McManus, Plebs March 1916

On the Clyde: A Study in Solidarity

Source: “On the Clyde: a Study in Solidarity” by McManus, Plebs March 1916, pp.28-30;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

To understand thoroughly the situation on the Clyde, one must go back to the time when war was declared. At that time, the engineers, who had just found themselves freed from an agreement which had kept them tied for three years, were advancing a claim for an increase in wages of 2d an hour. This it must be remembered, was a pre-war demand, based on the increase in the cost of living during the period of fixed wages. The outbreak of war of course afforded the employers a superfluity of excuses for refusing to meet the demand, and these were exploited to the utmost. The further rise in prices as a result of the war was entirely ignored. By the end of 1914 negotiations were no further forward, and the relative position of the engineer had become still more precarious; and then, in February 1915, their own officials brought about a climax by accepting 3/4d. – a sum that would have left them worse off than they were when they made the original demand for 2d.

The men withdrew their labour and the now famous February strike took place. Deserted by their own officials, they were confronted with the problem of organization, and this was tackled in able fashion. The forces were divided into districts, and delegates appointed to act on a Central Committee which met daily. As their ranks included members of the A.S E., Toolmakers, United Machinemen, &c., the possibility of the former capitulating if official action was taken – thereby leaving the others, who numbered but a small minority, no choice but to accept their terms – brought home a lesson which the Clyde to day has thoroughly learned, viz., the futility of sectionalism and the advantage of united action. By pledging themselves to accept no decision other than that arrived at through the Unofficial Central Committee, and endorsed by all the workers in the District Meetings, a possible split in the ranks was averted.

It is not necessary to go into all the details of this struggle; it is sufficient to point out that in overcoming all the coercion and intimidation brought to bear against them, and returning in a body, the workers gave ample evidence both of their discipline and of their capacity for organization. A compromise of 1d. per hour being effected, they carried their grievance back to work with them, determined to gather strength for the next round. It had become clear that the employers had a valuable asset in the arbitrary powers of the Government, and that they intended to make full use of them. As a result the Trade Union leaders were coerced into signing agreements which bound the men hand and foot, and made “official” action impossible. This was still more clearly demonstrated after the introduction of the Munitions Act. The officials could do nothing to meet the grievances of the man in the shop. It was left to the initiative of the A.S.E. shop-stewards to take matters up, and they set about forming a Vigilance Committee, composed of men from the shop, and the machinery of the Central Committee was the means adopted. This now became the Clyde Vigilance Committee. Its activity was chiefly in connection with the Munitions Act, and included the historic case of the three Fairfield shipwrights. An action of the local officials, to whom of course, the Committee had become a dangerous body, put an end to the Clyde Vigilance Committee as such but did not succeed in breaking it up. That action was as follows:-

When the agitation demanding the release of the three shipwrights had reached a point at which it was obvious that the workers were desirous of more drastic action, the officials conveniently resurrected an old body which had died a natural death at the beginning of the war, called the Clyde Vigilance Committee and composed of the various local officials. At the psychological moment they issued a leaflet instructing the workers not to take any action until word came through from the Union Officials, and this leaflet they signed; not as formerly by their own names, but by the names of the various societies. The ruse was successful only so far as it kept the shipwrights in prison longer than necessary, and demonstrated to the workers the need for another title for the Committee, which henceforth became the Clyde Workers’ Committee.

I have said little of the various grievances which necessitated the existence of an unofficial committee. These have been of a general character, and not confined to the Clyde area. By reason of the defensive machinery which they evolved for themselves, the Clyde workers have been able to put up a better fight against the efforts of the employers than the workers in some other districts. And the time was soon to come when this machinery would be necessary not only for industrial purposes, but also for battles of another character. Its utility during the Rent Strike is now well known, as is also the part it played on the occasion of the visit of the celebrated Welsh Puritan and Democrat, the Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd George. No-one in the least conversant with affairs on the Clyde but will admit that in coming here after the ruthless operation of the Munitions Act against the workers, Mr. George earned the reception be got. And he has earned quite a lot more since. The blatant audacity of suppressing Forward when it appeared with a truthful account of what transpired at the St. Andrew’s Hall meeting only added to the Clyde workers’ already overflowing indictment against him. His defence that the suppression was for something that was published several months previous was about as convincing as his reply to Mr. Pringle, when he said that ‘it was not true that the shop-stewards in Fairfield Yard had refused to see him,’ and proceeded to rebuke Mr. Pringle for ‘listening to tittle-tattle.’ What he did NOT mention was that it was the shop-stewards in Weir’s Cathcart, an even more influential firm, who treated him thus! And it will take something more than the word of honour of a Cabinet Minister to convince the Clyde men that Conscription was not rushed to the front as a result of Mr. George’s Glasgow visit.

Apart from this, however, the Clyde workers have had filched from them within six weeks what remnants of freedom they possessed. Free Speech, Free Press, the right of combination, all are things of the past. No less than four papers have been suppressed – Forward, the Vanguard, the Socialist, and the Worker. Halls let for meetings have been cancelled by the score, and even where meetings have been held, summonses against the speakers have been issued and fines imposed. Again, cases innumerable have come up involving the right of organization, supposed to be conceded in the Munitions Act, and the defending workers punished.

In their zeal to demonstrate what a land of Freedom this is – by arresting two members of the C.W.C. and the printer of the Worker – the powers that be went just a little too far. Once again the patience and tolerance of the workers were exhausted, and in less than eighteen hours some ten thousand had stopped work to demand the release of their three comrades. As a result, bail was granted, despite the earlier statement that the Crown had instructed that no bail be allowed. It was only the prompt action of the C.W.C. in urging those who had not yet come out to refrain from doing so, that averted a still more dangerous situation.

Meantime, there are still the issues of the Government dilution scheme, which to say the least is obnoxious to the workers; and also the Compulsion Bill. The handling of these measures will determine the length of time peace is likely to reign on the Clyde. We are, it seems clear, slowly but surely moving towards a crisis, which when it comes will have far-reaching effects, and it is to be hoped that the workers in other districts will at least endeavour to get at the true facts before passing judgment.

A. McMANUS. (Glasgow.)