine said that the Industrial Committee was “of the opinion that matters have not yet reached a stage when any final declaration of the Genera! Council’s policy can be made.”

Here we have a piquant situation. The Government grants a subsidy to enable preparations to be made to defeat the miners as a preliminary to defeating the working class. It appoints a Col Commission which presents a Report that will facilitate the defeat of the workers. The General Council accepts this defeatist Report and lines up with the Government of the capitalist class in endeavouring to force its acceptance on the miners! Only one thing prevented the success of this project, and that was that the mineowners’ demands went far beyond the demands for reductions in wages in the Commission’s Report, and forced the General Council for the time being to make a gesture on behalf of the miners. In making the gesture of solidarity by calling the General Strike on May 1, the General Council was endeavouring to bluff the Government. Bluff may sometimes justify itself in industrial warfare, but only upon the condition that those who are bluffing do not give the game away beforehand. The General Council had shown during the interval between May 1 and May 3 that it was prepared to force reductions in wages on the miners.

It made this attitude quite clear to the Government in accepting from Mr. Baldwin on May 2, the formula which it considered to be worthy of acceptance by the miners. The formula read as follows:—

The Prime Minister has satisfied himself that as a result of conversations he had with representatives of the T.U.C., if negotiations are continued, it being understood that the notices cease to be operative, the representatives of the T.U.C. are confident that a settlement could be reached along the lines of the Report within a fortnight.

Obviously, the most cowardly Capitalist Government that ever existed would be strengthened in its determination to fight the workers by the spectacle of the leaders on the workers’ side absolutely running away. Thus the General Council encouraged the Government to take up a strong attitude by its open display of weakness.

The Government felt that with such leaders the whole struggle would be over in a few days, the mining dispute included, and that as a result it was worth while calling the bluff.

When the General Strike took place, it took place with this leadership having no hope of victory. Dealing with the perspectives of the strike the General Council says:—

From the position, therefore, taken up by the Government through their ultimatum, there appeared to be only two alternatives; the capitulation of the Government; the disintegration of the strike by a process of attrition. It was clear that the Government would use their majority in the House and the utmost resources available to them to maintain the position they had taken up.

In other words, the General Council went through the strike with only one idea, i.e., that the Government was impregnable, that nothing that the working class could do would shake its determination and therefore the strike ought to be called off at the first opportunity.

It has been freely said by its apologists since that no strike can possibly succeed which is directed against the Government. This is an idea which is hopelessly defeatist. All great struggles in our basic industries must under present conditions bring in the Government. The only way to avoid bringing the Government into an industrial dispute is either to assent to the reductions in wages imposed by the capitalists, or to conduct a fight in a sectional fashion and so produce defeat. If the workers are seriously concerned for the future, however, they will not waste their time in sectional struggles, but will bring all their forces to bear at the one moment. When this happens the Government is immediately bound to interfere and strike back. A strike is a political weapon. This only means, however, that in modern industry, any effective struggle of the working class to preserve their standards must come up against the Capitalist State, which is not the representative of the community, but is simply the principal employing-class weapon in the struggle against the workers’ standards. A courageous leadership recognising this would have gone all out to win. The case against the General Council is that it did not develop or attempt to develop the struggle so as to bring the full forces of the workers to bear.

It is worthy of note in this connection that most of the right wing leaders on the Continent could only explain the calling off of the strike by the General Council on the basis of mass strike breaking and a mass return to work. Even the Continental Amsterdam leaders failed to discover any reason why the strike should have been called off when the workers were still solid.

With regard to the Samuel Memorandum, which the General Council accepted as a basis of settlement, the Report does not claim for the memorandum any official Government connection but merely states that it is a good basis for settlement and that if the miners had accepted it as basis for negotiations, public opinion would haw forced the Government to accept it also. We do not wish to quarrel with this statement, because we believe that the Samuel Memorandum, while a bad basis of settlement for the miners and the working class, is a good basis of settlement for the capitalist class. It asks the miners to place their destiny with regard to wages anti conditions in the hands of an independent chairman of a National Wages Board. In other words, it sees as the solution of the wages problem in the coal industry the appointment of a capitalist arbitrator. What would have happened to the miners’ wages if they had been fools enough to accept can readily be imagined.

Were the miners correct in refusing to accept reductions in wages? Both from their own point of view as miners, and from the point of view of the wider interests of the working class, they were undoubtedly correct. Nothing would be more likely to encourage the capitalists of other industries to attack the workers than an easy acceptance of wage cuts in an industry which has always been regarded as a stronghold of Trade Unionism.

The insistance of the miners has already ensured that any victory gained by the capitalist class is going to be ten times more costly than the granting of a subsidy would have been. Even when wage cuts are inevitable it is always good Trade Union policy to “die hard,” thereby preventing the development of the offensive on a wider scale. As a matter of fact, however, wage cuts in the mining industry are not inevitable and given proper support to the miners even at the present moment by means of the imposition of an embargo on coal, nationally and internationally, wage cuts could be avoided and a subsidy extracted from the capitalists for a further period.

Mr. John Bromley in presenting the Report deals with a further aspect of the matter which is well worth considering from the working-class standpoint. He says —

To have adopted the slogan of the miners’ leaders would, on their own admission, if accepted, have meant the immediate throwing out of work of some 300,000 mine workers by the closing of uneconomic mines, which appears too awful for any Trade Union leaders to contemplate. For to many thinking people it is bound to appear more sane for some highly paid men in a disorganised industry to suffer some temporary reduction than to throw 300,000 workers and their families into destitution so that a number of men earning on the admission of Mr. Cook, the Miners’ Secretary, from 5 to 13 per week may retain every penny of their present wages.

It ought to be clear to every trade unionist that Mr. Bromley and such members of the General Council as agree with him in advocating this policy are challenging the everyday principles upon which the Trade Union Movement has hitherto conducted its wage struggles. It has always been the policy of the Trade Union Movement, even in its most reformist phases, to base its demands for wages upon what the most efficient business operating in any particular industry can pay. If the less efficient businesses are not able to pay the wages, then they have either got to make themselves more efficient or go out of the job. We are reaching a sorry pass in the British Labour Movement when it is being forced to adapt its minimum wage demands to the conditions of the uneconomic firms in a given industry. What this policy means any worker can grasp. It means starvation wages for the workers, and the preservation of parasitic, inefficient firms earning what is regarded as reasonable profits, while the up-to-date firms earn profits beyond the dreams of avarice.

Surely the sane policy to be adopted, even from the ordinary Trade Union standpoint, is the miners’ policy of basing the minimum wage on what the most efficient firms and coalfields can pay, while a subsidy is being paid to enable wages to be maintained pending the reorganisation of the more inefficient firms.

That, we suggest, is the way to make minimum demands, as any trade unionist will agree who regards Trade Unionism as an instrument for maintaining the workers’ standards, and not an instrument to co-operate with the employers to secure the progressive reduction of the standards of the workers.

Since issuing its apology the General Council has sent a circular calling for assistance for the miners and pointing out that we are now in the presence of a capitalist attack on the whole working class. We hope that the General Council realises that the admission of this fact reduces the apology for its conduct in the dispute to absolute nonsense.

The one lesson that we must draw from the whole situation is the inevitability of the continuation of the capitalist offensive, and of fresh struggles on the part of the workers if they are to maintain their standards. To conduct these struggles successfully a new leadership is required. The failure o the Trade Union “left” among the leaders was the failure of men who had not thought out their problems; who did not understand the nature of the situation they were facing, nor the methods which the working class would have to adopt to meet that situation. They were weak compared with the right wing, because the right wing in the person of Mr. Thomas has at least a policy—although it is one of treachery to the working class—and the ability to consistently pursue that policy through all its phases in a changing situation. Mr. Thomas knows his mind perfectly. The left-wing did not know their minds at all. The greatest lesson of the General Strike, therefore, is the need for a new leadership, who will study the complex problems arising out of the situation of British Capitalism, who will face temporary unpopularity and abuse in order to equip the British Labour Movement to face the changed situation and who in every struggle will go out to win, knowing no loyalty except loyalty to the working-class movement.