TOPICS OF THE DAY.
AS we write on Friday the prospects of a settlement look decidedly brighter. Hopes have, however, so aften proved delusive in the present crisis that one hardly lares to indulge them. Still it would be an unreasonable Yielding to the superstition of pessimism not frankly to -eknowledge the grounds for behef that the worst part of the strike is over, or, at any rate, that the first faint traces of the dawn have begun to appear. To begin with, the Minimum Wage Bill has passed through Parliament. The Legislature has thus accepted the tremendous revolu- tion that in the most highly paid of the groat trades of the country the wages of labour are to be settled not by the law of supply and demand and the higgling of the market under free conditions, but by an Arbitration Board whose decisions in the last resort will be those of a Government official. When that Government official's decision has been given it will be a penal offence to pay to a man, even though that man should be perfectly willing to accept such payment, a less sum than the said official has fixed as the minimum wage for his particular kind of work. For the moment we are not going to argue whether this is a wise decision or whether it is one which can perma- nently improve the remuneration and the condition of the worker, though that is, of course, the essential object which we all have, or ought to have, in view. What we are concerned to point out now is the tremendous nature of the change and the magnitude of the victory which has been gained by the miners. Owing to the struggle over the attempt of the more advanced portion of the leaders of the miners to get the figures of Us. and 2s. put into the Bill, and their failure to do so, a good deal of talk has been indulged in which would seem to indicate a defeat of the men and a victory for the masters. Nothing could be further from the facts. It is unquestionably the men who have won. Not only have they established the prin- ciple upon which they publicly declared that they went out on strike—the principle of the minimum wage—but they have got, what probably none of them ever dreamed was possible, a statutory recognition of that principle in a most binding form. The principle of the minimum wage is now not a matter of temporary agreement between masters and men, but a permanent portion of the law of the land. To allege after this that the miners have not succeeded and that we must not expect them to feel satis- fied is utterly unreasonable. This success of the miners, of course, may not in the end prove a real benefit to them or to the country, but at any rate it is a great fact, and one which for the moment should make for an ending of the strike, and, therefore, from that point of view may be placed upon the hopeful side of the account. In our opinion a not loss hopeful fact is the decision of the miners to take a ballot on the question of whether the men should resume work pending the settlement of the minimum rates of wages by the district boards to be appointed under the Minimum Wage Act. It must be at once admitted that the way in which the question is placed before the miners is perfectly fair. It puts the issue to them without prejudice. Further, the Miners' Conference have decided to give no official advice as to the way in which the question should be answered. Next, and perhaps even more important, is the fact that the form in which the ballot is to be taken is a specific recognition of the Act. It does not leave doubtful whether the Act is to be rejected by the men or accepted, but assumes that it will not be boycotted by them and that they will take part in appointing the district boards. If they were not to join in appointing those boards there would be no sense in voting on the question put to them. It is, of course, quite possible that the majority of the men will vote against the resumption of work. On the other hand there seem to be indications that a very large section of them realize fully the far-reaching nature of the success which they have achieved, and are not inclined to run the risk which must attend a refusal to resume work for the month or five weeks which must elapse before the boards have done their work. It must be remembered that he risks which would be run by a refusal to resume work pending the settlement are very great. If the strike is - continued for another month it cannot be doubted that a very great many pits will be opened all over the country and worked either by non-union men or by men who have broken away from the unions—a condition of things which both the union leaders and the union members must view with alarm. Another risk which cannot be overlooked is the risk of internal trouble between those unions in the Federation whose strike funds are exhausted and those who still have large sums of money at their disposal. Under the present arrangement, though the policy of the miners is pooled, their funds are not pooled, but arc in watertight compartments. Therefore one of two things must happen. The unions with full chests, or partially full chests, must either share their money with the unions whose chests are empty, and so bring themselves to virtual bankruptcy, or else run the risk of the unions which cannot continue giving strike pay allowing or even directing their men to return to work. We are well aware that we shall be told that this situation can never arise and that the men are absolutely solid, and so forth. But between such talk and the testing of that solidarity by a pooling of funds there may, we venture to think, be found in practice a considerable differ- ence. Though we are fully aware that the number of men who hen already dribbled back to work in various parts of the country is relatively small, there seems reason to believe that the movement will be continued, and that even if the ballot were to prove unfavourable to peace, considerable amelioration in the general situation may be caused by a partial resort to free labour. If, as seems likely to be the case, before long two or three mines are opened in every district, the most pressing needs of the community will be relieved and the essential services kept going.
Though this is not the moment for making any attempt to read the final lessons of the strike, there are one or two points upon which we may touch without any risk of doing injury to the cause of peace. It is, we think, evident from Mr. Hobliouse's speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Government mean to order a full inquiry into the causes of the unrest now pre- vailing amongst the industrial classes. If such a wide inquiry takes place, it will no doubt be specially concerned with the mining industry. It is to be hoped that the mine owners will meet this inquiry with a frank, nay an anxious, desire to do everything in their power to better the condi- tions under which the miners live. It is to be feared that in many places, and especially is this true of the South Wales districts, the housing and other conditions are deplor- able and take away from the advantages of the high wages which are admittedly enjoyed by the greater number of the Welsh miners. We feel sure that a very large number of coal owners will be quite willing to recognize their duties in this respect. They must remember, however, that in such matters the strength of the chain is its weakest. link, and they must use every endeavour to bring home a sense of the obligations incumbent upon them to those coal owners who have hitherto been inclined to ignore how their employees live. But if there are imperative duties to be performed by the owners there are corresponding duties incumbent upon the men and their leaders. They have got the minimum wage, but without question the minimum wage will prove a curse, not a blessing, to the industry if it should lead to malingering or slackness of work on any large scale or should be made an instrument for attempting to extort from the owners further advances of wages which are not consistent with the economic conditions. If the miners are wise they will remember (1) that their prosperity is in the end bound up with the prosperity of the mines, and (2) that the mines cannot be prosperous if the output is appreciably. lowered. In the last resort the men can only be paid out of the product of the mines. Therefore it is of quite as great importance to the miners as to the owners that a. high rate of production should be maintained. But the miners must go a stop further in their study of economics If they do they will realize that the cause of production, and so of good employment, in the mines is demand, and that they must do nothing which will kill or lower the demand for coal—a demand which, unfortunately for them, is already threatened for various reasons. But an increase in the price of coal is bound to decrease demand, unless, of course, that increase is due to general prosperity throughout the country and not to what we may term artificial causes such as a special increase in the cost of production. There is no economic fallacy which it is more dangerous for the miners to entertain than the fallacy that the demand for any commodity is constant and may not be decreased by considerations of price. People are much too .apt to say that "the country must have coal," and that therefore, even if the price goes up, the demand will not fall off. In truth there are millions of people of whom and thousands of businesses of which it is only true to say that they must have coal if coal is below a particular price. When it gets beyond that price they will either not have coal at all or only have it in much smaller quantities, with the consequent result that less coal will be hewn, and so fewer men employed to hew it. No doubt it is possible to meet this argument by declaring that it may be better for the community to have less coal hewn and that it is a healthier state of things to have few men working at high wages than a larger number working at a somewhat less rate. That might be true if people were prepared to face the crime of placing the unemployed in a lethal chamber, or, again, if there wore plenty of other work for them to do in other trades. Since, however, the problem of the unemployed cannot be settled in this way, there is always the difficulty that either by union levies to support the unemployed or by rates and taxes devoted to poor relief the high wages of the few may be dragged down to the old level—may be nominally rather than really higher. In a word, we are very soon confronted with the principle that it can never be good for the working classes, or, indeed, for anyone, to seek abundance through the pro- duction of artificial scarcity. It is only out of abundant production and by the elimination of economic waste that in the last resort the condition of the Workers can be benefited. The workers will then, if they are wise, keep their eyes fixed on the object of high production, and will view with the utmost jealousy any diminution of production, not only in other trades, but in their own. They will also be wise if they remember the part that capital plays, and must always play, in production. In our industrial system men can only be set to work through the use of capital, and therefore it follows that there can only be a brisk demand for labour if there is a good supply of capital. To destroy capital or to prevent its accumula- tion is the worst possible way in which to benefit labour.