William Morris


THE COAL STRUGGLE.

SOME OBVIOUS THOUGHTS THEREON.

It will seem a mere commonplace to say, in your columns at any rate, that the crisis now drawing to an end is one of the most momentous in the history of the present labour war;1 yet it may well be doubted if the general public understand how momentous it is. To many it seems a mere troublesome interference of the overpaid, overfed miners with the ordinary and beneficent stream of production, which the coal-owners naturally and laudably resist, for the benefit, we must suppose, of all those who would like, if they could, to be as rich with as litle trouble as those worthies. To others it is an unavoidable nuisance, bound to recur at certain intervals, for which neither party is to blame, but which cannot be dealt with by the public at large even if the miners get their wages reduced to a little below, instead of a little above, starvation point. To a chird set of people, again, it is an accidental business dispute between two parties to a contract, in which once more no one has a right to interfere with the contracting parties whatever may happen: higgling of the labour market for the temporary adjustment of wages, such as has gone on ever since the establishment of the great industries; or, more reasonably, it is thought to be an indication of a gradual bettering of the working classes, growing more intelligent, more politically powerful, and, consequently, no longer content with the pitiful share which they have hitherto had of the national wealth.

That is all very well, but where is the bettering of condition for such indispensable workmen as the coal miners going to stop? Doubtless the gentlemen who live on their labour have asked themselves this question, and this lock-out of their men has not been taken up only with a view to raising the price of coal (in which object they have been successful), but still more for the purpose of breaking down the power of the Miners' Federation, so that they (the owners) shall henceforth have the labour market wholly in their power. Most happily, it seems likely that in this latter aim they will be unsuccessful, in spite of the tremendous expenditure of their resources that the men have been driven into. The truth is that in this aim of establishing a grinding tyranny over the workers which shall be stable they are too late; the day is gone by for it.

The industrial tyranny of the individualist capitalist, masking itself under the guise of economic necessity, is bound to go the way of feudal tyranny appealing to the sanction of religion to justify itself. And the question just put must be answered thus; there is no final point at which the bettering of condition of useful labourers can stop short of practical equality of condition. That is really the aim of the whole labour war going on ceaselessly under our eyes to-day, though many — if you will, most — of those engaged in it are quite unconscious of that aim. It is no affair of the seeming right or wrong of the passing hour, whatever mistakes one party may make, by whatever clever management the other party may seem to the ignorant part of the well-to-do classes to put itself in the right. Those who are really doing a service to the world by their action are the workmen, because they are striving for the freedom of labour, which must be the road whereby the new order of things, so much desired by all who can use their eyes and their reasoning powers, will be obtained.

Meanwhile, what is the next step to be taken on this road? The workmen in this coal dispute proclaim openly that they wil not be driven down beyond the present living wage, which is low enough in all conscience. That means that having brought their livelihood up to a certain (low) standard, they will not have it brought down again by the exigencies of the gambling market. That part of the general public, of all classes, which does not want to ticket itself as definitely reactionary, is now coming rapidly to agree with the men; and a very significant and encouraging sign of the times that is. Now this means that the workmen, and with them the well-disposed portion of the public, are beginning to see the necessity of establishing a minimum wage, at all events, in the great industries, by some means or other; though perhaps they do not understand that this can only be done, to be effective and lasting, by legal enactment, following, of course, on widespread popular demand.

But this minimum wage, which will, of course, act as a first charge on all capital employed in the trades in which it is enforced, will raise the price of all wares that are made in the said trades, and thereby will tend to reduce the livelihood of the men; therefore, in order to make the minimum wage a reality it will be necessary to supplement it by a maximum price for all the great necessaries of life.

It seems to me that must be the next great step in the labour war, and that things are tending thitherward speedily. The vote at the Trades Union Congress at Belfast2, which practically declared for Socialism, shows that the workmen are getting ready for it; the voice of public sentiment declaring once again, as in the dock strike, that some means must be found for giving the men a living wage, points to the education of the middle classes. These events show that the country is preparing for the first step, and when that is taken, it must of necessity lead to the realization of the Belfast vote, i.e., the first stage of Socialism.

I say, then, that we owe to the courageous and steadfast workmen who are now struggling in the interests of one and all a reward quite different from the semi-starvation which the gambling coal-owners would impose on them, and that to support them by all means in our power, pecuniary and otherwise, is a plain duty to all who are not pledged to the upholding the last and worst of the great tyrannies of the world, the plutocratic, to wit.


Footnotes

1. The coal mine owners had tried to impose a 20% reduction in wages on the miners; the Federation of miners' unions refused, claiming the right to a 'living wage'. The owners then locked out the miners. The Unions - and Morris, in this letter - tried to raise the money needed for the miners to survive the lockout. The owners caved in November and the miners returned to work on their original wages, with a Government 'conciliation board' to adjudicate future wages.

2. The Belfast Trades Union Congress had passed an amendment regarding the creation of a labour party that "Candidates receiving financial assistance must pledge themselves to support the principle of collective ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution..."


Title

The Coal Struggle

Publication History

  1. The Sun, 16th October 1893
  2. William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, Vol. 2, ed. May Morris

Source

Taken from the May Morris edition.

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, June 2020.