THE TRADE UNION CONGRESS AND LABOUR PROBLEMS. T HIS year's meeting
of the Trade Union Congress was opened by a remarkable presidential address from Mr. W..J. Davis, of the Brassfounders of Birmingham. Hitherto Mr. Davis has had rather the reputation of being a moderate man among trade union leaders, but there is little trace of moderation in his address. He not only emphasized the political policy of modern trade unionism, but the speech was also marked by a good deal of that class bitterness which is generally regarded as the special characteristic of the extreme Socialist wing of the Labour Party. It is bard to imagine such an address as this being delivered ten years ago, either by Mr. Davis himself or by any President of the Trade Union Congress. One must, in fact, regretfully admit that during the past ten years labour movements in this country, and apparently in all countries, have taken an increasingly bitter form. Some of the causes of this growing bitterness are dealt with in an extremely valuable letter addressed to us this week by Professor Smart. What impresses Professor Smart is the "irresponsibility of the working classes," which arises, as he justly says, from their failure to recognize that they are engaged in co-operative industry for °the benefit of one another, and not, as they appear to assume, in merely working for the benefit of the capitalist who pockets the proceeds of their labour. This delusion is, of course, not a new one. It is as old as our present industrial system, and springs from the fact that the employer is the paymaster. The average man, with his inherent incapacity to picture objects outside the immediate range of his vision, fails to see that the employer is merely a conduit pipe to enable one group of workmen to effect an exchange of its products with another group. So curiously incapable is the average wage-earner of grasping this elementary fact that he listens with com- placency while his oratorical leaders preach the doctrine of the universal strike, apparently unable to realize that a universal strike would interrupt- the supply of food and clothing and all the enjoyments of life for the whole body of wage-earners. The proposal for a universal strike amounts, indeed, as Professor Smart points out, to a suggestion that the working classes should cease feeding and clothing themselves. How this delusion is ever to be removed from the popular mind it is not easy to see. Professor Smart suggests courses in political economy in the higher-grade elementary schools, but we may be fairly sure that if such courses were ever sanctioned they would come under the supervision of an Education Department itself under the control of the Labour vote in the House of Commons, and that the political economy would be designed to back up Socialist theories rather than to teach economic facts.
More, perhaps, is to be hoped from the extension of those forms of industrial organization which enable the working man to feel a direct partnership with his employer ; but here other difficulties interpose. Co-operative production is possible in certain fields of industry, and possibly in wider fields than those in which it is yet attempted, but there are many and very extensive fields in which it is altogether impracticable. What the enthusiasts for co-operative production so constantly forget is the relative unimportance in the industrial machine of the average unskilled or semi-skilled workman. Whether such a man works well or badly makes so little difference to the success of the business, as compared with the difference that can be made by the financial and intellectual factors of produc- tion, that it is impossible ever to make this man a true partner in the concern. He can only be dealt with as holding a minor interest because he exerts a minor in- fluence. This may seem a bard saying, but it is a true one, and we are inclined to believe that it is the bitterness of this truth which is burning into the soul of the working classes to-day.
In former days, when the average unskilled workman had practically no education, he was content to do his assigned task, and to accept the best pay he could get for it. To- day, owing to the spread of elementary education, he thinks, not very deeply perhaps, but still he thinks. Above all, he contrasts his lot with that of people who are obviously much more fortunate than himself, but not obviously much more worthy. He sees the unending procession of well-to- do people enjoying the good things of the world. The motor- car forces their luxury upon his attention. The illustrated press is another factor for the creation of discontent, for its pages are occupied day after day with pictures of people enj oy- ing themselves on the moors, or yachting in the Solent, or bathing in foreign watering-places. It is not surprising that a man whose whole living day, with scarcely a break throughout the year, is occupied with dull routine work should feel bitter when he contrasts his drudgery with the good time enjoyed by people whom he excusably lumps together as the idle rich.
That is the basis of the present discontent and labour unrest, and when people are discontented and restless they try a succession of remedies for their troubles, turn- ing first to this side and then to that in the hope of finding relief : hence the various phases through which the labour movement has passed and is passing. A generation ago we had in full operation what is now known as the old- fashioned trade unionism, namely, the organization of wage-earners in their own trades or sections of trades. Each trade union was fighting for its own hand, dealing with the details of the industry of its members, and often as much engaged in protecting them against the competi- tion of other unions as in trying to improve their position relatively to their capitalistic employers. Then came the Socialist doctrine of the solidarity of the interests of all the wage-earners, and the conclusion that all trade unions should be fused into one vast organization to advance the interests of the working classes as against the capitalist. The most ob- vious method of giving effect to this newer conception was by organizing wage-earners into a political party, which should bring pressure to bear upon the House of Commons to secure legislation for the benefit of the wage-earner. This policy met with a good deal of immediate success. It is impossible to deny that such measures as the Workmen's Compensation Act and Old-Age Pensions have brought an immediate pecuniary gain to sections of the working classes, whatever the ultimate effect of these measures maybe, and the majority of people are always naturally much more impressed by immediate gains than by ulterior possibilities. Therefore for the moment political action remains popular with trade unionists, and receives approval even from such a man as Mr. W. J. Davis. But already while the Trade Union Congress is sounding a paean of triumph over what it has gained by political action, and clamouring for more legis- lation, other sections of wage-earners are expressing their profound discontent with the work done in and through the House of Commons, and are demanding a totally different policy. This, the neweit policy, is borrowed from France, and is generally known as Syndicalism. In a sense it is a reversion to the old trade union ideal of direct action in preference to political action, but there is this important difference, that whereas the old trade unionist was concerned only with the fortunes of a particular trade, the new Syndicalist thinks that he can apply trade union methods to the advancement of wage-earners in all trades simultaneously. It apparently has not entered his brain that if working men who are employed as coal miners succeed in obtaining a higher wage the greater part of the increase they obtain will have to be provided by other working men engaged in other trades. The same essential criticism applies to the gains obtained by political action, for though, as above stated, there may be an immediate gain to the working classes in receivii,g a dole from the Exchequer or a compulsory payment from the employer, the probability is that a large part of this benefit will be taken out of wages in one shape or another. It is at least possible that if there had been no free education, no Old Age Pensions Act, and no Workmen's Compensation Act the wage-earner to-day would have been obtaining an appreciably higher real wage after discharging for himself all the responsibilities of which the State has relieved him.
The truth is that none of the devices, whether they be trade union plans or political plans, will get rid of the fundamental causes of labour discontent. Moreover, it would be dishonest to suggest that these causes can ever be entirely removed as long as fairly intelligent people are required by our industrial system to perform unintelligent tasks for a small remuneration. Yet this is the necessary consequence of our educational system combined with our industrial organization. We cannot get rid of our educa- tional system and go back to the antiquated Tory ideal of an ignorant working class, nor can we remunerate the semi-skilled workman at a very much greater rate, for if the rate were greatly increased his extra remuneration would absorb the whole profit of the industry in which he only plays a subordinate part. The best we can look forward to is a greater moralization of industry, so that the essential hardships of economic law may be mitigated by human kindness. To some of our readers this may seem a counsel of despair. It is not ; it is a counsel of progress ; we shall move all the quicker forward upon the earth if we cease to cry for the moon.