American and British Labor Movements
The dramatic rise of the British Labor Party to the position of His Majesty’s opposition in the House of Commons has focused the attention of the entire Western world upon the British labor movement. On the benches where Burke and Gladstone once sat there are now over 140 miners, machinists, weavers, boilermakers and working class leaders ready to take over the government of Great Britain if the conservative parties fail. The movement which has brought the British working class to the threshold of power is not the sudden spurt of a handful of insurrectionists working upon the discontent of the people. It is a conscious and highly organized section of the state moving deliberately toward a new kind of industrial and political society.
The movement has tremendous significance for America because it is a movement of kindred peoples, speaking a common language and struggling in the midst of industrial problems which are not unlike the problems of America. What British labor does in one decade may be done in America in the next.
To understand the British labor movement it is well to note first of all that it is a movement of one hundred and twenty-five years’ growth. Many of the issues which are today vital in the American labor movement were disposed of fifty years ago in Great Britain. When America was still predominantly an agricultural country Great Britain had passed through the first and worst stages of the Industrial Revolution. (William, 140-45) With the introduction of power? driven machinery great numbers of workers were brought together under one employer in factories and mills. They were forced to work fifteen and eighteen hours a day for wages that would now be refused by an errand boy. They formed unions and went on strikes only to be beaten, imprisoned and exiled. When they demanded a ten-hour day they were denounced as criminals. When they formed a picket line, they were imprisoned for intimidation. Although temporarily defeated in times of industrial depression they did not lose courage. Step by step they won the right to organize, the right to strike, collective bargaining, political power in the state, the reduction of hours, the enormous increase of wages, and a measure of joint control over working conditions.
Every forward step which the British workers have taken has been bitterly fought by the employing classes and has been conceded only when labor demonstrated its superior economic or political power. With such a background of struggle the British labor movement is not a delicate thing. It does not depend on employers’ sanctions: it is not concerned about its respectability. It is proud with the pride of a hard won success.
The Labor Unity
Although, as we shall see later, the labor movement is officially broken up into a thousand different fragments, in reality it has a unity which the American labor movement cannot attain. It has the unity of race and geography. Practically all the workers are British, born and bred in Great Britain, with a common education and conception of life. With this common background they cannot drift very far apart. They speak the same language, read the same newspapers and attend the same schools. There is little opportunity for employers to play one national group against the other. There are no racial jealousies to divide the unions into quarreling factions. The smallness of Great Britain is also an important factor in maintaining the unity of the labor movement. Employers cannot run away from the unions because there is no place to go. All the mines and factories are within a few hours’ journey of each other. The contagion of a strike or organizing campaign may spread rapidly over the whole of Great Britain. The industrial conditions which are won in one district by the unions are usually applicable to the other districts.
There are certain points of likeness between the British and American labor movements which are just as important as the differences. The British laboring class is far removed from the upper classes in wealth and power, farther removed than the American working class. In almost every British city the workers are crowded together in narrow streets and still narrower tenements, while the members of the upper classes live in spacious homes and are waited upon by able-bodied servants. (Craig, 136) The contrast between the classes is none the less real because it has always existed in British life.
In every-day life this fact means “that one family in every eight in England have only one room as their home—one room in which the whole family has to live, sleep, eat, cook, wash, pray, suffer illness, face death or endure the pangs and inconveniences surrounding birth.” This fact means that the soldiers who won the war have returned to work for less than a living wage, if indeed they can find any variety of work, while billions of dollars of surplus profit are still in the hands of owners who made it directly from the war. This general condition of the unjust distribution of wealth and power in Great Britain is the central wrong of the social order which the labor movement is aiming to correct.
The American and British labor movements have both been profoundly stirred by the psychological changes of the war. In Great Britain the drift of public opinion since the war has been toward the labor point of view. Confidence in the old order of society has been shaken in all classes. The commercial competition which caused the war is actively at work creating causes for new wars. The labor movement has crystallized the discontent of the soldiers who came back from the trenches because it is the only movement with a thoroughgoing program which seems to offer them anything. It calls for a clean slate. It does not seek to compromise with war and armaments. It fits in with the post-war psychology of a nation which has found defeat in victory.
The Rise of The Labor Party
From the back bedroom of Ramsay MacDonald’s house in No. 3 Lincoln’s Inn Field to the front benches of Parliament in twenty years the Labor Party has come. Its growth is the most inspiring achievement of the British labor movement. It is a party of manual and brain workers, controlled by workers and led by workers. Fifty years ago there was no indication that the workers would ever reject the old parties and create a party of their own. The growth of the idea of a separate labor party was at first painfully slow. In 1892 Kier Hardie sat alone as the first independent worker to be elected to the House of Commons. He helped to organize the Independent Labor Party, a group of vigorous young socialists who set about to convert the trade unions to believe in the political action of labor. By 1900 they had so far succeeded that the Trades Union Congress appointed a Labor Representation Committee.
Since the formation of this committee, the power of labor in politics has steadily grown. The Labor Party, officially formed in 1906, startled the country in that year by electing 29 members to Parliament. In 1910 the party elected 42 members and in 1918 about 70. In November, 1922, the Labor Party returned 144 representatives and some 10,000 local and municipal officials. If the increase in the Labor Party vote continues to be as rapid as it was in the years from 1900 to 1922, Great Britain will have a clear majority of labor voters by 1926. The labor votes have increased from 62,000 in 1900 to 323,000 in 1906 to 505,000 in 1910 to 2,244,000 in 1918 to 4,235,000 in 1922. This last figure was only about one million less than the vote of the victorious conservatives. (Robert, 483)
The Labor Party’s greatest gains have come in the coal fields where the miners are overwhelmingly pro-labor in their political allegiance. Certain sections of Scotland, too, are almost solidly labor. The two districts in which the Labor Party has over two-thirds of the representatives in Parliament are the most revolutionary in Great Britain, South Wales and the industrial district around Glasgow. Many of the industrial districts are, however, conservative and the farming districts are overwhelmingly anti-labor. (Linda, 86-87)
Ninety-nine per cent of the Labor Party comes from the trade unions. The party is a federation composed chiefly of large labor organizations which have joined in a body and agreed to contribute a tax for each one of their individual members. The tax for each individual member of a constituent organization is about six cents a year. There are great advantages in this plan because the Labor Party is assured of a definite financial backing, and the unions are assured that the party cannot fall into the hands of any group not representative of the labor movement. Of course, there are many thousand members of the unions who do not vote the Labor Party ticket; but the grip of the Labor Party upon the imagination of the workers is constantly growing stronger. The great unions are now almost all affiliated to the party and are steadily increasing their political activity. The Labor Party is made up not only of unions and socialist societies affiliated in a body but also of individual members. The brain workers are joining the party in increasing numbers and are being provided for by separate local organizations. They have an influence far greater than their numbers indicate.
The party is controlled by the members voting in the unions, local Labor Parties, and Trades Councils. There are over 2,650 local divisions of the Labor Party. Each local Labor Party is supposed to have affiliated to it the local branches of the national unions and socialist societies which belong to the National Labor Party. So the party is really a political federation with local branches of the federation. The societies and unions which form the Labor Party do not lose their identity as they would in our American party system. The Fabian Society, the Independent Labor Party and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, for example, participate as organizations in the Labor Party campaigns. This system of federation allows one wing of the party, such as the Independent Labor Party, to be somewhat more revolutionary than the main body of the party, and still to remain inside the party organization. There is no split between the Socialists and the unions in political activity as there is in the United States. Even the Communist Party, as we shall see later, has repeatedly applied for admission to the Labor Party. (Davison, 584-88)
The Trades Union Congress
The supreme body of the British unions, and the most “extensive federation of the trade union world,” is the Trades Union Congress. It corresponds to the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor with one leading exception. It is even more inclusive than the American Federation of Labor since it includes virtually all of the unions of power and importance in Great Britain: there are no railroad brotherhoods or clothing workers outside its ranks. (David, 422) The few unions outside the Trades Union Congress are small local unions or professional associations which lie on the border line between the middle class and the working class.
The annual session of the Trades Union Congress is the industrial parliament of labor. Delegates from all parts of Great Britain come to express their views on the broad general questions which interest the whole labor movement. The Congress, like the American Federation of Labor, has no power to call a strike or to impose on the local unions any definite policy. It has less power than our American Federation because it has no full-time president and staff of organizers. (James, 579) It is controlled by the votes of the delegates who have power in proportion to the number of members they represent.
The Labor General Staff
A movement has been going on for some time among the workers to create a more effective central organization than the Trades Union Congress and its Parliamentary Committee. It is obvious that a Congress of nearly 1,000 delegates gathered together for five days a year to discuss vital problems should have some smaller representative body to act for it continuously. In the past that smaller representative body was the Parliamentary Committee. At the 1921 session of the Trades Union Congress the Parliamentary Committee was disbanded and a General Council created representing every branch of trade unionism. (Saul, 117) The General Council marks a tremendous forward step in the development of British labor: it has been appropriately dubbed “The General Staff” by the newspapers and the name is sufficiently accurate to stick. It has a negative and a positive purpose. Within the labor movement it aims to settle the many disputes between unions concerning the overlapping of functions. In meeting the common enemies of trade unionism it aims to “formulate a common policy and secure the maximum of common action.” (Mark, 120-21) If some union is following a policy that endangers the whole labor movement, the General Council must bring that union to its senses. If some captains of industry attack the weakest point in the trade union defenses the Council must attempt to concentrate re-enforcements at that point.
The Council was not created for the purpose of conducting a general strike, but it is easy to see that it makes possible the mobilization of all the workers in a general strike if the occasion demands. It has within its ranks the leaders of the workers in all the vital industries and if those workers chose to act together through the General Council they could paralyze British life. It is divided into six sections which are in form not unlike the departments of the American Federation of Labor, each section including those trades which are naturally allied to each other. The whole Council is composed of thirty-two members elected every year by the Trades Union Congress. In addition to this General Council which represents the industrial side of the labor army there is a “super-General Staff” of fifteen members which binds together the Labor Party, the Trades Union Congress and the labor members in Parliament. In this National Joint Council there are five members from each of these three wings of the movement, including the chairman and secretary of each group. (Louis, 630-32)
Although the General Council and the National Joint Council have been in existence for several years their power is still very much limited and they are scarcely as effective in dealing with routine labor problems on the industrial field as the departments of the American Federation of Labor. The chief reason for this weakness is the fact that the Trades Union Congress has never limited its membership in each trade to one union as the American Federation of Labor has done. When there are several competing unions in the same trade recognized by the labor movement the effect is to weaken the power of a central body. Moreover, the great British unions are jealous of their powers and they do not want any central body to direct their policies except in the most serious emergencies. (William, 71-76)
The Shop Steward Movement
Practically all organized British workers bargain with employers through their trade union officials. Because of the large number of unions in the same industry this type of collective bargaining sometimes proves slow and ineffective. During the war, especially, the British workers felt the need of more speed in bargaining and more effective representation of industrial units. They organized works’ committees headed by shop stewards to represent all the workers in the shops and in many cases they took into their own hands the functions formerly exercised by trade union officials. They conducted a number of local strikes during the war and received much attention from the press. The shop steward was not unknown in British industry before the war. Several trades, notably the printing trade, had developed the shop steward system to a point of efficiency. But the war created a new demand for local shop leaders and the rank and file produced these leaders for the emergency. There was nothing official or organized about the movement: it was spontaneous and local in character. The workers found that they were being disregarded too often in the readjustments of industry during the war and they took things into their own hands.
The shop steward of British industry is analogous to the shop chairman of American trade unionism but in America the shop chairman of such industries as the men’s clothing industry have more power and recognition than was ever accorded to the shop stewards of England. In England the shop stewards were rarely recognized by the union officially: in America they are perhaps the most important officials of the union with the power to collect dues and adjust complaints in the shops. The shop steward movement had a temporary and a permanent meaning. It was a struggle to maintain some vestige of the rights of labor which were being sacrificed during the war for the sake of national safety. The union leaders were tied hand and foot by their pledges to the government. They could not declare a strike without risking penalties under the Munitions Act, so the workers in some cases fought their battles against the orders of the national union leaders.
The permanent significance of the shop steward movement lay in its emphasis upon workers’ control in the shop. It succeeded for a time in winning for shop chairmen more power than they had exercised before. It expressed the conviction of many workers that the increase of power centralized in the hands of national union officials could never be as important as the increase of the power of the workers in the management of their industries. Today the shop steward movement is officially dead but a considerable part of its doctrine has been absorbed into the main body of the labor movement. Graft and corruption among labor officials is practically unknown in the British labor movement. The least suspicion of dishonesty is enough to end the career of any leader. In such an atmosphere the workers rarely accuse their leaders of corrupt action and the unions do not find it necessary to be on guard against capitalist spies in the role of labor officials.
The Union Label
The union label has never been widely used by British unions. Only the felt hatters and cigar makers use it. The absence of the union label in most industries may be ascribed to several special conditions which are not present in the United States. There are very few industries in which the workers are all members of one union. In a textile factory in which there are four unions, which union shall affix its label? That problem is so difficult of solution in many industries that the workers would scarcely find it worth while to raise the question of the union label. Moreover, in the United States the union label is not only a means of identifying union made goods but is a symbol of the affiliation of the workers to the American Federation of Labor, and consequently a means of fighting unions outside the federation. In Great Britain there is no such compelling unity of union organization and the Trades Union Congress has not considered it necessary to fight against the unions which are not affiliated to it.
Another reason for the absence of the union label is the fact that millions of the workers are already organized as consumers in the co-operative movement. When they have become sufficiently class conscious to reason about the sources of production, they naturally become members of the local co-operative society and buy goods which are union made, distributed by union workers and sold without profit. For such workers the union label is quite unnecessary. In general British labor is so strongly entrenched that it does not feel the need of appealing to consumers by the use of the union label. Perhaps this feeling is strengthened by the fact that a large proportion of the consuming public is in foreign countries where the British union label has no appeal.
Craig Phelan, “William Green and the Ideal of Christian Cooperation,” in Melvin Dubofsky and Warren Van Tyne , editors, Labor Leaders in America, Urbana & Chicago, 1987, p. 136.
David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, New York, 1987, p. 422.
Davison, F. S.T.E.C. “The Communist Plague in Our Union,” Machinists’ Monthly Journal, November, 1925, pp. 584-88.
James O. Morris, “The AFL in the 1920’s: A Strategy of Defense,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 11 (July, 1958): 579.
Linda Nyden , “Black Coal Miners in Western Pennsylvania, 1925-1931: The NMU and the UMW,” Science ; Society 41 (Spring, 1977): 86-87.
Louis Engdahl, “After Gompers -What? Answered,” Workers Monthly, 1926, p. 630-32.
Mark Perlman, The Machinists, New York, 1958, pp. 120-21.
Robert A. Christie, Empire in Wood: A History of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1954, P. 483.
Saul D. Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography, New York, 1949, p. 61; United Mine Workers Journal, Nov. 15, 1928, p. 17
William Z. Foster, “The Situation in the Machinists Union and the Immediate Tasks for the Left Wing,” Daniel Bell Papers, Metal Workers History, Box 6. Tamiment Institute Library, New York University. 140-45
William Z. Foster, Misleaders of Labor, Chicago, 1926, pp. 71-76.