Friday, 15 July 2016
Labour and the War
PART III of England in Arms
By Lacey Amy (1877-1962)
From The Canadian Magazine, July 1917.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, July 2016
No one is qualified to speak didactically concerning the relationship of English labour to the war. The medley of events that should form a reliable basis for deduction is apt to leave one more at sea in the selection of general terms for describing that relationship than would a less complete sum of information. The Labour Party of England has been perhaps as consistent and fair in its attitude as would be any other organization that held together for entirely different purposes two and a quarter million men, including many thousands —perhaps hundreds of thousands— who, from lack of opportunity or time or ambition, have not developed that equilibrium of reason which alone is competent to control the daily routine of one’s existence to rational lines.
Labour has lent itself to the most uncompromisingly inimical deeds— deeds which if persisted in, would have accomplished that which the enemy can never effect. It has struck with seeming ruthlessness and disloyalty at the very foundations of the Empire. It has demanded that which to grant would have been to yield to the Germans. It has thrown down tools absolutely necessary to victory. It has declared for peace at any price. It has, in fact, permitted itself to run the entire gamut of treason at one time or another, in one locality or another.
But to judge from those black chapters in the history of an aggregation that must, like any other organization, be of motley sentiment in matters that do not immediately touch its raison d’etre would be as disastrous to authoritative conclusions as to estimate the calibre of the German from isolated acts. If one must deduce from individual incidents, there are those which stand out with unquestioned authority, with undoubted right to claim precedence in any consideration of the manner in which Labour in England has conducted itself towards the great struggle. Put to the vote, Labour has expressed itself in no ambiguous terms. It has given of its numbers in millions to the perils of the front. And its leaders have stood out almost en masse as examples of British patriotism and determination to overcome the enemies of the Empire.
The chapter of Labour treason is black, but it is only as black as a few of its unlicensed leaders whose hold on the imagination of the workingman has been their ladder to everything their perverted intelligence has considered worth while. Such men as Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden, types of the agitator who along with a certain cleverness and misused mentality, possess a keen appreciation of their sole claim to distinction, have never for a moment been Britons, even under the dire threat of the terrible war. And in their wake follow a number of lesser lights who are willing to emulate the worst of the “big” men they see as the simplest way of obtaining influence.
No consideration of the stand of Labour in England can arrive anywhere without first of all informing itself of the power of Labour before the war, as well as of its methods. Any numerically inferior political party that holds the balance of power in the nation’s legislative chambers is certain to go astray in some vital particulars. However honest its legislative representatives, its unearned power will make it lust for more at the cost of fairness and unselfishness, will render unreliable its sense of proportion. And Labour was in that position in the British House before the war. Only a small fraction of the strength of the two parties in the House, it was yet of sufficient numbers to hold the weaker of the two in power, a condition which British law does not avoid even while fully conscious of its dangers. The Conservatives, easily the Government in point of numbers, were forced to remain in opposition. But only so long as the Liberals conceded to Labour its demands. The result was unavoidable without a change of Government; and the Labour Party was in a position to effect that at any moment it wished and as often as it wished with either party.
It might not be fair to say that Labour controlled Great Britain, but in theory it was so, and in fact, even as it is apparent to-day, it was nearly so. That Great Britain is what it is sums up the moderation and wisdom with which Labour must have yielded its almost unlimited power. The one outside restraining influence was that it knew it had little to expect from the party it has kept so long in opposition.
That accounts for the first stage in Labour’s official connection with the war, as well as for most of the unfortunate acts of misjudgment it has indulged in since. Premier Asquith, perhaps the cleverest Prime Minister England has ever had, was not a free agent. Labour responded to the voluntary appeal for soldiers in a manner that did it credit, but when conscription was introduced it naturally, as the real party in power, refused to submit without question to that which it had not dictated. As has appeared since, the South Wales miners proved themselves the irreconcilables. Bluntly they refused to acknowledge conscription as applicable to them. And, since their number was so large and the stress too immediate and serious to risk coercion, Asquith could see nothing to it save submission. His political position did not depend upon it—at least not immediately—for by that time the Government was Coalition, but his impotence during the previous few years to fight Labour had put muscle into Labour’s arm, and that muscle it was now exercising.
There was plausible ground for submission, since skilled labour was even then recognized as a necessity at home. Subsequent events have proven that the same principle should have been applied in a score of industries that did not fight to remain out of khaki. But both reason and subsequent events have more unquestionably proven that no body of men should be exempted as a body. The success of the miners put the idea into many other unions, and what had been granted to one could not be denied others of as great, or even greater, importance to the country. By November, 1916, no fewer than twenty-four unions had been exempted from conscription and Labour was creeping more and more beyond the encompassing arms of the recruiting officers. Only the substitution of Lloyd George for the weakening Asquith put an end to a condition that was growing more intolerable every day. And even the new Premier, as the latest attempt at combing out reveals, is unduly the slave of Labour, since he has agreed that no member of indispensable unions should be forced into the army save by the decision of a tribunal composed half of Labour.
Of these agreements of exemption for entire unions we have one sample. On September 28, 1916, Asquith had given out an undertaking that “skilled men (by which I mean men who from natural ability or training, or a combination of both, have special aptitude for particular and indispensable kinds of national work here at home) ought not to be recruited for general service”. A month later the Amalgamated Society of Engineers demanded something specific for themselves, and Asquith granted it. The terms of that agreement are interesting as an example of failure by a war Prime Minister to reconcile union rights with the necessities of the nation. The first clause granted that the engineers, whenever they ceased to be fully employed should enroll—not as soldiers—as War Munitions Volunteers, “in accordance with arrangements now in existence under the new War Munitions Volunteer scheme”. That is, an engineer—and he was but one of twenty-four unions similarly treated—should never under any condition be exposed to the trenches, even when his work ceased to be of a nature for which exemption was supposed to be granted. The second clause limited the application to men who were journeymen or apprentices prior to August 15, 1915, a year after the war started. Clause three stipulated that, when enrolled as Munition Volunteers, they be given exemption cards which prevented their removal without the consent of the War Office, “which will not be given without reference to the Ministry of Munitions and the executive of the man’s union”. In clause four it was inserted that statutory powers might be used as a last resort if the unions failed to supply sufficient skilled men for the Artificers’ Corps in the Army or as Munitions Volunteers. And clause five assured the union that if it would furnish the names of its members now in the Army they would he transferred out of danger to the mechanical units.
These details are essential to an understanding of the powerful grip the unions have had on legislation. It was an unfortunate result of this immunity from service that many of the unions openly solicited membership on the ground that it carried with it such immunity. Scores of every-day incidents in factory life today might be added to prove Labour’s power, but they are unnecessary here.
With such a record of irresistible strength it is no wonder that certain sections of Labour have shown instances of the seamy side of some of their members, even while it has in the mass demonstrated its loyalty. Strikes have been frequent, but fortunately of limited duration. Some of them—most, indeed, when Asquith was Prime Minister—were settled by the submission of the employers under pressure from the Government. Since Lloyd George took the reins the experience has changed. And once again Labour has shown its honesty by backing the new Premier as it never did the old.
The record of strikes during wartime will always stand to the discredit of Labour in England. Even Russia has been free from them in the nation’s peril. But back of it all stands the spectre of Capital’s treatment of it throughout the ages. For Capital in Great Britain has exhibited to its most disastrous extent the ridiculous distinctions of class that have done more than any other single thing to handicap England.
Just a word on this feature of English life. There never has been sympathy between Capital and Labour in England. The entire idea of the employer was to get all he could out of his workingmen at as little cost as possible. The workingman was but a cog in a wheel that was supposed to turn out dividends. As a human being he did not seem to count. No better proof of this calamitous relationship can be given than by mentioning the one insuperable obstacle to Labour contribution to the War Loan in hundreds of factories. “No,” objected the workingman, “I won’t contribute to the Loan, because I do not want the boss to know I’m saving money. He’ll cut my wages if he does.” I do not speak from hearsay; I personally faced such a refusal many a time.
So that it was no wonder Labour, feeling its power in the individual as well as in the organization, went to excess in spots.
The first menacing strike occurred most fortunately within the sphere of Lloyd George, although he was not then Prime Minister. In March, 1916, a serious strike was declared on the Clyde among the shipbuilders. It was the more serious in that it was engineered by the men themselves, directly against the leaders’ wishes. Some half dozen shop stewards, who have since been declared to be in German pay, roused the men against the dilution of labour, and, catching them at an hysterical moment and after months of unbroken and unusual strain, combined them in a walk-out. As it happened, the Department immediately concerned was Lloyd George’s. With a firm hand he promptly deported the six leaders and the strike broke up. It is interesting to follow the incident through. In January, 1917, one of the deportees appeared unexpectedly at the Labour Congress at Manchester—unexpected to the rank and file but not to the leaders, for the Government had given its consent that he should attend—and, wild-eyed and fervent, declared his intention of returning to Glasgow. The Congress cheered him, although the leaders tried to turn the tide. Kirkwood, the deportee, was as good as his word, although the Government, now under Lloyd George, immediately announced that he would be arrested. The Government, too, was as good as its word. And Kirkwood, finding the Government not now to be trifled with and his friends few, signed an undertaking to keep quiet. As that was all the Government had ever demanded of the deportees its victory was complete. Also the Labour Party, by staunchly refusing to support Kirkwood, proved its virtues.
Another threatened strike that would have disorganized the conduct of the war throughout the Allied countries was proposed by the South Wales Miners. This was their second interference with the course of the war. Both sides seem to have been to blame, the employers for the low level to which they had always ground the men, and the men for their unpatriotic demonstration at a moment when Italy and France, as well as England, were absolutely dependent upon English coal. The story is too long to tell here, but the South Wales miner, already having obtained various advances in wages since the beginning of the war, amounting to seventy per cent., was still unsatisfied. And the employers, although making higher dividends than ever before, thought they saw an opportunity of increasing them. While the miners demanded a fifteen per cent, increase, the owners asked for a ten per cent, decrease. Where the miners secured public sympathy was in agreeing to submit their case to an audit of the owners’ books, which the owners refused. The crisis crowded eloser and closer, and at last the Government stepped in and took over the mines, immediately granting the miners their higher wage. This, too, was in Asquith’s time.
There have been other strikes and threatened strikes by the dozen, but none of equal seriousness, largely because nipped in the bud. The different attitude adopted by Lloyd George has had its effect. Since he came into power strikes have been of short duration because the Government was not minded to parley to the nation’s menace. The new Premier’s metal was tried on the very day Asquith resigned. The boilermakers of Liverpool took advantage of administrative chaos to declare a strike. But Lloyd George took the Labour Party into his Cabinet by means of some of its strongest and most patriotic leaders, and thereafter he could not be accused of lack of sympathy. Hodge, the new Labor Minister, a Labor man himself, simply wired the boilermakers that no consideration whatever would be given their case unless they returned immediately to work. It was a new system, and it worked. The boilermakers returned. They realized what subsequent strikers are finding out, that the nation will not stand for strikes until the war is over. The Tyne engineers declared a strike towards the end of March, 1917, led by the shop stewards and opposed by the leaders. Once more the strikers were informed that their demands would not be listened to while they were idle, but this time they thought to make a real test and voted to remain out. When, however, a wire reached them from the Government warning them that if they did not return to work immediately drastic measures would be taken, they knew their stand was hopeless and took up their tools.
But the two great obstacles to the production necessary to victory came from the threatened breach of union rules demanded by conditions. One was the dilution of labor. The Clyde strike arose from the workingman’s opposition to the introduction of women into domains that had always been his; and a hundred smaller strikes and a thousand disagreements have had their origin in the same cause. The Government could not but insist, however strong the opposition. Without women the war would never be won, for there are not enough men to do the fighting and the work. But even yet daily opposition arises from individual unions or branches of them. Labour has, however, sized the necessity as a body and has yielded to it.
The other handicap was the recognized scale of output by the English workman. It is almost incredible that any man would openly support the deliberate limitation of his output as a system vital to his well-being. The idea has sometimes been secretly preached in America. But in England it was a recognized union principle to “ca’ canny”. In that, too, the employers were largely to blame, for the wages they persisted in paying were unbelievably small. No workman could do good work on them; no workman could maintain his self-respect on such inadequate and miserly pay.
And along with the limitation of output came the attendant evils that assisted its development. Absenteeism was a habit. In part it was due to liquor, but there was nothing in his life to make a workingman desirous of limiting his potations to reasonable quantities. Every holiday—and the English year is full of them—was followed by two for recovery from the effects of the day’s sport. In a few words, England was producing much less than half her capacity and had grown accustomed to it. That was why she was losing her grip on the world’s markets. But half-production did not gibe with war necessities, and an alteration was demanded. To a great and surprising extent it has come about. Many a labourer has seen the necessity as well as the Government and has buckled down. To some extent liquor was put beyond his reach, by shortened hours of sale, by the closing of the more dangerous saloons, by an increase in prices, and by the anti-treating law. But some effect also was wielded by the hearty way in which the women assumed their share of production. They were not broken to limiting production as a principle, and factories have boomed for no other reason than that the men see that their very living after the war depends upon a demonstration of their capacity. Pride does the rest.
There are, of course, certain sections of the Labour Party which as a whole have opposed the war. The Socialists are divided, one group expressing its unalterable fidelity to the national cause, the other exhibiting only the worst side of Socialism. The Independent Labour Party is frankly for peace as a body, although a few of its leaders cannot agree to peace at any price. But these two disloyal sections count very little in the numerical strength of Labour and less in influence, despite the publicity given the peace meetings that are usually broken up by fellow unionists or soldiers.
It is in Labour’s vote that it shows its soul. The Congress of 1916 supported Asquith’s war policy by something less than four votes to one. In the Congress of 1917 the support for Lloyd George was more than five to one. When Lloyd George proposed to comb out the unskilled from the South Wales miners for the Army, thus daring much in the teeth of the most troublesome union, the union at first voted against the proposition and then rallied and supported it by three to two. And whenever a complete vote has been taken there is unmistakable evidence of the patriotism of Labour.
In its leaders Labour has been favourably represented. There is no hesitation there, no willingness to sacrifice the nation to union principles that held in peace time. With very few exceptions the chiefs of the organization are patriots. Much of their active co-operation has been induced by their incorporation into Government offices where they not only see the need of the times more clearly but are on their honour to cater to it. From the beginning, however, they have aided the authorities in bringing home to their fellows the demands of the fighting front. “Whatever is needed to win the war will be given,” says the secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions. J. H. Thomas, M.P., general secretary of the Railwaymen, one of the strongest unions, while watching the Government closely, is a staunch supporter of any measures that promise to win the war. The heads of the British Workers’ National League condemn all labour disputes in war time. The British Socialist Party has repudiated enemy Socialists. Will Thorne, M.P., is a tireless advocate of aggressive war measures. Bent Tillett, whose influence over Labour has been frequently proved, visited the front early in the war and returned one of the best recruiting agents the country has had.
The effect of the war on Labour no man can foresee with accuracy. The longer the struggle continues the better the results for England and the workingman, so far as the establishment of desirable principles and methods are concerned. Much depends upon the attitude of the returned soldier—and where he will stand even he himself does not know. Should he settle down with the idea that he has completed his life’s work and that hereafter the country should keep him, there will be years of unsettlement and disorganization. Should he resume his tools under the spur of years of military discipline, of widened outlook, of gratitude for peace, English Labour will carve a new groove for itself. There is talk in some unofficial corners of a great strike to come with peace, intended, it is said, to revive immediately the old methods and laxness. But against that will stand determinedly a nation .and many Labour leaders who see that only in grim hard work will England be able to hold her own in the world’s reconstruction. Did Labour stop to think it would realize that anything it does to interfere with that great end will react upon itself.
The strike among the engineers engaged on munitions was not a Union affair. Indeed, it was strongly condemned by the leaders. It was organized entirely by the shop stewards, who had a secret union of their own, and was the result of the fear of youthful shirkers in control of the local unions that they would be taken from their jobs for service at the Front. Other strikes had to some extent the support of their immediate leaders, but there were conditions that mitigated the treason of downing tools when the Empire was at stake, although nothing could justify such an act. Thoughtful union leaders tremble lest Trade Unionism has dug its own grave, for, after all, it is the rank and file that make up the Union.
One thing is certain, that Capital and Labour will work on new levels, new understandings, new agreements.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.