John Maclean Justice 1911

The Strike at Singer’s

Source: John Maclean, “The Strike at Singer’s,” Justice, 1st April 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Last summer, owing to the reduction made in piece-work prices by the manager at the Neilston factory of the English Thread Trust, the cop-winding girls came out on strike, and shortly afterwards the whole mill of almost 2,000 came out in sympathy. At once we East Renfrew Social-Democrats arrived on the scene, just in time to help the organiser of the Women’s Federation to get them into that union. So loyal and plucky were the girls that we were encouraged to hold meetings and collect on their behalf all round Renfrewshire. Others carried the work over the West of Scotland. The strike induced all the Neilston workers to join the Women’s Federation, and since that time I understand that as a consequence of women striking here and there over the West thousands of other women have poured into the Federation.

But perhaps the most significant event in this plucky revolt of women workers against the driving that has become excessive these last few years back is the strike of a few women polishers in Singer Machine Factory at Kilbowie, Clydebank, down the Clyde a few miles from Glasgow. Clydebank has grown with mushroom-like rapidity as an outcome of the rapid growth of Singer’s and the establishment and extension of such famous shipbuilding yards as John Brown’s and Beardmore’s. There, also, is to be found the Clyde Valley Electrical Supply Company, one of those remarkable products of electrical expansion. And quite recently we opened the capacious Rothesay Docks to relieve the trade tension in the upper reaches of the river.

Here you have, then, a new town after the heart of the hustling Americans. And the American Singer’s concern is Yankee from stem to stern. It is a trust that, as far as I know, monopolises the output of sewing-machines in Britain (with but one exception). It has plant in America, in Germany and in Russia. It has agencies all over the world. At Clydebank it employs over 12,000 “hands,” of whom about 3,000 are women. There are 41 departments, and the various processes have been so divided and sub-divided that I believe few outside the office staff will know exactly the number of stages the wood, the iron and the steel must go through, before a machine is completed. Within recent years the sub-division of labour has been rapidly developed to an extreme, and new automatic machinery in many departments has displaced labour, or, at least enabled the management to enormously increase the output without a very great absorption of fresh workers. All, except a few moulders, engineers and joiners, are tied down to work no longer skilled. All are practically on the same level, and all the departments are inter-dependent. Apart from the mechanics alluded to no organisation of workers has existed; and no trade union, so far as I know, has attempted to absorb these workers.

Here was a chance for the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, a few of whom slave for the Singer Co. They set about holding mid-day meetings, and concentrated the attentions of huge crowds daily.

A few weeks ago a small strike took place but at once the difficulty was smoothed over. Last Tuesday however, the girl polishers came out as a protest against more work being imposed without extra pay. The propaganda of years, nursing the class solidarity of the workers, showed itself in a striking manner by the immediate stopping of work by all women, and then by all the men not in trade unions. Soon it became apparent to a number of the engineers, amongst them some Social-Democrats, that to remain at work was blacklegging on the strikers, and they naturally dropped tools in sympathy. Most of the unionists have still clung to their toil pending the decision of the Executive of the A.S.E. It certainly is to be hoped that that august body will adjust itself to the new circumstances, and thus avoid unnecessary friction in Clydebank during this rather romantic conflict.

The whole circumstances are uniquely appropriate for the immediate application of industrial organisation of the up-to-date type. A monopoly centred in one workshop; minute division of labour; unskilled labour; absence of trade unions; a growing group of enthusiastic, hard-working industrial unionists; a sudden and spontaneous strike of unprecedented dimensions in this industry of making sewing-machines.

The result will largely depend on the course and the conduct of the strike. The strikers have no means behind them, except what may be yet collected from a sympathetic public. If the ranks are held in hand unbroken, if discipline is maintained in a loyal manner, and if the large committee are firm in attitude and unanimous in spirit, objective and tactics, then, in the state of present trade, the trust will have, for the time being at least, to yield to the strikers. Should success be attained by the workers, then nothing will stand in the way of an immediate organisation embracing the workers in every part of the factory.

It is my earnest desire that all this should happen, and that all should end well, as it certainly will act as an incentive to comrades in old Unions to proceed with the utmost rapidity in the agitation for a fusion of all unions engaged in the same and closely allied industries. Trustification of industries through fusion must obviously bring in its train trustification of already existing unions and the closing up of their ranks internationally.

Meantime, let us carefully watch this new experiment, and note its ultimate evolution.