HC Deb 14 June 1927 vol 207 cc943-8

(1) A trade union or union of employers, whether registered or unregistered, shall not be entitled to call upon any of its members to strike, or lock out its employés, unless such strike or lock-out shall have been approved by resolution submitted to a ballot of its members who would be concerned or affected by such strike or lockout, such ballot to be in the form prescribed and under the conditions laid down in Section four of the Trades Union Act, 1913, such ballot, however, shall be considered void unless a minimum of sixty per cent. of the members of such union of employers or employés shall record their votes.

(2) No union of employers or employés shall he entitled to extend the area or scope of a lock-out or strike after a ballot has been taken unless such extension has been duly approved by a further ballot taken in the manner set forth in the foregoing Subsection.

(3) In the event of a ballot held in accordance with the conditions prescribed herein proving in favour of a lock-out or strike no such lock-out or strike shall be ordered to commence until the expiration of seventy-two hours after the result of the ballot has been communicated by the employers to the employés or the employés to the employers, and before the expiration of seventy-two hours after the posting of the results of the ballots at the head office and branch office of the unions concerned.

(4) No union of employers or employers, whether registered or unregistered, shall pay out any moneys to any member or members of its union who may be engaged in a lock-out or strike which has not been duly approved by ballot in the manner prescribed in the foregoing Sub-sections.

(5) If any person declares, instigates, furthers, or takes part in a strike declared by this Act to be illegal he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding ten pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.— [Colonel Burton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Colonel BURTON

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause has a two-fold purpose. The first object is to secure that before there is any strike or lock-out there shall be a genuine ballot of the persons concerned, who will be affected by that strike or lock-out; and the second is to allow a certain period to elapse between the announcement of the result of the ballot and putting the decision into operation, that is, to allow an opportunity for thinking matters over and for better counsels to prevail. If there had been any need for further justification for the moving of this new Clause, the events of last week, when by a minority vote, the control of co-operative societies was seized by the Socialist party and then were told by the same minority vote they would not be allowed to refer the matter to a referendum of their members, that is quite a sufficient justification to ask the House to adopt this new Clause. This House has spent a considerable amount of time in discussing and laying down what we believe to be a very good plan for the emancipation of the worker from the tyranny of trade union leaders. I consider that this plan, though it is a very good one, is not carried far enough, inasmuch as it does not appear to allow the members themselves to say whether or not the plan should be put into force. At the present time nobody who has anything to do with the workers' unions and who knows anything of the way in which those ballots are conducted can possibly be satisfied with the way they are carried out.

Not long ago the Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union was haled before Mr. Justice Tomlin for having taken an improper ballot and it was proved up to the hilt that many of the members who were entitled to vote did not receive ballot papers; and when it was found by the organisers that the ballot was going against the wishes of the trade union bosses, they stopped at nothing and issued a number of new voting papers, sent them to the secretaries of different branches and it was stated that one secretary filled up no less than 200 papers, 40 per cent. of which he marked as being against the wishes of the trade union leaders. In this instance one of the unsuccessful candidates was surprised at the result because he thought he had received enough promises to secure his election, and so he called at the office of the union, when to his surprise he found in the grate half burned, a number of ballot papers with votes opposite his name. This was the case of the Marine Workers' Union. We have no desire on this side of the House to stop a proper legal and bona fide combination of either workmen or unions for bona fide industrial purposes, hut we do desire that there should be none of those combinations for revolutionary purposes. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), who has been cited as a possible rival for the leadership of the Socialist party, and has even been named by some as the probable successor to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberavon (Mr. R. MacDonald), has told us with a characteristic candour which we all admire, that the desire of the Independent Labour party, which is the ginger group in the party opposite, was to capture co-operative societies for revolutionary purposes. On this side of the House we do not intend if we can help it that they shall be able to capture trade unions in that way for revolutionary purposes. We desire that there shall be an honest ballot before any strike or lock-out takes place either of the men or the employers. Speaking during the week-end the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Bromley) said: Prison or no prison, if the railwaymen find themselves in a false position— and who placed them in a false position last year?— and need protecting by the strike method, I shall tell them to strike, and I will take the consequences. But how can he take the consequences? After only 15 weeks of the coal stoppage one of the most respected trade unionists of this country declared that they had nothing to show for the straggle except the poverty and debt of the miners' families, permanent loss of markets, and a disorganisation of our national economic life. Besides the grave losses to himself, his wife and little ones, which will take him years to recover, he sees the decline of authority of his National Federation, the possibility of district agreements, a decrease in wages or an increase in hours or both. Those are the natural results and consequences of a strike, and I do not know any hon. Member who came back after the general strike or the coal stoppage who has suffered these consequences. I desire this Clause inserted in the Bill in order to secure that there shall be a ballot of at least 60 per cent. of the men or employers affected before such a condition of affairs can be brought about.


This Clause is one which has an object with which we can all sympathise, that is, to ensure that strikes or lock-outs shall take place only with the prior assent of those directly concerned in the strike or lockout. This suggestion at first sight has proved attractive to a great many people, but I think a closer investigation of the effect of the proposal and the method of carrying it out would convince those interested that really it is not a practical proposition, and that it would be more calculated to defeat than to attain the end towards which it is directed. The proposal is that before there can be a strike or lock-out called there should be a ballot taken of the men or employers concerned. The Clause does not prescribe at what stage in a dispute the ballot should actually be taken, and I cannot help thinking that in most cases at any rate in the early stages of the dispute, the responsible leaders would say to the men, "We are engaged in a dispute with our employers in which we are asking for an advance of wages on your behalf, and we want, if we cannot get our demands granted, to be in a position to call a strike. Of course, if the employers know that under those circumstances we are willing to strike, if they know that there is a risk of a strike unless our demands are granted, then we think we have a very good chance of inducing them to give way." That would he a perfectly legitimate argument to put before the men in such a case. Can the Committee doubt that a very great number of the members of a trade union; when they were faced with such a position, would at once feel that, in order to strengthen the hands of their negotiators, they must vote in such a way as to give them authority to call a strike? The result of that would be, of course, that in the negotiations which ensued, and in which, in a great number of cases at any rate, there was a divergence of opinion between those carrying on the negotiations as to whether counter offers should be accepted or whether the demands should be insisted upon even at the risk of a strike, the fact that there had been a vote of the rank and file in favour of a strike would strengthen the hands of the extremists and weaken the hands of the more moderate leaders who would be anxious to arrive at a settlement. The result would be that a strike, instead of being averted, would be rendered more probable by reason of this proposal.

Further, there is no provision here, and I do not think there can very well be a provision, as to who should settle the form of the question in which the matter is to be referred. Almost everything depends in most cases upon the form in which the question is stated. It might be so framed that it would be almost certain that the workmen would vote in favour of the proposal which was put before them; on the other hand, it might be so framed as almost certainly to produce the opposite effect. The framing of the question would in many cases determine the result of the ballot, yet it is almost impossible to see how the question can be framed by any outside authority, because at once the impartiality and fairness of the way in which it was framed would be challenged. If you leave it to the leaders of the trade union, you are merely leaving to them the question that they had left to them before as to whether or not a strike should be authorised.

Again, taking a ballot in any large industry would necessarily involve a large expenditure. There is no provision here as to who is to pay for the expense of a ballot which, if it is to be secret, must be taken with careful precautions to ensure the efficiency of the secrecy, and which, if it is to be done adequately, must be done at a considerable cost which would either have to be borne in every case by the State, which, of course, could not be provided for in this Clause, or by the trade union, which would involve a very serious tax on the funds of the trade unions involved, and might even cripple their usefulness and prove an impossible burden upon their finance. For all these reasons, although at first sight the proposal is one which has a great deal to recommend it, yet, when it is examined, I cannot help feeling, and I am sure the Committee will feel, that it is practically impossible, and, on that ground, the Government are unable to accept it.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.


I am in doubt whether the next new Clause (Illegal withholding of supplies) is within the scope of the Bill, but, on the whole, I will give it the benefit of the doubt.