Wal Hannington 1951

The Trade Unions

Source: Arena, Volume 2, no 8, June-July 1951. A speech at a conference organised by the National Cultural Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain in London on 29 April 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Not only is the political Labour Party leadership in this country subservient to American political policy, but there are prominent trade-union leaders who are trying to ‘Americanise’ British industry and the British trade unions.

Following the adoption of the Marshall Aid Plan the British Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that ‘the unions should take advantage of the Marshall Aid facilities to promote exchange of industrial techniques and ideas between Britain and America’. The Trades Union Congress General Council responded and the ‘Anglo-American Council on Productivity’ was formed.

Under the auspices of this council over twenty joint delegations, consisting of representatives from the employers and the trade unions in specific industries, have visited the USA. There has also been a team of ‘specialists’ to study American speed-up methods, followed by a TUC delegation to study the ‘system and practices’ of the American trade-union movement.

Some industrial delegations included rank-and-file members from the unions and the impressions of American industry that they got were not all pleasant. The Steel Foundry delegation visited the Ford Plant at Detroit in company with a British press reporter. His report was headed: ‘A place where men work and never smile.’ He went on to say: ‘These Britons studying American production methods did not like what they saw. They are craftsmen and what they saw was superb mechanisation carried to its logical conclusion. The man had become a robot, skill had been taken from the job, and an imbecile could do it if he could stand the pace.’

The official report of this delegation makes the following comment on the driving forces in American industry: ‘High productivity is consciously sought under the compulsion of the keenly competitive spirit which fear and self-interest have always wrought powerfully.’ ‘Fear of unemployment’, says the report, ‘is undoubtedly a real incitement to hard work and is sharpened for many an American worker by the consequence of his heavy hire-purchase commitments and the limitations of unemployment relief available to him.’ ‘At the time of the team tour’, says the Drop Forgings report, ‘there were three and a half million unemployed in America and the American worker was fully aware of this and was determined to keep his job. He was also aware that if he failed to give of his best in his occupation there were others only too ready to show that they could do the job as well as, or even better, than he could.’ However, in the main, the reports of the industrial delegations favoured the adoption of American industrial techniques in Britain.

Concerning the TUC delegation to study the American trade unions. It must be remembered that the official leadership of both the AF of L and the CIO is today thoroughly reactionary in the political sense. Therefore it is not surprising to find in the British TUC delegation report that the outstanding points in American trade-union practices today can be summed up as follows:

1) They are anti-socialist. They support the system of private enterprise, that is, capitalism. They believe in the personal profit motive, and the unions actually give financial assistance to companies that are in economic difficulties.

2) They believe in cooperation with the employers on production efficiency. Some unions provide industrial consultants to help employers in the reorganisation of production methods.

3. There is no resistance to the principle by the trade unions to Time and Motion Study, a system which has for its purpose reducing the worker to a robot.

4. There is no opposition to labour-saving machinery or speed-up, even though it results in making workers redundant.

5. In regard to wage agreements: there are very few national agreements, they are mainly union – company agreements.

All this is unadulterated class-collaboration. According to the delegation report this was frankly stated by a president of one of the American unions in the following terms: ‘Labour realises that labour has got to get together with the management in the general interest of all. We do not believe in fighting the management, but in compromise.’

How did the British delegation view this policy? The answer is contained in their own report as follows:

It seemed to the team that the relations between employers and employees are on a sound basis in the United States... suspicion seemed to be largely absent and frank discussion could take place. The profit motive is viewed without suspicion. The team drew from these conditions the conclusion that increased mutual confidence between employee and employer must assuredly lead to higher productivity. It is recommended that greater confidence between management and workers at all levels be encouraged by all possible means.

In the delegation report a series of recommendations to the British trade unions are made which include the following:

1) The British unions should seek to cooperate in the application of scientific management.

2) Seek to increase production efficiency through a greater use of the mechanical aids and the application of Time and Motion Study.

3) Establish machinery for the payment of compensation for a limited period to workpeople made redundant by technological advance.

4) Unions should establish production engineering departments and train production engineers.

5) Unions should be prepared to give technical advice and assistance to firms whose profit margins are falling.

6) We should invite production engineering and research officers from the American trade unions to lecture in British trade unions on their union’s activities in production.

7) We should obtain for distribution in the British unions American trade-union literature dealing with production engineering and union activities.

There is a high-powered propaganda drive now being made in this country by the ‘right-wing’ trade-union leaders to instil American ideas into the British movement. If their policy is carried through it would fundamentally change the character of our trade unions. It would transform them from independent organs of struggle against capitalist exploitation into appendages of the capitalist system for the defeat of socialism.

The arguments of the American and British reactionary trade-union leaders are different, but they share the same aim. The American leader says that efficient capitalism is the workers’ salvation. That private enterprise is his ideal; whilst the British leader advocates cooperation with the employers in the pretence that this is the British brand of socialism.

The real aim of both such leaders is to destroy the class-struggle spirit of the workers and defeat the revolutionary aspirations of the working class for political and economic power.

The rank-and-file workers must discuss these proposals of the right-wing leaders in the union branches and in the factories and give full expression to their determination to prevent this betrayal of the British trade-union movement.