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In February 1915, 10,000 engineering workers in Glasgow took unofficial strike action over their demands for an increase in wages. The urgent demand for war munitions had led to steep rises in inflation and wholesale attacks on working class living standards. As such workers were demanding an increase in wages to offset these increases in living costs. Trade union officials from the engineering union the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) denounced the strike action and echoed the government's call to resume work. Faced with hostility from their own trade union, engineering shop stewards from various engineering works in Glasgow formed the Labour Withholding Committee (LWC) to represent the workers and organise the strike. Although the demands of the workers were not met, the importance of this strike lay in the formation of the LWC, a committee made up of rank and file trade union members that would provide the model from which the CWC and the shop stewards movement would develop.
Alarmed by the engineers' strike of February 1915 and other industrial struggles, the government summoned the union leaders to a special conference. This resulted in the notorious treasury agreements by which all independent union rights and conditions, including the right to strike, were abandoned for the duration of the war. The employers were allowed to 'dilute' labour (employing unskilled workers in normally skilled jobs) in order to meet the growing labour shortage and the insatiable demand from the front for men and munitions. The Munitions Act also made strikes illegal and the restriction of output a criminal offence.
The Act allowed for munitions tribunals to be set up to deal with transgressors against the Act. It was at one of these tribunals in October 1915 that three shipwrights from the Fairfield yard in Govan were sentenced to a month's imprisonment because of their refusal to pay a fine imposed as a result of sympathetic strike action in support of two sacked workers.
Following the imprisonment of the Govan shipwrights, official trade union representatives called for a public inquiry into their case. The Labour Withholding Committee, reformed after the failed engineer's strike of February 1915, were keen to call immediate strike action.
There was an uneasy peace whilst the official trade union leaders and the more militant LWC waited for the government's response. As time dragged on without any response from government, the LWC took matters into their own hands and issued an ultimatum to the government that if the shipwrights were not released within three days there would be wide-scale industrial action throughout Clydeside until their release had been secured. Three days after the LWC's ultimatum to the government the shipwrights were released from prison. It later transpired that the men's fines had been paid, allowing for their release from prison. The strong suspicion amongst the LWC leaders was that official trade union leaders had paid the men's fines, fearing widespread industrial action throughout the Clydeside region over which they would have little or no control.
With this victory the LWC decided to form a permanent committee to resist the Munitions Act. This committee was to be called the Clyde Workers' Committee and was to be organised on the same democratic basis as the LWC, with 250-300 delegates elected directly from the workplace meeting every week.
Previously, shop stewards in engineering had existed only as card inspectors and reporters to their district committees, but from 1915 onwards the CWC increasingly usurped the power of both local and national ASE officials, and it would be the shop stewards of the CWC who would determine policy in the workplace. As the CWC famously stated in 1915, 'We will support the officials just so long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them'.
By the time the government Dilution Commission arrived in Glasgow to negotiate implementation of dilution in the munitions factories in January 1916, the CWC was responsible for directing the workers in 29 Clydeside engineering works. As the CWC no longer trusted moderate trade union officials to protect workers' interests in discussions with the Dilution Commission, it was the CWC themselves who sought to negotiate a more radical policy of implementation with the Commission; policy which would secure the workers greater control over the process of dilution in the workplace. However, the Dilution Commission refused to recognise the authority of the CWC to negotiate implementation of policy and declined their offer to meet to discuss their proposals for implementation.
Elsewhere on Clydeside, between January and March 1916, the Dilution Commission was able to negotiate the implementation of policy with little or no opposition from workers or trade unions. In the engineering industry however, little progress was made in these months, a situation which the government could not allow to continue for much longer.
In March 1916, following management's decision to refuse shop stewards access to new dilutees in the engineering works of Beardmores in Parkhead, workers went on strike. Within four days workers at three other munitions factories in Glasgow had struck in sympathy with the shop stewards at Beardmores. The government and Dilution Commissioners were by this time extremely nervous about the events unfolding on Clydeside, fearing that the syndicalist-inspired CWC were orchestrating a plan to impede the production of munitions.
On 24 March 1916, on orders from the government, military authorities arrested and deported the Beardmores shop stewards; Kirkwood, Shields, Haggerty, Wainright and Faulds. Also arrested and deported on the same day were Arthur McManus and James Messer, shop stewards from Weirs, one of the factories which struck in sympathy with the Beardmores workers. Five days later, on 29 March, the military authorities arrested and deported three more shop stewards from Weirs, namely Harry Glass, Bridges and Kennedy. Those deported were sent to Edinburgh where they had to report to the police three times daily. They returned to Glasgow on the 14 June 1917 when restrictions were lifted.
Those shop stewards deported were abandoned by their own union, the ASE, and were refused union benefit on deportation. The deportations broke opposition to the implementation of dilution in the engineering industry on Clydeside, and also signalled the demise of the CWC and their loss of influence amongst workers on Clydeside for the duration of the war.
Following the end of the first world war, the dismantling of the munitions works and the demobilisation of vast numbers of troops, there were great fears amongst workers of a return to pre-war levels of mass unemployment. Workers in mining, shipbuilding and engineering saw the only solution to this likely scenario as the drastic reduction of the working week (on the same war-time levels of pay), which they considered would help absorb those without work into a job.
The CWC held a meeting of its shop stewards in the shipbuilding and engineering industries in January 1919, where the Forty Hours Movement was established, and a decision taken to follow the lead of the miners and demand a reduction in weekly working hours to help relieve the unemployment situation.
A call was made to all workers to commence a general strike on 27 January 1919, in support of a 40-hour working week, and by 30 January 40,000 workers in the engineering and shipbuilding industries on Clydeside were out on strike. In addition, electricity supply workers in Glasgow had also gone on strike in sympathy, as had 36,000 miners in the Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire coalfields. It was reported that during the first week of the strike not a single trade in the Clydeside area was left unaffected by strike action.
On 29 January 1919, after a rally of strikers in Glasgow and a march to George Square, a deputation from the CWC managed to secure a meeting with the Lord Provost of Glasgow. At this meeting the strike leaders requested that the Lord Provost ask the Council to compel employers to grant workers a 40-hour week. The Lord Provost felt unable to give the deputation a reply to their question without consulting colleagues, and asked them to return on 31 January when he would give them a reply.
On Friday 31 January 1919 upwards of 60,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square in support of the strike and to hear the Lord Provost's reply. Whilst the deputation was in the building, police mounted a vicious and unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, felling unarmed men and women with their batons. The demonstrators, with ex-servicemen to the fore, quickly retaliated with fists, iron railings and broken bottles and forced the police into a retreat.
On hearing the noise from the square the strike leaders who were meeting with the Lord Provost rushed outside to restore order. One of the leaders, Davie Kirkwood, was felled to the ground by a police baton and arrested by the police, along with Willie Gallacher. In the immediate aftermath of 'Bloody Friday' other leaders of the CWC were also arrested, including Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Ebury.
Government concerns about industrial militancy and revolutionary political activity in Glasgow reached new heights after the events of 31 January 1919. Fears within government of a workers' revolution in Glasgow led directly to the deployment of troops and tanks in the city. An estimated 10,000 English troops in total were sent to Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of the battle of George Square. This was in spite of a full battalion of Scottish soldiers being stationed at Maryhill barracks in Glasgow at the time. No Scottish troops were deployed, the government fearing that fellow Scots, soldiers or otherwise, would go over to the workers' side if a revolutionary situation developed in Glasgow.
On Monday 10 February 1919 the strike was called off by the CWC Joint Strike Committee. Whilst not achieving their stated aim of a 40-hour working week, the striking workers from the engineering and shipbuilding industries did return to work having at least negotiated an agreement that guaranteed them a 47-hour working week; ten hours less a week than they were working prior to the strike.
In the aftermath of the 40-hours strike and the events of 'Bloody Friday', the influence of the CWC and the shop stewards in Clydeside industrial relations waned. However, many of the activists who directed the CWC during the campaigns of the 1914-1919 period later went on to play prominent roles in the politics of the Left in Britain. Among them were Willie Gallacher, chairman of the CWC during the first world war. Gallacher was instrumental in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920-1921, and became chairman of the CPGB in 1943 and Communist MP for West Fife between 1935 and 1950.
Others included Emanuel Shinwell, one of the CWC leaders of the 40-hours strike of 1919, who was elected to parliament in 1922 as Labour MP for Linthlithgow, and who served as Parliamentary Secretary for the Department of Mines in the first Labour Government of 1924. In the post-war Labour governments Shinwell was minister of fuel and power (nationalising the mines in 1946), Secretary of State for War (1947), and Minister of Defence (1950-51). In his later years Shinwell mellowed into a back-bench 'elder statesman' and became Lord Shinwell with the award of a life peerage in 1970. Similarly, Davie Kirkwood, prominent CWC official throughout the 1914-1919 period, who was elected to parliament in 1922 as Labour MP for Dumbarton Burghs, was honoured with a barony and a seat in the House of Lords, becoming the Baron of Bearsden.
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