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From the NS archive: the new trade unionism

10 September 1927: If the working-class standard of life is to be improved, employers and trade unionists will have to cooperate.

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1927 was a turbulent year for trade unionists. The nine-day general strike had happened the previous year, following failed attempts by trade unions to prevent the British government from introducing wage reductions and general worsening conditions for coal miners. In July 1927, the Trade Unions Act was passed in parliament, which made unlawful any strike that attempted to coerce the government. In September George Hicks, appointed president of the Trade Unions Congress that year, addressed the congress in a speech inviting a closer relationship between the trade unions and employers, a bid for a more collaborative approach in the hope that the workers may one day “be capable of controlling industry”.

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Mr George Hicks struck a new note in his presidential address to the Trades Union Congress on Monday. It was even, for those who know Mr Hicks only by his public utterances, a somewhat unexpected note, for he has the reputation of being a militant. He was known, for example, as one of the principal promoters of the movement which culminated in last year's general strike. We do not mean that Mr Hicks has this week gone back on his past declarations in favour of more solidarity and industrial action – they were, indeed, reaffirmed in his presidential address – but mingled with them was new matter, calculated to set the left as well as the right wing of the trade union movement seriously thinking.

Trade unionism, as Mr Hicks is well aware, is at present passing through a “vexatious, toilsome and difficult period”. Its difficulties and vexations are not mainly due to the Trade Unions Act, though, of course, that adds something to their complexity. The root trouble is in the condition of British industry itself; and, as Mr Hicks pointed out, the period is as toilsome and difficult for the employers as for the trade unions. It is, however, in his view, essentially a period of transition. The present situation will not endure; but, while it lasts, trade unions and employers alike will have to adapt to it their traditional methods and policies. What are to be the lines of this adaptation? At this point of his address Mr Hicks put in a strong plea for fuller consultation between employers and employed, both in their separate industrial groups and over the field of industry as a whole.

Mr Hicks is not very explicit; but it is not difficult to see the connection which he wishes to establish. He is certainly not prepared to declare for an “industrial peace” of the type proclaimed by Mr Havelock Wilson and the leaders of the new “non-political” trade unions. But he does realise that if British industry is to get out of the present difficulties, and the working-class standard of life is to be improved, employers and trade unionists will both have to cooperate in solving the problem of the more efficient production and marketing of British goods. In this sense he does stand for “industrial peace,” and invites the trade union movement and the employers to enter into a closer relationship. But he believes that there can be an “industrial peace” that is not based on trade union disarmament, and does not imply any surrender of the right of the unions to press their point of view up to the limits of industry's power to accede to it.

It was obvious that Mr Hicks was well aware that this attitude would be strongly criticised. There is a section – small but energetic – in the trade union world which draws from the events of the past few years the moral that British industry is collapsing, and that the business of the trade union movement is to precipitate its collapse, and thereupon enter on its ruined inheritance. This section has been used to look in some degree to Mr Hicks for leadership and support; but in his address this week he has decisively, though with cautious and unpointed phrasing, thrown them over. For clearly Mr Hicks means that the trade unions are for the present to seek, not to intensify the troubles of capitalism, but to help – on terms – in their alleviation.

This attitude is, in our view, plain common sense. The existence of the million persons unemployed and the million dependent on poor relief to whom Mr Hicks referred is obviously a source, not of strength, but of weakness to the Labour movement. The present plight of the coal industry may make the miners angry with the capitalist system but it is at least as likely to make them hopeless about the possibility of putting things right. And that capture of the ruins of British industrialism to which the communists appear to look forward with so much enjoyment, would, if it ever occurred, be certainly a most unpromising introduction to the socialist utopia.

Mr Hicks sees this. He realises that militant trade unionism, as it has been understood hitherto, depends for its success on the prosperity of industry. If there is plenty of cake to divide, those who scramble for it will probably get what they want, whereas, however much cake there may be, the modest and retiring trade unionist who waits for his employer to offer him a bit is liable to go hungry to bed. Trade union militancy has served the workers well at certain times in their history – in 1889, for example, and again in the years just before the war. But those were seasons of abounding industrial prosperity; and it by no means follows that an intensification of the same tactics will now serve the unions’ turn.

In the framing of this new policy, Mr Hicks, and the trade unions generally, are naturally disposed to say, “Hands off” to the present government. They receive coldly Mr Baldwin's return to his “peace and good will” stunt, because they cannot forget what lies between his appeals of 1925 and his speech of the other day. The provocation of the general strike, the Coal Mines Eight Hours Act and the new Trade Unions Act lie between. These may have been due more to the Prime Minister’s incompetence and weakness than to deliberate malice. But they are more than enough to rule out Mr Baldwin as an engineer of industrial peace, and they fully justify the scornful words which were used of him in Tuesday’s debate by Mr Bevin and Mr Thomas. Nevertheless, in saying what they think of the Prime Minister, the trade union leaders have not, as some hasty critics assume, rejected the idea of industrial peace. They will go about the business in their own way.

Mr Hicks’s plea, then, is for a fuller use of the existing machinery of collective bargaining and consultation between employers and employed, and perhaps for the devising of fresh machinery to operate over a wider field. It seems as if he would not reject a National Joint Industrial Council on the lines of that planned, but never created, in 1919, but with the government left out of the picture. But what he chiefly wants is that, in each industry and group, employers and workers should settle down to thrash out the most pressing problems of present-day industry on a basis of full mutual recognition, and with a keen sense that changed situations call for a change of method and policy.

What, then, is the new policy to be? Here, again, Mr Hicks threw out no more than hints of what is in his mind. “Our trade unions,” he said, “have not yet reached the limits of their development. Rather I would say that we are just at the beginning of the constructive period of trade unionism. More and more the workers are aiming at obtaining a share in the control and administration of industry through their trade unions. Training in management and administration is absolutely essential as a preliminary step towards industrial freedom. Not until the workers fit themselves to deal with the problems of management and the conduct of industry will they be capable of controlling industry.”

These are notable words. Not that something like them has not fairly often been said before; but they are set in a new context and suggest the basis of a new policy. For what Mr Hicks clearly means is that the trade unions have to shape a new course, and to consider themselves not merely as bodies organised for fighting or bargaining with the employer, but also as positive and growingly important contributors to the work of industrial reorganisation. The trade unions, it is true, cannot make industry efficient if employers cling persistently to obsolete methods, as the mineowners do. But it is no less true that the employers cannot reasonably hope to achieve efficiency unless the trade unions are prepared to mobilise their members in its interest.

Mr Hicks, then, if we read him aright, wants the trade unions to become, here and now, a cooperative agent with the employer in making British industry more productive. He realises, of course, that this implies both a willingness on the part of the employers to accept the Unions as cooperative agents, and the possibility of agreement on the broad terms of cooperation. He insisted strongly, at every point of his speech, that the trade union must be the recognised agent on the workers’ side. Attempts of employers to establish a cooperative relationship with their employees in hostility to trade unionism, or on a basis of tame “company” unions of their own, will be keenly resisted, and will destroy, even if it succeeds here and there, the possibilities of productive cooperation over a wider field. For the trade union, despite recent setbacks, does command the unshakeable loyalty of a very large, and by far the most active and influential, part of the working class.

Mr Hicks, of course, will have some trouble to convince all his own followers that the policy which he outlines is the right one. This doubtless explains his cautious statement of it, and his careful avoidance of language which could give his own extremists a handle against him. To adapt trade union policy to present needs is not an easy task; for a negative policy of rejecting all responsibility for helping capitalism out of its troubles is a great deal easier to expound to a mass meeting than the positive policy which underlay Mr Hicks's address. We believe, however, that his views will prevail – on the condition that the employers are prepared to play their part in establishing the proposed relationship. And it is unfortunately very far from certain that they will. The coal-owners, for example, under their present leadership, will obviously reject it out of hand. They want to keep their foot on the miners’ neck, and not to deal with them on equal terms. But this primitive employer psychology, we may fairly hope, is exceptional. And the trade unions have a great deal to offer to the employers as the reward for their cooperation. Every good employer knows that, if his employees were really working with him to make his factory as efficient as it could possibly be, very great improvements could be effected. Is he willing to renounce his desire to remain dictator in his works, and to set up a constitutional regime in the factory, in order to secure these improvements?

The chief danger is not that employers will reject the trade union overtures out of hand, but that they will put up impossible conditions, and so discredit the promoters of the new trade union policy in the eyes of their own followers. It is of no use to expect the unions to come as penitents, or to demand from them, as a condition of the new relations, the surrender of their swords. The new constructive policy in industry must be built up gradually, without any giving up by either party of its own views about the ultimate form of industrial organisation. It has to be a policy devised to meet urgent difficulties of the present, and acceptable to believers in both socialism and capitalism. With common sense on both sides and Baldwin out of the way, such a policy can, we believe, be formulated and worked.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)