1915-1920: Red Clydeside and the shop stewards' movement

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An account of the powerful workers' movement in Scotland and the strike of 100,000 for a 40-hour week in 1919 which was savagely attacked by the government on what became known as Bloody Friday.

Although unemployment decreased slightly in the few years immediately preceding the beginning of hostilities, inflation rose dramatically, increasing the prices of foodstuffs, rents and fuel, but decreasing workers’ wages by 15%. While conditions at work were fairly miserable, workers had to return to bad housing where overcrowding was not uncommon and disease rampant.

The growing militancy that resulted from these conditions was soon swept aside in 1914 by a fever pitch of nationalist euphoria. The Clyde Valley, as a major source of supplies for the war effort, was soon to become a hive of militancy that would threaten the cosy, and mutually rewarding, relationship that had developed between the government and the unions.

Revolt and Reaction
In February 1915, 10,000 engineering workers in Glasgow wildcatted demanding higher wages. Gaining no support from their own union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) which demanded that they return to work, the strikers decided to set up a Labour Withholding Committee (LWC) to represent themselves and organise the strike. Their demands ultimately failed to budge the bosses, but the LWC was widely seen as an important preliminary step to the formation of the later Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) of rank-and-file trade unionists and the shop stewards movement.

The government reacted swiftly to the dangers posed by the strike. Union ‘leaders’ were quickly called to a special conference at which were signed the so-called ‘treasury agreements’ by which all independent union rights, including the right to strike, were suspended for the duration of the war. Labour was ‘diluted’ (by permitting unskilled workers to do skilled work) in order to deal with the labour shortage and the demands for munitions. The ‘Munitions Act’ made striking a criminal offence (!), effectively illustrating the political-economic nexus that safeguards capitalism when it senses even the most incipient threat.

The act set up tribunals to punish those individuals caught organising in the workplace, and in October 1915, sentenced 3 shipwrights at Fairfield Yard, Govan, to a months’ imprisonment for refusing to pay a fine in support of 2 sacked workers. The LWC reacted strongly by demanding the release of the 3 men and threatened widespread industrial action. Soon afterwards, the men’s fines were paid, and it was suspected in most quarters that the union bosses (seemingly fearing industrial action more than the employers!) had used union money to get themselves out of actually doing anything.

The rise and fall of the CWC
Following this success, the CWC was formally formed with 200-300 delegates elected from workplace assemblies every week. Shop stewards were now usurping the power of the local and national ASE. They stated:

“We will support the officials just so long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them".

By January 1916, the CWC was directing workers in 29 Clydeside engineering works. It was they who sought to negotiate with the Dilutions Commission, and assure themselves of more control over the policy of ‘dilution’ in the workplace. The bosses, unsurprisingly, refused to negotiate. In March, workers at Beadsmore struck in retaliation. Soon afterwards, workers at other Glaswegian munitions works also struck in sympathy. Again, the government reacted ruthlessly. The more prominent shop-steward ‘leaders’ were arrested and deported, while the ASE sat on its hands. Their compliance demoralised the CWC and the movement generally,
though its effects were clearly seen in the huge strike of 200,000 workers in Coventry, Barrow and Sheffield against dilution in March 1917.

Bloody Friday
Following the end of the war, there were fears that unemployment, following demobilisation, would reach epic proportions. Shipbuilders, miners and engineers in a reformed CWC saw the only means to lessen the effects of full-scale unemployment was to work less. In January 1919, the 40 hour (the unions wanted 47 hours, a reduction of a mere 7 from war-time levels!) movement was set up to reduce the working week. On January 27th, 40 000 workers struck while mass pickets everywhere shut down factories that were still operating. By the end of the month over 100,000 were on strike. The government panicked. The secretary of state for Scotland, Robert Munro, said in a cabinet meeting that ‘it was a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike –it was a Bolshevist rising.’ At the same time in Belfast, 40,000 engineers were on strike and strikes in other industries were looming.

On January 31st, on a day that was to become known as ‘Bloody Friday’, a crowd of 35,000 were attacked without provocation in George’s Square, Glasgow. The next day, 10,000 troops armed with machine guns were summoned to the city (Glasgow troops were considered too unreliable) and were supported by airplanes and tanks. The strike remained solid throughout, only breaking when the union leadership suspended the local branch committee and ordered a return to work. Tory leader Bonar Law summed up their complicity, saying,

"Trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy—without it our position was hopeless."

Afterwards, with unemployment in post-war Britain jumping from 3.3% in 1920 to 22.1%, the bosses got their revenge on the most militant of the Clydeside workforce. According to Mark Shipway:

“Engineering and shipbuilding workers accounted for 65% of all unemployed on Clydeside” (1)
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The decline in the shop floor movement and the CWC saw power shift yet again into the hands of full-time officials. Sylvia Pankhurst, who was soon to reject the idea of rank-and-file militancy in favour of setting up workers’ councils outside the unions stated:

“Undoubtedly a strong move is being made by union officials to secure greater powers in the unions and to thrust the rank and file into the background…the unions become more and more bureaucratic, more and more dominated by the capitalist influence upon the trade union leaders, still further removed from rank-and-file control.” (2)

Mistakes of the CWC and the Shop Stewards’ Movement
One of those activists most critical of the shop stewards’ movement was the anti-parliamentarian Guy Aldred. He had been imprisoned repeatedly for his principled stance on the war which had also led him to oppose those workers who were churning out munitions. These were, after all, munitions used for the purposes of war and for the slaughtering of other members of the international working class. According to Aldred, the workers’ committees…

’flourished on war…The idea was merely that of improving the worker’s status in the commodity struggle and not to develop his revolutionary opposition to capitalism’ (3)

There was, in fact, a separation of industrial agitation from the opposition to the war as though revolutionary politics were being
left behind at the factory gates. He described Willie Gallacher, one of the leading lights in the movement as someone who…

“made munitions during the war, and atoned for his conduct by delivering socialist lectures in the dinner hour.” (4)

Aldred’s criticisms were valid ones. Where the committees failed was in channelling their strength into an all-out assault on all aspects of the struggle against capitalism, including the political struggle. Without moving beyond merely economic demands, the CWC found themselves in no position to combat the heavy-handed response of the boss class supported by government.

Another problem was in the cult of leadership that was in danger of creating an elitism in the movement in spite of the use of delegation in the formation of the CWC. David Kirkwood, the shop-steward’s leader at Beardmore’s Parkhead Forge in Glasgow, was not only a wiling collaborator in any scheme designed to increase industrial output, but

“relished the quips that it was really he, and not the owner Sir William Beardmore, who was actually in charge of running Parkhead Forge.“ (5)

After the war, Aldred saw no reason not to support the movement. He saw the need to abandon…

“the unwieldy, bureaucratic, highly centralised Industrial union of peace-time (class) war organisation”…in favour of “a living unit of organisation in every workshop, and a federation of living units…communists should enter workers’ committees and councils and by their agitation and education develop and extend the growing class consciousness”…(6)

Yet the committees never went beyond the confines of the existing unions and this was enough to explain their lack of real revolutionary credential. During the war, they placed all the emphasis on the economic here and now, and after the war, when the economy had collapsed, were easily picked off by a vengeful boss class. The short term benefits accrued were always going to be taken back by the bosses faced with the prospect of demobilisation and an increased workforce. Unemployment followed lock-outs as the movement was gradually snuffed out.

By focusing also on the political and social aspects of struggle the committees could have made a difference, but the inherent nature of trade unionism itself militated against this, conditioning workers to lower aspirations and less confident methods of self-organisation. By moving away from a rank-and-filism that was head-banging a rather thick wall, and in doing so, shedding completely all ties with union bureaucracy, the committees, as nascent councils, could have gained support beyond the workplace and increased their support in the community at large.

The council movement did not end in Scotland, however. In Russia, in 1917, councils or ‘soviets’ for a while continued the dream of working class self-organisation, and they have re-appeared constantly in revolutionary movements and uprisings ever since.

By Organise! Ireland

Footnotes
1. Shipway, M. The Movement for Workers’ Councils in Britain 1917-45
2. Workers Dreadnought 1922
3. Aldred, G. The Grips of War 1929
4. Aldred, G. Word 1939
5. Kirkwood, D. My Life in Revolt 1935
6. Aldred, G. Worker 1919