Saturday, 18 June 2016

Revisiting the Great War nu 4 ............ "there shall be NO STRIKE OR LOCKOUT"

Munitions workers, Openshaw, 1918
The right of ordinary men and women to go on strike during a war came in for a lot of comment in the newspapers during 1915.

And a century or so later there might still be those who think it was wrong, unpatriotic and more than a little cynical given the sacrifice being played out on the Western Front.

Of course then and now the reasons for that industrial conflict have for some been neatly swept to the corners, and words like greed, unprincipled and even cowardly could be used to explain what went on.

Certainly at the time the papers were quick to print letters from men at the Front questioning the strikes while the Government forced through compulsory arbitration for wage disputes and suspended trade union rights in munitions factories making strikes in factories engaged in war work illegal.*

Bullet Factory, Woolwich Arsenal, 1918
“One of the most emphatic provisions of the Act is that, during the war, whatever differences may arise there shall be NO STRIKE OR LOCKOUT ........ Under the Act the meaning of the terms “strike” and “lockout” are broader than their generally accepted meaning in normal times.  

Workmen need not necessarily walk out, to be on strike, nor need the doors be closed against the men to constitute a lock out.  

Any concerted action by workmen, which involves any stoppage of work, with the purpose of compelling an employer, to accept, or to aid workmen to compel an employer, to accept any “terms or conditions of or affecting employment” is, in the sense of the Act, a strike**

For which the penalty for any workmen involved in a strike was £5 a day or part of a day

Added to which in factories engaged in the manufacture of armaments workers were forbidden to leave their current job for another without obtaining the consent of the employer were prevented from refusing to take on a new job regardless of the rate of pay and could not refuse to do overtime whether this was paid or not.

And while the act made it clear that these provisions only covered demands for pay or conditions of work sitting behind this piece of legislation was the far more draconian Defence of the Realm Act*** which could be used against “any person who, inter alia, “attempts to impede, delay, or restrict the production, repair, or transport of war material or any other work necessary for the successful prosecution of the war.”**

Cost of living demonstration, 1915
The year had seen large numbers of strikes, some over issues directly related to the regulations prohibiting workers leaving without the consent of the employer.

In Openshaw in August this had led to confrontation between the firm Armstrong, Whitworth and the workforce over the dismissal of 121 men from the armour plate department without the relevant certificates allowing them to get work elsewhere.

Elsewhere the issue was simply the rising cost of living which was not being matched by a similar rise in pay in some industries.

As early as February 1915 the Manchester Guardian had reported that wages were “much as they were before the war.”****

At a time when the cost of food, fuel and rents were on the increase.

Speaking in Manchester at a large public meeting in February Henry Hyndman the leading socialist pointed out “since the war had begun prices had gone up 22%, so that now the purchasing power of a sovereign was from 13s. 6d to 13s.9d.”*****

At the Front, 1916
That said not all industrial disputes centred around pay, in Oldham the employees of the Co-op were in dispute over the Society’s refusal to pay women the same rate as men, while at Sandbach the issue was over the refusal of Foden’s the truck builders  to recognise a trade union.

All of which brings us back to that simple observation that here there is much more to find out, including trawling the full records of strikes in 1915 and bringing to the fore the words of those involved.

Pictures;courtesy of the Labour History Archives & Study Centre,  at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, Women Munitions workers Belsize works, Openshaw, 1918 m08093, courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, the Bullet Factory, Arsenal, Woolwich, 1918,  from the collection of Mark Flynn, Daily Mail War Postcards, 1916, courtesy of David Harrop

*Munitions of War Act 1915

**1915 Act, s.2(1), p61, 1915 Act s. 19(b), p81 from Employers and Workmen Under the Muntions of War Act 1915 & 1916, 2nd edition 1917, page 31-31

***Defence of the Real Act, August 1914, It gave the government wide-ranging powers during the war period, such as the power to requisition buildings or land needed for the war effort, or to make regulations
creating criminal offences.

****War Effects on Wages and Conditions, Manchester Guardian February 20 1915

*******LABOUR AND FOOD PRICES. A FREE TRADE HALL PROTEST, Manchester Guardian Feb 15 1915

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