The Strikes of the 80s

Chris Nickson’s monthly instalment of Leeds history considers the trade unions’ striking actions and the role of Tom Maguire in the 1880s events.

Mention strikes and the first image to spring to mind will probably be the miners at Orgreave in the 1980s. Those a little older might well recall the wave of industrial unrest that ran through the 1970s.

But in Leeds it was the 1880s that was the real beginning of labour flexing its muscles. There had been strikes going back to 1727, when carpet weavers struck for more money, and won.

Battle of Orgreave Photo credit: The Guardian

Battle of Orgreave
Photo credit: Don Mcphee/The Guardian

It was towards the end of the 1880s, though, that workers had begun to come together in unions. One of the first was the Jewish Workers’ Tailors Trading Society, formed in Leeds in 1876, and said to be the world’s first Jewish trade union. The Jewish tailors were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, fleeing the pogroms there. However, none of the big mills would hire them as inside workers. Even John Barran, a philanthropic soul who arranged the purchase of Roundhay Park for Leeds, would only employ them as outworkers. The tailors worked in sweatshops in the Leylands – where they also lived. They were immigrants, with little command of English, and they were exploited, working in terrible conditions for up to 17 hours a day. Their earnings? Just over a pound a week for men, and young girls took home 30p.

In 1885, the union joined with the pressers and machinists and managed to win a small reduction in hours from their employers. In 1888 they struck again, demanding more money and a 58-hour week. This time, though, they didn’t win, but there were more confrontations to come that would bring them concessions.

The following year saw pupils in schools going on strike. The movement began in Scotland, wanting less corporal punishment, a reduction in school hours and more. In Leeds, the first school to go out was Holy Rosary on Barrack Street, and others followed. There was no chance they’d win, of course, but it was indicative of the mood in Britain that they’d even try.

Also in 1889, building labourers, who had been organised into a union, went on strike, wanting shorter working hours and an increase in pay. One of the organisers was Tom Maguire, then still part of the Socialist League. He addressed meetings, including one at Vicar’s Croft (pretty much where the market now stands) that reportedly drew over 3,000 people. The workers did win an increase ofd (about 1p) in their hourly rate, and some small reduction in hours.

Maguire was also very active during the Gas Workers’ Strike of 1890. Leeds Corporation had taken over all the gas supplies in the town, and the Gas Committee saw a way to cut costs. Essentially, they planned to fire all their workers as the weather warmed, and rehire fewer at reduced rates. This prompted a strike by workers, and blacklegs were brought in. There was violence, the Riot Act was read, and cavalry had to escort the scabs to the gas works, where many promptly joined the strikers. It was settled in a few days, the Gas Committee forced to capitulate. It was a huge strike, with thousands involved, and the workers won.

There would be many more strikes to come, of course, but in this first real salvo for organised labour, they’d shown, in the words of Joe Hill’s song, “There Is Power In A Union.”

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson, author of Gods of Gold, published August 2014

Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. Gods of Gold,  a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike, will be published in August 2014. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s. 

Chris will be appearing at The Leeds Big Bookend festival as part of a Crime Panel alongside Frances Brody and Steve Mosby on Saturday 7th June in Leeds Central Library, 12pm – 1.30pm. Tickets are just £3 and available here.

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