To the Linen Slaves of Belfast
Manifesto of Irish Textile Workers’ Union
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.
Your condition, and the condition of the sweated women of all classes of labour in Belfast, has recently become the subject of discussion on all the political platforms of England, and of long articles in all the most widely read newspapers and magazines of both countries. Almost unanimously they agree in condemning the conditions under which you work, your miserable wages, the abominable system of fining which prevails, and the slaughtering speed at which you are driven. It is pointed out that the conditions of your toil are unnecessarily hard, that your low wages do not enable you to procure sufficiently nourishing food for yourselves or your children, and that as a result of your hard work, combined with low wages, you are the easy victims of disease, and that your children never get a decent chance in life, but are handicapped in the race of life before they are born.
All this is today admitted by every right-thinking man and woman in these Islands. Many Belfast Mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children. But while all the world is deploring your conditions, they also unite in deploring your slavish and servile nature in submitting to them; they unite in wondering of what material these Belfast women are made, who refuse to unite together and fight to better their conditions.
Irish men have proven themselves to be heroes in fighting to abolish the tyranny of landlordism. Irish women fought heroically in the same cause. Are the Irish working women of Belfast not of the same race? Can they not unite to fight the slavery of capitalism as courageously as their sisters on the farms of Ireland united to fight the slavery of Irish landlordism? Public opinion in these islands is anxious to help you, but public opinion cannot help you unless you are ready to help yourselves.
Especially do we appeal to the spinners, piecers, layers, and doffers. The slavery of the Spinningroom is the worst and least excusable of all. Spinning is a skilled trade, requiring a long apprenticeship, alert brains, and nimble fingers. Yet for all this skill, for all those weary years of learning, for all this toil in a super-heated atmosphere, with clothes drenched with water, and hands torn and lacerated as a consequence of the speeding up of the machinery, a qualified spinner in Belfast receives a wage less than some of our pious millowners would spend weekly upon a dog. And yet the Spinning-room is the key to the whole industry. A general stoppage in the Spinning-rooms of Belfast would stop all the linen industry, factories and warerooms alike, Reelers and spinners united control the situation. Disorganised as they are today, they are the helpless slaves of soulless employers. United as they might be, as they ought to be, as we are determined they shall be, they could lift themselves into the enjoyment of prosperity and well-paid healthful labour. As a first step to that end, we wish to propose a programme of industrial reform to be realised in the near future, and we invite all our toiling sisters to enroll in our Society – the Irish Textile Workers’ Union – whose Belfast headquarters is at 50, York Street, in order that we may unitedly, and at a given moment, fight for its success.
We demand that the entire Linen Industry be put under the Sweated Industries Act, which gives power to a Trades Board, on which employees and employers are represented, to fix the minimum wages for the whole.
Under that Act the wages of women in the Clothing Operatives Trade has been already fixed at a minimum wage of 3d. per hour. Until the extension to the Linen Industry of that Act, we demand and pledge ourselves as a Union to fight for a minimum wage of 3d. per hour for all qualified spinners, proportionate increases for all lower grades in the Spinning-room, and increases in the piece rates for the Reelingroom and all departments in piece work; abolition of fines for lost time; all stoppages to be at the same rates as the daily pay per hour.
We also demand from Government the appointment of a competent Woman Inspector for the Belfast District exclusively, in order that the inspection of our mills, factories, and warerooms may be a constant reality, instead of the occasional farce it is today.
United action can secure every point on this modest programme within less than a year. It depends upon you, the working women of Belfast. If you have courage enough, faith enough in yourselves and in each other, you can win. Most of this programme can be won by direct industrial action, by a General Strike for it if need be; the rest will be conceded by Government as soon as you show yourselves in earnest in your demands for it.
To make easy the work of organising, we are prepared to establish an office or Women’s Club-room in each district, if the request for the same is made by a sufficient number of members. Take advantage of this offer, give in your name to us at this office, or to any of your collectors, and we will welcome you as sisters, and enroll you as comrades in the coming battle for juster conditions.
Should this manifesto come into the hand of any not themselves sufferers, but willing to help in the coming battle, if they communicate with us we shall be prepared to enroll them as auxiliaries, and welcome their help.
Sisters and Fellow-workers, talk this matter over, do not be frightened by the timid counsels and fears of weaklings. Be brave. Have confidence in yourselves. Talk about success, and you will achieve success ...
(This Manifesto, drafted by Connolly, was issued from 50 York Street, Belfast in 1913 over the names of Winifred Carney, Secretary, Ellen Gordon, Delegate, and James Connolly, Organiser. Connolly’s activities among the dockers and mill workers of the North had been intense and fruitful since June 1911 when he was appointed as Secretary Belfast Branch, and Ulster District Organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The Irish Textile Workers’ Union was attached to the Textile Section of the Irish Women Workers’ Union with Headquarters at Liberty Hall, Dublin.)
Last updated on 20.8.2003