by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
The editorial page of the Oregon Statesman reported on what it termed “The British Labor Mutiny:”
A British statesman recently declared in open parliament that the British workingmen have become a more serious menace to the empire than the soldiers and sailors of the enemy. Certain it is that a few months have made a surprising change in the attitude and morale of organized British labor. Instead of the loyalty and enthusiasm with which it co-operated with the government in the early weeks of the war, it now appears frankly suspicious, cynical and sullen. A situation has developed that is going to tax the utmost skill and effort of Kitchener, Lloyd-George and their associates to straighten out.
This “sullenness,” the paper paper reported, was due in part to the “liquor question.” Lloyd-George, the paper suggested, made a serious mistake when he suggested that “the drunkenness of the British workingmen was crippling the industries engaged in turning out war supplies, and thereby endangering the success of the war:”
Nothing could have produced more irritation and rage in the ranks of labor. The leaders point out that the unflattering distinction possessed by their country of leading the world in the consumption of alcohol beverages is due not so much to the drinking of the workingmen as to the immense growth of the drinking habit among women of the aristocracy and the middle class, and the widespread use of liquor by the clergy. They remind the public that when the campaign in favor of prohibition, as a means of conserving the nation’s energy, was begun last October, in the hope of having adopted voluntarily, it failed through the opposition of the clergy, leagued with the distillers and brewers, who have always been a power in England.
Labor knew that the government would force action. This, they feared, would be accomplished through legislation with compensation for distillers and brewers. Those with the means would lay in supplies while “the poor man, buying perforce only from day to day, must soon go without his beer. He is increasingly bitter about it.”
The editorial describes a labor situation in which workers are required to sacrifice for the nation while simultaneously enriching those for whom they labor:
But back of this grievance is the big situation that has made the labor unions sulk and balk, and resulted in the practical adoption of state socialism and martial law as the only means of making the industrial workers play their part at home as their soldier brethren do in the field. And that mutinous behavior which is using British statesman such alarm is due to the slowly ripening conviction on the part of the British workingman that the war is not his war – that he but the tool of British capitalists who control the government, and that the soldiers are dying and the workmen are sweating merely to make money for the wealthy upper-middle class and those of the lords who happen to be in trade.
At the outbreak of the war labor was on the cusp of “a great struggle for higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions.” The outbreak of the war deferred this struggle: “It was felt to be a noble war, and they were going to see it through like men. Then the speeding up and the long hours began to wear out their bodies and tempers. Their employers, with big war contracts, piled up bigger profits than ever, but the workingmen got no share of them. The same capitalist class that reaped contract profits began to shove up the price of necessaries and raise rents.”
The editorial related an all too familiar story of a rising cost of living accompanied by trivial wage increases. From the perspective of labor, restrictions upon them were not mirrored by restrictions on profits. Where they were perfectly willing to sacrifice for the war effort, they were unwilling to see any of the fruits of their labor become unseemly profit for business, whom they saw as extorting from the government and exploiting their workers who ultimately bore the largest burden in the war effort in the form of low wages, high prices, taxes, and lives.
The editorial concludes by describing the mood of British labor:
They no longer believe in their country’s disinterestedness. Their great leaders, Kier Hardie and Ramsey Macdonald, have convinced them that Sir Edward Grey might have prevented the war, and that it was undertaken and is now being fought for the sole interest of the capitalists – who, one of the workmen’s publicans said lately, “have no love of country, who merely want profits, who worship only dividends. And the government,” it added, “is trying to starve us into submission.”
And before Great Britain can win the war she must win back those workingmen.
If this sounds touchingly familiar, it was George Santayana who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”