Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932


The Singer Strike 1911

Throughout the 1910-14 period many Clydeside industrialists still adhered to a deep-rooted anti-trade unionist ethos. Strikes were routinely broken by the use of force, intimidation and the importation of replacement (scab) labour. Clydeside employers were fiercely resistant to what they saw as attempts by trade unions to interfere in their right to manage their concerns as they, the managers and owners, saw fit.

From 1910 onwards a select number of large-scale manufacturers on Clydeside introduced scientific management techniques into the workplace. For the majority of workers in these factories this translated into an intensification in the pace of work allied to a reduction in wage payment rates.

In 1911, at the Singer sewing machine plant in Clydebank, the first explicit confrontation between capital and labour in Scotland resulting from the introduction of scientific management practices into the workplace took place. Twelve female cabinet polishers in the large Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank struck work in protest over the reorganisation of their work process. This reorganisation involved an increase in workload and a decrease in wages. Within two days the vast majority of the 11,000 employees at the plant came out on strike in sympathy with their colleagues.

The initial success of the Singer strike was due largely to the solidarity of the workforce. Before this dispute, workplace divisions on Clydeside based on occupation, skill, gender and religion would have prevented such a show of worker solidarity. The Singer strike was remarkable in that both men and women, of all occupations, skills and religions, presented a united front in opposition to the dictates of management.

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The display of solidarity shown by the striking workers of Singer has been attributed to the influence of two groups in the works; the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Socialist Labour Party, both of whom promoted the idea of industrial unionism and who provided practical and ideological leadership to the striking workers.

Singers went on the offensive by closing the works, threatening to remove production to other plants in Europe, and issuing threats that workers would find difficulty in procuring other employment in the area if the strike was not brought to an immediate end.

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After a ballot in which the majority of the workers voted to end the strike, the strike committee conceded defeat and the dispute ended with an unconditional return to work on 10 April 1911. Soon afterwards, a campaign of systematic victimisation was initiated by Singers and over 400 workers, including all the strike leaders and known members of the IWGB, were sacked. Amongst those sacked by the Singer Company was Arthur McManus, an active member of his shop committee at Singers, who later went on to become the first chairman of the CPGB between 1920 and 1922.

The period 1910-1914 saw a massive increase in the instances of labour unrest throughout the Clydeside region. Working days lost to strike activity in these four years was four times the level recorded for the whole of the previous decade 1900-1910. An integral feature of the strike activity of this period was the radicalisation of previously acquiescent groups of workers. During this period women and unskilled workers played a significant role in fighting against workplace exploitation, in the struggles for better wages and conditions and in demands for trade union recognition in the workplace.

Trades union membership amongst Clydeside workers rose sharply between 1910 and 1914. Membership of those affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress rose from 129,000 in 1909 to 230,000 in 1914, a significant increase in the unionisation of Scottish labour over a period of five years.

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