During the August of 1911 the labourers in the engineering workshops came out in a series of disputes over poor pay and conditions across the city.
They were “the mere muscular machines that do the donkey work” and were paid between 14s [62p] and 18s [90p] and “certainly very few, ever worked for fifty-two weeks of the year.”*
This was in part due to slack times and breakdowns and to annual sickness which might amount to fifteen days a year which meant that they might work just forty-four weeks which according to one estimate put their weekly take home pay at just 13s [65p]. Then there were the deductions like the two pence [1p] docked from their wages for the hot water to make their tea.
It began in Gorton in early August and quickly the strikes spread across the engineering workshops of the city and were a success with the employers conceding a wage rise. No adult general labourer would receive less than 20s [£1] a week for 53 hours labour, semi skilled labourers between 21s [£1.5p] and 25s [£1.25p] a week and foundry labourers a minimum of 21s [£1.5p]. Those on piecework were put on new rates, which extended to overtime work as well. Finally the employers consented to recognise the Trade Unions and negotiate with the men’s officials.
The same issues of low pay and Union recognition were at the heart of the dispute between railway workers at the Companies during the same month. The railway labourers, also wanted a minimum wage of 20s [£1] and at the start of the month 1,300 labourers employed in the Carriage Works at Newton Heath walked out on unofficial strike. They were soon joined by others from all grades and by the end of the first week 6,000 men had joined them. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company which paid the lowest wages in the area, flatly refused to agree to the rise.**
In a growing spirit of “revolt, solidarity and self sacrifice”, the dispute continued to spread, with the strike widening to encompass support for the striking Liverpool railway workers. At a mass meeting held in Stevenson Square on the night of Friday August 4th railway workers agreed to link up with the workers in Liverpool and resolved there would be no return to work until all were satisfied.
The following day the staff at Central Station went on strike and at another mass meeting there was a decision to boycott all goods coming and going from Liverpool with decisions for an all out strike if the demands for a minimum wage were not met. The deadline for the strike was set for Monday August 7th and when there was no positive response from the Company the “railway transport workers of Manchester came out on strike.”
All the railway goods depots were closed, passenger services on the London and North Western Railway Station were affected, and by Tuesday the engine men at Longsight refused to take out their engines with those at Stockport moving to do the same. As a result train services south of Manchester from London Road station could not be maintained and at all Manchester and Salford Stations with one exception, the porters also struck.
The growing sense of confidence and militancy led the Manchester Trades and Labour Council held on the Wednesday night to accept a motion that “if ever the military are drafted into Manchester again during industrial disputes; the whole of the Trade Unions will cease work by way of protest.”
Nor were the events in Manchester and Liverpool isolated disputes, across the country railway workers were coming out on unofficial strike. Much of the grievance revolved around low pay and the refusal of the railway companies to recognise the unions. Five years earlier in an attempt to avert a national strike the Liberal Government had set up conciliation boards. But the companies still would not deal with the unions and the boards were not successful in improving pay and working conditions.
During the previous year the companies had been doing much better and were announcing improved railway dividends but had made no moves to share their growing prosperity with the workers in the form of pay rises.
Against this backdrop and with the wave of unofficial strike action continuing the four railway unions issued an ultimatum that if the companies did not either recognise the unions or start talks there would be an all out rail strike. The deadline was August 15th and when the companies remained defiant the strike began two days later. Consistent with his earlier actions Winston Churchill mobilized 58,000 troops which were deployed along the network at key points such as junctions, stations and signal boxes.
On the 16th he reported to the House that “at Manchester business is practically at a standstill, but there has been no disturbance. Two battalions and a Cavalry regiment are held in readiness to proceed on the request of the local authorities”
They were later deployed “to occupy the railway station, because there was an almost complete arrest of the deliveries of goods from the station, and that the traffic was being wantonly interfered with to a degree wholly different from any interference with the traffic in other parts of the railway system where the military had already given protection. I understood also yesterday evening that the Lord Mayor fully concurred in the steps which had been taken, and that the result had been extremely beneficial in permitting free movement of necessary supplies.”***
But already the strike had achieved its purpose with the Government bringing the unions and companies together face to face on the 17th. The companies conceded a small wage rise and a Royal Commission into the operation of the conciliation boards were promised.
How far the companies were genuine in their attempts at conciliation may be judged by how they treated those of their employees who had gone strike. Despite promises that there would be no victimization some workers in some companies found that their records highlighted the part they had played in the strike.
Moreover the Railway Gazette was convinced that the “principal lesson for the railway companies is the need of greater solidarity and greater firmness ... Having made up their minds to a certain course of action they should absolutely refuse to be turned from it by a mere public outcry. It dismissed claims of poor working conditions on the basis that from 1889 to 1911 there had been “only a very small number of labour disturbances” leading the paper to argue “that conditions of service in the British railway industry must be very much more satisfactory to the rank and file of the employees than would appear from the allegations of trade unionist officials, since an industry employing very nearly 600,000 men, in which strikes are, on the whole, very few, has hardly the look of 'seething with discontent’.” ****
I doubt that the railwaymen, engineering labourers or carters quite saw it that way. Strikes were costly, uncertain and fraught with the risk of dismissal. Working men and women had to think very carefully about withdrawing their labour. Just because at certain times they did not protest at their conditions does not mean they were happy or that they did not engage in other ways to further their condition. The unofficial strike of the Newton Heath carriage workers was coordinated from the Independent Labour Party Committee Rooms on Oldham Road in Newton Heath, and the ILP along with the Labour Party, other socialist groupings as well as the Co-operative Movement were places where working people could find a forum to articulate their wishes for a fair and just place.
Picture; Gorton Locomotive Works, 1960,m61101 & Victoria Station, 1910, m63286, Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council
* Richardson, H.M., The Manchester Strikes, The fight for a minimum wage, The Labour Leader , August 11, 1911, Working Class Movement Library, Salford
** This despite the fact that they were just about to declare a larger dividend than for the last eleven years, this amounted to 4½%, Richardson, H.M.,
*** Churchill, Winston, HC Deb August 16 1911 vol29
**** Churchill, Winston, HC Deb August 22 1911 vol29
***** The Railway Gazette, October 13 1911