catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Trade union myths (5). Working class solidarity

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One of the most resonant myths about the origin of the strike-threat system is that it emerged out of a concerted struggle of the poor against subjection by the employers.

Hutt wrote:

The truth is that, with hardly any exceptions, it was relatively affluent artisans (by contemporary standards) who first organized for the collusive pricing of their labor. And their motive was, in every case, to defend their privileges—special rights which were contrary to the interests of the poorer classes. On this point, even the Webbs note: “It is often assumed that trade unionism arose as a protest against intolerable oppression. This was not so.” Labor unionism emerged indeed in the form of a strongly class-conscious movement, expressing a determination to maintain a class structure. Throughout, this has been an unchallengeable attribute of the union form of organization. The Webbs describe the union system as “strengthening the almost infinite grading of the industrial world into separate classes, each with its own distinctive ends, and each therefore exacting its own ‘rent of opportunity’ or ‘rent of ability.” (STS, p 26)

He pointed out that the last terms actually refer to privilege, though the Webbs were too delicate or biased to say so. Hutt went on: “The defense of such privilege was, in the Webbs’ words, ‘the common purpose’ of nearly all eighteenth-century combinations. Already, in that century, workers’ combinations in Britain had resisted powerful equalitarian forces that were being released through the emergence of freer markets in most spheres.”

It was noted earlier that the early trade unions evolved from the privileged and protected guilds and crafts operating under royal charter and the mentality of exclusion persisted, even when trade unionism became a mass phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite this, an early commentator described the trade union movement as one universal protest against injustice from the whole field of labour. Hutt attributed this view to the ignorance of typical upper-class people during the 19th century who were completely out of touch with the world outside their narrow circle.

To them, there was only one working class – an inferior class that, led by demagogues and agitators, that was trying to usurp political and economic power. Apart from the economists, a few enlightened industrialists and a few philosophers, they had a vague belief that the drudgery of the masses was necessary for the leisure of the few, that their subservience was the natural order of things, and that low wages were good for trade. They were very glad to have it on the authority of the economists that these evil and rebellious combinations were ineffectual. (CB, p 9)

On top of that, the most prominent historians of the labour movement, like the Webbs, were partisans in the class war and strong opponents of classical economics which represented what we would nowadays call economic rationalism. The Webbs sometimes admitted the existence of monopolistic tendencies on the part of unions, but they never publicly deplored the downside of militant unionism even though during the Great Depression Sydney Webb wrote scathing comments in his diary, referring to the union leadership as “greedy pigs”…”sabotaging British industry”.

For a more realistic opinion Hutt turned to some alternative views, such as William Thompson, a friend of Robert Owen, who some regarded as the most significant founder of modern scientific Socialism and the originator of the idea of ‘surplus value’.

Thompson can hardly be regarded as a biased witness against working-class bodies. He was, we are told, of the most kindly and gentle disposition, but when he considered the workmen’s combinations of his day he was moved to passionate condemnation of them. To him they were “bloody aristocracies of industry…The apprenticeship or excluding system depended on mere force and would not allow other workers to come into the market at any price…It matters not,” he said in 1827, “whether that force…be the gift of law or whether it be assumed by the tradesmen in spite of the law: it is equally mere force.” (CB, p 10)

Gains [of the few within the circle of the combination] were always “at the expense of the equal right of the industrious to acquire skill and to exchange their labour where and how they may.” This is the founder of scientific Socialism speaking – not an employer. “Will they then resort to force to put down the competition of the great majority of the industrious and thus erect a bloody (for force will lead to blood and without blood no aristocracy can be supported) aristocracy of industry?”. (CB, p 10)

The early literature of the trade union movement is full of with abuse amounting virtually to dehumanisation of the unemployed or lesser workers, ‘knobsticks’ and ‘scabs’, who were regarded as a threat. J S Mill summed up this attitude in his attempted justification of enlightened unionism in 1869. Acting as the unions’ advocate he put the following words into the mouth of their witness: “Those whom we exclude are amorally inferior class of labourers to us; their labour is worthless and their want of prudence and self-restraint makes them more active in adding to the population. We do them no wrong by entrenching ourselves behind a barrier, to exclude those whose competition would bring down our wages, without more than momentarily raising theirs, but only adding to the total numbers in existence.” (CB, p 11)

So much for the solidarity of the working class. It is mostly about the protection of privilege. Antipathy towards other workers who happen to be outsiders to the privileged group is the very reverse of working class solidarity and this is expressed in demarcation disputes and contests for membership and control of the workplace. Above everything else the lack of solidarity of the working class is manifest in the pay and conditions achieved by the most powerful unions, through strikes and the threat of strikes and other exclusionary and productivity-eroding practices that have damaged other industries, the workers in those industries and the community at large.

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Written by Admin

June 20, 2006 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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