Clyde Apprentices’ Strikes

1912, 1937, 1941, 1952, 1960. In each of these years there was a major strike for workers’ rights, based on the Clyde, which succeeded in seriously disrupting production in engineering and shipbuilding. Yet most of the strikers were not trade union members, and in most cases the unions gave the strikes only fragmentary, belated and rather reluctant support. The key to this seemingly mysterious side to the history of workers’ Clydeside lies in one word: apprentice. The strikers were apprentices, organising themselves outside the structures of the trade unions, and in several cases winning important concessions from the employers.

Some people might say that apprentices are not ‘real’ workers, and indeed the employers found it convenient to regard them as ‘learners’ rather than ‘workers’. Employers resisted the idea of apprentices being eligible for trade union membership or of trade unions negotiating on behalf of apprentices. They fell back on a traditional notion of apprenticeship as a contract between employer and parent. Some managements made direct approaches to parents to try to use them to force the strikers back to work. Yet their eagerness to pressurise the strikers into going back was due to the fact that apprentices had become an important part of the labour force. As modern production techniques gradually replaced the older craft skills, it became practically possible for apprentices to do many jobs just as well as time-served men. It was not lost on the management that it was in their interests that this should happen as much as possible, since the apprentices were paid much less than the skilled adult workers. Had the employers not taken on apprentices in such large numbers and had these apprentices not been given such an important part to play in production, there would never have been strikes on such a large scale.

The dates given at the start refer only to some of the biggest of the strikes. There were many others but the strikes that took place in those years are worth looking at one by one.

The 1912 strike was set off by Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act, but it would be wrong to call that the ‘cause’. The basic problem was low wages. The prospect of having to pay six and a half old pence insurance out of apprentice pay that could be as low as four shillings simply heightened existing resentment. Unfortunately, whilst in some areas low pay was made the foremost issue, other strikers used the slogan ‘Down with Lloyd George’. (In fact, apprentices could only apply for exemption from part of the contribution.) Earlier strikes had been on a restricted scale, but this time it spread over large areas of the country. Starting on 8th August in Dundee, Glasgow quickly followed and at its peak over 6,000 Scottish engineering apprentices were on strike.

Strike headquarters in Glasgow were set up at the offices of the Municipal Employees Association, a sign of the official engineering unions’ lack of enthusiasm for the apprentices’ action. Local organisation seems to have been good, but the strike was poorly coordinated nationally. Strikers at John Brown’s, Clydebank, went back after ten days but most of Glasgow stayed out until the end of the month. Some North of England centres held out a further couple of weeks. In the end, however, the strike ended with little concrete achieved. Only a few firms deviated from the Employers’ Federation line and increased wages. The employers, made nervous by the display of industrial strength, wrote tougher anti-strike conditions into apprentices’ contracts. Writing of the strike, Bill Knox does not see it as a complete defeat, however. Not only did it make official trade unions take more notice of apprentices’ problems. It also showed that the apprentices had ‘a hidden capacity for organisation and self-discipline which augured well for the future’.

In 1937, industrial workers were gradually improving their pay and conditions after the depression of the 1920s and early 1930s. Rearmament led to engineering workers negotiating higher wages, but apprentices did not benefit and this grievance brought them out on strike. Starting in late March, it lasted five weeks, with 32,000 out at its peak, 12,00 of them on the Clyde. Pay demands were soon broadened out into a campaign for an Apprentices’ Charter covering training and trade union negotiating rights too. There was a wave of ‘Youth Strikes’ on the Clyde, including walkouts by non-apprentice female staff at Beattie’s Biscuits and Barr and Stroud. Initial hostility by the unions later gave way to support and some adult workers came out in token sympathy strikes. Victory was not complete, but as well as pay rises apprentices were granted fixed proportions of any future increases in adult rates. Non-indentured apprentices also won the right to have union officials negotiate on their behalf.

In some ways, the 1941 strike was the most dramatic one of all. Not only did it coincide with the notorious Clydebank blitz, but it was the biggest dispute to affect the munitions industry in the whole of the Second World War. (This was partly due to the fact that it had the support of the Communist Party which soon afterwards changed its attitude to strikes because Russia entered the war as Britain’s ally.) It is difficult now to picture working conditions in the engineering industry at that time. Despite the war effort, there was little conciliatory in employers’ treatment of workers. (Churchill had to write to John Brown’s to try to persuade them to open a canteen for their workers.) The strike was short and the special circumstances of the war led to a speedy Court of Inquiry. Apprentice representatives surprised many people by the way they conducted themselves and the Court’s report was a vindication of many of the complaints the apprentices had made.

Victimisation by employers meant that the token strike action in 1952 snowballed into the next large-scale apprentice action. Clyde apprentices had organised a half-day strike on 7th February but when they returned to work next day some were suspended. When news of this spread, apprentices in many yards and factories came out in sympathy. The feeling generated led to a full scale strike in March with many thousands out in Scotland and England. On 21st March, the Glasgow Herald reported that ‘Mr J. Reid’ - Jimmy Reid - had successfully moved a resolution supporting the action at the engineers’ National Youth Conference. On 1st April, an employers’ spokesman was typically reported as saying that the strike was holding up pay talks. Ten days later, apprentice delegates accepted a pay offer roughly half of what they wanted ‘under protest’. Once again only partial success had been achieved.

The last great apprentice strike was the biggest strike of 1960 and one of the biggest strikes of the decade. Officially, 347,000 man-days were lost. At one point 60,000 were out all over Britain. A Clyde Apprentices Committee laid the base for the strike with demonstrations and token walk-outs. The main strike began on 21st April, earlier than planned because once again some firms suspended people who had taken token strike action. The strike committees showed they had the will and the ability to organise mass action. There were collections and strike pay for the needy. ‘Flying Squads’ were went to contact apprentices in England and Ireland. National delegate conferences were held, From many quarters, employers, union officials and the press, came accusations of communist dominance, intimidation and general irresponsibility on the part of what they liked to call the ‘Boy Strikers’. But the strike organisation survived until a national conference on 14th May called it off. The pay settlement that followed gave them less than they had aimed for, but once again apprentices had shown their industrial power and drawn attention to the ‘Cheap Labour Racket’. There have been no more apprentice strikes of that size, and we can expect no more. Heavy engineering has declined, and with it both apprenticeship and the industrial strength of apprentices.

Some look back with nostalgia to these strikes, but do they have any great importance? We should not be surprised that capitalism used the cover of ‘training’ to exploit young workers. Nor is it surprising that some of these ‘boys’ had the political awareness and skills to run successful industrial action with little outside support. What is worth noticing, with regret, is that the need for these strikes is a sign of a weakness in the unions and in the working class generally. The unions failed to tackle the problems of cheap youth labour and did not capitalise on the apprentices’ youthful militancy. We can criticise the union bureaucrats but they were not alone in this failure. Ordinary shopfloor workers often discouraged young men from even joining their union. “You’ll have plenty of time for the union when your time is out.” Luckily the young workers often ignored that advice.

NOTE: There are articles in the Scottish Labour History Society Journal on the 1912 strike (by W. Knox, No. 19, 1984) and on the 1937 strike (by Alan McKinlay, No. 20, 1985). lan McKechnie and I have interviewed some of those who took part. My thanks to lan for his part in our joint efforts to collect information.