19 NOVEMBER 1954, Page 9


Thoughts on the Present Discontents

G. J. C. KNOWLES This is the third of a series of articles on the problem posed by British trade unionists who are not working as hard as they could and should.

HE striker has never been a -popular figure. You are

resisting,' said a Durham parson to a group of them in

1844, not the oppression of your employers but the W, ill of your Maker--the ordinance of that God Who has said that in the sweat of his face shall man eat bread, and Who has attached this penalty to the refusal to labour, namely, that if a map do not work neither shall he eat.' It is true that today strikes are seldom dragged out to starvation point (nine-tenths of all recorded strikes are over in less than a week, and of these almost half last no longer than a single day); and the Welfare State has in any case mitigated the severity of the Divine Law. It is true that no one any longer questions the worker's right 'to strike so long as he refrains from exercis- ing it; but when he does so, • vox populi retains more • than a ring of vox Dei.• He inflicts inconvenience, or worse, upon the public; he imperils the prestige of the community and damages its credit, and is thus acting against his own higher interests; and his strike is irresponsible, irrational, unscrupulous, unnecessary, and usually unofficial: Extra- ordinary explanations have to be put forward for such extraordinary behaviour: in the last few years, the prevalence of unofficial strikes has been ascribed by a noble lord to the he of agene in bread, and by a‘bishop to ' a spreading rot in tne unit of society—home life.' A more colourable and time- nonoured explanation is that -strikers are necessarily the tools '31' dupes • of political agitators : ' There must be some evil Machinations at work.' as the then Minister of Labour put it In 1947, ' which say to the workers : " To hell with the officials - is the Radicals, Chaoists, Socialists, Syndicalists, and now the Communists who are the real culprits. Sargant Florence once made the comment that the middle-class con- '3oPtion of labour unrest is of some sinister infection, elusive and intangible; but such conceptions are not confined to any c" _':re class, and people tend to make the striker the scapegoat their deepest dislikes and fears. The real trouble with popular diagnosis is that it is too simple—as simple as the causes of strikes (and of other human actions) are complex. ehrhaPs it has always been: yet within living memory the aracter of 'strikes has radically changed. In what ways has, it changed '?There is, of course, nothing in unofficial sfrikes. In 1936 (the only year for which such figures were compiled) less than a quarter of the Sill strikes which occurred were known to be officillly supported. and over half could be classified with certainty as unofficial; indeed, the long saga of trade union history abounds . with such actions, and some of them have been accorded post- humous battle-honours. There is certainly nothing novel in the unseemly eagerness of political extremists to cash in on industrial conflict: they would be foolish to forego the oppor- tunity. Nor is there anything strange in the public being inconvenienced by • big strikes; ?II strikes are intended to cause someone inconvenience and, no doubt, the bigger the incon- venience the greater the pressure for a settlement. But behind the nineteenth-century facade important changes have been carried out. There is now, as there was not fifty years ago, a coherent system of industrial treaties and diplomatic pro- cedures to which the unions are parties,, and they have developed, as the badge of increasing power, a caste of elder statesmen to guard their sovereign rights, as well as a vested interest in the smooth running of the system. So that the unofficial strike is no longer merely unsupported but actively opposed by the union; and in such cases (notably of course in the docks where, as was stressed by Peter Wiles in the first article of series, the union has come to sit on the managerial side of the table) strikes may be bedevilled by a deeper conflict of loyalties than hitherto. Such a situation is ripe for inter- vention by outsiders, and what started as a strike may end as a skirmish in the cold war. Again, the potential inconvenience —to retain the current euphemism --is enhanced by the country's economic plight. In the Twenties we could stand a series of national strikes in key industries without lasting economic damage (although the prophets of doom were as vocal then. as now): but in 1947 even the freeze-up, which was roughly tantamount to a national coal strike. of one-and-a- quarter days, had far sharper effects on employment and business activity than the seven-month stoppage of 1926. The same is true. in degree, of other industries; and in countless ways big strikes mean very much more than they did in our childhood.

A merciful principle of compensation, however, has ensured that big strikes are very much rarer now than then. The steady recruitment to the unions (whose ranks have, incidentally, been diluted to some extent by workers without militant traditions). the increasing recognition accorded them and the consequent proliferation of rituals for bargaining and for settling disputes, have genuinely helped to humanise industrial warfare. Although the number of strikes was rising steadily even before the war and has touched record heights since 1939, these outbreaks have, with few exceptions, resembled street tights rather than the massive industrial campaigns which were waged in the past—indeed, the average yearly totals of workers on strike and of working days lost' in the years before, during, and after the Second World War have dropped to a mere fraction of their levels over comparable periods around the first war. Moreover the immediate main causes of strikes, if the Ministry of Labour's diagnosis is trustworthy, have been shift- ing away from diSputes over wages and hours of work to more frictional issues; which suggests—always granted that the issue which provokes a strike may he no more than a symbol,—that for some. workers industrial grievances may be less fundamental than they once were. Again, it' we confine our attention to the country's black spots, we find that the regional pattern of strikes has been 'changing over the years; and this may be partly due to the industrial diversification'

(as recommended in the 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy) of areas such as South Wales. On the other hand the industrial pattern of strikes has changed less than the improve- ment in the relative job-security and earning capacity. of the ,more. 'strike-prone' of our workers might have led one to hope: coal miners and (as we have recent cause to remember) dockers, who have long memories of bad times, are still among the readiest to strike—and sometimes to strike long and hard. This phenomenon, however, is by no means confined to Great Britain and probably has sociological as well as economic and political roots, so that the solutions for the more stubborn

elements of the strike problem are likely to be further to seek and slower to operate. But big strikes—or even strikes in general—are not the whole problem, or necessarily the most important aspect of it. Workers do not always air their accumulated grievances by resorting to a strike : with the. unorganised and those who have little social cohesion, discontent may show itself in a high rate of absenteeism, sickness or accidents, labour turnover, and so on.' These remoter symptoms, although their effects are those of a running sore rather 'than of a sharp cut, may on occasion be no less damaging than striking and in the long run may well result in even greater aggregate losses of production time. For—without endorsing the classic wartime paradox attributed to a Ministry, of Labour official, that strikes are a form of rest and consequently beneficial to production '— we can believe that the ' losses' from many present-day strikes (since most of them are so short) may, be made up fairly quickly by increased overtime or even without it if the atmosphere improves after the settlement; whereas the constant drain on production which can derive from the more devious kinds of unrest may continue unchecked and • hardly even detected. This is not to suggest, of course, that strikes do not matter. Recent experience alone is a sufficient warning against the frivolity of dismissing them as immaterial in a situation where unexpected interruptions can have disproportionate effects; and to this extent comparisons with the past, when many of the effects of even the biggest strikes were swamped by chronic unemployment, are irrelevant. But by concentrating only on the avoidance of strikes we risk ignoring more insidious evils; and by an over-zealous resort to counter-pressure—especially legal or political pressure—we may even invite them. If for example a serious strike could be outlawed only at the cost of producing ca'canny and widespread industrial apathy, the price would probably be greater than the benefit bought. The same applies to the blackmail aspect: if a strike can be averted only at the cost of an exorbitant wage increase, the cost again is too high. Blackmail is an emotive term, but (assuming its applicability) it is sometimes better to call a blackmailer's bluff than to attempt to buy or frighten him off.

Strikes are taken, perhaps too eagerly. as evidence of social disease. The obvious half-truth of this should surely be qualified by the realisation that, after all, a society free from conflict is a dead society, and a society where all conflicts which cannot be ,diverted into official channels are suppressed on principle (as they are in totalitarian countries) is an explosive society—and a boiler which has a safety-valve to let off steam is a safer proposition than one which has none. It should not be forgotten that the origins of a strike often run far deeper than the (often trivial) issues which occasion its outbreak, and sometimes extend beyond the working lives of those participating; so that we should not hope for spectacular results from the routine application of industrial specifics—official exhortation, the elaboration of disputes procedures, joint consultation, the substitution of human' for ' industrial' relations, and.so on. While the potential effect of strikes is possibly greater now than it has ever been, their actual severity has, on average, greatly declined over the years and their increased frequency does not seem likely to offset this ,decline. Indeed, the increased number of relatively small strikes is in part, no doubt, the price we pay for the stream- lined nation-wide collective bargain. National agreements take time to achieve, and with the best will in the world it is not always easy to interpret their generalities in the light of local conditions; and delay in negotiations and local anomalies are both classic last straws' for provoking strikes. Such strikes, embarrassing and undesirable though they may sometimes be, `can fulfil a genuine -social function—the function of calling immediate attention to weaknesses in the working of the ever more complex machinery by which industry is regulated. In a society which is democratic in aim this should be enough to ensure the acceptance of their occasional inevitability, and at the same time act as a spur to the elimination of their causes by every possible means. We may be gratified, though not complacent, at the prOgress that has been made in the last half-century; but until the earthly paradise has been achieved (and that is not on the immediate programme of even the most progressive of political parties) the strike weapon can hardly be safely buried, even though it may often be used unofficially, inconveniently, and against the better judgement of responsible (The next article in this series wilt be by Mark Abrams, who will be writing about the Fawley experiment.) persons.