Lansbury, the N.U.R., and Union Mergers

Posted in Janine's blog on Sun, 15/10/2006 - 21:30,

I'm currently writing a book about Poplarism, which gives me a superb excuse to leaf through labour movement stuff from the 1920s. On Friday, I browsed 'Lansbury's Labour Weekly', the newspaper that George Lansbury set up after the TUC took over his 'Daily Herald' in 1922.

LLW is a great read, with strong socialist agitation, strategy proposals for the Labour Party and the unions, a 'Problems Of Real Life' agony-aunt column, hilarious piss-take letters to those in authority, short stories, a sports page, advice on writing and speaking, music and lyrics for a socialist song on the back page of every issue, and even a 'class-conscious crossword'.

Here's a snippet from Saturday July 18 1925, which will be of interest to RMT members and trade unionists generally:

The Railwaymen's Conference
The N.U.R. Conference gave Mr. Thomas the opportunity to make a large number of speeches that would be much better not made, especially during the present crisis. The Conference proceedings gave us a very clear idea of Mr. Thomas's attitude; but very little of that of the railwaymen, as most of the vital business was done in private session. We sympathise with the N.U.R.'s desire to promote unity in the railway world, and to secure fusion with the Locomotive Engineers and the Railway Clerks. But there is an obvious danger that schemes for railway fusion may be turned into obstacles to proposals for unity over a wider field. It would be better if all railway workers were in one properly organised and departmentalised union; but the fact that they were not did not prevent them from acting together in 1919, and should not prevent them now from entering into the new Workers' Alliance and into any plan of united action under the control of the General Council. Amalgamation schemes, which inevitably take time, must wait for the present. The industrial crisis will not wait; we must act together now, or accept a defeat which no subsequent fusion of forces will avail to retrieve.

A few explanatory facts:

  • "Mr. Thomas" is J.H. Thomas, General Secretary of the N.U.R., a foul right-wing toerag who ended up deserting the labour movement with that other scumbag Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 and ended his career shamed by scandal in 1935.
  • The "Locomotive Engineers" refers to ASLEF, the "Railway Clerks" to the Railway Clerks' Association, forerunner of TSSA. For our younger readers (!), the N.U.R. was the National Union of Railwaymen, forerunner of the RMT.
  • 1919 was the year of the great railway strike which defeated the employers' planned pay cuts, won by massive solidarity by the workers - Thomas managed to claim the credit despite doing his best to get it over with as quick as poss.

And a few thoughts:

  • 81 years later, and there are still three separate rail unions. What a tragedy.
  • A General Secretary making "a large number of speeches that would be much better not made"? Surely not!
  • Lansbury is right that unions in the same industry can act in unity without having to be merged into one organisation, and right to suspect Thomas of using their separation as an excuse for inaction. He could have added that unity in action points to the logic of merger and can create the momentum towards it: the N.U.R. was formed in 1913 by merger of many of the unions that had taken strike action together in 1911. Indeed, you'd expect that a merger propelled by united action might create a more rank-and-file-led union than those created by mergers during industrial peace.
  • But hey George, let's not forget that merger would have been - and still would be - a Very Good Thing.
  • Clearly, paragraphs were longer in the 1920s.
Trade Unions

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