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How Clydebank stitched up Singers

The 1911 Clydebank Singers strike is considered the first battle between labour and international capital in Scotland if not in the UK. It was also the biggest single firm strike in Scotland up to 1914. The strike lasted three weeks.

In 1867/8 the American company Singer Sewing Machine Co. expanded into Scotland. It first opened a small sewing machine factory in Glasgow near John St. However growing demand forced the company to expand to a larger factory in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow. In 1882 they moved again, to a greenfield site at Kilbowie in Clydebank. It was a very anti-union company. Tom Bell, an activist during the 1911 strike, in his book “Pioneering Days” states; “The firm refuses to recognise any union, and those union men that were employed had to keep it quiet.”

The factory comprised of 41 departments, the work was broken down in to small boring repetitive actions with a variety of teams making parts, assembling and testing sewing machines. During the early 20th century with the march of mass production methods.  Employers were imposing new management techniques on the workforces and Singer was ruthless in the implementation of these techniques. Piece work, time and motion study and more “efficient” work practices were the norm with the rate of work being push ever higher.

Singer introduced scientific management techniques into the workplace which  translated into an intensification in the pace of work allied to a reduction in wage payment rates. On the morning of Tuesday, March 21, 12 women cabinet polishers went on strike over a drop in their weekly wages of two shillings and an increase in their working hours. Soon swathes of their 3,000 female comrades were joining their protest, and they were quickly followed by the majority of the 12,000 work force, a quarter of whom were female. For three weeks around 11,000 workers at the factory went on strike, led and organised by the Industrial Workers of Great Britain(which also had strong support at the Argyle Motor Works in Alexandria and the Albion Motor Works in Scotstoun), and the Socialist Labour Party. The initial success of the Singer strike was due largely to the solidarity of the workforce. Before this dispute, workplace divisions on Clydeside based on occupation, skill, gender and religion would have prevented such a show of worker solidarity. The Singer strike was remarkable in that both men and women, of all occupations, skills and religions, presented a united front in opposition to the dictates of management. The display of solidarity shown by the striking workers of Singer has been attributed to the influence of two groups in the works, both of whom promoted the idea of industrial unionism. Regular meetings and demonstrations were held across the burgh for the duration of the strike, including one on 23 March when 8,000 strikers, led by the Duntocher Brass Band, paraded through the streets with tremendous support from the local population as practically every family had somebody involved in the strike

But their industrial battle with the bosses did not prove successful. Singers went on the offensive by closing the works, threatening to remove production to other plants in Europe, and issuing threats that workers would find difficulty in procuring other employment in the area if the strike was not brought to an immediate end.  Singer's organised a postal vote asking staff whether they wished to return to work. Management claimed that a majority wished to end the strike. Workers began to return and the strike committee conceded defeat and the dispute ended with an unconditional return to work on 10 April 1911. Bosses axed 400 workers, seen as instigators of the strike including Arthur McManus and William Paul. While the poorer working conditions of increased hours for lesser wages was hammered through by management.

In a post-mortem of the strike, John McLean wrote "What, then, should be done? Certainly not blame incipient industrial unionism as useless. All Social Democrats are industrial unionists. We differ from others in that we insist that real industrial organisation must arise out of the fusion and federation of already existing trade unions and the extensions of the scope of the forces to rope in workers and industries hitherto unorganised. And, furthermore, we rightly insist that economic organisation is subsidiary to political organisation in that the workers here, having the completest basis of unity, are better able at once to form a party representative of the interests of the workers as a whole...We must blame the lack of the feeling of, and confidence in, class solidarity. It is our duty, then, to foster this by further inculcating the principles of unionism, co-operation and Socialism. Essentially, we must get the masses to test their confidence in one another by giving them ample opportunity of voting “class” at every election where candidates are available."

One of the women activists was Jane Rae, born in Bonnybridge in 1872, but came to live in Clydebank with her family. She worked in worked in several departments at the Singer Factory's 'Needle Flat', and was actively involved in the strike for which she with all her colleagues in the buffetting department was sacked. She joined the Independent Labour Party after hearing Keir Hardie, and became the Clydebank Branch Secretary in 1913. She was politically active in many fields including the anti-war campaign in 1914, the Cooperative movement, the temperance movement and she once chaired an Emily Pankhurst meeting in Clydebank Town Hall. She was a local Councillor between 1922 and 1928, and became a JP with a fierce reputation when dealing with any man who mistreated his wife.

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