One hundred years ago, mill workers in Yeadon and Guiseley, West Yorkshire, took heroic strike action over pay and working hours.
Iain Dalton, Leeds North Socialist Party
The textile industry adopted a system that Cameron’s Tory ministers are trying to revive for the public sector.
Pay varied wildly by district, and when employers sought to negotiate rates they sent scouts out around West Yorkshire to find where similar workers were paid the lowest and used that as their benchmark.
The period from 1911-14 is known as ‘the Great Unrest’. Workers across many industries fought to improve stagnating living standards. Some textile workers hadn’t seen a pay rise in 18 years.
Fierce class battles included the first ever national rail and coal strikes, alongside major political debates over women’s suffrage and Irish home rule.
Yeadon was just one of 1,497 disputes in the textile industry in 1913, affecting 93,510 workers.
A pay claim by the Yeadon, Guiseley and District Factory Workers Union (YGDFWU) for finishers, dyers and warehousemen sought to establish a flat 28 shillings (£1.40) a week wage for all workers over the age of 18.
Instead the employers offered a one shilling increase to all warehousemen and finishers earning under 25 shillings a week, while the dyers would get nothing.
This divisive offer was rejected and a strike began across the district on 19 May 1913. All factories with union membership were solid, except Nunroyd’s Mill in Guiseley which was picketed.
After two days of police escorting scabs into work, the employers threatened a lockout – perhaps motivated by fear of a repeat of the widespread rioting that followed aggressive police protection of scabs in the Old Dog Mill strike just four years earlier.
By the end of the week 2,000 were locked out and a mass meeting of 1,000 was held in Yeadon Town Hall square.
The following week, 1,500 workers marched from the town out to Yeadon Moor and within a few weeks the willyers, fettlers and cloth millers were also out, closing Crompton’s Mill, one of the few still working in the area.
With the employers convinced if they stood firm they could starve out the workers and break the union, a compromise didn’t seem likely soon.
Preparations were made for a protracted dispute as contingents of strikers were sent off on hunger marches to factory towns across the north of England, with one contingent reaching as far away as Blackpool.
Weekly marches into Leeds of up to 300 people involved strikers’ families. Other union branches they had supported in the past – including textile workers in Manningham, Bradford – donated generously to strike funds.
The union secretary, Herbert Lockwood, was also a local Independent Labour Party (ILP) councillor on Yeadon Urban District Council.
This working class political representation proved vital to the strikers. A year earlier Lockwood established a distress fund for striking coal miners, and used the remaining money to support impoverished strikers and their families.
The capitalist Liberal and Tory parties tried, through the council, to set up mediation bodies to force the workers on to the old pay scales. These attempts backfired, building further support for Yeadon ILP.
After nine weeks on strike, a deal was struck giving a general agreement between the unions and textile employers in the area for the first time ever.
The deal meant a reduction in the working week without loss of pay, pay increases for various groups of workers as well as increases in night work pay.
The union compromised on some points, including not getting a pay rise for the finishers, dyers and warehousemen, although the reduction in the working week offset this to some degree.
Unlike the 1909 Old Dog strike, the employers hadn’t been able to starve the men back to work. While not perfect, the deal helped the union to further build and organise, recruiting 247 more members by the end of 1913.
In November’s elections, the ILP stood more candidates than before and came first, fourth and fifth in the polls for the three available council seats.
Just as at Manningham Mills 22 years earlier, where the ILP was set up after the strike, workers in struggle discovered the value of independent organisation and political representation and fought to secure them, as workers will do as a result of the coming battles against austerity.