This year marks the centenary of the “Great Unrest”, the years of industrial struggle which opened up before the First World War. The movement was influenced by ideas of industrial unionism and revolutionary syndicalism. In Britain the movement is closely associated with the activities of Tom Mann, who wrote the article The Way to Win in 1909.
Tom Mann’s long political life (born in 1856, he lived for 85 years) spanned many experiences. He was a founding member of the first “Marxist” socialist group in Britain — the Social Democratic Federation. At the time of his death he was a member of the — Stalinised — British Communist Party.
Mann was a human link between the organisation of “new unions” of unskilled workers in the late 1880s and 1890s and the strike wave of 1910-14.
He was centrally involved in agitating for and guiding the militants of both periods.
From 1902-10 Mann was living (and organising) in New Zealand and (for most of that time) Australia. Based mainly in Melbourne, he was first an organiser for the Victorian Labor Party and then the Victorian Socialist Party. He was asked by groups of workers — sheepshearers, miners, others — to help them organise.
On 1 January 1909 miners in Broken Hill were locked out over a dispute over wage cuts. The union took the employers to an official Arbitration Court. But the case took months to come to court and the miners remained locked-out. The court eventually ruled in favour of the union but its ruling was unenforceable. The miners stayed locked out.
Meanwhile, in a linked dispute at a smelting works in Port Pirie, the police were called in to protect scab labour. The police had the support of the Liberal-Labor coalition federal government.
Both disputes ended in bitter defeats.
Mann outlined his conclusions in the The Way to Win, published as a pamphlet in 1909. It is an important document of the “industrial unionism” of the time, though as he wrote it Mann did not see it as part of a “new wave”.
But soon after Mann had published The Way to Win he got hold of other pamphlets which he found very similar to his own viewpoint — Socialism Made Easy, the Industrial and Political Unity of Labour by James Connolly was one. This was a spur for Mann to make bigger initiatives.
Mann returned to England in 1910, briefly rejoining the Social Democratic Federation and setting up the Industrial Syndicalist League. For the next four years he was involved with many disputes: the 1910 Cambrian Combine Dispute, the 1911 Liverpool Transport Workers Strike, the 1913 Black Country strikes for a minimum wage.
The Way to Win covers themes that Mann returned to again and again such as the need for workers to develop “self respect” and working-class consciousness. He was not afraid of “preaching” this message even when faced with hostile, “apolitical” meetings of workers. Here, as he had done twenty years previously, he describes unions as “training grounds” for building solidarity and creating stronger class consciousness.
It is said that Mann rejects broad workers’ party political organisation in this article, but that is not an accurate interpretation. Mann did not reject the political organisation of workers as such, but he saw as inadequate the union-based but politically bourgeois-liberal Australian Labor Party. Founded in 1891, it had already governed briefly in 1904, when it helped bring in a comprehensive system of arbitration of industrial disputes, mentioned in the pamphlet. It was in government again, 1908-9, as Mann wrote. These were the first “labour” governments in the world outside the Paris Commune and Queensland in 1899 — and obviously very different from the Commune.
Mann advocated workers vote for Labor where its candidates fought the class struggle. He also continued to believe socialists should stand in elections. But his focus had shifted away from Parliamentary political action. He did not think workers should rely on Parliamentary change.
Mann’s simple message was effective propaganda. In the heavily bureaucratised union movement of today the themes he presents are still highly relevant.
The great crisis is drawing nigh when the supreme effort must be made by the workers to take entire responsibility for the management of all industry and commerce; the existing system of society must out of necessity give place to some other system that will adequately provide for the requirements of all.
The nature of the newer order will depend in considerable measure on the standard of intelligence possessed by the workers, and on their courage to apply sound principles that will ensure social and economic equality.
The object I have in writing this ... is not to enlarge upon principles or ideals, but to direct attention to the machinery that is necessary to enable us to achieve our project.
The preliminary essential condition is working class solidarity.
Without this solidarity, i.e., without the power and the disposition to act in concert as the working-class against the dominating plutocratic class, there is no hope.
At present we have not got this solidarity, either industrially or politically.
The weakness of our industrial organisation lies less in the fact that only one fourth of the workers are organised, than in the much more serious fact that those who are organised are not prepared to make common cause with each other.
Hitherto we have been content with trade unions — meaning unions of skilled workers, supplemented by unions of unskilled workers. But each of these unions has for the most part initiated and as far as possible carried out a policy for itself alone; more recently broadened somewhat by joining Trade and Labour Federations to secure something in the nature of general help in time of trouble or warfare.
Still, the basis of unionism to-day is distinctly sectional and narrow, instead of cosmopolitan and broad-based.
In Australia, more particularly, resort to Arbitration Courts and Wages Boards for settlement of industrial disputes has resulted in settlements being arrived at and agreements entered into by various unions, binding them not to become actively engaged in any dispute during the period covered by the agreement.
Such agreements in themselves absolutely destroy the possibility of class solidarity.
Agreements entered into between unions and employers directly — i.e., without the intervention of Arbitration Courts or Wages Boards — are equally detrimental to, and in dead opposition to working-class solidarity. They, therefore, must be classed as amongst the chief obstructive agencies to general working-class progress.
Thus it is clear that to continue entering into binding agreements with employers is to render the unionist movement impotent for achieving our economic freedom.
Therefore, no more agreements must be entered into for lengthy periods. Of course, temporary adjustments must be made, but they must be for the hour only, leaving the workers free for concerted action with their fellows.
The form of capitalist industry has changed during the past 50 years. It has passed through the stages of individual ownership of shop or factory, the employer taking part in the business and competing with all other employers in the same business, then to limited liability and joint stock companies, which removed the individual employer — and reduced competition between the capitalist firms.
From this it has now gone to trusts and combines, inter-state, and even international in their operation.
A corresponding change must take place with the workers’ organisation. Sectionalism must disappear, and the industrial organisations must be equal to state, national, and international action, not in theory only, but in actual fact.
Another influence tending strongly towards discord and not towards solidarity, is the stipulating in some unions that a man who joins an industrial organisation by that act pledges himself to vote a certain way politically.
I have, in days gone by, argued strongly that the industrial organisations should be the special places where economic knowledge should be imparted and adequate scope for discussion afforded. I hold so still, but I am thoroughly satisfied that it is a source of serious discord to couple the political with the industrial in the sense of demanding that a man must vote as the industrial organisation declares.
It is not difficult to understand why this should be so. It is because in the unions or industrial organisations we are (or should be) prepared to enrol every person who works, irrespective of his or her intelligence, or opinions held upon political or other subjects.
Take the case of an organiser, who finds himself at the centre of an industry where there is practically no organisation. He soon discovers that the usual orthodox bodies are there, theological and political. He finds out the composition of the local governing bodies and the type of politician who received the votes at last election. From this he concludes that there are resident there the usual percentage of reactionaries, Liberals, Laborites, and Socialists, and each of these parties finds its adherents chiefly in the ranks of the workers.
That ought not to interfere with industrial organisation, in which they should all be enrolled entirely irrespective of political faith; and becoming members of the industrial body, it is here these workers should get their education in industrial and social economics, and this would prove the true guide to political action.
To insist upon them voting solidly politically before they have received instruction in matters economic, is to add to the difficulties of organisation.
Notwithstanding what has been done and is now being done by the Australian Workers’ Union, it is abundantly clear that we shall have to separate the industrial from the political, and so afford scope for growing activities with the least amount of friction.
I am not wishful to deprecate political action, but it is necessary to say that during recent years, in Australia, undue importance has been attached to political action; and although the actual membership of industrial organisations may be as large, or even larger than in former years, there is not held by the typical unionist a proper understanding of the fundamental and vital importance of economic or industrial organisation. Indeed, to listen to the speeches of the typical Labor politician it is clear that he is surfeited with the idea that that which is of paramount importance is the return to the legislative bodies of an additional number of Labor men, and that all else is secondary and relatively trifling.
In absolute fact, the very opposite is the case. Experience in all countries shows most conclusively that industrial organisation, intelligently conducted, is of much more moment than political action, for entirely irrespective as to which school of politicians is in power, capable and courageous industrial activity forces from the politicians proportionate concessions.
It is an entirely mistaken notion to suppose that the return of Labor men or Socialists to Parliament can bring about deep-seated economic changes, unless the people themselves intelligently desire these changes, and those who do so desire know the value of economic organisation. During the past few years the representative men of France, Germany, Italy, and other countries have urged upon the workers of the world to give increased attention to industrial organisation, and they are acting accordingly.
Indeed, it is obvious that a growing proportion of the intelligent pioneers of economic changes are expressing more and more dissatisfaction with Parliament and all its works, and look forward to the time when Parliaments, as we know them, will be superseded by the people managing their own affairs by means of the Initiative and the Referendum.
However, I am not an anti-Parliamentarian. I am chiefly concerned that we should attend to the first job in the right order, and thus make it easier to do whatever else may be necessary.
It is encouraging to see the practical turn in affairs in Port Pirie. There the Combined Unions’ Committee has already sent out a circular letter to the unions of South Australia, in which they say:
“During the present struggle with the Broken Hill Proprietary Company, we have had ample opportunity of ascertaining in what manner industrial organisation might be made more effective in resisting the tyrannical encroachments or modern capitalism, and securing to the worker a larger share of the product of his labour. My committee have come to a definite and unanimous conclusion that craft unionism has outlived its usefulness, and that 20th century industrial development demands on the part of the workers a more perfect system of organisation. With this end in view we urge, as a preliminary step, the holding of a Trades’ Union Congress in Adelaide during the month of July next. We sincerely hope that this proposition will meet with the earnest and energetic support of your members, and that immediate action will be taken.”
This is a significant sign of the times, and an encouraging one, too, to those who lament the sectionalism of the present unionism movement...
If the unions of the Barrier agree to take such action as suggested … I believe there could be, in a short time, a far more powerful organisation than anything of the kind known to modern times.
Beyond any question, the industrialists [i.e. supporters of industrial unionism as against craft unionism] of Australia are prepared to carefully consider any well thought-out proposals submitted to them by the comrades of Broken Hill and Port Pirie.
The time is particularly opportune also, because for some two years past much discussion has been indulged in as to the merits of industrial unionism, and the minds of many are prepared to co-operate in such effort as here set forth.
Many of the unions in New South Wales and Victoria have already given much attention to the subject, and are well disposed hitherto.
To remain in the present forcibly feeble condition characteristic of present-day unionism would be to stamp ourselves as incapables; and would admit of an indefinite prolongation of capitalist tyranny.
On all sides we see hysterical efforts being made by the plutocratic Governments of the different countries to prepare for war on an unprecedented scale, as a relief from glutted markets. Such is the condition of the peoples in Europe and America that deaths by starvation and deaths from diseases arising out of ill-nourished and unsanitary conditions are so appallingly large that the modern system stands condemned in the eyes of all intelligent citizens.
Through the ages men have died by millions before the naturally allotted span of life, because they have not been able to produce life’s requirements in the necessary abundance; but never before did the anomaly we now witness obtain, viz., that people die of hunger because they have produced so much as to glut the markets and fill the warehouses, and are then deprived of the opportunity to work, therefore of incomes. Hence, poverty, destitution, and misery.
These conditions cannot last. In spite of colossal ignorance, there is already too much intelligence and genuine courage to acquiesce in such class dominancy and exploitation as bring such results in its train.
Therefore, comrades, get to work like men of intelligence and courage, count it a privilege to be permitted to share in the great work of social and economic emancipation; for, indeed, there is no higher, no worthier, no holier work that can engage the energies of man.