In the press, during the war, considerable attention was focussed on sections of workers who were slow in returning to work after holidays, who engaged in strikes or other militant action, or who worked with less effort than was expected of them. In particular cases much of this criticism was fully justified.
However, the much more significant general impression was of a drastically depleted force of civilian workers who managed to keep production increasing at a pace which, while not as high as the country's long-term rate of economic growth,5 was surprisingly good under the handicap of supply uncertainties and other wartime difficulties.
The war effort was hindered by the loss of an average of 40,000 working days a year through industrial disturbances. This average was quite high compared with experience before the war, though there had been a worse period in the 1920s. However, the great majority of the workers did not take part in these disturbances. Two page 459 industries, waterfront work and coal mining, employing one-fortieth of the labour force, accounted for over three-quarters of all working time lost through disputes during the war period.1
One must not overlook the fact that a very considerable part of the pressure for a civilian war effort fell on the workers. The loss of personal freedom involved in direction of labour into industry was greater than for other sections of the community, apart from those who served in the armed forces. There was, moreover, some foundation for the contention that stabilisation, in spite of the Government's precautions to make it equitable, bore more rigidly on wages than on most other incomes. On the other side of the picture, the spectre of unemployment had gone, prices of essential commodities were held stable, and there were ample opportunities for overtime and secondary employment to supplement incomes.
1 Though some groups of workers were much more militant than others, the initial cause of a dispute was not always the fault of the employees. Some of the difficulties in water-front work were outlined in Chapter 15. Industrial disturbances are discussed quite fully by Wood in Political and External Affairs.