Mark Hudson is a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the Progressive Librarians Guild and active in the peace and global justice movements. He lives in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
[Note: In the print edition of New Politics, the footnote numbering of this article is incorrect. The version below has been corrected.]
LABOR HISTORIANS HAVE OFTEN NOTED and tried to explain the increasing militancy shown by workers in the metal-processing industries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In France, Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States, indeed all over the industrialized world, metalworkers showed an increasing willingness during this period to confront their employers in struggles over wages, working hours, the introduction of skill-reducing technologies and the concomitant reorganization of the workplace and work processes.
In France the number of strikes in the metalworking industries increased steadily from 1890 to 1914, with 224 strikes occurring in 1890-1894, 368 in 1895-1899, 415 in 1900-1904, 586 in 1905-1909 and 685 in 1910-1914.1 In Britain, although the increase was less steady, the number of metalworker strikes during this period was greater than in France and the increase more spectacular after 1910, with 776 strikes occurring in 1890-1894, 947 in 1895-1899, 447 in 1900-1904, 453 in 1905-1909 and 1,203 in 1910-1914.2 In France metalworker strikes comprised 12 percent of all strikes in 1890-1914; only textile and construction workers showed a greater propensity to strike during this period.3 In Britain metalworkers accounted for 22 percent of all strikes in 1890-1914, more than any other industrial sector including miners.4
The world war of 1914-1918 brought new challenges for metalworkers because their labor was crucial to the requirements of the warring governments. Metalworkers in both France and Britain were subject to "industrial compulsion," i.e., government control over workplace organization and the disposal of their labor power, which in France took the form of an outright military mobilization of labor. In response, French and British metalworkers defied wartime strike prohibitions and their union executives and organized militant movements that threatened to disrupt the production of war materials and thus posed a potential threat to the stability of the state itself. Wartime metalworker struggles played an important part in widening the division between leftists and moderates in the French and British labor movements -- a division that after the war would lead to the affiliation of the left with the new Third International.
This essay compares metalworker activity in France and Britain during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth. I analyze some of the explanations that have been offered by historians for metalworker militancy in these two countries, and I argue that although French and British metalworkers showed similar levels and types of militant activity during this period, the militancy of each requires a rather different explanation. Different work cultures, rates of technological change, forms of labor organization and working-class ideologies make each case unique and necessitate historical analyses sensitive to the roles these factors play in different national settings. In Britain, skilled metalworkers became militant in response to threats to their craft bargaining power, i.e., their ability to control the supply of labor and the organization of work processes in the metalworking industries. Classic labor aristocrats, they seldom showed solidarity with less skilled workers, whom they regarded as the primary threat to their status -- until the war, when the ultimate futility of the craft bargaining strategy became readily apparent and a more class-conscious militancy emerged.
In France, by contrast, technological change was more gradual, craft unionism was weak, and militancy among less skilled metalworkers was catalyzed by skilled workers who still maintained old artisanal traditions of autonomy and egalitarianism. When threatened by mechanization and the reorganization of work processes, these artisanal workers responded, not in a craft-defensive way, but by forging alliances with their less skilled brethren and eventually organizing them into industrial unions. Of course these differences are generalizations; not all French artisans were so solidaristic, and there were a few British skilled metalworkers who saw the futility of craft unionism before the war. Nevertheless, when militancy emerged, it developed one way in France, another in Britain.
THE METAL-PROCESSING SECTORS of all the industrialized nations were given a tremendous boost in the latter part of the nineteenth century by structural transformations of production that greatly augmented the demand for factory machinery, transport equipment, construction materials and other capital goods. There were about 927,000 metalworkers in Britain in 1881; by 1914 this number had nearly doubled to about 1,804,000.5 The French metalworking sector was small by comparison, with only about 600,000 workers employed in 1906, but was also expanding rapidly.6 The metalworking industries in both countries encompassed a myriad of occupational groups involved in primary and secondary metal manufacture, e.g., foundry and forge workers, moulders, fileworkers, boltworkers, metal polishers, metalsmiths, gunsmiths, coppersmiths, tinsmiths, ironworkers and engineers (in France, "machine-builders") -- the skilled turners and fitters involved in the cutting and assembling of metal.
British metalworkers organized stronger craft unions than their French counterparts primarily because labor organizations remained illegal in France until 1884. The most powerful of the British metalworker unions was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), founded in 1851. In 1914 almost 80 percent of the 219,000 organized workers in the engineering trades belonged to the ASE.7 While in Britain most semi- and unskilled metalworkers remained unorganized until the war because craft unions like the ASE failed to recruit them, in France craft unionism in the metal industries was gradually -- but only gradually -- overtaken by industrial unionism. The Fédération des Ouvriers Métallurgistes was founded in 1883 (the year before the law permitting freedom of association) with the aim of organizing all metalworkers regardless of specialization or level of skill. But its efforts over the next two decades to fuse with various craft unions in the metal industries met with considerable resistance.8 Kathryn Amdur argues that even after a unified nationwide Fédération des Ouvriers des Métaux (FOM) was founded in 1909, metalworkers in Saint-Etienne remained averse to industrial unionism and maintained small separate craft unions alongside the industrial federation. On the eve of the war the FOM had only 25,000 members nationwide, although this number increased dramatically during the last two years of the war.9
While Amdur characterizes Saint-Etienne metalworkers as craft-exclusivist, she also produces police reports showing that a significant minority of them had anarchist or anarchosyndicalist leanings. She argues that metalworker anarchism in the Loire appealed mostly to "an intermediate rank of metalworkers employed in a variety of skilled factory trades"; of 164 suspected anarchists in the department in 1914, 43 were factory metalworkers, although the police statistics do not distinguish between the skilled and less skilled.10 Anarchist metalworkers were also disproportionately represented in the local FOM, which endorsed the class struggle and tried to organize metalworkers from different industries regardless of skill level. This seems to contradict Amdur's suggestion that Saint-Etienne metalworkers' tendency toward anarchosyndicalism was a sign of their "spirit of craft exclusiveness."11 By her own account, anarchist metalworkers tended to be less averse to industrial unionism than their more moderate brethren.
Michael Hanagan provides us with a compelling explanation for prewar metalworker militancy in the Loire, arguing that militant artisanal workers threatened by technological change forged alliances with industrial metalworkers and thus acted as catalysts of metalworker unionization and strike activity. The gradualness of French industrial development made possible the survival of a large artisanal workforce until late in the nineteenth century, and when mechanization and new forms of work organization did begin to undermine their position, artisans responded not only by organizing unions to defend their own corporate interests but also by actively encouraging and defending the unions of industrial workers. French artisans believed, not without justification, that "any employer attack on the union organizations of industrial workers might be only a prelude to an attack on their unions."12
To illustrate his thesis Hanagan examines three industrial towns in the Loire: Rive-de-Gier, Saint-Chamond, and Le Chambon-Feugerolles. In Rive-de-Gier, the transition from artisanal to industrial forms of work organization in metalworking began in the 1860s and was practically complete by the early 1890s, as the introduction of the press and the steam hammer transformed the process of forging steel. By 1893 most metalworkers in Rive-de-Gier were either semiskilled "forgers" or other poorly-paid semi- and unskilled workers, although there were still a few skilled workers -- puddlers, foundrymen, fitters and turners -- who received relatively high wages. Effective union organization among Rive-de-Gier metalworkers was hindered by several factors. One was their low wages, which made it hard to sustain an organization and even harder to sustain strikes. Another was the physical separation of skilled workers from the less skilled in metalworking factories, so that skilled and less skilled metalworkers seldom met each other on the job. A third factor was the residential scattering of metalworkers in the town; unlike the glassworkers of Rive- de-Gier, metalworkers were not concentrated in their own distinct residential sections.
The artisanal glassworkers, with their high wages, cohesive informal work group, and tightly-knit community life, organized a strong local trade union in the early 1890s to defend themselves against the effects of mechanized glassmaking. When all 1,700 of the town's metalworkers struck in 1893 in defense of their own nascent union organization, glassworker leadership and financial support were crucial in enabling the metalworker union to sustain the strike for two months. The 1893 strike eventually failed because of metalworker disunity, as a substantial minority of metalworkers chose to accept wage increases offered by the employers instead of defending the existence of the union, and metalworkers did not strike again in Rive-de-Gier for over a decade.13 But it demonstrates, not only the obstacles to metalworker organization and militancy in France in the 1890s, but also the "logic of solidarity" that sometimes made it possible for metalworkers to overcome these obstacles, at least for a time. By contrast, in nearby Saint-Chamond, where the artisanal working class was small and unthreatened by technological change, industrial metalworkers faced the same obstacles as in Rive-de-Gier but were unable to overcome them because they could not find allies possessing the financial resources and group cohesion they lacked.14
The clearest illustration of Hanagan's thesis is Le Chambon-Feugerolles, where it was artisanal fileworkers threatened by the mechanization of filecutting who stimulated the development of industrial metalworker militancy. The Chambonnaire fileworkers organized a local trade union in 1888, and when a mechanized file factory opened in the town in 1899, the union launched a protest movement against it, calling on fileworkers to boycott the new factory and appealing to boltworkers and other industrial metalworkers for support. Although the factory remained open, by the beginning of 1901 this struggle led to the formation of an industry-wide metal union in Le Chambon, with fileworkers providing the core constituency. As in Rive-de-Gier, it was the higher wages and tighter group cohesion of the artisanal workers that made it possible for them to mobilize industrial metalworkers. The Chambonnaire metal union, Hanagan tells us, "possessed considerable resources, including the ability to raise large sums of money; through the metal union, fileworkers in large part financed industrial worker strikes."15 The union financed strike benefits for a 137-day strike of boltworkers in 1901, an 88-day strike of toolworkers in 1904, and a 22-day boltworkers' strike in 1905. Its strike kitchens (soupes communistes) also provided crucial support, especially during the 1910 general strike of 900 boltworkers, 1,900 fileworkers and several hundred other metalworkers. Although the general strike exhausted the union's funds, the strike kitchens allowed it to use its resources more efficiently and thus enabled the strike to succeed.16
Unlike Amdur, Hanagan argues that anarchosyndicalism "further reinforced the tendency toward cooperation between artisanal and industrial workers," although he recognizes that syndicalists occasionally "pandered to artisanal prejudices." In Le Chambon, revolutionary syndicalist ideas spread to metal-union leaders -- mostly artisanal fileworkers -- in the years after 1906, "when feelings of artisanal-industrial worker solidarity were already very strong."17 Although St. Etienne metalworkers may have been as craft- exclusivist as Amdur suggests, it seems unlikely that this was because of the influence of revolutionary syndicalism. More probably craft-exclusivist metalworkers in the Loire were either indifferent to revolutionary syndicalist philosophy or else influenced by the reformist brand of syndicalism that found growing sway in the French labor movement in the decade before the war.18
Hanagan also stresses the survival of an artisanal work culture among French skilled metalworkers even after their inclusion in the factory, arguing that "[a]lthough shut behind factory walls, metalworking artisans continued to behave as if they were in their own small shops: they took their own workbreaks, and they expected their supervisors to treat them as equals." He quotes a British skilled metalworker in 1904 who had worked in both countries and who commented on the importance attached by French workers, "altogether unrecognized in England," to matters such as "personal freedom and treatment, courtesy of foremen and masters and so on."19
Indeed, the faster pace of technological change in British metalworking had probably undermined most vestiges of artisanal autonomy for British skilled metalworkers several decades earlier. Keith Burgess marks the beginning of a capital-intensive engineering industry in Britain during the period 1830-1850. Prior to 1830 the engineering industry was highly labor-intensive, adapting the skills of preindustrial millwrights to its needs and expending most of its capital on wages rather than machinery or buildings. But from 1830 to 1850, the diffusion of machine-tool technology on an unprecedented scale increased the ratio of capital to labor and made possible the emergence of the specialized workers -- turners and fitters -- known in Britain as engineers. This phase of development culminated with the founding of the ASE in 1850-1851 and the engineering lockout of 1852, as skilled engineering workers tried to maintain their autonomy and bargaining position in the face of increased supervision, longer work days, piecework, cyclical unemployment, competition from less skilled labor and other consequences of technological change.20
From the 1850s to the 1880s, Burgess argues, the capital-labor ratio in the British engineering industry remained comparatively stable, as this period "saw the spread of existing techniques rather than the development and diffusion of new ones." Piecework and overtime work became less common, although fluctuations in employment persisted, and fitters and turners consolidated their position as the most important workers in the industry. Wage rates for engineers who belonged to the ASE rose 30-40 percent during this period. But in the 1880s and 1890s a new round of labor-saving investment began to once again undermine the position of British skilled engineering workers.21 James Hinton describes a "technical revolution" starting in the 1880s which "increasingly threatened the engineers' ability to control the supply of skilled labour." The turners and fitters who comprised about 90 percent of the new members of the ASE during this time saw their "versatility and manual dexterity" rendered increasingly superfluous by new machines capable of being operated by lower-paid semiskilled workers. The introduction of automatic turret lathes and new specialized machine tools meant that turners were needed "only to set up the tools before the machining began," and the increased precision of machine work threatened fitters with replacement by semiskilled assemblers, since the size and shape of the cut metal article no longer had to be adjusted manually with a file.
WITH EMPLOYERS MORE ABLE TO dispense with the skills of fitters and turners, the quality of apprenticeships declined. Although apprenticeship remained the most important means at the ASE's disposal for controlling entry into the industry, bosses "often took advantage of the very low wages payable to apprentices to exploit their labour on routine jobs, while neglecting to fulfil their obligation to instruct them in the craft." The ASE's response to these changes was to "follow the machine," i.e., to insist "that all jobs traditionally performed by craftsmen should continue to be treated as craft work and paid at the craft rate, even when the introduction of new machinery eliminated most of the skill necessary for its performance."22
The showdown over the "machine question" in the British engineering industry began in 1896. Disputes over the control of machinery became more frequent in 1896-1897, as unofficial committees of shop stewards, elected by the ASE district committees but potentially autonomous of them, became lightning rods of engineers' discontent. In August 1896 ASE members in Govan struck without the ASE Executive's approval after a nonunionist was allowed to work a lathe, and the newly- formed Employers' Federation of Engineering Associations threatened an industry-wide lockout unless the Govan men returned to work. Although a lockout was averted for the time being, tensions in the industry remained high. In January 1897, after a nine-month strike, ASE members in Hull forced their employer to recognize the Society's position on the machine question. Although the number of disputes continued to increase in the early months of 1897, both the Employers' Federation and the ASE Executive preferred to avoid an industry-wide work stoppage, and the two sides agreed to a national conference to be held in April.
Burgess argues that it was the ASE's weakness which made the Executive receptive to the idea of a conference on the machine question -- a weakness he contends was due to the Society's failure in the 1890s to pursue a policy of "comprehension," i.e., to organize the growing number of semiskilled workers in the industry. It was impossible, argues Burgess, "for what was essentially a trade union of fitters and turners to wage industrial warfare on behalf of the non-unionist majority, particularly since unionist and non-unionist alike were increasingly competing for similar kinds of work." The skilled engineers' effort to maintain a monopoly over certain jobs, even after the new machinery had eliminated most of the skill necessary to perform them, alienated them from the semiskilled operatives, most of whom "were only too willing to work machinery at lower rates of pay."23
The April 1897 conference failed to resolve the machine question, and renewed rank-and-file ASE militancy in its wake led to a nationwide lockout, which by October affected 45,000 workers and 579 firms. The engineering lockout of 1897-1898 ended in defeat for the ASE and the formal recognition of the employers' right to hire "any worker deemed suitable to operate machine tools at a mutually agreed wage."24 The craft exclusivism of British skilled engineers at this time, and their resultant weakness in the face of employers determined to assert their prerogatives, contrasts strongly with the militant industrial unionism of the Chambonnaire artisanal fileworkers.
British engineers in the late nineteenth century were skilled industrial workers with a long history of legal and successful craft unionism, not artisans recently confined in the factory and just starting to experiment with the possibilities of legal workplace organization. Although there is not enough evidence to say how representative the Chambonnaire fileworkers were of French skilled metalworkers as a whole (or even of skilled metalworkers in the Loire),25 a clear comparison can be made between British and French fileworkers in the late nineteenth century. The Sheffield file trades were actually organized on an industrial basis in the first half of the nineteenth century, but after the mechanization of file forging, which led to a general strike in 1866, the more skilled fileworkers set up a separate union. Hanagan tells us that "[t]he formation of craft unions had a logic of its own, and there were soon separate unions for hardeners, grinders, cutters, hand forgers, and machine forgers." On the other hand, when the fileworkers' union was organized in Le Chambon in 1888, "no heritage of organizational factionalism existed," and machine forgers "were admitted into the union with all the other workers at the factory level."
Whereas in Sheffield several decades of craft unionism in the file trades "created competing hierarchies of full- time paid officials who were not disposed to risk their union organization and their paid office for solidarity with other unions," in Le Chambon fileworkers provided the core constituency for industry-wide metal unionism after 1900 and financed several industrial metalworker strikes. In Sheffield, unlike in Le Chambon, the mechanization of filecutting at the end of the century met little determined resistance.26
Hinton calls the ASE's craft bargaining policy "remarkably successful" despite the defeat of 1897-1898, noting that the engineers did win recognition from the employers "that ‘special consideration' should be given to the employment of displaced craftsmen." As a measure of the engineers' success in "following the machine," he cites the fact that by 1914 much of the work performed by skilled engineers and paid at the craft rate actually required little skill. But this success, Hinton argues, "rested increasingly on bluff," because "as the real skill content of their work declined," the engineers "lost their ability to defend the standard rate by deploying genuine craft bargaining power."
The inconsistency of the ASE's strategy became fully apparent after the outbreak of war in 1914, when dilution was introduced on a large scale under government direction. The war effort required a huge expansion in engineering production, which in turn necessitated the recruitment of large numbers of semi- and unskilled workers, many of them women. Dilution seldom meant the displacement or downgrading of skilled workers, especially in ammunition work where most dilutees were employed on new plant or in new factories, and there was a severe shortage of skilled labor throughout the war. Skilled engineers were needed to set up tools for dilutees, build and maintain machinery, test and inspect products, and for other complex tasks. Thus, Hinton argues, "skilled engineers remained a privileged stratum despite dilution," although this did not lessen their sense of insecurity about the threat dilution posed to their craft bargaining strategy, and he suggests that it was the "combination of a very powerful bargaining position with a very strong sense of insecurity" that explains the engineers' explosive wartime militancy. Furthermore, he argues that this militancy could not be contained "within the existing structures of engineering trade unionism," because the ASE Executive did not understand "the problems posed for the traditional craft strategy by wartime dilution."27
AS WE HAVE SEEN, strike activity in the British metalworking industries was increasing in the years before the war, with almost three times as many strikes occurring during 1910-1914 as in 1905-1909. In the engineering industry there were 92 strikes during 1910-1914. Eighteen of these are classified as "miscellaneous," and 40 arose from conflicts over wages, piece rates, and overtime pay, which is not surprising in an inflationary period. But there were almost as many strikes (34) over control of the workplace as there were over issues of remuneration.28
When war broke out in 1914, the ASE Executive joined other trade union executives in declaring an "industrial truce" -- a no-strike pledge for the war's duration -- which was formalized in the Treasury Agreement of March 1915. This was given statutory force by the Munitions Act of June 1915, which outlawed strikes and lockouts in the munitions sector and established a category of "controlled establishments," in which all "restrictive practices" concerning the employment of less skilled labor were suspended and workplace organization was under state control. A Ministry of Munitions was created to coordinate war production, with the authority to assign workers to plants according to the needs of the state, and local Boards of Management were established, which excluded labor representatives.
In the winter of 1915-1916 and again in the winter of 1916-1917, the ASE tried unsuccessfully to counter this lack of representation, arguing for the establishment of joint committees that would give workers a hand in the administration of local industry.29 Hinton argues that ASE leaders "retained considerable bargaining power despite the very limited character of their inroads into the formal decision- making process." But their ability to deploy that power "was severely limited by their commitment to the war effort." Once they accepted the no-strike terms of the Munitions Act, ASE leaders "could hardly back up their claims with the direct threat of strike action."30
Hinton describes the ASE Executive's response to dilution as "[c]raft exclusiveness tempered by patriotic collaboration." It was based on a "continuing belief in the long-term future of craft unionism" and "made no allowance at all for the technological dynamism of the industry." But while the Executive continued to "follow the machine" and pinned its hopes on guarantees of a postwar restoration of prewar craft practices in the industry, the shop stewards in the Clydeside munitions factories were developing a more realistic and class-conscious response to the dilution threat that accepted dilution as "a progressive and permanent development which could not be resisted and with which the craftsmen must come to terms."31 The Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC), formed in October 1915, was composed of 250-300 delegates from the engineering and shipbuilding trades and led by a small group of shop stewards from the munitions factories, all of them socialists of one kind or another.
The chairman of the CWC, William Gallacher, was a member of the British Socialist Party (BSP), and two other members of the leading group, James Messer and David Kirkwood, were members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). But the most important political influence on the CWC was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which espoused Daniel De Leon's philosophy of socialist industrial unionism. Besides Gallacher, Messer, and Kirkwood, all the other members of the leading group -- John Muir, Arthur MacManus and Tom Clark -- were SLP members. The SLP had long denounced craft unions as "the blue blood of the working class," and the CWC's policy was that in the long run the only adequate response to dilution was to do away with craft unionism and, as Gallacher put it, "weld these unions into one powerful organization that will place the workers in complete control of the industry." CWC leaders also demanded, as a negotiating stance on the dilution issue, the nationalization of "all industries and national resources" and worker participation in management, and stated their determination to "force this matter to an issue."32
The confrontation came almost immediately, and in the early months of 1916, dilution was imposed on the government's terms. In January the government dispatched three Dilution Commissioners to the Clyde, where they cooperated closely with William Weir, the Director of Munitions for Scotland and part-owner of a large engineering firm, Weir's of Cathcart. In February the Commissioners began to enforce dilution on a plant-by-plant basis. Meanwhile, the SLP's newspaper was suppressed, and Gallacher and Muir were arrested, charged with violating the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) and held without bail, although bail was granted after several thousand engineering workers struck in protest.
In March the engineers at Parkhead Forge struck after management revoked Kirkwood's power as shop steward to move freely around the plant in order to ascertain the wages and conditions of dilutees. Other plants followed, and on March 25th Messer, MacManus, Kirkwood and two other Parkhead shop stewards were deported from the Clyde. The strike continued to expand, five more shop stewards were deported, including Tom Clark, and strikers were threatened with prosecution under the Munitions Act and DORA unless they returned to work immediately. By early April the strike collapsed, amid rumors that martial law was about to be declared. A number of strikers were prosecuted and fined, and Gallacher and Muir were each sentenced to one year in jail.33
Hinton argues that the CWC was "easy prey" for government repression because it "failed to transcend the objective limitations of its original base" among the 20 percent or so of the skilled engineers on the Clyde employed in the munitions sector. The CWC's dilution policy went beyond the craft exclusiveness of the ASE's, but it was only directly relevant to workers in the munitions factories where the dilution threat was greatest. An industrial union could not be built overnight, because the less skilled munitions workers were mostly unorganized on the Clyde, where the Workers' Union and other general unions were weak. But the cooperation of these workers "was essential if dilution was to be positively controlled, not merely resisted." Thus, "[e]ven the revolutionaries could not escape entanglement in the protective reflexes of the craftsmen," and they were unable "to become an effective vanguard for the local working class as a whole." Still, despite its failures and difficulties, the CWC succeeded in developing a "new type of local independent rank-and-file organization based in the workshops and the shop steward system," and this idea subsequently spread to other centers of munitions production.34
In Sheffield, where the less skilled engineering workers were much better organized than on Clydeside and dilution was less of an issue, an Engineering Shop Stewards' Committee was formed, which linked up ASE shop stewards in the campaign against the Munitions Act and the new policy of military conscription introduced in the spring of 1916. Under the Committee's leadership, 12,000 engineers from the ASE and other skilled engineering unions in Sheffield struck in November 1916 after a fitter was conscripted. The government was forced to back down, and in January 1917 the Committee reconstituted itself as the Sheffield Workers' Committee, thus extending the movement to skilled engineers outside the ASE, although the issue that precipitated the strike -- the exemption of skilled men from conscription -- was as much an issue of craft privilege as dilution was on Clydeside.35
Rank-and-file militancy continued to spread in 1917, and in May engineering workers struck in Lancashire, Sheffield and Rotherham, Coventry, London and other areas. The strikes of May 1917 involved over 200,000 workers and the loss of one-and-a-half million working days. They were precipitated by the government's plan to introduce dilution on private work (i.e. to transfer skilled engineers in private industries to state-controlled munitions factories), and by its decision to abolish the "Trade Card" scheme which in the early months of 1917 exempted skilled munitions workers from military conscription. In an attempt to coordinate the strike movement nationally, a Joint Engineering Shop Stewards' Committee was formed, which sought direct negotiations with the government and refused to accept the right of the ASE Executive to negotiate a settlement without submitting it to a vote of the strikers. But the final settlement was negotiated between the Executive and the government, which agreed to drop the plan to introduce dilution on private work, but not the decision to abolish the Trade Card scheme.36
HINTON SEES THE MAY 1917 STRIKES as a significant step backward for the rank-and-file movement, arguing that the struggle to defend the Trade Card scheme "did more than anything else to undo or to retard the shop steward leaders' work of constructing an alliance with the less skilled workers and inculcating a revolutionary perspective among the craftsmen." In Sheffield the strike aroused considerable hostility among the less skilled workers, who reportedly hung around outside the strikers' mass meetings with wounded soldiers and sang bitterly, "Don't send me in the army, George, I'm in the ASE/Take all the bloody labourers, but for God's sake don't take me."37 But May 1917, Hinton argues, was not the "climax" of the rank- and-file movement. In subsequent months, "the movement recovered from its lapse into mere craft concerns, expanded its base, developed a national leadership and by January 1918 had moved into the forefront of militant anti-war politics."
In August 1917 representatives of shop stewards' organizations held a conference in Manchester, where they elected a National Administrative Council (NAC) of the Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement. The conference also threatened strike action in October unless "a substantial increase had been made in the skilled men's wages." When the government granted a 12.5 percent increase to skilled timeworkers, less skilled workers in the engineering and other metal industries demanded inclusion, thus giving the skilled engineers a chance to demonstrate their solidarity with the less skilled. In Sheffield in particular, and throughout the country, the fight to extend the 12.5 percent bonus did much to reduce the divisions between skilled and less skilled and thus expand the base of the rank-and-file movement. The summer and autumn of 1917 also saw the return of the CWC's deported leaders to Clydeside and the reconstitution of the Committee as a militant vanguard on the Clyde.38
The possibility of a revolutionary alliance with the antiwar movement, however, was missed in early 1918. On January 5th and 6th another national conference of shop stewards was held in Manchester, and this time the delegates recommended nationwide strike action to prevent the passage of a bill authorizing the government to cancel exemptions from military service based on occupation. It was decided that delegates should "ascertain from the workers in the districts, what form this action shall take, and at once acquaint the NAC." Significantly, the conference rejected any defense of a privileged exemption for skilled workers, and it advised the rank-and-file movement to "demand that the government shall at once accept the invitation of the Russian Government to consider peace terms."
But when the delegates returned on January 25th with their reports from the localities, the NAC declined to issue a strike call. The delegates from London and Clydeside both strongly favored strike action, but neither had held a workshop ballot on the question. In Sheffield and Manchester, workshop meetings had shown the rank and file to be "opposed to strike action against the war." At another conference in April, most of the delegates reported that the workers were not willing to support an antiwar movement. Hinton argues that although the NAC may have had no choice but "to abdicate responsibility for the mass movement" in January 1918, the decision not to strike against the war "proved a fatal blow from which the movement…did not recover after the war."39
Burgess criticizes Hinton for ignoring the "wider political climate" and focusing too exclusively in his explanation of the rank-and-file movement's failure on "internal divisions in the movement that can be reduced simply to variations in productive relations" (i.e., the divisions between skilled and less skilled workers). He argues that the government's efforts after mid-1917 "to develop new institutional forms for the containment of industrial conflict [e.g., the Ministry of Reconstruction] created a new ideological discourse that offered hope for the future," and were thus instrumental in preventing the movement from expanding its base of support "to the degree required for a fundamental political challenge to the power of the state."
Furthermore, "the reconstruction of the Labour party during 1917-18, with clause four of its new constitution widely interpreted as an indication of its commitment to socialism, appeared to offer working people hope in the constitutional road to an improved tomorrow" and thus made a "Bolshevik- style seizure of power" seem unnecessary.40 Burgess also criticizes Hinton's explanation of skilled engineers' wartime militancy, arguing that it was the "politicization of productive relations rather than any inherent technological dynamism" that explains the extent and character of the engineers' militancy during the war.41 For his part, Hinton seems to assign roughly equal explanatory weight to the politicization of production and the technical transformation of the engineering industry, arguing merely that "[t]he struggle over rationalization and dilution of labour is at least as important a part of the context of the shop stewards' movement as the struggle against industrial compulsion."42 If Hinton is overly economistic, Burgess is equally culpable of privileging politics and state-generated discourses at the expense of more purely material considerations.
In France, as in Britain, most labor leaders did not oppose the outbreak of war in 1914. The national leadership of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), which in late July 1914 had proclaimed itself "absolutely opposed to any war," reversed itself in early August and declared its support for a war to save "democratic and revolutionary" France from "German militarism." CGT general secretary Léon Jouhaux and other CGT officials accepted positions on government boards and joint committees alongside employers' representatives.43 The most prominent CGT leader to oppose the war from the outset was Alphonse Merrheim, secretary of the Metalworkers' Federation.
In December Merrheim published two articles in the CGT journal La Bataille Syndicaliste defending the antiwar position of Karl Liebknecht, the left-wing Socialist who voted against war credits in the German Reichstag. Merrheim declared that "[i]t would be an everlasting honor for the CGT to have neatly and loudly sided with Karl Liebknecht." In April 1915 the FOM adopted a resolution sympathizing with the antiwar campaign in Germany led by Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, and calling on the CGT to launch a similar campaign. In May Merrheim, working with his friend Alfred Rosmer, published a special antiwar issue of the FOM's journal, L'Union des Métaux. In the lead article, Merrheim denounced the CGT's collaboration with the war effort and called for peace with no annexations. After the journal's publication, two other CGT federations and five departmental unions endorsed the FOM's antiwar position.44
French war mobilization, like that in Britain, required state intervention on an unprecedented scale and a transformation of the war-related industries of munitions and steel. In early 1915 the government began recalling soldiers from the front lines, and by the beginning of 1917 mobilized military workers comprised over one-third of the workforce in the war industries nationally and almost one-half the number in the Loire. As in Britain, the position of skilled workers in the munitions sector was threatened by the recruitment of large numbers of less skilled female workers and the introduction of new machines. Amdur sees dilution as a factor in French metalworkers' wartime militancy,45 but she provides little if any evidence of this; dilution was never as explosive an issue in France as it was in Britain, because French skilled metalworkers lacked the craft bargaining power of their British counterparts. As we have seen, the FOM, although an industrial union, was much smaller than the ASE in 1914, and its membership fell in the first two years of the war as members were called up to serve on the front lines. The Le Chambon metalworkers' union fell from 400 to 100 members after the mobilization, and at Saint-Etienne membership dropped from several hundred before the war to barely a dozen in May 1916.46 Even if the FOM had been a stronger union in 1914-1916, it is still unlikely that its response to dilution would have been to defend the craft privileges of its skilled members at the expense of the less skilled metalworkers it was also committed to organizing.
To coordinate war production the French government named right-wing Socialist Albert Thomas to head a new department of Artillery and Munitions within the War Ministry, which later became a separate Ministry of Armaments. In early 1917 legislation was passed banning strikes in war production, establishing arbitration procedures, and improving the wages, hours and conditions of workers in the war industries. At the suggestion of the FOM and other federations, Thomas organized a system of shop stewards to handle workplace grievances in armaments plants under the terms of the new law.47 Thus, as Carmen Sirianni notes, in France the shop steward system was established by the government within the framework of industrial unionism, unlike in Britain where in most places the shop stewards arose spontaneously outside and often in antagonism to the official craft-union structure.
But the system implemented by the government fell far short of the federations' proposals for workshop delegates with broad functions and constituted in a collective factory body under the authority of the union. Isolated, the delegates were prone to management influence and generally functioned to conciliate rather than providing workers in the war industries with greater workplace control. Some French shop stewards defied the restrictions and formed factory councils either loyal to or independent of the official union structure, but these councils seem to have played much less of a role in wartime strike activity than the workers' committees in Britain. Sirianni explains this difference by the "structural congruency" in France between the shop steward system and industrial unionism, which "undercut any struggle for recognition of the delegates as a means of creating an all-grades organization of workers." Similarly, in British munitions centers such as Birmingham and Coventry, where less skilled workers were well-organized and the bargaining position of the skilled engineers was thoroughly undermined by dilution before the war, "union structures capable of housing the stewards were available, thus depriving the more revolutionary elements of leadership and a mass base in the struggle for recognition itself."48
In September 1915 Merrheim attended the international conference of antiwar activists at Zimmerwald, Switzerland. Upon his return to France he resumed his pacifist activities, editing more antiwar issues of L'Union des Métaux, speaking to meetings of CGT and Socialist peace advocates in various parts of the country, and establishing local antiwar committees. In early 1916 Merrheim helped organize and lead the Committee for the Resumption of International Relations (CRRI), which worked to spread the ideas of the Zimmerwald conference and to reestablish relations between the European Socialist parties as a way of bringing an end to the war. By the spring of 1916, however, many members of the CRRI were moving beyond the moderate pacifism endorsed by the majority at Zimmerwald. Merrheim, who had opposed Lenin's calls for revolutionary antiwar action at the conference, eventually quit the Committee, the sole leadership of which then passed to the left-wing Socialist faction led by Fernand Loriot.
MEANWHILE, LEFT-WING SYNDICALISTS impatient with the moderate pacifism represented by Merrheim but suspicious of Socialist leadership joined the Committee for the Defense of Syndicalism (CDS) led by Raymond Péricat of the building trades workers and Pierre Monatte. It was this left-wing syndicalist current that was to be most influential on the antiwar movement in the Loire. The Union Départmentale (UD) of the Loire was one of the five departmental unions to endorse the FOM's antiwar position in May 1915, and by early 1916 a small antiwar labor committee was meeting in Saint-Etienne, led by the secretary of the Saint-Etienne metalworkers' union, Laurent Torcieux. A small anarchist antiwar group also met in 1915 and 1916; its members included Clovis Andrieu, metalworkers' union secretary in Firminy, and Saint-Etienne typesetter Charles Flageollet, who became UD secretary in May 1917.49
Torcieux and Andrieu also played key roles in the revival of metalworker unionism and militancy in the Loire. Torcieux, a Loire native mobilized at the Manufacture Nationale d'Armes, had been forced to leave the area in 1910 because of his part in the strikes at Le Chambon. In September 1916 he published a pseudonymous letter protesting the exploitation of mobilized workers in the war industries. The letter argued that the Ministry of Armaments' wage regulations were discriminatory because they fixed mobilized workers' wages on the basis of the average wages paid to civilians in the largest enterprises, which paid less than the smaller firms and employed a smaller percentage of the total workforce. Mobilized workers were also denied overtime supplements, because they were considered, as soldiers, to owe all their time to the government. Torcieux demanded a new wage scale (barème) for the mobilized workers, and it was this demand that became the rallying cry in the strikes of 1917. But Torcieux, probably fearing reprisals, resigned as Saint-Etienne metalworkers' union secretary by the end of 1916 and played little role in these or other wartime strikes.50 Andrieu, a Paris native mobilized at the Holtzer steel plant in the Loire, maintained ties with Parisian syndicalists such as Merrheim and Péricat.
As more and more recalled soldiers returned from the front to work in the war industries of the Loire, Andrieu and other activists worked to bring women and foreign workers into the Loire metalworker unions, urging them to support the mobilized workers' wage demands and to demand higher wages and shorter hours for themselves. Their efforts paid off as the unions more than recovered from their weakened state during the first two years of the war. The Saint-Chamond metalworkers' union claimed 4,000 members in May 1917, including 800 women, and the department-wide Loire Union des Métaux claimed 20,000 in mid-1917, over half of them mobilized workers. Nationwide, the FOM claimed 150,000 members in mid-1917, a six-fold increase since before the war.51
As the metalworker unions grew, strikes became more frequent. Strikes had practically ceased in the French metalworking industries in the first two years of the war, but there were signs of reviving militancy in 1916. Whereas in 1915 there was only one metalworker strike in France, with 18 participants, in 1916 there were 54, with an average of 188 participants.52 By contrast, in Britain there were 189 strikes in the metalworking industries in 1915, and 105 in 1916.53 This difference can be explained by the much greater potency of the dilution issue in Britain, as well as by the weakness of the FOM in 1914-1916. But in 1917 the barème became an issue for mobilized metalworkers in France to compare with the dilution issue for skilled engineers in Britain.
In January 1917 a wave of strikes spread through the war industries in Paris and several provinces. It was this strike wave that prompted the French government to pass the aforementioned legislation of early 1917 and then establish a shop steward system to handle workplace grievances in the war industries under the new law. In April the government issued a new barème which applied to military as well as civilian labor, but militants in the Loire and elsewhere rejected this as unsatisfactory, partly because it did little to improve the wages of skilled workers -- a sign that divisions between skilled and less skilled metalworkers still existed despite the growth of industrial unionism. The barème was revised again in June, too late to avert another strike wave that summer. Militants also objected to the shop steward system, which they saw as a thinly-veiled attempt by the employers and government to undermine union autonomy. Merrheim lost credit with left-wing metalworkers when he backed down from his initial proposals for the system and left the delegates isolated, and in the Loire some local union leaders were ousted in 1917 for their moderation on this and other issues.54
The alliance of militant metalworkers with the antiwar movement that was never more than a possibility in Britain was accomplished in the Loire in 1917, although as we have seen the two were never entirely separate in the Loire. The alliance was completed as the growing metalworker unions sought to coordinate strike activity throughout the department. The Saint-Etienne Bourse du Travail and the Loire UD were both led until May 1917 by Philippe Grégoire, a local musician with no base of support in the labor movement. Although Grégoire was succeeded as UD secretary by the anarchist typesetter Flageollet, his replacement at the Bourse was a moderate Socialist who opposed any militant antiwar action. To provide more effective department-wide leadership, the Loire metalworker unions founded a Comité Intercorporatif (CI), which maintained close contact with the Parisian left-wing syndicalists in the CDS. The CI expanded to include all major unions in the department, although some, such as the coal miners, showed little enthusiasm for antiwar strike action. The metalworkers' strongest allies on the CI were the building trades workers, whose federation secretary Raymond Péricat was a leading CDS militant.55
The CI's effectiveness was demonstrated by the end of the year. In late November Andrieu and other Loire militants demanded another revision of the baréme; they also denounced the employers for profiting from war production and pressuring the government to prolong the war. Merrheim, who by now was playing a much more conciliatory role, urged the militants to wait while the FOM negotiated with the Ministry of Armaments; the government, which under new Prime Minister Clemenceau was taking a hard line against "defeatism," decided to retaliate by returning Andrieu to the front lines. Andrieu's departure was immediately followed by a mass strike in his defense, in which between 100,000 and 200,000 workers participated. After ten days the government was forced to reach a compromise agreement with the CI, and it was announced that Andrieu was merely "on leave" and that the Ministry of Armaments would renegotiate the barème with the FOM.
Of course, not all the strikers shared the revolutionary and antiwar aims of the militants; as Amdur argues, most metalworkers probably acted in solidarity with Andrieu and in "defense of syndicalist liberties," and for many workers, especially the miners, wage issues were probably paramount. But Amdur sees the strike as a crucial turning point because it "revealed the new line of demarcation within the syndicalist movement, no longer between prowar and antiwar factions" but between the moderate majority and left-wing minority.56 This split was reflected nationally at the CGT conference in late December 1917, where the confederation voted to work for peace on a platform that combined Wilsonian "peace without victory" principles and support for the Bolshevik Revolution. Only two delegates dissented from this apparently contradictory resolution; even CDS militants such as Péricat voted for it out of concern for syndicalist unity. But Loire militants denounced their delegate, Saint-Etienne Bourse secretary Antoine Reynard, who they alleged violated a mandate from home by voting with the majority.57
Metalworker strike activity ebbed in early 1918, as economic conditions improved and a new German offensive made most workers and even some militants more cautious about antiwar strike action. In the first four months of 1918, there were only four strikes in the Loire metalworking industries, averaging less than 500 working days lost apiece. But the German offensive also prompted the French government to start sending large numbers of younger mobilized workers and civilians from the war industries to the front. In the Loire over a thousand workers were called up, and Andrieu and other militants organized demonstrations in which women gathered at train stations, tugged at the conscripted soldiers' coats and cried, "Don't leave! Down with the war!"
CGT moderates, including Merrheim, counseled caution and agreed to postpone a CGT conference planned for the spring and all antiwar action until the military situation improved. In late March CDS militants in the southeast region convened an interdepartmental conference at Saint-Etienne, where they voted to demand that the CGT hold the planned conference; when the CGT refused, the CDS announced that it would hold its own conference at Saint-Etienne in mid-May. The left-wing syndicalists also called for a one-day nationwide strike on May Day, which some hoped would spark a widespread insurrection against the war. In fact, the strike was mostly unsuccessful outside the Loire, where it was supported by the UD and organized by the Comité Intercorporatif. In the Loire probably 30,000 workers participated at Saint-Etienne alone, and large turnouts were also reported at Firminy and Le Chambon.
The May Day strike was only planned for one day, but when several workers were dismissed from the Verdié steel plant for alleged "sabotage," the Loire metal unions responded by calling a general strike, which spread to Firminy, Le Chambon, Unieux and even Paris, where an estimated 200,000 metalworkers struck in solidarity with the Loire strikers. When the CDS conference convened in Saint-Etienne, the delegates voted 114 to 4 (with 60 abstentions) to call for a nationwide general strike in the war industries, but this found little support outside the southeast, and most of the Paris strikers were already back at work by the time the conference started. Still, the strike continued for the rest of May in the Loire; it ended when the government arrested Péricat, Andrieu, Flageollet and about 120 other militants. Most of the arrested were mobilized workers; some were indicted on military charges, while others were returned to the army. The repression marked the end of wartime strike activity in the Loire; the militants were not freed until the following winter.58
AFTER THE WAR the left-wing minority in the FOM expanded quickly from its wartime base in the Loire. Of course, after 1918 the primary issue dividing moderate from left-wing syndicalists was no longer the war but support for the Bolshevik Revolution and the new Third International. At the 1919 CGT Congress at Lyon, 42 percent of the metalworker unions affiliated with the FOM voted with the left-wing faction; at the 1921 Congress at Lille, 54 percent sided with the left.59
By 1922 both the FOM and the CGT had split, and the left-wing metal unions joined the new Confédération Générale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU), which in 1923 affiliated with the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), the Third International's labor organization. In Britain, the merger of the ASE with nine other metal-craft unions in 1920 to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) still did not signify the advent of industrial unionism in the British metal trades, although Hinton argues that "the pursuit of the wages policy developed on the Clyde in 1916 had much to do with the capacity of the AEU in the long term to adapt itself to the technological dynamism of the industry and gradually expand into an all-grades industrial organization."60 Although there was no formal split in the labor movement in Britain, in 1922 the NAC of the shop stewards' movement officially merged with the British Bureau of the RILU.61
As we have seen, metalworker militancy developed one way in France, another in Britain. In France, the gradualness of technological change made possible the survival of large numbers of artisanal metalworkers until late in the nineteenth century, who even after their inclusion in the factory continued to maintain an artisanal work culture that emphasized autonomy and egalitarianism. These artisans responded to the threat of mechanization by forging alliances with less skilled metalworkers, encouraging and defending their efforts to unionize and eventually organizing them into industrial unions. By contrast, in Britain the faster pace of technological change undermined the artisanal culture much earlier, and by the end of the century British engineers were skilled industrial workers long accustomed to factory hierarchy and discipline. They possessed a powerful craft union that protected their bargaining position in the industry, and they saw no need to build alliances with less skilled workers, whom they regarded as a threat to their wages and status.
In France, although tension between skilled and less skilled metalworkers still existed, dilution was much less of an issue than in Britain because French skilled metalworkers lacked the craft bargaining power of their British counterparts. The Metalworkers' Federation was greatly weakened during the first two years of the war as many of its members were called up for military duty. But in 1915 the government began recalling soldiers from the front to work in the war industries, and by 1917 the metal unions were considerably larger than they had been before the war. Mobilized metalworkers such as Clovis Andrieu played key roles as organizers and strike leaders in the Loire; most of the arrested militants in the 1918 Loire general strike were mobilized workers in the war industries. In Britain wartime leadership was provided by the shop stewards' and workers' committee movement, which tried to develop a more realistic and class-conscious alternative to the ASE's craft bargaining strategy. The Clyde Workers' Committee went furthest in this regard, arguing that in the long run the only adequate response to dilution was industrial unionism. But this was only a long-term goal, and in the short term the CWC and other workers' committees did not succeed in expanding the base of the rank-and-file movement and constructing an alliance with the less skilled workers, although some progress was made in late 1917.
There was no shop stewards' movement in France; although a shop steward system was created by the government in 1917 to handle workplace grievances in the war industries, the shop stewards' functions were severely circumscribed, and most militants saw the system as a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine union autonomy. Furthermore, unlike in Britain where in most places the shop stewards' movement arose outside the craft-union structure as a means of transcending craft divisions, in France the shop stewards existed officially within the framework of industrial unions, which made them much less effective as a base for insurgent rank-and-file activity.
FINALLY, THERE IS THE question of working-class ideologies. In France, anarchosyndicalism mostly reinforced the class-conscious tendencies of prewar artisanal metalworkers, although their initial impulse toward class solidarity and industrial unionism seems to have developed, paradoxically, from their preindustrial traditions of egalitarianism and independence from authority. Wartime Loire militants such as Andrieu also found a basis for their actions in anarchist or left-wing syndicalist philosophy. In Britain the De Leonist industrial unionism of the SLP and the class-struggle socialism of the BSP and ILP provided direction for a movement struggling to overcome craft divisions and establish working- class control of industry. But the revival of the Labour Party in 1917-1918 probably made many British socialists less willing than they might have been to launch an insurrectionary general strike to end the war.
Could such a strike have led to a working-class seizure of power in Britain or France in 1917-1918, as occurred in Russia at that time? The odds were against it. What made working-class revolution feasible in Russia in 1917 was, above all, the obsolescence of the Russian social structure, which was shaken to its foundations by the war. Compared to Russia, Britain and France were advanced, stable capitalist societies capable of mobilizing for war (and against internal opposition) with a high degree of effectiveness, whatever the human cost. This of course does not mean that revolution was impossible in Britain and France in 1917-1918, but only that we should not assume it would have occurred had working-class leaders acted more decisively. One thing is certain: a successful working-class revolution in either country would have profoundly altered the subsequent history of Europe, the international workers movement and the world.
Contents of No. 35
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