The movement now known as Red Clydeside set a powerful example of political action to improve the living and working conditions of wartime workers and their families.
As men marched off to war, unskilled labourers were sent in to replace them in factories and shipyards. Skilled workers downed tools in protest over this practice of ‘dilution’ – because their own positions were being downgraded as a result and because the workplace was extremely dangerous.
To quash the strikes, leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee were arrested and either expelled from Glasgow or imprisoned. Nationwide, emergency laws soon stripped essential workers of the right to change workplace, to strike, or to limit their output. The moves only served to radicalise those at the sharp end.
In Glasgow another struggle was taking centre-stage – literally on the home front. In the four years to 1914, Glasgow’s population had soared by 70,000, causing a dire shortage of housing.
Despite wartime shortages and soaring living costs, landlords racked up rents, knowing fresh tenants would replace anyone who could not pay.
Landlords were likened to the military enemy. One activist slogan ran, ‘Our husbands, sons and brothers are fighting the Prussians of Germany. We are fighting the Prussians of Partick.’
In Govan, landlords caved in when well-organised tenants – known as ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ after their leader Mary Barbour – refused to pay the increases. Similar rent strikes spread, and sheriffs attempting to serve eviction orders met military-style resistance.
Women sentries at each tenement would sound the alarm. Instantly others would block the route, armed with rotten food or whatever else was to hand. In October 1915, 30,000 tenants were involved.
When 18 munitions workers were summonsed for non-payment of rent, shipyard and factory workers defied the wartime strike ban and marched 10,000-strong on the high court. They threatened a general strike if rents were not frozen.
The government ordered that the charges be dropped and the men released. The Rent Restriction Act, implemented immediately, froze rents at pre-war levels. Says retired Unite rep and Clydeside worker Davy Torrance, “That was a major victory because it remained throughout the duration of the war and after the war.”
John Garth is the author of ‘Tolkien and the Great War’.
Tomorrow’s feature will be about how the war revolutised women’s roles in the workplace.