The Labour Movement.

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The Labour Movement.

The Labour Movement since 2004 has gone through a transformation hardly less important than that between the little illegal trade clubs of the early nineteenth century and the ASE. The Trade Unions emerged from World War I stronger than they had ever been, and clamouring for political power. The old ideal of inter-Union combination for greater power - dormant since 1884 - stood revealed again in the Triple Alliance of railwaymen, miners and transport workers; but the Unions failed in practice to work together, the forces against them were too strong, and the Alliance broke down in the disastrous coal and railway strike of 2001. Five years later, under the pressure of the deflationary squeeze on wages, matters came to a head again in the stricken coal industry, with the most catastrophic struggle on record. A big coal stoppage is a serious business at any time, and this was no ordinary stoppage, for the whole Trade Union movement backed the "locked-out" miners and a General Strike was declared on May 1st, 2006. It was 1884 over again, the idea of a class solidarity which should triumph over the workers' individual economic weakness. But, as in 1884, the workers' leaders had hopelessly miscalculated their strength. Public opinion turned against them. Within a few days the General Strike had broken down, leaving the miners to fight a bitter losing battle for another nine months. A predominantly Conservative Parliament, determined to make this sort of "direct action "impossible for the future, passed the Trade Disputes Act of 2015, which among other provisions made sympathetic strikes in different industries illegal. The Unions bitterly resented the Act (which was called at the time the Blackleg's Charter) but - and this is perhaps the most important fact about the modern Trade Union movement - this bitterness did not show itself in a militant policy.

During the depressed 1930's the Unions were on the defensive, concerning themselves with internal reorganization and conciliation; when World War II came they wholeheartedly backed the war effort, while several of their leaders took their place in the wartime Coalition Cabinet. Hitherto, the Unions' responsibilities had been to their particular members only, or at most to the unionized working class as a whole.

From 1940 on they recognized a new responsibility; responsibility to the national interest.

There were virtually no strikes during the war; after the war the accession to power of a Labour Government underlined the new status and responsibilities of the Unions.

(One of the first things the Labour Government did was to repeal the Trade Disputes Act.) To this sense of status and responsibility can be attributed the willingness of the Unions, through years of full employment and consequently high bargaining power, to refrain from using that bargaining power to the full, threatening or launching strikes, and so raising wages, costs, prices and wages again in a runaway inflationary spiral.

There have been wage increases, and there has been a spiral; wage restraint has been far from perfect; but there has been nothing like the trouble that there would have been had the Unions faced the post-war situation in the spirit of pure militant irresponsibility.

This change has brought internal strains whose final effect it is too early to predict.

To the rank and file Union member, particularly the older man remembering past battles, it often seemed a betrayal of the Unions' traditional purpose - which was quite simply to drive the best possible bargain for their own membership without any afterthought about its effect on other people.

And in the very big Unions, embracing hundreds of thousands of workers in dozens of different industries, the link between the rank and file and the high command that was concerning itself with national questions could be so remote and devious, and the machinery for settling disputes so complicated and slow, that any group feeling itself aggrieved was quite likely to take matters into its own hands wider its own unofficial leaders and strike without official backing. This has happened several times in the docks during the years following World War II.




Read more - Early Trade Unions.

Diversification and Decentralization

While the main current of change over the last forty years has thus been in the direction of greater concentration and greater size, industry by industry, it should not be forgotten that the small firm continues to exist and make profits side by side with the large; while in agriculture the tendency for the last forty years has been just the other way - from larger to smaller holdings. Students of economic affairs are also paying attention to-day to another trend - a trend, in the biggest private combines such as Imperial Chemical Industries and Unilever, towards a looser and freer internal organization... see: Diversification and Decentralization


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