Labor Unions and Liberty
FEBRUARY 01, 1958 by REGINALD JEBB
Mr. Jebb is a British educator, editor, and journalist.
In recent years the power of the British labor unions has increased enormously. They have developed into a formidable pressure group which is fast losing its voluntary nature and, like all pressure groups, is using its power to benefit a section of the community at the expense of the nation as a whole. Nor is the benefit sought a real one, but something more like a bribe to keep the organization intact.
Though the movement in Great Britain is not yet unified under a single control (the Trades Union Congress has only advisory powers), general policies are usually determined by the three or four biggest unions; and those policies not only go far beyond the competence of those that frame them, but also frequently do not coincide with the wishes of the rank and file. Indeed it can be said that their influence is be-coming antisocial and antieconomic — a force encouraging continuance of the cleavage between labor and management and so a brake on production, used by the men that control them to consolidate their own new-found power.
In the years immediately following the war the majority of strikes were unofficial, that is to say, not backed by the union management. They arose from various causes, sometimes from disappointment of exaggerated hopes about postwar conditions, sometimes from disruptive propaganda, sometimes from disinclinations to work after the strain of war, and not infrequently through interunion rivalries. Union officials at that time found themselves in a difficult position because a Labor government was in power, which they supported and in which many of them participated.
But since 1950 the situation has been different. Under a Conservative government the union bosses had no such inhibitions, and they headed straight for personal power. This they sought in various ways, partly by putting forward, with the threat of a strike, annual claims for increases in pay, and partly by tightening control over their members. The annual wage claims, irrespective of any increase in production and regardless of the inflationary effect of such action, were in many cases no more than a bid for popularity among members. The attempt to impose a "closed shop" on the movement was not only calculated to increase their bargaining power with employers, but also to give the bosses almost despotic power over all persons gaining a livelihood from industry.
It is the aim of the Trades Union Congress to get 100 percent trade union organization of labor, and that means a universal "closed shop" or at all events a "union shop." The union shop would make membership in the union compulsory after the first few weeks of a man’s employment. The closed shop would go further, insisting on the right of the union to be the sole agency for placing a man in employment, in other words the power to reject any recruit disapproved by the union and, of course, any worker who left it. That aim has not yet been successful except in isolated cases, but it is easy to see that, were it to succeed, the union claim that it fights for the rights of the wage earner would be blown sky high, for the latter would cease to be free agents and might be deprived of the right to practice their trade anywhere in the country.
A Struggle for Power
But though the closed shop is very far from being universal yet, the position is bad enough. Take a single instance (there have been hundreds of a similar kind) from the recent bus strike that caused innumerable hardships to the public. One of the bus conductors who opposed the strike did not report for work when the strike was called through fear of the consequences. However, he refused to act as a picket to prevent others from working if they wished. When the strike was settled, his fellow workers refused to return to their jobs as long as this man continued to be employed. He was called a black-leg and ostracized. Majority rule? If so, it was an altogether excessive use of majority rights; but, individual freedom does not fit in with consolidation of the union executive’s power.
This power, though so jealously guarded and extended wherever possible, is by no means secure. In order to get the funds necessary for a strong organization and for strike pay when needed, the unions have to attract as many members as possible and ensure their support. That means delegation of authority to leaders on the shop floor, known as shop stewards, whose duty it is to instill into all workers the approved propaganda. Unfortunately the communists and near-communists have seized their opportunity and secured many of these posts. The result is that subversive communist propaganda is often substituted for that of the big bosses, and that the power of the shop stewards tends to supplant that of their superiors. A good instance of this occurred in the recent dispute at Brigg’s Motor Bodies, where it became clear at a Court of Enquiry that the shop stewards had got complete control into their own hands, disregarding orders from above, running their own magazine, and extracting money from the workers to finance their self-appointed activities.
That is one weak link in the chain of union power — divided authority and the threat of communist subversion. Another is inter-union rivalry. A strike at the Liverpool docks last year had as its sole cause the friction between two unions over an alleged illegal transference of men from one union to another. On another occasion shipbuilding was held up for months owing to a quarrel between unions representing metal workers and joiners as to which should carry out a particular job.
Threat to Freedom
But neither of these difficulties confronting the union bosses is going to lessen the danger threatening the community and individual workers. That danger is a loss of freedom. A shift of power to the communist elements in industry would make things worse than they are, and the only result of a war between unions would be that the larger ones would absorb the smaller and a greater effort than ever would be made towards concentration of power. The threat to freedom would remain and become intensified, and it is a serious one. It undermines an employer’s right to hire or dismiss a man, and prevents the production increases that could lead to lower prices. It keeps an iron hold on union members through their fear of being ejected from the union and losing all chance for employment. Nor does the general public escape its tyranny. They are the victims of strikes and unreasonable wage claims through interference with their work and a continual rise in prices.
The situation is a tragic one. A movement that started with the intention of championing the freedom of its members is using the power it has won to curtail freedom everywhere. Instead of building up the strength of the industry to which it is attached, it is weakening it. The fact is that trade unionism in its present form is out of date — a drag on the country’s economy and a threat to the liberty of its members. In spite of the influence it wields, there are signs that it will either have to change its character or cease to exist. For even if it achieves its aim of universalizing the closed shop and extending its control over every industry in the country, the result would be a State within a State — an irresponsible authority that no government could tolerate for long.
But its chances of success in this final bid for power are vitiated by the very methods it adopts. One of the most prevalent practices in trade unionism is insistence on all kinds of restrictions on the nature and amount of work their members are to do in return for a full day’s pay. Besides whittling away the actual time given to work by prolonged intervals for rest, go slow tactics, and time off for preparation to quit work, the union authorities see to it that the allocation of work to be done in a day — such as the number of bricks to be laid or the amount of coal to be cut in a mine — is much smaller than what an average man can do in the time. Anything done beyond that limit has to be paid for at overtime rates. A good bricklayer can lay about 1,200 bricks in a day. His allocation is 400. Similarly, a miner can finish his allotted "stint" in half the time he is supposed to work at it.
Naturally this waste in the potential of production hits the owners of industrial firms; and as a countermove, a number of small businesses are employing nonunion labor and finding that it is to their advantage to pay higher wages. They have also discovered that men who are free from restrictions and not pinned down to a single kind of task escape the feeling of antagonism and frustration too common in unionized firms.
There remains the problem of the traditional loyalty of members to their union. This is in itself an admirable quality, but it is losing its spontaneity and is becoming an instrument of vengeance rather than a principle of unity. The man who asserts his right to carry on with his job when a strike has been called is subjected to inhuman treatment. His fellow workers refuse to speak to him and do everything to make his life intolerable. Yet, when it comes to loyalty to the movement as a whole, solidarity breaks down. At the present time there is a fierce war between the Transport and General Workers Union (the biggest of them all) and the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers, both of which have dockers working at the Port of Liverpool. The NASD complain that a TGWU man has been giving certain work instead of a member of the stevedore’s union who, they claim, is senior to him. The TGWU report that they will refuse to work with anyone who is not a member of their union. That can hardly be called loyalty to trade union principle.
The fact is that the frustrations of the workers, where they exist, are not being remedied by the unions. Rifts are appearing in a solidarity maintained more by a narrow self-interest than by a desire for justice.
The unions have outlived any usefulness they might have had. They are becoming a menace to liberty.