Section - syndicalist strategy

Issue date
12 Mar 2001

For many restless spirits who, by 1909, were becoming sceptical about the effectiveness both of parliamentary action and of the activities of the trade union movement as then constituted, the syndicalist and industrial union message had had powerful attractions. If parliamentary action had failed to get things done, how about letting unparliamentary action have a run? If more than a thousand separate coexistent trade unions had failed to co‑operate with each other inside any one industry, how about giving the syndicalist idea of 'one industry one union' a try-out?

The first trade unionists to give it a partial try‑out were the dockers, led by Ben Tillett, and the seamen who combined, late in 1910, to form the Transport Workers Federation.

The next trade unionists to consider the syndicalist strategy in detail as a basis for practical action, were a group of miners' leaders, who included A. J. Cook, himself a syndicalist, and Noah Ablett. These men, in the year following the national coal strike of 1911, which led to the establishment of district minimum wages, issued a pamphlet called 'The Miners' Next Step'.

This pamphlet, in B. C. Roberts’ words, 'proposed that the miners’ unions should reorganise themselves on industrial lines with a strong central direction of policy, the object of which would be to bring the industry to a standstill, with strike after strike, until the system of private ownership collapsed. Then the miners would take over the paralysed industry and reorganise it on the basis of workers’ control. The ultimate aim of the authors was to see their lead followed by the trade unions in other industries'.

The revolutionary implications of this syndicalist policy were in due course overwhelmingly rejected by the Trades Union Congress of 1912.

'The effect of the transport workers' strike of this year has been disastrous, and has shown more than anything else could have done the futility of trying to fight the capitalists by what are known as Syndicalist methods.'

Thus wrote Keir Hardie in 1912.

Nevertheless if syndicalism, as such, was now mouldering in the grave, industrial unionism went marching on. For, in this same year, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the General Railway Workers' Union and the United Signalmen and Pointsmen combined to form the National Union of Railwaymen. And, within two years, the combined membership of the new union had doubled itself.

Moreover, in 1913, the NUR entered into a formal alliance - known as 'The Triple Alliance' - with the Miners' Federation and the Transport Workers Federation, with a view to joint action for mutual assistance.


 

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