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THE recent newspaper strike and the present rail strike have done much to bring home to the man in the street something of the real effects of present-day industrial disputes. So long as strikes do not at once affect the life and habits of the ordinary citizen, public opinion tends to tolerate them, more especially as the usual warnings about the grave economic consequences of any major strike have not so far been realised owing to the buoyancy of our economy at the present time.
, It may be that these two strikes-the newspaper strike in a minor, but still annoying, way, and the far more injurious rail strike-will, through the force of an aroused public opinion, lead to the nation as a whole coming to grips with a problem whose long-term effects cannot but be of the gravest significance to thc whole community. If so, these strikes may well be looked back upon as blessings rather than calamities.
Yet it will remain extremely important that the whole approach to this question should be free from any sense of anger Or recrimination whether on the side of the people generally or on the side of those who cherish their right to press for fairer working conditions through the withdrawal of their labour.
-WE know, of course, that there are subversive elements in the country who take every chance of starting or encouraging 'trouble. and this presents its own problem, the solution to which lies mainly in the hands of the Unions themselves-hut we also know (hat the real difficulty both in the dock and the rail strike arises from conflicts made possible because of the country's social progress and economic prosperity.
In fact, one can say that the factor which endangers the country as a whole does not arise from the actual industrial disputes, whether between employers and workers or between. competing Unions, but from an accident. What could be more healthy in itself than an increase in the number of Trade Unions, each charged with specialist interests of a special group of workers? What could be more sane than a strike to defend wages proportioned to the training, skill and responsibility of workers as opposed to a virtual flat rate for everyone? And who would deny the appropriateness of striking for enforcing a real living wage?
But the whole picture inevitably changes when these excellent things are applied to industrial structures of such size or of such key importance that the strike immediately effects the economy and comfort of the whole nation. That is the accident that makes the present situation so grave. A few electricians in the newspaper industry deprived the country of nearly all its daily papers, and they might well have deprived the whole country of every newspaper, magazine and periodical. Today, the strike of one railway Union threatens, if prolonged, to cause the country's whole economy to run down towards disaster.
The warning of the Secretariat of the Economic Commission for Europe comes at a very timely moment. " Even a moderate increase in British export prices, relatively to the export prices of other western European countries, may entail a further deterioration in the British balance of payments." In other words, our extremely vulnerable economic position is directly threatened by wage demands, enforced by strikes or threats to strike, on a national scale.
As things are, this disastrous situation is perfectly compatible with Trade Union policy and action that in itself is perfectly legal, honest and even praiseworthy'
It is the accidental conjunction of such action with the size, importance and key positions of great Unions, together with the solidarity of organised workers as a whole that threatens the whole country.
THE situation therefore resolves itself to the present failure of our industrial organisation to think in any other terms than those of a single interest amid the myriad interests on which our precarious economy always depends. It is a case of a widespread failure to give due priority to the "common good."
Our society rests, whether we like it or not, on a complex and delicately adjusted interlocking system, most of whose constituents hold positions of key importance where the general good is concerned. It cannot possibly work smoothly so long as any of these constituent parts retain the view that their own particular interests are of absolute and final importance so that in a difference the good of the whole goes by the board, whatever the cost to others.
Fear of industrial trouble has in fact, by and large, forced the employing side to sacrifice much of their particular interests to the interests of the employed; and to-day it is a reasonable judgment that the habit of such sacrifice has been established, whether in industry or in a " capitalist " party government.
Sanctions on the other side have weakened, owing to full employment. Strike action, whether as a threat beffind very hard bargaining or as a final resort disrupting the whole nation's life, can more safely be risked. It is very hard to see how the fundamental position can he really changed unless and until the workers and their giant organisations can come to see that no one, not even in the long run they themselves, can be advantaged unless they acquire the habit of looking at their problem from the point of view of the common good as well as from their own sectional point of view.
Conditions are such to-day as to make this education not only possible, but of direct advantage in the end to organised workers themselves, for if our delicate economic system breaks down through our being priced out of export markets, the greater hardship will fall on those who to-clay insist on the hardest, force-backed, bargains.