Clydeside Apprentices Strike 1952
January 27 1952 saw an event that set the ball rolling for the first major apprentices' strike since 1937, before the second world war. On that Sunday the Young Engineers Clydeside Conference was called. It took place at 1pm in Community House Clyde Street Glasgow, wages and conditions being the main subjects up for discussion. A Clydeside Apprentices' leaflet claimed, “Apprentices pay the same as journeymen for meals, travel, tools and overalls, etc.” The conference also called for Action Committees to be set up in every workshop and to pursue a claim for £1 week increase on apprentices' wages. At the conference there were 31 firms represented with 114 apprentice delegates representing all trades in engineering and shipbuilding.
Committee secretary, Jimmy Reid, stated, ”--it is not enough to feel indignation, but it was necessary to translate it into action. The committee supported 100% trade union membership among apprentices and stated, “We are the skilled tradesmen of tomorrow---and it is in our hands that the future prosperity of this country depends--.” At this time young lads were being sent to fight in Korea, Egypt, Malaya etc.
A Rise in Feelings
A delegation from Fairfield Shipyard, Govan, Glasgow, stated that the apprentices there believed that the next step forward was a token strike and demonstration on the streets of Glasgow. “We will make the bosses shake when they see 1,000 apprentices marching through the streets of Glasgow.” Some working conditions were described, saying, apprentices were working on water tests, up to their knees in muck and rust and earning 24 shillings a week.
First Day of Action
The first one day strike and demonstration saw 5,000 apprentices march through Glasgow city centre. There was a roar of cheering when the demonstration was informed that 1,200 Greenock apprentices had stopped work in solidarity. At the Hydepark Locomotive works Springburn Glasgow, the management tried to get the apprentices to go to an arranged film show instead of striking. It failed miserably.
Eric Parks of Weirs Pumps Cathcart Glasgow said he was called before the apprentices' supervisor who said, “Eric my boy, you've fallen down in my respect. The employers are making sacrifices in our works--.” Eric pointed out that Weirs had made £1.25 million profit last year, or £6 per head per week.
A comment by a member of the government that a loaf of bread might soon cost 10/- (ten shillings, -50p). This was taken up as, 3 loaves of bread a week—an apprentices wage.
The London Delegation
A delegation of apprentices interviewed employers representatives in London and it was stated in the press, that these young engineers didn't fear important looking gents in Anthony Eden hats and impeccable suits. On this London delegation were Eric Parks, Jimmy Reid, John McColl, and Ernest Skilling.
In Aberdeen 600 apprentices noisily marched through the city streets, the call for strike action was now spreading. There was now apprentice action in Glasgow, Greenock, Aberdeen, Manchester, Shefield and London.
At a delegate conference on Sunday March 2nd a resolution to call a strike for Monday March 10th 1952 was carried by 95 for and 5 against. The resolution stated, This conference of delegates representing apprentices from all over Scotland, demands a reply not later than 12am of Friday March 7th to the claim of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions for a £1 per week increase in all apprentices wages. An unsatisfactory reply or a failure to reply will be regarded as deliberate refusal to reach agreement and will result in strike action commencing on Monday March 10th at 11am..
The attitude of the apprentices was very bullish with speaker after speaker emphasising that apprentices wanted strike action in the belief that only militant action would lead to a successful campaign. At the conference Jimmy Reid stated; “Before the lads went into action the employers had no need to worry about them, but now these people are sitting up and having to take notice of the apprentices,--- the lesson is clear.” Eric Parks reminded the conference of the huge profits being made by the employers and said; “We must see the necessity of forming apprentices' committees in every factory as the main form of organisation----it is better to suffer a little hardship than to grovel on our bellies and accept the miserable and intolerable conditions of the present time.”
On Wednesday March 6th 500 apprentices from Caledonian Shipyard Dundee staged a half day token strike in support of the £1 claim. Other action, demonstrations and marches of support sprang up in London, Manchester and elsewhere.
No satisfactory answer arrived so the strike went ahead on Monday 10th March. With 5,000 Clydeside apprentices walking out at 11am that day. By March 22nd over 17,000 apprentices in engineering and shipbuilding and other key industries were on strike. At this period Birkenhead, Manchester and Shefield joined the strike. There was union and financial support form workplaces, some workplaces were levying workers 2/6 (two shillings and sixpences,12 and a half pence.) to 5/- (five shillings, 25 pence.) Workers at the Rolls Royce Works donated £150.
By March 25th nearly 20,000 apprentices were on strike. March 26th Glasgow shop stewards decided to take token action to support the apprentices strike. In Edinburgh where apprentices had decided to go back, they walked out again the same day 800 strong. Harland and Wolf's Belfast now joined the strike with over 1,000 apprentices walking off the job.
That week there was a march and demonstration in Glasgow which saw 5,000 apprentices march through the city streets. By this time Rolls Royce had donated £500 to the strike fund.
Like most boys in the area where I lived, I left school at 15. My first job was as the boay in the time office in Fairfield's Shipyard in Govan, Glasgow. On turning 16 I would start my apprenticeship, It wasn't a case of selecting your chosen profession, it was a matter of being told that yi wur ti go ti' the fittin' shoap. It could just as easily have been the brass foundry or the joinery shop, or any other of the many trades in shipbuilding, and my “career” would have gone on a different direction. However the powers that be set my sails as a marine engineer, a “fitter” was the usual title.
That's when my education started, I found myself among a myriad of political pundits of all shades. The discussions were many, varied and at times “ferocious” and I loved it. Probably most of the workers were Labour with a very strong communist contingent. There was one Tory among the fitters, he was one of the journeymen that I was attached to, and he was insane, but a great tradesman. When asked why he was a Tory, his answer was, at least when you vote for them you know that they are going to screw you, not like the other bastards who pretend that they won't. It seemed a fair answer. In all the debates and discussions I was always being “courted” by the communists and being told that I should join the YCL (Young Communist League). Somehow or other they never fitted in with the way I felt.
From entering the yards, I was always eager to get involved in the political and it was in 1952, as a third year apprentice that I got my first real feel of “political” activity. That was the year of the first Clydeside apprentice's strike since the second world war. I loved all the activity and was keen to do my stint of leafleting and what ever else to further “the cause”.
It was during this strike at one of the several marches through the city that we had a rather interesting event. We were supposed to march from Blythswood Square to Glasgow Green and on passing the City Chambers at George Square, the police had set our route to proceed from there round the corner into Cochrane St. and through some more back streets to the Green. Our little group at the front had some other ideas, and as the police were lined up expecting us to turn left into Cochrane St. we marched merrily on deciding that we wanted a more public route down Glassford St. Argyle St. and Trongate to the Green. More publicity for our “cause”. There was chaos as the rest of the marchers not really thinking just followed on and the police trying to form up to turn us round. It failed miserably. By now it was no longer a march but lots of grinning apprentices running in groups, down Glassford St. with the police trying to re-direct or grab, what was now a wild mob of youth. By the time various groupings reach Argyle St. some were running in the direction of the Green, perhaps hopeful of still holding a rally, while others, myself among them, were running along Argyle St. in the opposite direction.
At that time Argyle St. was still a two way traffic system and the pavements were mobbed. As I ran furiously along I could see ahead the ludicous site of some of the apprentices still carrying their placards, and these could be seen weaving their way though the crowds. By now there were mounted police and foot slogging coppers in hot pursuit. As I, and many others, ran past what is now Debenham's (then it was Lewis's) and turned into the lane at the side of the building, I knew the the mounted police were gaining fast, and as a simple city lad, I had this stupid idea that if I ran up the stairs of the lane up to what was St Enoch's Station, the horses wouldn't be able to follow. Of course as I got near the top I could hear the unmistakable clippity-clop of horses hoofs behind me. Entering the station I stopped running and tried to merge with the station crowd, others ran straight through and out the front and as I walked casually towards the front entrance I saw about 8 or so of my hapless marcher colleagues run straight into a ring of police, who duely flung them into waiting vans. One of those caught by that ring of police went on to make a name for himself on the Clyde during the Upper Clyd Work-in, he was Jimmy Reid.
The Return to Work
Approximately 20,000 apprentices who had been on strike for more than three weeks went back to work on the understanding that it would speed up negotiations with the employers. Delegates representing 14,500 took decisions for future action should the employers fail to give a satisfactory response. The conference adopted a strong worded resolution which expressed determination to carry the fight to a successful conclusion.
Pat McCauley, secretary of the Greenock strike committee stated; “This is only the first round in the struggle. The lads have shown their mettle and shaken the bosses. If we don't get a reply to our claim shortly, the bosses must be held responsible for what will follow--- this is a tactical retreat not a defeat. The boys are still in fighting mood.” On Friday April 25th apprentice delegates from Clydeside, Aberdeen, Manchester, Shefield and York decided in Glasgow to accept, under protest, the recent wage award agreed between the trade unions and the employers. The conference stated that this was only the first stage in the struggle for better conditions.
Eric Parks, secretary of the Clydeside Apprentices committee said that the amount employers gave which was higher than their first offer, and the fact that they negotiated a separate wage claim for the apprentices at was entirely due to the militant action taken by the lads in the workshops and shipyards. The fact that there had been a separate negotiated wage claim for the apprentices represented a terrific victory for the lads. Previously the apprentices wage increases, if any, were simple tacked on to the end of the wages agreement made with the journeymen.
The general feeling among the apprentices, especially the 1st. 2nd. and 3rd year lads was one of discontent. A discontent that said it should be accepted under protest and immediately make arrangements to go forward for a new demand.
The 10s and 11s award was a fair bit of money to many apprentices and this may have been the aim of the employers by making it less likely that the older lads, who would be journeymen in a year or so, would be less likely to support further strike action.
Posted by John Couzin