The Singer Strike
The Singer Strike, 1911
In 1867/8 from its American base, the Singer Sewing Machine Co. expanded into Scotland. It first opened a small sewing machine factory in Glasgow near John Street. However growing demand forced the company to expand to a larger factory in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow. In 1882 they moved again, to a greenfield site at Kilbowie in Clydebank. This was a massive factory employing 3,500 and by 1884 was producing 8,000 machines a week and was now employing 5,000 workers, by 1890 Singer had captured 80% of the world’s sewing machine sales, and was by then the biggest sewing machine factory in the world. By 1911 it employed approximately 12,000 of which 3,000 were women, mainly unmarried women.
The factory comprised of 41 departments, the work was broken down in to small boring repetitive actions with a variety of teams making parts, assembling and testing sewing machines for export mainly to Russia.
The shipyards and Singers dominated Clydebank employment, however 60% of the workers lived outside Clydebank which made organising strike action that bit more difficult. By 1911 approximately 50% of Clydebank’s young women worked for Singers. The Singer company always had a bad reputation among the work force, it was a very anti-union company. Tom Bell, an activist during the 1911 strike, in his book “Pioneering Days” states; “The firm refuses to recognise any union, and those union men that were employed had to keep it quiet.”
During the early 20th century with the march of mass production methods, employers were imposing new management techniques on the workforces and Singer was ruthless in the implementation of these techniques. Piece work, time and motion study and more “efficient” work practices were the norm with the rate of work being push ever higher.
On 21 March 1911 the Singer factory management provoked a strike when three defect repairers were withdrawn from a team of fifteen women working in the cabinet polishing department, and added the repairers' duties to those of the remaining twelve women but offering them no increase in pay. The women, who were paid piece-work rates and were likely to lose around 2 shillings (10p) from their weekly wage packets, walked out of the factory and were joined by 380 of their 400 colleagues in the department. The support within the factory for those that walked out was instant and massive, by the end of the following day, 10,000 of the 11,500 employees of Singer were on strike. This was a major industrial dispute at Singer. It is considered the first battle between labour and international capital in Scotland if not in the UK. It was also the biggest single firm strike in Scotland up to 1914. The strike lasted three weeks. The initial success of the strike was due largely to the solidarity shown by the striking workers of Singer backed up by two main 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 provided practical and ideological leadership through out the strike. Before this dispute, workplace divisions on Clydeside based on occupation, skill, gender and religion would have impeded 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 ruthlessness of the management techniques.
The company went on the offensive by closing the works and the usual threats of removing production to other plants in Europe, also issuing threats that workers would find difficulty in procuring other employment in the area if the strike was not brought to an immediate end. Regular meetings and demonstrations were held across the burgh for the duration of the strike, including one on 23 March when 8,000 strikers, led by the Duntocher Brass Band, paraded through the streets with tremendous support from the local population as practically every family had somebody involved in the strike
Despite the initial firm resolve of the strikers, the strike collapsed. Singer sent out postcards inviting workers to indicate their willingness to return to work. Knowing that the company would be able to identify strike advocators by listing those who did not reply. This and the usual need for a wage caused a considerable number of workers returned to work on 7 April 1911. After a ballot in which the majority of the workers voted to end the strike, the strike committee conceded defeat, the dispute ended with an unconditional return to work on 10 April 1911. As expected and true to form, soon after the return Singers management pursued a ruthless campaign of systematic victimisation and over 400 workers, including all the strike leaders and known members of the IWGB, were sacked.
After 1945, Singer struggled against a host of new European competitors and an even more serious threat from Japan. The old main building and its famous clock tower were demolished in 1963. A new single-storey factory (the High Volume Domestic Building) opened in 1964. Despite investment during the 1960s, the factory struggled to attain profitability. This was due in part to poor market conditions and partly to Singer's investment in other European and Far Eastern plants to produce more popular domestic models. Between 1960 and 1970, the Kilbowie workforce declined from over 16,000 to just 6,400. During the 1970s, the factory's future was thrown into greater doubt by the perilous financial condition of the parent company, which had run up huge debts in pursuing an unsuccessful diversification strategy. The factory's main markets, in the USA and Europe, slumped. Now working in ageing premises with out-of-date machinery, Kilbowie was making huge losses. In 1978, Singer proposed a reduction in the workforce from 4,800 to just 2,000. There were strenuous efforts to persuade the company to limit job losses and make a commitment to retaining the factory in Clydebank, the Government offered financial assistance to continue the production of industrial machines, albeit on a much-reduced scale. However, a collapse in worker morale, and the Conservative Party's victory at the General Election on 4 May 1979 undermined the negotiations. On 12 October Singer announced that the factory would close in June 1980 "as part of a sweeping program to restructure, consolidate and streamline Singer manufacturing and marketing operations...".
During the 80s Britain saw large swathes of its industrial production close down along with the mining industry.
The Singer strike Clydebank 1911. Glasgow Labour History Workshop ISBN 0-906938-07-4
Glasgow Digitial Library Red Cyldeside (The singer strike 1911)
Posted by John Couzin