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The 27th April 2011, marks the 120th anniversary of the end of the great Manningham Mills strike, lasting from December 16th 1890 until April 27th 1891, nearly 19 weeks. It was a war of attrition that was symbolic in all aspects of the clash of interests between capital and labour, particularly among textile workers in the West Riding.

By Manny Dominguez, Leeds City & Bradford Socialist Party

Moreover, it marked the incapability of the Liberal Party as a vehicle for the British trade unions, becoming at the same time a marker for emerging young socialists inside the trade union movement searching for a party of labour to represent the interests of the working class.

The background to the dispute

Manningham Mills, owned by Samuel Lister, was the largest factory silk factory in the world, with a floor space of 27 acres. The mill’s furnaces devoured 1,000 tons of coal a day and its boilers were serviced by an on-site covered reservoir. At its height it employed 11,000 workers, many of them women, producing high quality textiles such as silk and velvet.

The dispute was initially around pay. On Tuesday 9th December Lister posted a notice outlining reductions in pay for weavers, pickers, spoolers & winders in the plush department, affecting 1100 workers in total. The changes would take effect from December 24th and Lister threatened a lock-out if the workers did not accept.

Mr. Reixach the Company Managing Director outlined the employers’ reasons for making the cuts, citing that the world economic conditions had deteriorated, in particular British and foreign markets affecting textile industry at the time. United States had adopted the McKinley tariff in 1890, effectively closing the US markets from Listers’ plushes and velvets. Tariffs or taxes on foreign imports were a form of protectionism from the global economic decline of the time by intending to boosting national economies. These tariffs were perused by France, and products were cheaper in Germany creating more competition at home.

The final reason sighted by Mr. Reixach was that up to then, workers had been paid ‘unnaturally high’ wages! In previous years, Lister had a virtual monopoly on velvets and plushes. Indeed, Britain was a world leader in textiles and dominated the world market. Under these conditions, the employer could afford to pay ‘unusually high’ wages, but with the world economy in a much weaker position the employer argued that the workers must accept more realistic wages. Does this sound familiar?

The reaction of the workers was predictably hostile. Few were in a union but they were prompted to invite to regional officials from the Weavers Textile Workers Association to a meeting to discuss a strategy for action. From the first meeting a Work Peoples’ Standing Committee was appointed to negotiate a settlement with the employer.

After the first round of negotiations drawing a blank, the workers convened again. A third official from the union was invited, Ben Turner, a Socialist, whose grandfather had been a Chartist. After comparing wages to other textile workers in the region, Turner made the comparison between the wages of the workers and the company’s profits. In the previous year, Listers’ profits were £138,000. A wage reduction would save them only £7,000 a year or 5%. But if Lister carried out the wage cuts to the workers they would be 20% worse off, therefore the company could afford to cut their own profits by 5%.

During the second round of meetings with management on 16th December, the workers argued that the employers’ yearly averages of the workers pay didn’t add up. They hadn’t taken into account earnings lost due to ‘broken’ or ‘waiting time’, but management refused to budge. Despite the union officials urging for caution, the workers called for strike action from 5pm that evening.

Thrown into action

Workers were not prepared for industrial action; they had no strike fund and indeed they had no formal union branch structure. The priority for the striking workers was not only to spread the issues of the dispute as far and as wide as possible to get support, but also establish a strike fund.

A manifesto was written and sent to all the local papers including the Yorkshire Factory Times, the Woollen Textile area’s Labour & Trade Union weekly founded in 1889. Women, who were the majority of the strikers, went out with the children into the villages of Bradford and beyond collecting donations for the strike fund and gaining support. This became a regular feature for the duration of the dispute. Donations came in from all over Yorkshire, Lancashire, the North and Scotland.

Regular processions became a regular Thursday fixture in Bradford too, and all kinds of social events were organised to raise money and keep up the moral and express solidarity, which they got from across the world amongst the trade union movement, including Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor. Money not only paid for the strike fund supporting the workers and their families but for food and food kitchens.

By the end of the first week in March, the number of strikers had increased to over 4,000, but shortly after, and with the harsh winter weather, the tide was turning against them. Crucial period of the dispute was during March and April. By the end of March all 5,000 workers at the mill were out. The tempo of the processions, meetings and demonstrations increased, especially when the dispute spilled onto the political arena.

The role of the ruling establishment

It was the actions of the ruling elite through the Police, the Poor Law Guardians and the Local Watch Committee and the Poor Law Guardians that acted as a lightening rod that politicised the dispute.

The Poor Law of 1834, criminalised the poorest in society. The unemployed applied for Poor Relief to the Guardians of the Poor Law which were made up of local parishes. When trying to get extra financial subsistence strikers applied for Poor Relief but were denied after they had turned down the opportunity to work back at Listers’ Mill as they refused to be blacklegs (scabs). This was of no concern to the Guardians who saw them as undeserving for refusing to work. The strikers became more suspicious of the role of the police as early as January for bussing in the scabs and used unnecessary brutal force against the pickets. Although in general, the strike wasn’t violent, there were periodic episodes of violence between the police and pickets.

But on February 25th, when the management of the Star Music Hall, a local venue used by the trade union movement for meetings and rallies, told them they could no longer use the venue, the anger of the strikers and the wider labour movement exploded. The Watch Committee said that they could not hold meetings inBradford unless they stopped their Sunday meetings. This was seen as an attack on free speech and the Strike Committee refused to sign any declaration to give up the Sunday rallies, and organised to oppose this injustice.

Sympathy for the strike had grown aided by the Watch Committee’s apparent attack on free speech and assemblies. On Sunday 12th April the free speech issue turned violent. Bradford Trades Council had organised a rally at St. Georges Hall. An over-flow open meeting was requested for Dockers’ Square in the town but the Watch Committee refused, offering the municipal fairground some way out from St. Georges’ Hall. This was challenged by a minority who attempted to set up in Dockers’ Square and began to address a crowd who couldn’t get into the Hall. As the police attempted to stop it, the crowd surged forward and chaos broke out. The square was eventually cleared and the protesters had moved up to Peckover Walk to continue the rally. When the meeting at St. Georges Hall had finished, several hundred marched into the municipal fairground passing a motion urging the TUC to take steps to assert the right of public assembly in the town centre.

The next day, on Monday 13th April, events took a more serious turn. The ultra-lefts, including the ‘Communist Anarchists’ of the Socialist League distributed leaflets calling on people to assert their right to public assembly at Dockers’ Square. Estimated crowds of 2,000 had gathered that evening in the streets leading to the square, resulting in violence; so much so that the military had to be drafted in. On the following Tuesday, the rioting was repeated.

The Watch Committee had prepared for the worst for the mass protest meeting at Peckover Walks on Sunday 19th April, but the meeting was peaceful and was attended by as many as between 60,000 and 90,000. They passed a motion condemning the actions of the Watch Committee and calling for the restoration of the right to assembly in the town centre.

Staring at defeat

The confrontation with the Watch Committee and the riots distracted attention from the fact that the strike was on the verge of collapse. Financially, the strikers were having difficulty in sustaining the dispute despite the fact that the number of strikers had increased. The employers’ refusal to compromise and the fact that Lister rejected the Strike Committees final offer to submit to arbitration undermined the strikers’ determination to resist. Even towards the beginning of April, the distress was becoming obvious; they were being starved into submission.

Hardship and the threat of bailiffs and evictions along with the hostility of Bradford’s establishment all weakened the strikers resolve and their unity, and on April 22nd the spinners, the last of the departments to join the strike decided to return to work. On April 27th, the rest acknowledged defeat and returned to work.

Blacklegs, although used, didn’t really have an effect on the outcome of the dispute. At the end of the strike a newspaper reported that 150 beds had been installed at the Manningham Mills. Later, in that paper, it reported that there were up to 200 blacklegs. But the number would only be enough to do no more than the basic maintenance work in the mill, which in full production employed many thousands. Ironically for Lister & Co., the strike was at a time of general downturn in trade which, because of over-production, may have compelled at least a partial closure of the mills, so there was no urgency to resume to full production, which finally broke the strike.

Economic relations and the development of the working class

The Manningham Mills strike came at an interesting time in the history ofBritain’s economy and the development of the working class. The 1860’s and 1870’s saw the British economy dominate world markets – industry prospered and many workers shared in this prosperity. During this period, the working class organisations were dominated by the more moderate New Model trade unions and co-operative societies. After the pre-revolutionary fever of industrial militancy against illegality of trade unions and the terrible working conditions, and then the Chartist movement in the first half of the nineteenth century, the leaders of the working class came to terms with capitalism and worked to improve their share of the profits by increasing wages, lowering hours and improving working conditions rather than by over-throwing the system. The Liberal Party was seen as the party to take workers forward.

If the period of 1860 – 70 was of relative peace and harmony, the 1880’s marked the beginning of the period of disenchantment and a growing unrest amongst sections of the working class. By the late 1880’s it was becoming obvious that the period of liberalism as a vehicle for the working class was coming to an end. At the same time, competition from emerging economies in Europe such as Germanyand then later in the US ensured that Britain would no longer be the ‘great workshop’ of the world. With this increase in industrial output, markets became glutted.Britain’s economy faced the added problem that its ‘Free Trade’ Policy was in tatters as the rest of the world adopted protectionist policies. With rising costs of new machinery and falling prices of goods industry was faced with a dilemma, either it faced falling profits or it maintained them through cutting the workers’ share of the wealth by cutting wages, jobs or both.

The changes in the economic period of the 1880’s were matched by the beginning of a new political and industrial direction. The early 1880’s saw the growth of 3 socialistic groups; the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Socialist League (SL) and the Fabian Society. Though these organisations were small, their representatives and ideas had a profound impact on the working class and its organisations. The growth of New Unions were promoted by socialists who injected a new militancy into the trade unions and also, by the nature of their ideas, put forward views which questioned the whole social and economic system, and criticised both establishment parties. With Engels among them, they called for the creation of and independent working class political party.

The lessons of the struggle

The Manningham Mills strike reflected the economic and social relationships of the period. The debate over wage rates and averages brought to the surface grievances affecting the whole of the textile trade – replacement of male by female labour, loss of earnings due to ‘broken time’ and unhealthy working conditions.

Trade unionism was not strong in the textile area in 1890. The multiplicity of processes in woollen textiles in the velvet and plush trade created distinct groups of workers within each factory. The employers were often able to create divisions and prevent united action. Lister &Co.were attempting this in proposing reductions which would at first only affect one quarter of their employees..

The strike showed that, as women were the majority in the workforce, they proved that they were no less militant than their male counterparts. The dispute was an unprecedented display of militancy and unity where previously, workers in that industry were neither militant nor united. The Yorkshire Factory Times reported that trade union membership in the West Riding had increased by 10,000 due to the effects of the strike.

The strike revealed that the wider working class needed greater strength and unity then, not only industrially, but politically as well. Within a month after the dispute, the Bradford Labour Union was formed, and eighteen months after, the Independent Labour Party was formed in Bradford in January 1893.

There are many similarities in the political and economic situation of the Manningham Mills strike of 1890 – 1891 and today, not least the desperate need to create a new mass workers party to represent the millions not the millionaires so we can take a step towards our goal – Socialism.