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An edited version of this article appeared in the Socialist, 22nd January (see http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/795/18016/22-01-2014/leeds-forgotten-dispute-the-1913-14-corporation-strike)

In the stormy period of the Great Unrest, which saw the first ever national rail and miners strikes as well as the epic Dublin lockout, strikes which would otherwise have achieved more prominence can easily be forgotten. The Leeds Corporation Strike is one such strike.

Iain Dalton

It was a pitched battle between the council (corporation) and their employees over pay which lasted a month over the Christmas and New Year period. In the red corner, the gas workers and their allies amongst the council workforce, in the blue, the Tory-led council, the press, police and university – all the tools of the state and its associated apparatus of control.

Like many other disputes of the period, what lay behind it was the desire of workers for their wages to catch up from the stagnation of the previous decade. A whole number of strikes in and around Leeds took place over these issues, including the lockout of textile workers in Aireborough (see The Socialist no. 765) as well as sections of the council workforce.

With sectional strikes achieving increases of between one and two shillings a week for most of the strikers, a Federal Council of Municipal Employees was establish between 8 trades unions to push for across the board rises for all sections of the workforce. Like the 1984/85 miners strike, the employers played for time, delaying the dispute for several months until after the November local elections. Although those elections saw Labour gain seats, the Liberals were given a disproportionate amount of the undemocratic aldermanic seats which were elected by the councillors themselves.

The councils offer was delivered on December 1st 1913, and whilst it guaranteed increases for a large number of workers, it fell short of the across the board increases that the workforce was striving for, the first of a series of divide and rule manoeuvres the council would pull. At a mass meeting of 3,000 (held at the same time Jim Larkin spoke and filled the Town Hall) the workers voted to go on strike within a week and the strike began on December 11th.

3000 workers were on strike, with another 1000 employed by the council thrown idle. During that day the tramwaymen who had a separate agreement with the council deliberated on whether to join that strike. When they did so at midnight, they swelled the ranks of the strikers to 4292. This not only meant only a skeleton tram service ran, but gas supplies were limited, street lamps weren’t lit and waste wasn’t collected.

Yet as the city ground to a halt, the ruling elites plotted their response to the strike. Preparations had begun during the run up to the strike to set up a Citizens League of Law and Order. The conservative-orientated Yorkshire Post established a fund for non-strikers, and like the other four local daily newspapers were incredibly hostile to the strike. The Liberal Yorkshire Observer justified their right to attack and slander the workers in one of its pieces, stating “It cannot be said to be unfair that a newspaper has taken sides against the men and then has done all it can by argument and presentation of its views to defeat the strikers. That is legitimate journalism.”

Police forces from all along the now M62 corridor were drafted in and attacked several of the striking workers demonstrations. But what perhaps aggravated the trade unionists most was that students from the recently established Leeds University were used to strike-break, 200 of the 663 attending the university. The Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Sadler was the president of the local Workers Educational Association and seen as sympathetic to the workers. Despite protestations of him personally being neutral, he described the strike as ‘brigandage’ and gave indirect assistance to the scabbing students by making special provisions for their exams.

But the key force in defeating the strike was the Tory-Liberal Special Committee appointed on Wednesday 17th December by the council consisting entirely of aldermen. This body was created with just one goal, that of breaking the influence of the unions in the council. Its first action was to issue an ultimatum to workers to submit applications for reinstatement to the committee by 6.30pm that Friday, a move calculated to drive a wedge between those sections of the workforce who were not directly in dispute (such as the tramwaymen) or already received pay increases and the rest of the strikers.

Mistakenly, the GGLU treated this as a toothless ultimatum and ignored it, whilst the Tramwaymen agreed to go back on condition of not having to cover other strikers work. The united front amongst the council workforce crumbled, 2028 workers, mostly tramwaymen were reinstated with the rest remaining on strike whilst protracted negotiations eventually began on the 20th.

The drift back to work continued, albeit slowly, and a few days before Christmas there were only 1000 jobs that hadn’t been filled by those returning to work or scabs who had been given permanent jobs. Too late the strike leaders increased strike pay and tried to appeal for further solidarity action. What started as a tragedy became a farce, as JR Clynes MP, the union president went for individual negotiations over four days and finally reported back on discussions to a mass meeting at 9am on 13th January in “some of the more generous language” used by the special committee, quickly left and took the 11am train back to London. The reality being that he had failed to secure the even minimal provision of all strikers getting their jobs back.

Like many other disputes, this bitter strike showed the determination of working class people to engage in struggle to improve the lives not just of themselves, but also their fellow workers. However, it also illustrates the dangers of an unprepared leadership, clearly they did not expect the special committee’s bombshell on 17th December – but they were also unprepared in terms of countering the lies of the press, only discussing with Leeds Trades Council partway through the dispute producing a strike newspaper (and even then they only agreed to produce one run of leaflets).

This was made worse by false declarations of the position the union was in. It is one thing to make statements to keep up morale, another to make a speech, such as that of local GGLU leader Walt Wood during Clynes’ negotiations that “…the corporation is beaten, absolutely beaten.” Whilst sometimes it can be best to accept concessions, make an orderly retreat and prepare for the future; in an all out dispute a leadership prepared to prosecute the struggle to the end is necessary. By the local and especially national GGLU leadership’s failure to do this they left their members in January either without a payrise or worse, without even their job.