Trades disputes had not been uncommon in the 18th century, but the Calton Weavers Strike of 1787 was remarkable for its duration, the violence with which it was met and in the reprisals which followed it. The strike was about the spread of new machinery and the increased importation of cheaper Indian cloth but most of all it was about people with families and a livelihood to protect.
Glasgow's possibly first strike lasted from June until October 1787 and it was to claim the lives of six men. In 1787, Calton was just a village on the boundaries of the city of Glasgow, home to mostly weavers who were well regarded for their high standard of education - many being self-taught - and their social awareness. They tended towards more radical politics, which made them unpopular with the authorities, the Glasgow Magistrates who were determined that they would control the weavers, the pioneers of the future trade unionists. In June of that year, the weavers and their fellow brethren who were members of the Clyde Valley General Weavers Association learned the manufacturers planned to reduce payments for the weaving of muslin. The proposed cut came on the heels of an earlier one which had already reduced wages between six and seven shillings a week. A further cut, the weavers protested, would bring wages down by 25%, a remuneration they felt that they could not live on. At a mass meeting held on Glasgow Green on 30th June 1787, the weavers resolved not to carry out any work at the proposed new rate. At first, the striking weavers tried to act reasonably. As in previous disputes, they seized the materials which had been accepted by some workers at the reduced rates, but these were then returned to their owners. As time passed, the hardships experienced by the weavers increased and the measures adopted to attempt to overcome the stale-mate became more militant. Strikers went to premises where the work was being carried out at the new rate, cut the webs, and in some cases publicly burned them.
On September 3, protesting strikers were fired upon by troops of the 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot at the order of the city's magistrates. Three weavers died instantly, while three others were to die from their wounds over the next few days. They paid the ultimate price for their principles and convictions. Scores of others were wounded. Many arrests were made and varying terms of imprisonment imposed. Some were forced to leave the country. One, James Granger, was flogged through the streets of Edinburgh then exiled from Scotland for 7 years. He later returned and took part in the 1811-1812 strike. The dead were regarded as martyrs.
The weavers' sabotage techniques anticipated the development of direct action associated with syndicalism over a hundred years later. Today, unions and workers are still fighting to keep jobs and maintain their incomes as technological advances and foreign competition gets introduced. Not much changes with capitalism, even over the centuries.