From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 17, 28 April 1941, p. 5
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Some weeks ago Labor Action published a number of articles on the developing shop steward movement in Britain and pointed out its great importance. This movement is growing and strengthening. We print below ... an article on the shop steward movement in Britain during the First World War.
The best news out of England nowadays is the rebirth of the shop stewards movement. The information that trickles through the British censorship has a ten times greater meaning if we take a glance back at the shop stewards movement during the First World War.
Through the city of Glasgow in Scotland flows the Clyde River. In and around Glasgow and on the banks of the Clyde is the greatest concentration of heavy industry in all Britain, with the exception of the London area – machinist forges, munitions plants, as well as ship-building.
Out of the Clyde “engineering” district came the first strike for working class interests during the war and the first mass movement of industrial workers against the war. While the official labor leadership signed away “for the duration” every trade union right they had won by a century of struggle, on the Clyde the fighting machinists EXTENDED their power.
Propaganda lay thick over Britain, but in Glasgow no pro-war meeting could be held from the beginning of the war to the end. The workers wouldn’t allow it. Lloyd George himself tried it and couldn’t be heard above the singing of the Red Flag.
Who were the shop stewards? No new or “foreign” institution. Most good trade unions in America and England have them today, They are the local representatives of the trade union in each plant or department of a plant. They collect dues for the union, take up the workers’ grievances in the plant, carry on the union business in direct contact with the rank and file.
When in 1914 the top labor leaders proclaimed, “The workers must now stop fighting for their rights!” the workers turned away from these leaders who wouldn’t defend them any more, and found leaders in their own shop stewards.
Here’s how the first strike broke out. Even before the war the Clyde workers were agitating for a four cents an hour raise. By 1914 the bosses, coining a flood of profits out of the slaughter, offered three farthings. The workers rejected it. In 1915 the shop stewards formed a strike committee. They didn’t call it that because strikes had already been declared illegal in this democracy.
It was called a “Labor Withholding Committee.” The workers just withdrew their labor and the bosses couldn’t run the plants.
There were no strike benefits and no support from the national union, but the workers come out 100 per cent and went back with unbroken ranks when, after two weeks, it was decided to continue the strike as a slow-down. The shop stewards and local militants formed the Clyde Workers’ Committee and continued the fight.
Later in 1915, the government introduced “dilution of labor.” This meant the hiring of new workers regardless of union standards of wages, hours and conditions. To protect union standards, the Clyde Workers Committee demanded workers’ control of the “dilution” and another mass upsurge started.
Lloyd George came to Glasgow to soft-soap the shop stewards. The first plant he addressed, the head shop steward introduced him to the meeting as “an enemy of the workers” and a lawyer to boot. He couldn’t even convince them to have a photograph of the meeting taken. At the other plants, the stewards refused to gather until he negotiated with the Clyde Workers Committee. On Christmas Day he tried to address a city-wide meeting of stewards and couldn’t be heard though he shouted until the sweat ran down his face. When he stopped through sheer exhaustion, Muir of the CWC got up on a seat, instantaneous silence fell, and the workers’ case was presented. Lloyd George and his retinue walked off and went home and the CWC took over the meeting. A Glasgow paper which reported the meeting was suppressed and the Committee put out The Worker.
Postscript: the shop stewards gained control of the “dilution of labor.”
Following the 1915 strike, the movement began a campaign against increased rents which were rising sharply. The housewives organized. Meetings of the working class women were held in back courts, kitchens and streets. The increased rents were not paid. Each time the sheriff’s officers came for an eviction, they were smelled a mile away; bells were rung for the “gathering of the clans,” and an army of infuriated women drove back the officers in a panic. Then the landlords tried court proceedings. On the day of the first trial, the factories for miles around emptied, the housewives declared their own general strike too, and a sea of workers surrounded the sheriff’s court. Inside, the sheriff, white around the gills, phoned Lloyd George in London. “The workers are threatening to pull down Glasgow. What am I to do?” The trial was given up and in double-quick time the government passed an act restricting rents ...
The shop stewards had won this victory for the rest of Britain’s workers, too.
The movement began around the economic interests of the workers, but it quickly became a mass anti-war movement. “There’s profit in blood,” was the slogan. The posters said: “Your King and Country Need You.” And the workers added on:
“Your King and Country Need You,
There were plenty of patrioteers around Glasgow, but somehow every meeting they attempted ended up as an anti-war demonstration. They tried to organize, and did organise, a Discharged and Disabled Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Federation to use as a weapon against the militant workers: but very soon the organization was supporting every act and resolution of the Clyde Workers Committee, as well as composing some of their own. When Winston Churchill came to Glasgow to speak at a pro-war mass meeting, the affair was organized almost as secretly and conspiratorially as an underground gathering in order that only the “right” people might attend. When an attempt was made by reactionaries to organize a strong-arm organization to break up the workers’ meetings, the shop stewards formed defense guards on a factory basis and put a quick stop to it.
And on May Day! The first big May Day took place in 1917, about two mouths after the overthrow of the tsar by the Russian revolution, the British labor tradition was to hold the celebration, not on May First itself, but the first Sunday following, as a picnic rather than a demonstration. The shop stewards were opposed to this, but compromised this year by holding it on Sunday but as a demonstration.
On that May Day of 1917 in Glasgow, 80,000 workers marched in the parade itself and it quarter million lined the streets!
“The demonstration declares for the overthrow of the capitalist system of production for profit. It sends its fraternal greetings to the worker’s of all lands,” read the resolution that was passed by the throng massed around the platforms dotting Glasgow Green. Resolutions of solidarity with the revolutionary Soviets of Russia were cheered and adopted.
Six months later, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was greeted by the shop stewards with acclaim and understanding. Their political lead, John McLean, was appointed as Soviet consul by the workers’ government. The following April, McLean was arrested for a second time, this time charged with preparing a revolution for May Day! The absurd charge brought a second campaign to free McLean, as he had been freed the first time, by workers’ pressure.
May Day, 1918, was celebrated on May 1, in the middle of the week, not on Sunday. The response was even greater than in the preceding year: it was a one-day general strike. Two hundred and fifty organizations or branches of organizations of the workers participated – unions, cooperatives, service men, women’s committees, etc. One of the chief slogans was “Release John McLean,” and the May Day procession ended by transforming itself into mass demonstration before the jail.
The whole of the story of the shop steward movement cannot be given in these columns, but it lives among the British workers. Not only on the Clyde. Late in the war, the Clyde shop stewards began to form national connections, linking up with shop stewards elsewhere. When the war was over, there was a national committee of shop stewards which played an important part in the post-war revolutionary events in England.
Union militants, workers – look at the shop stewards. They had no prominent or noted leaders when they started. They produced their leadership from their own ranks, right out of the militants at the bench and lathe.
There was no revolutionary party in Britain then. There were only two small socialist sects, perhaps a few hundred members each – the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party. But when the Labor Party sold out to the war-makers and the workers saw they were acting merely as stooges of the government, it was to the small group of revolutionists in these two socialist organizations that they turned for leadership. The leading shop stewards were socialists. The revered guide of the entire movement was the “revolutionary school teacher,” John McLean, not himself a steward, but an untiring Marxist propagandist. His classes in Marxism during the war were attended by thousands.
The trouble with the movement was that it was limited to the Clyde for the greater part of the war. And the reason was that there was no Bolshevik party behind the movement, with a national aim and capable of national coordination. The BSP and SLP were uncertain in their politics and sectarian in their policies.
Even so, the shop steward movement is there to prove that the working class on the march is a power, the great power of Europe. Watch the British shop stewards!
Last updated on 14.12.2012