Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Pages from working class history

Follow your leaders?

The First World War is remembered as a time of bloody carnage. But it also produced massive opposition among industrial workers who refused to accept worsening conditions. Sabby Sagall investigates
Scottish socialist John MacLean

The First World War brought about a crucial transformation in the trade union movement. The government could not have undertaken the war effort without the support of the trade union leadership. Only with their fullest collaboration could the working class be harnessed to the war chariot of British imperialism.

The first step in this new collaboration was the abandonment by the union leaders and their Labour Party colleagues of their opposition to war. The union leaders declared an industrial truce and called off all existing disputes, including a major building strike in London.

The urgent demand for war munitions led to wholesale attacks on working class living standards. Added to this were steeply rising prices. Industrial disputes fell to 20 in August 1914 but then rose to 74 in March 1915. The first big battle on the 'home front' was on Clydeside, one of the main arms producing areas, in February 1915. Around 9,000 engineering workers went on unofficial strike for increased wages. The union leaders echoed the government's call to resume work. Faced with this hostility, a new leadership, the shop stewards, emerged to fill the gap. The dispute was referred to arbitration and the employers were forced to concede a larger increase.

Alarmed by this and other struggles, the government summoned the union leaders to a special conference. The result was the notorious Treasury Agreements by which all independent union rights and conditions, including the right to strike, were abandoned. The employers were allowed to 'dilute' labour, employing unskilled workers in normally skilled jobs, to meet the growing labour shortage and the insatiable demand from the front for men and munitions. The Munitions Act made strikes illegal and the restriction of output a criminal offence. In July 1915, for example, a Glasgow shop steward was imprisoned for three months for 'slacking and causing others to slack'.

The act was soon put to the test. In March 1915 the government rejected the Miners' Federation demand for a national wage increase to meet the rising cost of living. There was widespread unrest in the coalfields and in July the South Wales miners struck. The government proclaimed the South Wales coalfield bound by the Munitions Act, attempting to use its legal authority to forbid a stoppage and to refer the dispute to compulsory arbitration. The South Wales miners solidly defied the law, confident that the government was not about to send 200,000 workers to jail. The miners won virtually their entire claim. But because their leaders had refused to participate in the Treasury conference of March 1915 they prevented the open split between the leaders and the led that occurred in engineering. The miners inspired other workers, but their very success staved off further action in the coalfields until after the war.

In return for surrendering union rights and independence, the government gave the leaders three pledges: that union standards and conditions would he restored in full after the war; that abandonment by the unions of defensive practices would not result in increased profits for the employers; and that 'dilutees' would be guaranteed wages equal to those of skilled workers. The government was to break every one of these promises.

Out of the Clyde strike of February 1915 emerged the Clyde Workers' Committee, pledged to resist the Treasury Agreements and the Munitions Act. The Clyde stewards created a new form of workshop organisation. Previously shop stewards in engineering had existed only as card inspectors and reporters to their district committees. The general feature of the wartime period was their transformation into leaders directly representing the rank and file on the shop floor.

Glasgow's rent strike against profiteers

While discontent grew in the factories, rent increases in Glasgow drove large numbers of housewives to near revolt. In May 1915 the Women's Housing Association called a rent strike. A campaign of factory meetings was organised. Tenement committees were set up. In June the rent increases were withdrawn in the working class district of Govan. The movement spread. In November 18 munitions workers were summoned for nonpayment. Local shipyards stopped work, marching to the court in a mass demonstration. The cases were dropped and rents tied to their prewar level.

But by mid-1916 the principal leaders of the Clyde revolt had either been imprisoned or deported from the area. The Clyde Workers' Committee conceived of its aims in narrow trade union terms and rejected the idea of political leadership. The experience of betrayal by the official trade union and Labour Party leaderships was not new. And the shop stewards had intimate knowledge of the bureaucratic manipulation that such leaders used in their dealings with the rank and file. So they repudiated the idea of leadership altogether, arguing that, 'No committee shall have executive power, all questions of policy being referred back to the rank and file.'

The arrests and deportations were therefore accepted without any attempt to mobilise Clydeside workers against them. Nor was there any sympathetic action elsewhere in Britain. The rejection of any centralised initiative condemned the various sections of the labour movement to isolation. A pattern was established whereby victories were achieved and defeats sustained in separate, uncoordinated actions. The Clyde movement withered away, temporarily broken. Dilution was now enforced without serious opposition.

Leadership of the shop stewards' movement now shifted across the border to England where the main industrial struggles of the war were to be fought. In November 1916 a conference united the shop stewards into a national movement, which declared, 'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.'

One of the high points of the rank and file movement was also reached that month. Leonard Hargreaves, a Sheffield skilled worker, was wrongfully drafted. Around 200 shop stewards mobilised 10,000 engineers on strike to demand his release from the army. Delegates roared off on a fleet of motorcycles to spread the word. On day three of the strike Barrow engineers came out in sympathy. The authorities capitulated.

In March 1917 came the Russian Revolution. It showed that mass action worked, that ordinary people could influence the course of history. It also suggested that British workers could act to eliminate those grievances that were deepening discontent: rising casualty lists, the food shortage, the inequality of sacrifice shown by the contrast between rising prices and profits and workers' low wages, and the extension of dilution.

In the months that followed, the greatest wave of militancy of the entire war swept over Britain. In April the government repudiated the Trade Card system agreed with the unions, intending to conscript large numbers of men previously reserved for industrial work. Later that month a Rochdale engineering firm extended dilution to private work in breach of a national agreement. A strike spread rapidly until 60,000 Lancashire workers were out. Within a week a wave of strikes swept across London, Sheffield, Leicester, Liverpool, Rugby, Leeds, Newcastle and other munitions centres, engulfing altogether 48 towns and involving over 200,000 workers.

The cabinet became alarmed at the threat to the war effort and potentially to British capitalism. The main strike leaders were arrested. A delegation of stewards shepherded by the secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was received by the Minister of Munitions. They agreed to call for a return to work in exchange for the release of the arrested leaders. They also accepted that further negotiations would take place between the government and the official trade union leaders. The stewards failed to win the restoration of the Trade Card system. The government, however, frightened by the mounting industrial unrest, agreed to abandon its proposal to extend dilution into private work.

The shop stewards had been catapulted into leading the gigantic movement of protest by the abdication of most national union leaders. Officially, the strikes were against the deterioration of trade union conditions caused by the dilution of labour and the Munitions Act. But at a deeper level, they were a rebellion against the whole range of social conditions produced by the war, and, ultimately, against the war itself. Unfortunately, the politics of the shop stewards, in particular their anti-leadership views, prevented them from developing the movement beyond the narrow limits of those trade union demands.

Although most of them were socialists opposed to the war, they did not consistently raise socialist ideas in the course of the battles they were leading. They never demanded an end to hostilities as the solution to the problems facing the working class. John Maclean, a Glasgow teacher and leading socialist, was one of the few trying to expand the industrial struggle into one against the war. General political questions such as the need for socialism were raised in the abstract, unrelated to the concrete struggles taking place.

The fact was that every issue facing workers--every dispute over wages or conditions, the conflict over industrial and military conscription--was profoundly political, since all arose out of the government's determination to win outright victory in the war. By confining themselves to narrow trade unionism, the stewards ensured their own defeat. For it was impossible to consistently oppose the government's industrial policy without questioning its political assumptions.

True, only a minority of workers were fully conscious of the relationship between dilution and conscription on the one hand, and the war and the capitalist system on the other. But the shop stewards had an opportunity to broaden the struggle by basing themselves on these more advanced sections. By doing so, they could well have raised the level of the more backward sections to that of the more advanced. But because the stewards saw their job as simply to echo those grievances which workers themselves were conscious of and able to express, they refused to raise the level of demands and tackle the general political questions.

The shop stewards had developed syndicalist ideas through the experiences gained in the prewar struggles of the Great Unrest from 1910 to 1914. All workers had to be organised into a single industrial union which would fight on economic and not political questions. Once the socialist industrial union was built, workers would take over industry and the capitalist state would fall away more or less automatically. Their syndicalism blended well with their 'anti-leadership' attitudes.

Without some kind of centralised organisation, the movement was dissipating its enormous energy. The concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the wartime state demanded similar concentration of forces by the workers. The shop stewards' refusal to accept the mantle of leadership condemned the movement to a history of hesitation and vacillation. As Walter Kendall puts it in his book The Revolutionary Movement in Britain: 1900-1921, 'Events drove them towards centralised leadership, ideology made them hesitate and step back.' By turning their backs on centralised organisation the shop stewards relinquished their power to influence events.

None of the three principal left parties, the Independent Labour Party, the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party, were capable of linking the struggles. Although leading stewards and activists were also leaders of these parties, none made any attempt to harness the rising tide of militancy to socialist goals. The inevitable result was that they were unable to consolidate the movement once the war ended. After 1918 the union leaders disengaged from their alliance with the state and reasserted control over the industrial struggle.


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page