06, Constitution of the French Cooks Syndicate

Although the union we formed was called the French Cooks Syndicate, it was absolutely International. Every worker in the catering trade, whatever his or her nationality, could, if they understood the basis and principles, join as members. Many long and wearying hours were spent at meetings, mainly starting after nine at night till twelve or one a.m. thrashing out the constitution. No final decisions were taken until every member present agreed to the matter in discussion, so no voting was necessary. First we had to get a committee. This consisted of workers’ delegates from every branch of the catering trade; not even the page-boys were forgotten or ignored. This committee chose its secretary, treasurer and chairman, but it was not an executive. Both the committee and the officials were servants of the whole syndicate, took their orders from members’ meetings and had to give financial and other reports to the members. There was no boss to betray the syndicate. Having watched for years the trade union movement of all other trades, we ignored the politician. There was no room for the trade union official careerist in the syndicate. The members paid for and controlled the whole syndicate. The workers in any hotel or restaurant could, if unanimous, tell the committee to arrange a strike. The committee had to do what it was told to do by the members, because any workers in a certain catering firm themselves alone knew the conditions in which they slaved. The stay-in strike was agreed by all. There was no agreement with bosses before striking and no notice of strikes was given. Every member was expected to be a loyal comrade to the syndicate and keep to his or her self all activities and discussions of the syndicate. Comrade Rinault, a French cook, was made secretary by the committee, for one year, and Comrade Beck, a German, was made chairman for one year. The committee held the funds themselves, so no treasurer was wanted. In the main that was the constitution of the revolutionary catering union in 1905.

Apart from a few strikes by the Waiters’ Union, conditions of slavery were worse than ever in that year. The plans and preparations had to be complete before the battle. This Waiters’ Union I have referred to had an office in the same building as the syndicate with our hall in the basement. It was based on the old respectable trade union lines, and thanks to unemployed girls or men blacklegs and scabbing societies, other unions poaching for members, the few walk-out strikes it arranged generally failed. Its membership was decreasing, and its secretary, Bob Young, was beginning to despair.

There was also another ‘respectable’ trade union in the building, a branch of the Bakers’ Union. Needless to say, they ignored us completely. Now the syndicate realised that it would be better for us if we could get the waiters and other staff on our side, so we asked the Waiters’ Union for a conference with our members, and pointed out that the old way was dead. The waiters had got to realise the class struggle. So as to prove we did not want to smash their union or poach on their preserves, all our members outside the kitchen were prepared to join the Waiters’ Union, if their union would have a working arrangement during activities. Bob Young and his members saw failure staring at them, so he knew he had to accept and act just as the syndicate acted. What the Waiters’ Union did not know was that the staffs outside the kitchen in the syndicate still remained members of the syndicate in case the Waiters’ Union funked the coming battle.

Here let me put it on record that neither in the Waiters’ Union nor in our syndicate during our four years of strike actions was there one coward or traitor. Not one out of those thousands could be bought or bribed. Every one was loyal to themselves and to their revolutionary union. Press reporters, managers of catering firms, police, all tried to find out what we were doing next. As an example, a Daily Telegraph reporter said if we could give him some copy, he would see that hotel and restaurant unemployed had a separate column all to themselves. Well, he was given some copy, useless copy, but he kept his word and the column was an accomplished fact, from then to the outbreak of the war.

Having got our constitution for direct action we had a great deal of work to do in building up the membership. There were at this time some thirty to forty thousand catering workers in London alone. We had to secure the greatest portion of this number if possible, but we were not prepared to water down our agreed line of action in order to secure members. Most of us were class conscious and we were determined to fight on class lines, so hard work, indoor and outdoor meetings, committee meetings and members’ general meetings, and dozens of large and small matters which were vital to the syndicate’s success must be undertaken to ensure that success.

As the reader will no doubt realise, it was no easy job to build up a great syndicalist movement in London, and it was several years before we were ready for action. At this time, 1910, from one end of Britain to the other, strikes, lock-outs, unemployment, were absolutely chronic. Semi- and full starvation, death and disease, were stalking through the land. Men struck without their leaders’ consent, unemployed became desperate, it only needed a spark to set alight their fury against the bosses. That spark came and then the unequal fight took place in the West End. Shops were raided, windows smashed, the well-fed aristocrat got the wind-up and fled from these infuriated half-starved men. But though they were beaten cruelly by the police, they accomplished by their bloody actions more than the respectable trade union movement had accomplished in years. The Lord Mayor of London opened a Mansion House Fund for the unemployed. In a few days £40,000 passed into that Fund and a few years later came the dole. Meanwhile schemes for providing work were set on foot. Charity societies, clergy and the like, saw a profit for themselves, so they suddenly had an active sympathy for these men. The Press, seeing that public sympathy was aroused, opened their columns hoping by doing so to increase their circulation. So even the unemployed were exploited.

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