How workers can find their power

Submitted by Matthew on 24 August, 2011 - 11:57

This is the second part of JT Murphy’s 1917 pamphlet The Workers’ Committee. Murphy was a founder member of the Communist Party and a Sheffield metal worker. Here Murphy outlines his socialist-syndicalist viewpoint: how workers organised in workers’ committees, plant committees and local federations of those committees could develop class consciousness as well as organise themselves to win class battles. The pamphlet remains a source of ideas for any union militant wishing to building rank-and-file organisation. More background and the first part can be found here.


The next step to intensify the development of the workshop committees [is] by the formation in every plant of a Plant Committee. All the stewards of each firm, from every department of that firm, should meet and elect a committee from amongst them to centralise the efforts or link up the shop committees in the firm.

Just as it is necessary to co-operate the workshops for production, so it is necessary to co-ordinate the work of the shop committees. As there are questions which affect a single department, so there are questions which affect the plant as a whole. The function of a Plant Committee, will be such that every question, every activity, can be known throughout the departments at the earliest possible moment, and the maximum of attention be rapidly developed. The complaints of workers that they do not know what is happening would become less frequent. The trick of “playing” one department against another to cut rates could easily be stopped.

Without a Central Committee on each Plant, the workshop committee tends to looseness in action, which is not an advantage to the workers’ movement. On the other hand with a Plant Committee at work, every change in workshop practice could be observed, every new department tackled as to the organisation of the workers in that department, and everywhere would proceed a growth of the knowledge among the workers of how intimately related we are to each other, how dependent we are each to the other for the production of society’s requirements. There would proceed a cultivation of the consciousness of the social character of the methods of production. Without that consciousness all hope of a united working class is vain, and complete solidarity impossible.

Instead of it being a theory of a few, that the workers are associated in production, the organisation of the workers at the centres of production will demonstrate it as a fact. Then will the smelters, the moulders, the labourers, forgemen, blacksmiths, etc., and all other workers, emphasise their social relationship, their interdependence in production, and the power they can be when linked together on a common basis.

Not only do we find in modern capitalism a tendency for nations to become self-contained, but also industrial enterprises within the nations tend in a similar direction. Enterprising employers with capital organised for the exploitation of certain resources, such as coal, iron and steel productions, etc., find themselves at the beginning of their enterprise dependent upon other groups of capitalists for certain facilities for the production of their particular speciality. The result is that each group, seeking more and more to minimise the cost of production, endeavours to obtain first-hand control over all which is essential for that business, whatever it may be.

For example, consider the growth of a modern armament firm. It commences its career by specialising in armour plate, and finds itself dependent on outsiders for coal, transport, machinery, and general goods. It grows, employs navvies, bricklayers, joiners, carpenters, and erectors to build new departments. It employs mechanics to do their own repairs to machinery and transport. As new departments come into being a railway system and carting systems follow. With the enlargement of the firm electrical plant and motors, and gas producers are introduced, which again enlarge the scope of the management for production of goods for which hitherto they had been dependent upon outsiders. A hold is achieved on some coal mine, a grip its obtained of the railway system, and so at every step more and more workers of every description come under the control of a single employer or a group of employers.

We are brought together by the natural development of industry, and made increasingly indispensable to each other by the simplifying, subdividing processes used in production. We have become social groups, dependent upon a common employer or group of employers. The only way to meet the situation is to organise to fight as we are organised to produce. Hence the Plant Committee to bring together all workers on the plant, to concentrate labour power, to meet centralised capital’s power.

LOCAL WORKERS’ COMMITTEE

There are no clear demarcation lines between one industry and another, just as there are no clear demarcation lines between skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers. A modern engineering plant, as we have shown, has in it workers of various kinds all of which are dependent upon the engineering plant, and must accordingly be represented on the Plant Committee.

This drives us clear into other industries than engineering and makes imperative a similar development in these other industries as in the engineering industry. Then, just as from the trade union branches we have the Trade Council, so from the various industrial committees representatives should be elected to form the Local Workers’ Committee.

It will be similar in form to a trades council, with this essential difference — the trades council is only indirectly related to the workshops, whereas the Workers’ Committee is directly related. The former has no power, the latter has the driving power of the directly connected workers in the workshops. So the Workers’ Committee will be the means of focussing attention upon those questions which affect the workers as a whole in that locality.

The possibilities of such an organisation in a district are tremendous. Each committee will be limited by its nature to certain particular activities: the Workshop Committee to questions which affect the workshop, the Plant Committee to questions affecting the firm as a whole, the Industrial Committee to the questions of the industry, the Workers’ Committee to the questions relating to the workers as a class. Thus we are presented with a means of intensive and extensive development of greater power than as workers we have ever possessed before.

One has only to consider modern machine development to readily realise that as machinery enters the domain of all industries, as transport becomes more easy and mechanical, all kinds of workers become intermingled and interdependent. The consequences are such that fewer situations arise, fewer questions come to the front affecting, one industry alone or one section alone, and it becomes increasingly imperative that the workers should modify or adjust their organisations to meet the new industrial problems; for no dispute can now arise which does not directly affect more than the workers in one industry, even outside a single plant or firm.

A stoppage of much magnitude affects the miners by modifying the coal consumption, affects the railways by holding up goods for transport, and in some cases the railway workers are called upon, to convey “blackleg” goods and men to other centres than the dispute centres, and vice versa. A stoppage of miners soon stagnates other industries, and likewise a stoppage of railway workers affects miners, engineers, and so on. The necessity for mutual assistance thus becomes immediately apparent when a dispute arises, and an effective co-ordination of all wage workers is urged upon us.

The Workers’ Committee is the means to that end, not only for fighting purposes, but also for the cultivation of that class consciousness, which, we repeat, is so necessary to working class progress. Furthermore, as a means for the dissemination of information in every direction, such a committee will prove invaluable, and reversing the procedure, it will be able to focuss the opinions of the rank and file on questions relating to the working class as no other organisation has the facilities to do to-day.

NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL COMMITTEES

The further extensive development in the formation of a National Industrial Committee now demands our attention, for it will be readily agreed that the local organisations must be co-ordinated for effective action.

We are of the opinion that the local structure must have its counterpart in the National Structure, so we must proceed to show how a National Industrial Committee can be formed. In the initial stages of the movement it will be apparent that a ballot for the election of the first National Committee would be impossible, and as we, as workers, are not investing these committees with executive power there is little to worry about. Therefore a National Conference of Delegates from the local industrial committees should be convened in the most convenient centre. From this conference should be elected a National Administrative Committee for that industry, consideration being given to the localities from which the members of the committee are elected. Having thus provided for emergencies by such initial co-ordination the first task of the committee is to proceed to the perfecting of the organisation.

It will be essential for efficiency to group a number of centres together for the purpose of representation on the National Administrative Committee of the industry. We would suggest twelve geographical divisions, with two delegates from each division, the boundaries of the division depending upon the geographical distribution of the industry. The functions of the committee should be confined to the focussing of questions of a national character relating to the industry. It must be clearly understood that the National Industrial Committee is not to usurp the functions of the executive councils of the trade unions. Power to decide action is vested in the workshop so far as these committees are concerned.

If the occasion arises when the rank-and-file are so out of touch with the executive councils of their unions that they take action in spite of them, undoubtedly they would use whatever organisation lay to hand. Apart from such abnormal circumstances the functions of the committee should be confined to the building up of the organisation, to the dissemination of information throughout the workshops of all matters relating to the industry, initiating ways and means of altering the structure and constitutions of the trade unions, and working with the true spirit of democracy until the old organisations are so transformed that the outworn and the obsolete are thrown off, and we merge into the larger, more powerful structure we have outlined.

NATIONAL WORKERS’ COMMITTEE

But just as we found it necessary to arrive at the class basis in the local workers’ committee, so it is essential that we should have the counterpart to it to the National Workers’ Committee.

Again we find that history justifies the development. As the trade unionists of the past felt that there was a community of interest between all trade unionists in a locality, and formed the Trades Council, so they eventually found a similar move on national lines necessary and formed the Trades Union Congress. Its counterpart in our movement is the National Workers’ Committee. To form this we suggest two delegates should be elected from each National Industrial Committee. The smallness of the committee will not be a disadvantage. Of its nature it will confine itself to questions which affect the workers as a whole.

Having outlined the manner in which the structure can grow out of the existing conditions, we would emphasise the fact that we are not antagonistic to the Trade Union movement. We are not out to smash but to grow, to utilise every available means whereby we can achieve a more efficient organisation of the workers, that we all may become conscious by an increasing activity on our part how necessary each worker is to the other for production and for emancipation.

Unity in the workshop must come first, hence we have dealt more in detail with the Shop Committees than the larger organisations growing out of them. Not for a moment would we lay down a hard and fast policy. The old mingles with the new. Crises will arise which will produce organisations coloured by the nature of the questions at issue. But apart from abnormal situations we have endeavoured to show a clear line of development from the old to the new.

Working in the existing organisations, investing the rank and file with responsibility at every stage and in every crisis; seeking to alter the constitution of every organisation from within to meet the demands of the age; working always from the bottom upwards — we can see the rank and file of the workshops through the workshop committees dealing with the questions of the workshops, the rank and file of the firms tackling the questions of the plant as a whole through the plant committee, the industrial questions through the industrial committees, the working class questions through the working class organisation — the workers’ committee. The more such activity grows the more will the old organisations be modified, until, whether by easy stages or by a general move at a given time, we can fuse our forces into the structure which will have already grown.

So to work with a will from within your organisations, shouldering responsibility, liberating ideas, discarding prejudices, extending your organisations in every direction until we merge into the great Industrial Union of the Working Class. Every circumstance of the age demands such a culmination. The march of science, the concentration of the forces of capitalism, the power of the State, the transformation of the military armies into vast military industrial armies, all are factors in the struggles of the future, stupendous and appalling to contemplate.

“His Majesty’s Government will place the whole civil and military forces of the Crown at the disposal of the railway companies...” So said the Premier of 1911 [during the strike wave of that year] to the railway men. So will say the Premier of England to-morrow. The one mighty hope, the only hope, lies in the direction indicated, in a virile, thinking, courageous working class organised as a class to fight and win.

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