The Workers Committee

Submitted by Matthew on 4 August, 2011 - 12:45

J T (John Thomas) Murphy was a Sheffield metal-worker and, in 1920, became a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was involved in the shop stewards’ movement which arose during the First World War. He went on to be involved in the CP-initiated National Minority Movement, one of the most significant mass rank-and-file movements in British labour history.

Murphy was jailed in 1925 for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny. From the mid-1920s, when the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia began to spread across Europe’s Communist Parties, Murphy took the wrong side and backed Stalin and his regime against critics such as Leon Trotsky. Murphy himself later fell foul of the Party and was expelled in 1932.

In this and our next issue Solidarity will serialise Murphy’s best known work, the pamphlet The Workers’ Committee written in 1917. Although written at a time when the shape of British industry and the British working-class were both very different from what they are today, we believe the pamphlet still has a huge amount to teach us.

It explains how the conflicts and tensions between grassroots members of a trade union and union officialdom manifest themselves in day-to-day struggle and how they can play out on the shop floor. And it gives guidance on what political and organisational forms are necessary to give maximum power and democratic control over struggle to rank-and-file workers. Murphy’s advice for shop stewards is more direct and useful than the “organising agendas” they will receive from their unions today.

In 1917 Murphy was a member of the Socialist Labour Party (some of whose members helped form the British Communist Party). At its inception, in the early 1900s, the group was influenced by the ideas of American Marxist Daniel De Leon. De Leon combined revolutionary socialist propaganda with syndicalist ideas and asserted that industrial unions could, in and of themselves, organise to become the framework of future working-class rule as well as a source of counter-power within capitalist society. Workers’ Liberty thinks this misunderstands the need for political organisation. Nonetheless, the syndicalists’ emphasis on industrial, all-grades unions and democratic control of the unions from the shop-floor level up can inform our fights in trade unions today.

In a period in which our unions are heavily bureaucratised and undemocratically controlled by people whose lifestyles and material interests are closer to the bosses than the workers they are supposed to represent, the question of how we can build democratic workers’ organisation is vital if we want our unions to be fit for purpose in the fights ahead.

One of the most noticeable features in recent trade union history is the conflict between the rank and file of the trade unions and their officials, and it is a feature which, if not remedied, will lead us all into muddle and ultimately disaster.

We have not time to spend in abuse, our whole attention must be given to an attempt to understand why our organisations produce men who think in the terms they do, and why the rank and file in the workshops think differently.

A perusal of the history of the labour movement, both industrial and political, will reveal to the critical eye certain tendencies and certain features which, when acted upon by external conditions, will produce the type of persons familiar to us as trade union officials and labour leaders.

Everyone is aware that usually a man gets into office on the strength of revolutionary speeches, which strangely contrast with those of a later date after a period in office. This contrast is usually explained away by a dissertation on the difference between propaganda and administration. That there is a difference between these two functions we readily admit, but that the difference sufficiently explains the change we deny. The social atmosphere in which we move, the common events of every-day life, the people with whom we converse, the struggle to make ends meet, the conditions of labour, all these determine our outlook on life.

Do I feel that the man on the next machine is competing for my job? Do I feel that the vast army who have entered into industry will soon be scrambling with me at the works gates for a job in order to obtain the means of a livelihood? My attitude towards the dilution of labour will obviously be different to the man who is not likely to be subject to such an experience.

Now compare the outlook of the man in the workshop and the man as a full time official. As a man in the workshop he feels every change; the workshop atmosphere is his atmosphere; the conditions under which he labours are primary; his trade union constitution is secondary, and sometimes even more remote. But let the same man get into office. He is removed out of the workshop, he meets a fresh class of people, and breathes a different atmosphere. Those things which were once primary are now secondary. He becomes buried in the constitution, and of necessity looks from a new point of view on those things which he has ceased to feel acutely. Not that he has ceased to feel interested, not that he has become dishonest, not that he has not the interests of labour at heart, but because human nature is what it is, he feels the influence of new factors, and the result is a change of outlook. Thus we obtain a contrast between those who reflect the working-class conditions and those who are remote from them.

Officials have the power to rule whether a strike is constitutional or unconstitutional, and accordingly to pay or withhold strike pay. [This] allows small groups who are, as we have already shown, remote from actual workshop experience to govern the mass and involve the mass into working under conditions which they have had no opportunity of considering prior to their inception. The need of the hour is a drastic revision of this constitutional procedure which demands that the function of the rank-and-file shall be simply that of obedience.

This is reflected in all our activities. We expect officials to lead, to shoulder responsibility, to think for us. Hence we get labour leaders, official and unofficial, the one in office, the other out of office, speaking and acting as if the workers were pliable goods, to be moulded and formed according to their desires and judgement. However sincere they may be, and we do not doubt the sincerity of the majority, these methods will not do.


Real democratic practice demands that every member of an organisation shall participate actively in the conduct of the business of the society.

We need, therefore, to reverse the present situation, and instead of leaders and officials being in the forefront of our thoughts the questions of the day which have to be answered should occupy that position. It matters little to us whether leaders be official or unofficial: so long as they sway the mass, little thinking is done by the mass. If one man can sway the crowd in one direction, another man can move them in the opposite direction. We desire the mass of men and women to think for themselves.

Thought is revolutionary: it breaks down barriers, transforms institutions, and leads onward to a larger life. To be afraid of thought is to be afraid of life, and to become an instrument of darkness and oppression.

The functions of an Elected Committee, therefore, should be such that instead of arriving at decisions FOR the rank-and-file they would provide the means whereby full information relative to any question of policy should receive the attention and consideration OF the rank-and-file, the results to be expressed by ballot.

Now we have shown some of the principal deflects in the constitutional procedure, we will show how these defects have been and are encouraged by defects in the structure.

The ballot box is no new thing, every trade unionist understands the use of it, yet we find that when there is an election of officers, for example, or a ballot on some particular question, rarely more than 40 per cent vote; that means there are 60 per cent who do not trouble. Being vexed with the 60 per cent will not help us. An organisation which only stimulates 40 per cent to activity must be somewhat defective, and it is our duty to find those defects and remedy them.

A ballot is usually taken in the branches, and the meetings are always summoned meetings, so we will consider now the branch as a unit of the organisation. It is usually composed of members who live in certain areas, irrespective of where they work, and irrespective of the turn on which they work.

These are important factors, and account for a great deal of neglect. Men working together every day become familiar to each other and easily associate, because their interests are common. This makes common expression possible. They may live, however, in various districts, and belong to various branches. Fresh associations have therefore to be formed, which at the best are but temporary, because only revived once a fortnight at the most, and there is thus no direct relationship between the branch group and the workshop group. The particular grievances of any workshop are thus fresh to a majority of this members of a branch. The persons concerned are unfamiliar persons, the jobs unfamiliar jobs, and the workshop remote; hence the members do not feel a personal interest in the branch meetings as they would if that business was directly connected with their every day experience. The consequence is bad attendance at branch meetings and little interest. We are driven, then, to the conclusion that there must be direct connection between the workshop and the branch in order to obtain the maximum concentration on business. The workers in one workshop should therefore be members of one branch.

Immediately we contemplate this phase of our difficulties we are brought against a further condition of affairs which shows a dissipation of energy that can only be described as appalling. We organise for power and yet we find the workers in the workshops divided not only amongst a score of branches but a score of unions, and in a single district scores of unions, and in the whole of the country eleven hundred unions.

Modern methods of production are social in character. We mean by this statement that workmen of all kinds associate together, and are necessary to each other to produce goods. The interests of one, therefore, are the interests of another. Mechanics cannot get along without labourers or without crane drivers; none of these can dispense with the blacksmith, the grinder, the forgemen, etc., yet in spite of this interdependence, which extends throughout all industry, the organisations of the workers are almost anti-social in character.

They keep the workers divided by organising them on the basis of their differences instead of their common interests. Born at a period when large scale machine production had not arrived, when skill was at a greater premium than it is today, many have maintained the prejudices which organisations naturally cultivate, while during the same period of growth the changes in methods of production were changing their position in relation to other workers, unperceived by them. With the advent of the general labour unions catering for men and women workers the differences became organised differences, and the adjustment of labour organisations to the changes increasingly complex. The skilled men resent the encroachments of the unskilled, the unskilled often resent what appears to them the domineering tactics of the skilled, and both resent the encroachments of the women workers. An examination of their respective positions will reveal the futility of maintaining these sectional prejudices.

Consider the position of the skilled workers. They have years of tradition behind them, also five years apprenticeship to their particular trade. The serving of an apprenticeship is in itself sufficient to form a strong prejudice for their position in industry. But whilst the skilled unions have maintained the serving of an apprenticeship as a primary condition of membership, industrial methods have been changing until the all-round mechanic, for example, is the exception and not the rule. Specialisation has progressed by leaps and bounds. Automatic machine production has vastly increased. Apprenticeship in thousands of cases is a farce, for even they are kept on repetition work and have become a species of cheap labour. Increasingly are they set to mate men on piece work jobs, and although producing the same amount of work receive only 50 per cent of the wages received by the men. It will be thus clearly perceived that every simplification in the methods of production, every improvement to automatic machine production, every application of machinery in place of hand production, means that the way becomes easier for others to enter the trades. So we can safely say that as historical development takes away the monopoly position of skilled workers it paves the way for the advancement of the unskilled.

Working in the same workshops as the skilled men, having to assist them in their work, seeing how the work is becoming simplified, knowing no reason satisfactory to himself why, having had to start life as a labourer, he should decline advancement and remain a labourer, takes time by the forelock, and ere long can compete with the test on specialised work. So also enter the women workers, and thus ensues a struggle between craft, trade, and sex prejudices.

There are in industry seven millions of women workers, more than a million of whom have entered the engineering industry since the beginning of the war. How far they have been successful is no doubt a surprise to the majority of people. In addition to shell production, which has nearly passed into the hands of women, at least so far as the smaller kinds of them are concerned, we read in the “Times Engineering Supplement” of June 29th, 1917, an account of women’s work, from which the following is taken:

“In particular the Bristol exhibition was remarkable for the many hundreds of specimens of work wholly or mainly done by women. Apart from the still larger range covered by the photographs, fourteen separate groups of samples were shown, dealing respectively with aircraft engines, motor car engines, magnetos and other accessories of internal combustion engines, locomotive and stationary engines, guns and gun components, small arms, gauges, cutters and allied work, drawing dies and punches, welded and other aircraft fittings, aircraft framing and structural parts, projectiles, miscellaneous engineering, and optical and glass work. The list is long, but its very length summarises no more than fairly the variety of applications that are being made of women’s services in one work or another. A similar variety was seen in the composition of most of the individual groups. Details, for instance, were exhibited of several different aircraft engines, of motor car and motor lorry engines of a variety of makes, of “tank” (land ship) and Diesel engines; of the breech mechanism and other parts of a variety of guns, from the 3-pdr. Hotchkiss to the 8-in. howitzer, and, among small arms, of the Lewis and Vickers machine guns and the Lee-Enfield rifle. Over seventy punches and dies were shown for cartridge-drawing alone, and over a hundred varieties of shell-boring and milling cutters, twist-drills, and allied tools, and nearly as many separate parts of aeroplanes.”

That such production on the part of women is general it would be untrue to say, but it at least shows the tremendous possibilities before the women workers, how far the simplifying process has gone, and how the monopoly position of the skilled worker in all but heavy work has nearly gone. In many workshops, however, it can safely be said that women are not a success. As a matter of fact in some places there has been no attempt to make them a success. They are consequently tolerated with amused contempt as passengers for the war.

This position makes a grievous state of affairs for any post war schemes. It makes possible sham restoration schemes to which we all stand to lose by the magnitude of the unemployed market. Thousands of women may be turned into the streets, or become encumbrances on the men who may be at work or who also may be unemployed. Domestic service cannot absorb all women, as some suggest, nor is it possible, as others remark, for them to go back to what they were doing before the war. To put back the clock of history is impossible, and other solutions will have be found.

We men and women of today have now to pay the price of man’s economic dominance over women which has existed for centuries. Content to treat women as subjects instead of equals, men are now faced with problems not to their liking.

Yet everyone of the wage earning class, whether man or woman, is in the same fix. Each has to work for wages or starve. Each fears unemployment. The skilled men detest dilution because they fear the lowering of their standard of life by keener competition. The semi-skilled, and the unskilled, and the women each desire to improve their lot. All are in the hands of those who own the means of providing them with work and wages. Skilled men are justified in their desires, and so are the other’s. The only way the mutual interests of the wage earners can be secured, therefore, is by united effort on the part of all independent workers, whether men or women. Many have been the attempts in the past to bring about this result. Federal schemes have been tried, and amalgamation schemes advocated. Characteristic of them all, however, is the fact that always have they sought for a fusion of officialdom as a means to the fusion of the rank-and-file.

We propose to reverse this procedure. Already we have shown how we are driven back to the workshops. With the workshops, then, as the new units of organisation, we will now show how, starting with these, we can erect the structure of the Great Industrial Union, invigorate the labour movement with the real democratic spirit, and in the process lose none of the real values won in the historic struggle of the Trade Union movement.

The workshop committee

The procedure to adopt is to form in every workshop a workshop Committee, composed of Shop Stewards, elected by the workers in the workshops. Skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers should have their Shop Stewards, and due regard be given also to the particular union to which each worker belongs.

For example, suppose a workshop is composed of members of the General Labourers’ Union, Workers’ Union, ASE, Steam Engine Makers, Women Workers, etc., each of these unions should have their Shop Stewards, and the whole co-operate together, and form the Workshop Committee.

Immediately this will stimulate the campaign for the elimination of the non-unionist. We know of one shop where, as soon as the Workshop Committee was formed, every union benefited in membership, and one Society enrolled 60 members.

Where possible, it is advisable for shop stewards to be officially recognised and to be supplied with rules which lend support and encourage the close co-operation which a Workshop Committee requires.

We suggest the following as a Shop Steward’s instruction card, for any of the Societies:

• Members’ pence cards should be inspected every six weeks.

• New arrivals into workshops shall be approached by the shop steward nearest to such and questioned as to membership of a trade union.

• Steward shall demand the production of pence card of alleged member.

• Steward shall take note of shop conditions, wages, etc., in the area in which he is acting as shop steward, and report any violations of district conditions as approved by the trade unions which are not immediately remedied to the trade union officials.

• Any dispute arising between employer and employee, which results in a challenge of district conditions as approved, shall be reported to the shop steward.

• Steward shall then consult with other shop stewards as to the course of procedure to be adopted, the results of such consultation to be submitted to the members in the shop for approval.

• Matters which affect more than one department shall be dealt with in a similar manner by the stewards in the affected areas.

• The workers in the workshop should attempt to remedy their grievances in the workshop before calling in official aid.

• Where members of other unions are affected, their co-operation should be sought.

We would also advise that there be one shop steward to not more than 15 workers. The more active workers there are the better, and easier is the organising work carried on. Also, elect a Convener in each shop for each class of worker. Their duties will be to call shop stewards’ meetings in the shop, and be delegates to the district meetings. Other duties we shall mention later.

The initiative should be taken by the workers in the various districts. It is immaterial whether the first move is made through the local trade union committees, or in the workshops and then through the committee, so long as the stewards are elected in the workshops and not in the branches. The means are then assured of an alliance between official and unofficial activities by an official recognition of rank-and-file control.

Having now described how the workshop committees can be formed, and how the committees can be at the same time part of the official trade union movement, we must now proceed to show how the movement can grow, and how it must grow to meet the demands of the day.

Local industrial committees

[These] should be formed in each district. It will be readily perceived that no one firm will be completely organised before the workers in other firms begin to move in the same direction.

Therefore in the early stages of development, full shop stewards’ meetings should be held in every district, and an Industrial Administrative Committee be formed from these meetings. The size of the Committee will vary according to the size of the district, so we will leave that to the discretion of those who form the committee. The functions of these committees are mainly those of educating and co-ordinating the efforts of the rank-and-file through the shop stewards. For example, one committee provides information relative to agreed upon district conditions, Munitions Act, Military Service agreement, Labour Advisory Board, Procedure in the workshops, etc. Then this committee should be the means of extending and developing the organisations, so that the workers can obtain the maximum of power to their hands.

The committee should not usurp the functions of the local trade union committees, but attend to the larger questions, embracing all the trade unions in the industry.

It will have been observed that we have addressed ourselves, so far as practical procedure is concerned, to the Engineering workers. This we have done because the nucleus of the larger organisation has already come into being through that industry, and presents us with a clear line of development. So far, then, we have shown how to form a Workshop Committee, and an Engineering Workers’ Committee in a locality. These committees should not have any governing power, but should exist to render service to the rank-and-file, by providing means for them to arrive at decisions and to unite their forces.

• Part 2 will appear in Solidarity 214

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