Solidarity Forever

Chapter Seven

SYNDICALISM

In a January 1910 issue of the Socialist, Claude Menzies was listed as winning a Prize Essay Competition with his "How will Socialism be brought about?"

The gist of the essay was that Australia would lead to Socialism, Parliaments would be gone and Industrial Committees would be labour's first Government.

Tom Mann, now imbued with Syndicalist ideas, had "Dialogues on Industrial Unionism" published in the Socialist. In March it was announced that P. Laidler was one who did not seek re-election to the Executive and in August Claude Menzies resigned from the Executive. By mid-1912 they were working together as a team, propagating syndicalism.

"Syndicalism" comes from the French word "syndicalisme" and means simply "trade-unionism", as Mrs. Elsie Mann wrote back to Australia whilst Tom was serving his sentence for the Liverpool strike. According to the Britannica what is known in English as "syndicalism" the French call "syndicalisme revolutionnaire", in other words, "revolutionary trade unionism".

In 1911 articles appeared in the Socialist and although signed "Industrialist", they appear to have been written by Laidler. These were on Industrial Unionism, one being titled "Industrial Unionism and the Referenda" and another "Industrial Unionism, What it is!" Also in January of 1911 a paragraph appeared in Socialist, "Comrade P. Laidler is communicating with all the Trade Unions asking same to hear a socialist speaker on the subject of industrial unionism. This is part of a plan to repeat the successful industries campaign of the year before last."

The first article begins:

Industrial Unionism is that unionism which organises the workers, employed and unemployed, regardless of trade or occupation, into one organisation for the purpose of taking common action in industrial troubles, and with the object of being ready to carry on industry in the interests of the people, when the time arrives for the change from capitalism to, socialism. The old forms of unionism known as trades or crafts unionism, wherein the workers are organised in scores of different societies, a Society for each craft, has become almost obsolete as a fighting weapon. . . . The new unionism will obtain for the workers all that could be obtained under capitalism, but its ultimate aim will ever be the organising for the taking possession and carrying on of industry when the capitalistic system is abolished.

In June 1912 he spoke at the Gaiety Theatre on "Socialism and Unionism". Laidler gave a general account of the beliefs of general strikers, syndicalists and industrial unionists.

He referred to the movement degenerating and said the Syndicalists believed the situation could be saved by withdrawing socialism from Parliamentary channels and putting it in the union movement and that the union was the nucleus of future society. He quoted a prominent syndicalist in France as saying "Syndicalism in its essence is action. It does not wait for history, it wants to make history." He went on to say that Industrial Unionism was slightly different. It was strong on organisation by industry. Syndicalism was not so constructive as industrial unionism. The industrial unionists believed they were building up the Socialist Republic within the capitalist system. Industrial unionists generally also emphasised the necessity for political action. They believed that political action would greatly lessen the possibility of suppression by the capitalist Government, as it would render it impossible for the capitalists to work up feeling against industrial unionists on the grounds of conspiracy.

Political action, they believed, would open up a great opportunity for propaganda which it would be folly to neglect. He again spoke in October at the Amphitheatre—the subject "Industrial Syndicalism".

He expressed the feeling that there was nothing doing in socialism in Australia and said socialism was divided into about six divisions. Each was doing good work, but they were fairly remote from the working class movement and the every day class struggle. Even with the trade unions and political labor party things were dead. He said, "the political labor party was the child of working class defeat. In spite of labor majorities, the position of labour is determined by economic forces for which the politicians are not responsible, and which they cannot change . . . As each class has gained industrial power it has gained political power. On this foundation the case for industrial syndicalism is founded . . . Thus let us build up a rival Government, and at the same time send working class representatives to the other Parliament to harass the other side and get what they can for the workers."

In 1913 a controversy occurred with Maurice Blackburn who attacked Laidler and Claude Menzies as critics of the proposed Industrial Relations amendment of the Commonwealth Amendment Act to be voted upon in a Referendum on May 31st.

In reply to Blackburn, Laidler wrote in the May 23rd issue of Socialist as follows:—

. . . In the matter relating to the Industrial Amendment, we see no suggestion of any laws, excepting compulsory arbitration to secure industrial peace, which Mr. Blackburn admits is a demand of the capitalistically-minded.

The only legislation mentioned, therefore, is what people with working class minds would not demand. And what legislation, anyhow, may we expect from people with capitalistic minds—legislation in the interests of the working class or the capitalist class? A child could answer that.

Compulsory arbitration—the abolition of the right to strike! Fancy! No matter bow bad we feel conditions, no matter how much we object to the wages, hours and other conditions obtaining, no right to strike! No right, as organised men to refuse to work for the capitalists! Surely we could not be more degraded, more enslaved.

Our solidarity, our ability to strike, is the only weapon we possess to enforce better conditions from the capitalist, to enforce even terms of agreements, when the workers do make them with employers; the weapon without which labor legislation even is a dead letter when the bosses choose; the weapon which has made all working class progress possible against the will of the employers; the weapon which, used in mass action, is the generally admitted necessary preliminary to working class emancipation. This weapon the Labor Party stands to destroy. If compulsory Arbitration is established firmly, we are defeated.

Menzies and Laidler worked together, writing and speaking on syndicalism.

The essence of the syndicalist belief was that the workers could not achieve revolution through parliament but only by the direct overthrow of the capitalist owners of industry with the general strike as a prelude to workers' control through the unions and factory committees.

The question had been raised in 1866 at the Congress of the International Association of Workingmen.

Percy Laidler and sisters at Luna Park

Percy Laidler took a break from agitating to visit Melbourne's Luna Park with two of his sisters, probably not long after its opening in 1912.

Menzies and Laidler did not cut adrift from the Socialist Party, they began to write a regular column, with the sub-head "A Column of Syndicalist News and Views" under the names of "Gog" and "Magog". This column didn't hesitate to cover the international field, viz., the column in Socialist of September 26th, 1913 began "Solidarity in Dublin". "The boys attending the Dublin Roman Catholic Cathedral School have struck because a quantity of books has been supplied by a firm which had locked out the transport workers. The boys attacked the masters with their slates and injured several, two having to be taken to Hospital."

Nearer home, on the 1st August the column is headed "Trade Union Politics". "During the tramway Arbitration case a horse-tram driver was asked how much does the company charge you for the house you rent from them? The reply was 'it all dependsó'." When overtime was £1 the rent was 28/- per week; when overtime was 10/-, the rent was 18/8 and with no overtime 8/-.

"Resident employees got a wage rise, but the new scale charge for meals and board increased so that they actually got a reduction. It was said the increase was excessive."

In October 3rd, 1913 issue of Socialist the Syndicalist column attacked Philip Snowden M.P. (House of Commons), in connection with the uprising of Railway workers. The column says that Snowden publicly lamented the trend of the labour movement. "He bewails the influence of the Syndicalists with their 'wild revolutionary appeals' and charges them with exerting upon the unions an influence disproportionate with their numbers." The old policy of the trade unions, said Snowden, was to refrain from exasperating the employers and the public. He advocated arbitration.

A sub-head in the same column reads, "All Politicians Brothers in Effect". "We were told recently that Socialist Webb of New Zealand had been elected, that he was taking the place of a liberal. This is literally true, all socialist and labor members take the place of liberalists, but that is nothing to boast about." The next sub-head, "Reform Parties are Chloroform Parties", and this paragraph finishes with "The only political party for which working class support might be justified would be one with the single proposal 'Revolution'."

• • •

The study of Arbitration Court awards for various industries was building up to Laidler writing his pamphlet "Arbitration and the Strike". The Australian Society of Engineers was attacked for being a craft union, handling scab material, and for being working class snobs whose record was calculated to make more militant members blush. Iron workers' assistants had spent £400 to defend their award, however after 8 days sitting, all they were able to buy was a reduction of 1/- per day for their £400. Builders Laborers lost their 44 hour week which they won by direct action six years previously. "Since then they have veered around to politics and now they have got all the politics they want."

Controversy over the A.S.E. raged a few weeks and the column disappeared—perhaps the two things were not unrelated.

The Syndicalist column in Socialist, October 24th, 1913, reads—

During this week a conference of IWW men is being held in Melbourne, and possibly an endeavour will be made, before the delegates leave, to set up a local branch of that body afloat here. The organisation represented is the Chicago IWW, the big half of two pieces into which the original IWW split after the stormy conference of 1908, and as far as it declares for revolutionary unionism and direct action, and is opposed to Parliamentarism and State Capitalism, it and the Syndicalists are sworn brothers.

It is true that IWW-ites are inclined to lay much stress upon the specific form of unionism and upon the ideal of ultimately having one big union, while the syndicalists on the other hand, seek rather education in direct action and the building up of a revolutionary spirit amongst the workers.

Where they disagree is in tactics. The syndicalists work as far as possible within the existing unions. The IWW is traditionally opposed to existing unions unless likely to come over in a body to them. They are out rather to break them than ignore them.

November 14th. The American union movement is analysed and compared with Australian Union movement, pointing out that the American Federation of Labor was formed by the capitalists in opposition to recognised labour unions of the land. Here the organisation is recognised as part of labour movement of the land. The article ends "we should set to work with open minds free of prejudice, and not be carried away by parrot cries from another country which has had a history very different to ours".

The following account of the type of propaganda presented by Menzies and Laidler comes from the pen of Bill Beatty (Queensland), the last of the IWW twelve. (Twelve members of the IWW were arrested in 1916 and served four years of sentences ranging five to fifteen years.)

"Syndicalism was the main subject of a street campaign in Melbourne by Percy Laidler and Claude Menzies, who bravely carried on open-air propaganda for three years or more." (Labour History No. 13.)

In amplification Bill Beatty wrote:—

I spoke to Percy a few times in Andrades when buying books there, otherwise I had no personal contact with him or Claude Menzies, but I did attend many of their street meetings and learned a lot from them.

They conducted a very clever campaign in the course of which they explained the position of the working class and the effect of the advice usually given to the workers, i.e. Free Trade or Protection, Temperance, Saving up to buy out the capitalists, etc., all leading up to the conclusion that Socialism was the only answer, and that politicians would only help if they were forced to do so by the strength of the organised workers.

. . . After hearing Percy Laidler and Claude Menzies the I.W.W. appeared to me to be the organisation to carry out the programme their analysis of the situation called for, and I joined up soon after arriving in Sydney late in 1914.

According to Beatty the campaign of Menzies and Laidler was carried on in the years 1912, 1913 and 1914, and this rather coincides with their press campaign in the Socialist.

Beatty writes:—

They spoke about the remedies for working class troubles recommended by Press, Church and politicians. They said—

Temperance is a useful personal habit, but adopted universally must lead to unemployment.

Thrift is also of personal benefit; when carried to extremes must cause unemployment and stagnation in industry.

Religion is conservative and supports authority, and a casual look at the countries where religion has most power reveals they also have the worst working conditions, for example, Ireland, Spain and Italy.

Politicians at best can only reflect the wishes of their electorates. Powerful sections, whether capitalist or working class will have their needs represented by their member. In short, Parliaments are only mirrors of the power factions in the electorates, also battlegrounds for the personal ambition of many members.

Trade Unions—those which are loudest in their claims and most ready to strike to support them, undoubtedly get better conditions than the tame ones.

Working class action is the only possible force able to defeat monopoly schemes which all mean worse working conditions and more concentration of power.

In short they tried to show that working class unity was the hope of the world.

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