A criticism of the November editorial in the industrial bulletin
[RCP Internal Bulletin, December 14 1944]
by Anne Walker
There are some particular aspects of the redundancy question which I should like to see further discussed.
It appears that the main danger of redundancy at the moment is not unemployment, though there may be localised unemployment when factories close down in districts where there is no alternative work (the South Wales ROFs have been mentioned as an example of this). In such places there might be stay-in strikes against the closing down, and our task would be to draw the political lessons, and make it as much of a general issue as possible as opposed to a local issue and, of course, to make sure the stay-in strike is properly organised so that the bosses have no chance to turn the workers out on the streets, where they would become an amorphous mass difficult to organise. Our main tactic in this whole period must be to keep the workers in the factories. For this reason I think that the demand for “Work or full maintenance” should be handled very cautiously; raised incorrectly, for instance, as the main slogan, it would be an acceptance of the principle of unemployment. It might even be taken up by the government and used to get the organised workers out of the factories, their promises could easily be broken later.
But the vital issue now, appears to be the use the bosses are making of the situation to lower wages, break union organisation, and divide the workers into antagonistic sections, men and women, craftsmen and dilutees, trade-unionists and non-trade-unionists. Our task is to give a lead to the unifying forces in the working class, by pushing the issues which bind the class together, and opposing those which tend to split it, thus we can use the attacks of the bosses to forge a weapon against them. The editorial of the November industrial bulletin came out against the sacking of dilutees, but supported the demand that non-trade unionists should go first. I think that this demand, can only have the effect of splitting the workers and we should oppose it. It is not just a matter of getting rid of scabs, the shop stewards can look after that if we demand shop stewards’ control of transfers. There are vast numbers of unorganised workers who are [missing words] fact. The building trade can never replace engineering, as it is a dependent industry; in fact by the development of prefabrication engineering may tend to absorb sections of the building trade. Today’s redundancy is the beginning of tomorrow’s mass unemployment; an unemployment that can never be rectified by any so-called boom in the building trade.
Redundancy is therefore not simply an industrial question that can be solved through trade union methods of struggle. It is a striking example of the impasse of the capitalist system, which in the last instance can only be solved through its overthrow and the establishment of socialism; that is why a real struggle against redundancy is essentially a political struggle.
The party’s role
What therefore is the party’s role on these questions in the present period? Redundancy and unemployment are political issues and our attitude towards them is governed by the necessity to raise the political consciousness of the working class. We continually strive to teach them the necessity for class unity on political questions.
Herein lies the error of “nons go first” in the struggle against against redundancy. It tends to maintain the division of the workers along trade union lines in a fight on a political issue, when the aim of the party should be to unify them on the widest possible basis.
We are aware of course that whilst fighting for such a perspective it is necessary to take the situation as it really is and not as we would like it to be. The prospect of a nation-wide struggle against redundancy on the basis of our transitional programme seems remote at the moment. It is possible of course that sharp struggles may take place in isolated factories, but the main opportunity for the party is that it gives us the chance of relating the transitional programme to some immediate issues.
The party’s role in industry at present is essentially that of an educator, and our slogans at the present time on the sliding scale of hours, wages, and full employment are designed towards this end. Our main task is to prepare and educate the workers for what lies ahead. This means an all-sided political exposition of the issues involved. We must explain and explain again the real basis of redundancy, whilst endeavouring to give leadership and striving for the widest possible political and organisational support for the party’s policy, but recognising the limitations as well. If we are faced with sackings on the grounds of redundancy, whether it be of a trade unionist or a “non”, we do not take sides on who is to be sacked, because of the very nature of our perspective. If we do take sides as the editorial suggests, and advocate that “nons” go first, we destroy, by an opportunist concession, the whole basis of our political attitude towards redundancy.
The party’s main job is to teach the workers a political lesson. If a struggle does develop, our members endeavour to give it leadership as well, but they can only struggle so far as the workers are prepared to struggle; beyond that they do their best to prepare them for the next stages ahead.
The “closed shop” and redundancy
The editorial remarks that “insofar as we are faced with actual sackings taking place, we demand that this be on the basis of the closed shop”. In other words the slogan of “nons first” is posed in conjunction with the slogan of the closed shop. The idea implicit in this is that a closed shop can be enforced by threatening the “nons” that unless they join the union they must be the first to leave the factory.
We do not rule out the possibility that a few “nons” may be frightened into joining the union in this way, and that such an event could mean that a 100 percent union shop would result. But this would not alter the fact that someone would still have to go, if the transitional demands were not operated. Even in a 100 percent shop, realities have to be faced; contracts are cancelled and the management insist that someone must go. Here we come to the core of the editorial, which states that on the docks, where you have a “closed shop”, dismissals and transfers would take place “on the basis of established membership”. So the idea is that you put the fear of hell into the “nons” one day and force them to join the union, and the next day (carrying out the editorial policy) put them out of the factory “on the basis of established membership”. The latest additions to the ranks of the trade union are the first to be put on the streets, with the full authority of the shop stewards’ committee. Here is revealed the farcical position of attempting to fight a political issue with trade union methods of struggle.
We feel that our comrades have raised the question of the closed shop in an attempt to find some sort of militant formula to lean on. Supposing we have a closed shop and sackings because of redundancy have got to take place, the comrades, according to their position in relation to the dockers, would demand the “established membership” line be operated. But the newer members of the union might not want to leave on that basis! Here we would have a real split in the ranks and if we were firm on the editorial policy we might find ourselves participating in a strike on behalf of one group of trade unionists trying to force another group out of the factory.
There also seems to be some confusion about the term “closed shop”. It must be understood that a “closed shop” is one where an agreement has been reached that, to quote the AEU rule book, “the shop is worked exclusively by union members”; this is a different position from a shop where 100 percent organisation only exists, and to go from one to the other requires a struggle with the employers, who have consistently fought against the closed shop. Well organised and powerful strike action would be required to force the demand home.
Our comrades don’t tell us anything new when they advocate either the “closed shop” or 100 percent trade unionism. But to organise for this a correct attitude towards the “nons” is absolutely necessary. The success of the fight for a closed shop, for example, demands a thorough education and preparation of the workers concerned, plus of course favourable circumstances. To inject artificially the slogan of the “closed shop” into a situation when workers are being sacked through redundancy may well prove a first-rate piece of adventurism.
The authors of the editorial demonstrate a complete failure to work out the implications of their slogans. What happens for instance in a factory where there are 5 percent non-unionists? Our policy not having gained support, the demand goes forward that these 5 percent be sacked first. If the management agrees and they go first – what then? 5 percent will not finish redundancy, and the tactical position will be so much the weaker, for having already accepted the fact that there is a basis for dismissals; and this is the most advantageous case!
But suppose the management refuse to accede to the demand? Do we advocate strike action to enforce it? If so, we are giving the “nons” no alternative but to throw in their lot with the employer and scab. For, if the strike succeeds they are on the dole; if they join the union and thus make the shop 100 percent they still go on the dole as the newest members of the union. And this is the way, we are told, a revolutionary party is to approach a political problem, striving for the maximum coordination between organised and unorganised workers!
It has been suggested that this is the way to prevent militants being victimised. But in the event of victimisation we should try to mobilise the whole factory, skilled and unskilled, members and “nons”, for strike action for the reinstatement of the militant. This applies irrespective of any question of redundancy. The whole factory behind the factory committee is our aim – but the “nons first” slogan cuts right across such a line. Even if the “nons” are sacked, there is still redundancy and trade unionists have to leave as well – sacking “nons” is no guarantee or safeguard against the victimisation of a militant steward or convenor.
As a last example, take a factory where the trade unionists are in minority (and there are quite a number). Would our comrades in the event of sackings advocate “nons first”? Obviously it would be a fantastic and adventuristic position. The only chance of struggle here is through a correct attitude towards the “nons” on the basis of our programme, appeals for unity on the job, etc. This would be our chance to organise the factory on the issue of redundancy, not on the “nons first” basis. The more we relate this policy to actual practice the more ridiculous it becomes.
The origin of the errors
The trade union bureaucrats, searching for a formula which will give scope for a certain amount of “blowing off steam” but at the same time by-pass any real struggle against capitalism, put forward the slogan of “dilutees first”. We reject this solution, counterposing to it the need to struggle for the “right to work” by the whole of the working class: no dismissals, shorter hours, etc., as per the transitional programme.
The basis for this stand of the EC of the AEU is among the craft unionists. To these we must patiently explain why and where it is a wrong stand. The main points we raise in this connection are:
- Redundancy and unemployment cannot be solved in this way.
- It will lead to a split in the workers ranks and the formation of an army of potential scab labour, and because of this it cannot even protect their rates (which was the basis of their acceptance of the dilution agreement), but in fact threatens them.
- The real dilution that threatens their rates and conditions is not in the influx of fresh workers into the industry (up to the end of 1943 under 5 percent of the AEU membership were actually registered under the Dilution Agreement, and the Dilution Agreement in theory applies only to these) but the whole tendency to de-skill the engineering industry – the classic example of this being Rolls Royce.
Superficially, it seems that a useful counter-slogan is that “nons go first”. In this many militants see an opportunity to put forward something real and concrete as a counterpoise to the official line. We can understand their attitude but it shows the need for political education, which is essentially the job of the party. We have to show them that this is no ordinary industrial issue that can be solved by negotiation or strike. It is part and parcel of the crisis of capitalism, which capitalism cannot solve. We then attempt to point to them the real road out via the transitional programme.
In essence, this slogan of “nons first” is no different from the other of “dilutees first”:
- It cannot solve the problem.
- It divides the workers, accentuates an already existent division instead of uniting in common struggle.
- It allows the reformist bureaucrats to hold any movement on a very low industrial plane instead of leading the fight against capitalism.
“Trade unions”, says the Transitional programme, “even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers”. It is not the “nons” fault that considerable numbers remain unorganised. The structure and composition of the unions are in many respects barriers towards this. Such barriers cannot be broken down except by the party, whose job it is to lead the unorganised as well as the organised. We must not and dare not discriminate when redundancy arises.
When our party members operate in industry they are something more than good militant trade unionists. They operate above all consciously as revolutionary Marxists. Hence the need to break sharply from syndicalism, craftism, and attendant sicknesses. These particular steps are not always easy ones. Pressure is sometimes very great in the unions and factories. To be able to swim against the stream and patiently explain does not always bring immediate results and from time to time “short cut” policies are proposed. The slogan of “nons first” on the basis of the closed shop does not seem too bad on the surface but it conceals a dangerous pitfall for the party. If we are to educate the valuable militant contacts who are moving towards the party it is essential that we withdraw immediately these positions and commence a collective theoretical rearmament of our trade union militants.