The Clyde Workers' Committee

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The Spark: The Forming of the LWC

In 1915 during a prolonged period of considerable economic hardship for most industrial workers, Clydeside engineering employers refused workers demands for a wage increase. The insatiable demand for war munitions had lead to a rapid rise in inflation and a savage attack on the living standards of the working class. Workers were demanding wage increases to offset these repressive conditions. At this time Weir’s of Cathcart was paying workers brought over from their American plant 6/- shillings a week more than workers in their Glasgow plant.

The dispute between workers and management at Weir’s very rapidly escalated into strike action. The strike was organised by a strike committee named the Labour Withholding Committee (LWC). This committee comprised of rank and file trade union members and shop stewards. It was they who remained in control of the strike rather than the officials from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE).

The strike started in February 1915 and lasted almost 3 weeks. At its peak 10,000 members of the ASE from 8 separate engineering works were on strike throughout Clydeside. The officials from the ASE denounced the strike and backed the government’s demands to resume work. It was this double pressure from the government and their own trade union that drove the workers from the various engineering works in Glasgow to form the LWC to give the workers a voice and to organise the strike to their wishes.

Although the strikers demands were not met, its importance is in the fact of it forming the LWC. A committee formed from rank and file union members that determined policy in the work place and refused to follow the directives from union officials when those directives conflicted with the demands of that rank and file.

The Munitions Act

The government alarmed by the February 1915 strike, summoned trade union leaders to a special conference. The result of this conference being the now notorious Treasury Agreement. The outcome of which was that all independent union rights and conditions including the right to strike, were abandoned for the duration of the war. It also allowed the employers to “dilute” labour. Meaning they could employ unskilled labour in skilled jobs to compensate for the growing labour shortage, due to the every increasing demand for munitions and the endless slaughter of young men at the front. The Munitions Act also made strikes illegal and restrictions of output a criminal offence. The Munitions Act also allowed for the setting up of Munitions Tribunals to deal with any transgressions of the act.

October 1915 saw one such tribunal, the outcome of which was that 3 shipwrights from Fairfield Shipyard on the Clyde were sentenced to one months imprisonment for their refusal to pay a fine imposed because of their strike action in support of two sacked workers. The imprisonment of the 3 shipwrights prompted the official union representatives to call for a public enquiry. However, the LWC, which had reformed after the February 1915 strike, were seeking immediate strike action. A rather shaky and uneasy peace remained while official union leaders and the rank and file LWC waited for the government’s response. With the lack of any response from the government, the LWC decided, with the full backing of the workers, to act on their own by issuing an ultimatum to the government; If the shipwrights were not released within 3 days there would be widespread industrial action throughout the Clydeside until their release.

Three days after the LWC ultimatum the shipwrights were released. It was later discovered the the imprisoned men’s fines had been paid. The general feeling among the LWC and others was that the fines had been paid by ASE officials in an attempt to prevent widespread industrial action on Clydeside over which they could exercise little or no control.

The Clyde Workers' Committee

This victory lead to the LWC deciding to form a permanent committee to resist the Munitions act. It was to be called the Clyde Workers Committee, (CWC) and organised on the same democratic principles as the LWC. It would have 250-300 delegates elected directly from the work place, it would meet weekly.

This was a seismic sift in the employee/ management working relationship on Clydeside. Up until then shop stewards in the industry merely existed as card inspectors and implementers of national and district committees policies. However, after the forming of the CWC in 1915, increasingly it was the workers through the CWC that controlled the policy on the shop floor and in negotiations, much to the consternation of the official trade unions. The CWC in 1915 stated; “We will support the officials just as long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”

As the CWC had no faith in the official trade union to protect the workers interests, when the government Dilution Commission, in January 1916, arrived in Glasgow to attempt to implement “dilution” in the munitions factories it was the CWC who sought to negotiate a more radical policy with the commission in an attempt to secure greater workers control over the process of “dilution”. Although by this time the CWC was responsible for representing the workforce in 29 Clydeside engineering works, the Dilution Commission refused to recognise its authority and declined the CWC’s offer to meet and discuss proposals for implementation.

Arrest and Deportation

Between January and March 1916 the Dilution Commission met little or no opposition from workers and trade unions elsewhere on Clydeside. During this period it however little or no progress was made in the Clydeside engineering industry. A situation that the government felt that it could not tolerate much longer.

A management decision at Beardmore’s engineering works Parkhead Glasgow, to refuse shop stewards access to new “dilutees” brought about strike action in March 1916. In the following four days workers at three other munitions factories came out in sympathy with the Beardmore strikers. These events on Clydeside were creating a degree of nervousness in the government and the Dilution committee who were afraid that the actions of the syndicalist inspired CWC would impede munitions production and possibly spread to other areas.

On order of the government on March 24 1916, the military authorities arrested and deported Kirkwood, Haggerty, Shields, Wainright and Faulds, the Beardmore shop stewards. On the same day they arrested and deported McManus and Messer two shop stewards from Weir’s of Cathcart, one of the factories that came out on strike in Sympathy with the Beardmore strikers. On March 29 the military authorities again swooped and arrested and deported Glass, Bridges and Kennedy, 3 more shop stewards from Weir’s.

The shop stewards were sent to Edinburgh where they had to report to the police three times daily. These restrictions were kept in place until 14 June 1917. It was obvious to all that the arrested shop stewards had been abandoned by their official trade union, they were also refused any union benefit during the deportation. These deportations broke the resistance to the implementation of “dilution” in the Clydeside engineering industry, it also realised the government’s aim in bring about the demise of the CWC for the duration of the war.

Following the end of the war there was a fear of mass unemployment due to the demobilisation of the troops and the demise of the munitions factories. The common view held by the majority of workers in shipbuilding, engineering and mining was that a drastic cut in the number of hours in the working week, with the same war time pay levels was the only solution.

On January 1919 the CWC held a meeting of its shop stewards from shipbuilding and engineering, from this meeting the “Forty Hour” movement was born, and the decision was taken to go with the miners in their demand for a reduction to the weekly hours to help absorb the increase to the workforce and the reducing number of jobs.

Further information; [Glasgow Digital library.]

Posted by John Couzin

The book Radical Glasgow

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