BEYOND THE STRIKES
THERE is a fairly widespread, if somewhat indeterminate, belief that the present labour disputes on the British railways cannot simply be taken at their face value. A local dispute concerning a handful of enginemen on certain North- Eastern routes does not lead to outbreaks of unrest throughout the country and to a growing atmosphere of crisis unless there are other causes at work. And, indeed, the more obvious of those additional causes have already been recognised. The ostentatious insistence of the National Union of Railwaymen on the abolition of all lodging turns can be largely explained in terms of a bid to attract members at the expense of a rival union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. The equally osten- tatious way in which the N.U.R. has taken the lead in demanding the re-examination of the claim for a wage increase of ten shillings a week, coupled with payment at time and a quarter for work on Saturday afternoons, indicates that this particular union is more concerned with taking advantage of any movement of unrest than with damping it down. The general secretary of the N.U.R., Mr. J. B. Figgins, joins in the chorus of condemnation of unofficial strikes, but at the same time encourages the very men who are striking to insist on a demand which he knows is utterly unaccept- able to the Railway Executive. He thus makes the best of two worlds. But he does not stop there. He adds a third and a fourth, by openly calling for the reconstitution of the Executive itself, and by advocating the " workers' control " of the railways. And as he continues his headlong career, and one major issue after another is dragged to the light, it becomes plain that it would not only be short-sighted to minimise the seriousness of the present dispute. It might well be disastrous.
It is impossible for the Government to ignore, even if it cannot yet settle, a tangle of conflicts involving the most fundamental principles of trade unionism, threatening the whole transport system of the country, posing the hard question of labour relations within a nationalised industry, and bringing the N.U.R.—one of the most powerful unions in the country—into direct collision with the Railway Executive and with the Government itself. But so far the Government has only shown in an indirect way that it realises the dangers of the situation. It has refused to rush in. Time after time the N.U.R. has tried to secure the intervention of the Minister of Labour in the disputes, but he has always refused. When at last he appeared at the microphone last Saturday to appeal to the strikers he surprised everybody by spending nearly all his time on the dock dispute (now ended), over the handling of Cana- dian ships, and barely touching upon the railway question. The commonly accepted explanation that the Government considered the dock dispute more important, in view of its effect on the export drive, always sounded a little hollow. The Government is not so ignorant of Labour questions as to fail to see that the outstanding questions of railway wages and conditions go much deeper than the piece of Communist mischief-making, whereby the dockers of Avonmouth and Liverpool were entangled in a quarrel between two Canadian Unions, the true nature of which they completely failed to understand. The more likely explanation is that Mr. Attlee and his colleagues see only too plainly what the performance of Mr. Figgins is leading to. They are beginning to .discern what lies beyond the strikes, but it is by no means sure that they know what to do about it.
The more closely the situation on the railways is examined, the more threatening it looks. The behaviour of the N.U.R. involves any number of major dangers. Not one single move which it has made in the lodging-turns dispute has indicated a straightforward wish to minimise or solve it. The attempt which the union made to wash its hands of the whole affair was thoroughly mis- _ chievous in its effects and called forth the sharpest protest from the Minister of Labour. And even the new-found confidence that there will be no repetition of the recent Sunday stoppages is diffi- cult to explain, since the instructions to members of the N.U.R. not to work lodging turns still stands. Every conciliatory move by the A.S.L.E.F. has been blocked by the insistence of the N.U.R. that there must be no lodging turns. By what right it claims to insist on anything of the sort can only be determined in the light of Mr. Figgins' constant attempt to show that his union is more fitted for the work of railway management than the Railway Executive itself. Again, in the much larger question of the ten shillingiincrease in wages, it is the N.U.R. which persists in reviving the dispute, in season and out of season, despite the reluctance of the Railway Clerks' Association and the A.S.L.E.F. to join in. There is a gross inconsistency between this one union's claim to represent all its members in the wage dispute and its simultaneous refusal of the Executive's offer to grant an increase to roo,000 of the lowest paid railway workers, who are pretty certainly living in conditions of some hardship. The fact is that these unfortunates are being sacrificed to the larger ambitions of the N.U.R. and to the fetish that all wage-rates, both within industries and between industries, should be kept in a fixed relation to each other.
Such policies can, of course, make nonsense of the Govern- ment's attempts to stabilise costs and prices. But what is really frightening is that the leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen are not really aware of the very dangerous consequences of their actions. It was reported that Mr. Figgins made the notorious speech at the Blackpool conference, in which he demanded a sweeping extension of " workers' control " in industry, in an assured and confident manner. Such assurance is either blind or vicious. But the fact is that there are plenty of trade unionists whose behaviour is calculated to support it. It is probable that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that, unless costs are reduced, the British economy is heading for disaster, many trade unionists—probably a majority—do not understand his argument. Others understand it but do not believe it. And a few both under- stand it and believe it, but still cling to the doctrine that their duty as trade union officials comes before their duty as citizens. The menace of such a combination of ignorance, irresponsibility and power is a formidable thing.
In fact this blind weight of the trade unions may turn out to be the largest single factor in the next phase of British economic development. The consequences of its misuse would be economic- ally disastrous and politically quite incalculable. If—as is perfectly possible—there is another Labour Government after the next General Election, and—as is highly probable—the general economic situation continues to deteriorate, then trade unions behaving as the N.U.R. is at the moment could very rapidly reduce the country to chaos. The reactions of trade unions faced with a political regime which they want and an economic situation which they do not want cannot be clearly forecast, but it can scarcely be doubted that those reactions would inflict great hardship on the ordinary citizen. The question of the relations of the trade unions with nationalised industries has scarcely been faced, much less solved. All that can be said so far is that in the case of coal-mining and the railways those relations so far have been thoroughly unsatisfactory. The unions have shown no sign of a more conciliatory attitude, but at the same time they have found that the smallest dispute can hold the whole country to ransom, occupy the time of the Cabinet, and generally cause confusion on an astonishing scale. It happened at Grimethorpe. It has re- cently been happening over the lodging-turns dispute. And if the Government decides that it must make a stand against its own followers, then the chances are that it is the general public that will suffer, not only through actual strikes, but through a further growth of that sullen and inconsiderate attitude which is already so widespread among those public employees who are in constant contact with the public in transport and elsewhere. The prospect is not a pleasant one. But it is impossible to deny that, with the export drive meeting a growing resistance in world markets, with the curve of American prosperity flattening out, and with the days of the Marshall Plan numbered, the danger is real. The remedy is known. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has repeated it so often that he, like everyone else, is finding it difficult to put it in phrases which will be listened to. But the reduction of costs is the central factor in it. And the increase of costs—wage costs— is the central factor in the present policy of the N.U.R. What is more, it is present, though latent, in the policy of nearly every other trade union. This is the incalculable and largely uncontrolled power lying behind the strikes, which have so far been sporadic and small. But unless there are some major changes in trade union policy there is little in the economic trend to prevent them from becoming frequent and large.