Just a little bit of SPGB history to bore you all
Trade Union Questions (1946)
The meeting was called by the EC to discuss the trade union dispute concerning the closed shop, breakaway unions and allied questions.
Some points raised in the discussion.
Compulsory trade union membership was opposed on the grounds that it was bad for the trade union movement; it did not strengthen it or help the working class. Various views on the meaning of the "closed shop" were relatively unimportant, it was the principle involved that mattered. While it was impossible to give guidance for all members in their unions, the working-class must fight to obtain and retain the freedom to organise as they wished. There was something radically wrong when workers asked the capitalists to act against fellow workers by dismissing or not employing non-union workers. We must be opposed to any form of coercion. The interests of some workers on the industrial field were often in conflict with the interests of other workers. This was due to capitalist conditions, and if all workers in an industry were organised in one union this opposition would manifest itself inside the union. In American industries the trade union subscription was often taken from the pay packet, and workers could not oppose trade union leaders without losing their jobs.
The party's original manifesto had advocated the support of "trade unions on sound lines". There should be no question of compulsion, but in the trade union movement as with the party workers should be convinced by argument of the necessity of taking part. The more a union was controlled by a sound membership, the stronger resistance could be made against the capitalists. The closed shop did not necessarily organise trade unionists against strike breakers. A closed shop would disguise the opponents of trade union action, who would be apathetic and unlikely to come out on strike. A worker's ideas
were not changed because he had been compelled to take out a trade union ticket. It had been argued that a closed shop enabled the trade union executive to control the membership, but from our view point the membership should control the executive. One great danger of the closed shop was that the trade union could become an employing agency as in America. A trade union membership even with not more than 75 percent of the industry in it could be effective in coming out on strike. Compulsory trade union membership encouraged wrong ideas and stopped the active work of understanding the advantages of trade union action, and that it was the expression of the class struggle with the strike as its only weapon. The idea was circulating among members of unions that their problems could be solved by the closed shop. The party should help to clear away this misconception, as events themselves would in the long run. It should not be assumed that a non-unionist is necessarily a blackleg.
Other views expressed were that there was difficulty in understanding the meaning of the expression "the closed shop". One meaning was that everyone in a particular industry must belong to some union. Another meaning was that everyone must be a member of one particular union. If we are to advise workers on the industrial field, we must also do so on the political field, but on the latter issue an example was given of a party speaker saying that the party did not give advice on how workers should vote. The party was wrong in advising workers to join trade unions. Some workers were expelled from trade unions for non-democratic reasons. The party should not intervene in the struggle between employee and employer. One participant in discussion said that he would be prepared to ask an employer to choose between union and non-union members. The ETU and printing trades unions were quoted as examples of 100 percent membership bringing favourable conditions of employment. The party was primarily concerned with politics and should refrain from saying more than that the real conflict was between two classes and could only be ended by the acquisition of socialist knowledge.
The immediate problem on the trade union field was bound up with the Labour Government and the TUC, and the closed shop arose as a symptom of the present political conditions. Later a member said that we should not oppose the coercion of workers acting in an undemocratic manner. Non-unionists were breaking down workers' conditions. Our object should be to avoid embarrassing the party by having speakers and writers expressing different points of views. Another member said that the closed shop was usually a spontaneous movement of workers to defend their standard of living. The TGWU was, however, a move by the officials who were prompted by political motives and were endeavouring to destroy competing unions. However carefully the party went into this question we should eventually arrive at the position that we supported trade unions providing they acted on sound lines, that is in a manner to increase the standard of living or to resist encroachments.
Resolution - McLauglin (Snr) and Gaskin: "That this party meeting is of the opinion that the party should not intervene in Trade Union issues except to explain and pronounce the class issue".
For the resolution it was urged that we should use incidents of this kind (without taking sides) to explain the class struggle. If we express any opinion we should be labelled an organisation that upheld blacklegs and anti-trade unionists. We must look at trade union matters as an historical development. Trade unions must decide on the advisability of strikes etc. There was a conflict between socialists on the question of the closed shop and the party would be best served by the resolution. It had been said at the meeting that the class struggle found expression in the trade union movement, but the class struggle was for political supremacy and not about working conditions. Individual socialists in trade unions would be able to decide the best action to be taken, but the party were not competent to do this. As only about 25 percent of the party membership were at the meeting only a decision on general lines should be made.
Against the resolution it was claimed that as the party was in favour of trade union action we have to state a position. Trade union issues were class issues, and a resolution of this nature would make the meeting a waste of time. The principle of the rights of minorities was involved. We should examine the issue and try to take up one position or another. This evasive resolution would hold the party up to ridicule. It was much more our responsibility even than the trade unionists to explain.
The resolution was lost 7-49.
Resolution - Hardy and McClatchie: "That this party meeting is of the opinion that on balance compulsory trade union membership is not in the best interest of the trade union movement and the working-class in the struggle against the employing class".
In support of the resolution it was said that we should be unconditionally opposed to the closed shop. However spontaneous closed shops had been in the past, the present moves were sponsored by the Labour Party and the trade union executives. The closed shop issue coincided with the repeal of the 1927 Act. The party had always supported trade union membership but did not force its members to join. We had also opposed trade unions collaborating with the government.
Against the resolution it was urged that should the resolution be passed the party would be known throughout trade unions as an organisation which supported non-unionists and blacklegs.
The resolution was carried 57-7.
On this item it was pointed out that the TGWU demanded that all uniformed grades should be members of their union. Trade Unions have a form of democracy and the officials were a manifestation of the views of the membership. The cause of the present dispute was that a certain group refused to submit to a democratically arrived at decision arrived at by the rank and file. We cannot support this anti-democratic and anarchistic sort of action. The minority should have accepted the decision and then put their point of view in the union.
The N[ational] U[nion of] P[assenger] W[orkers] was not merely trying to breakaway on its own, but also to form a federation against the TUC. This demonstrated the uselessness of breakaway unions in general. Most unions affiliated to the TUC were also affiliated to the Labour Party, but unions outside the TUC (which were few in number) included those who would not be tied to the Labour Party because they favoured the Tories. There were both big and little unions which were reactionary, some even regarded the TUC as a revolutionary body. Although most workers' ideas on the class struggle were elementary they did affiliate with the TUC in an effort to achieve working-class unity. NUPW was exceptional as far as little unions were concerned outside the TUC.
If minority action was to be supported it could only be on the grounds that the minority would become a majority. This majority would reflect the outlook of the bulk of the membership with its limited appreciation of the class struggle and what could be obtained by trade union action. The strike weapon was out of the question for a minority union, leading to the NUPW's appeal to the High Court for an injunction against the employers, thereby disclosing their ineffectiveness.
Other views were that we could not help but sympathise with the NUPW. The TGWU was an octopus union, claiming to represent even agricultural workers. As trade unions became larger so they became weaker, and eventually come under the control of the Labour Government. We should view breakaway unions as a part of the development of capitalism with the state becoming more and more powerful.
NB - The general secretary of the breakaway union in question, the NPWU, was an SPGB member