“Henceforth January 31, 1919, will be known in Glasgow as Bloody Friday, and, for the crime of attacking defenceless workers, the citizens will hold the authorities responsible. The police have once more been used as hirelings to bludgeon the workers. The workers will not forget.”
The words above constitute the first paragraph of the Strike Bulletin produced by the ’40 HOURS MOVEMENT’ on February 1st 1919. Exactly 100 years ago today in Glasgow police officers were ordered to draw their batons and launch a ferocious assault on thousands of workers assembled peacefully in George Square in the centre of Glasgow. They had gathered there as part of a strike movement that began four days earlier on January 27th for a shorter working week.
It was a strike organised by a rank and file shop stewards body called the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) and united engineers, shipyard workers, railway workers and other skilled tradesmen across the city. Initially a few thousand workers took strike action but by January 31st at least 70,000 had downed tools. The city was at a standstill and the Provost in Glasgow city chambers and the war cabinet in London feared a Bolshevik uprising had begun.
The heading and first paragraph of the ’40 HOURS MOVEMENT’ Strike Bulletin on February 2nd 1919 was very instructive:
“MACHINE GUNS NO REMEDY
In response to the Clyde Workers’ demand for a 40 hours’ week, the Government have replied by sending armed troops to Glasgow. Apparently, if the workers do not accept what the employers give them, it is to be rammed down their throats at the point of a bayonet.”
It is hard to believe because, like so many radical and anti-Establishment struggles and figures, what happened in Glasgow 100 years ago today is not taught in our schools or analysed in most history books. Glasgow was occupied by armed troops and subjected to three days of martial law. Strike leaders and political activists were arrested from their homes in dawn raids. Socialist newspaper presses were closed down. Six tanks were deployed to the city to aid the troops and machine gun turrets were set up within the city chambers and the old post office building with the barrels of the machine guns pointing into George Square.
It is alleged that the local Maryhill army barracks were locked down for fear soldiers from in and around Glasgow could not be trusted to stay loyal to the government and many of the troops sent to the city were English and arrived in the dark of the night on 31st January.
Certainly during the first three days of February 1919 demonstrations, political meetings and unauthorised assemblies of workers were banned. Glasgow was considered a city in revolt and the Lloyd George Government, with Winston Churchill as Secretary of State in his war cabinet, was determined to crush the 40 Hour strike and arrest strike leaders and leading socialist agitators. The spectre of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 haunted the Government and they feared Glasgow was about to spark a British revolution.
The truth is the British Establishment mistook a radical strike for a revolution and there is no evidence that the workers strove for anything other than a shorter working week and better working conditions. Yet had the Clyde Workers Committee been bolder in its aims and aspirations it could very well have sparked a revolution in the image of the Bolshevik one which swept the Czars and old social order from power in October 1917 in Russia.
Context is essential to understanding history and any hope that what is recorded in history books and by historians is borne of anything other than bias and subjective opinions is naivety in the extreme. Always remember that history is written by the victors and very rarely if ever reflects well on the vanquished. Mark Twain’s wise words should always inform your historical research:
“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice” https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/mark_twain
From 1914 to 1918 the world was at war and the old social order was subjected to severe stress and examination in country after country. The war itself was a grotesque waste of human life with millions of young adolescent men slaughtered like cattle over the desires of kings, queens and rich bosses for greater markets shares and the spoils of wealth and power. Not a single principle was at stake in that war that was supposed to end all wars. Yet at least 10 million military casualties were recorded and 7 million civilian casualties. Up to 6 million others went missing and are presumed dead and millions of others perished prematurely from war related diseases, illnesses and famines https://www.historyonthenet.com/how-many-people-died-in-ww1.
During the war years the harshness of life was compounded by increased demands placed on workers to produce munitions, warships and other military hardware to feed each country’s war effort. Glasgow was at the very heart of the whole British war effort. The Clydeside was home to vital engineering works, steelworks, munitions factories and shipyards. It is in these heavy industrial environments that trade unions fighting for better working conditions thrived. Full employment strengthened trade union bargaining power and many factories required workers to be in the trades union which represented the relevant trade. The Government tried to ban strikes and use patriotic appeals to get workers to work harder and longer to ‘support the boys at the front’ but that tactic soon wore thin. Disputes broke out across Clydeside in support of better breaks, improvements to health and safety and hourly wage increases.
In 1915 thousands of workers downed tools in support of the predominantly women led rent strikes across Govan, Maryhill and other parts of Glasgow. Greedy private landlords saw demand for their properties within the city rocket as workers were demanded in the city. Eager to profit from the increased demand these landlords imposed unreasonable rent increases and then tried to evict any families unable or unwilling to pay.
The women of Glasgow were having none of it. Their husbands and sons were fighting overseas and these greedy property owners sought to throw the women and their children out of their homes. A rent strike was organised and on the day hundreds of women were summoned to appear in court to face eviction orders the shipyards and engineering works in and around Govan were closed down in solidarity action by trade unionised workers. The war cabinet was forced to intervene and the Rent Restriction Act of 1915 was rushed through Parliament. The army of rent striking women, led by Mary Barbour from Govan, won a major battle with the support of the Clydeside workers. That was a harbinger of things to come.
As the war dragged on and the carnage and bloodshed became more widely acknowledged support for the war waned and industrial and political actions became more commonplace across Europe.
The Easter Uprising in 1916 against British rule in Ireland was not as widely supported at the time as the James Connolly led rebels had hoped but the subsequent brutal treatment and murder of survivors caused revulsion in working class households and communities. Other rebel leaders and survivors joined Sinn Fein and within months it was winning by-elections before recording a stunning victory for republicanism in the December 1918 British General election barely a month after the end of the First World War. They won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats and on 21st January 1919 declared an Irish Republic in Dublin. A bloody war against British occupation soon ensued before a controversial partition agreement was reached resulting in a short civil war but the point is by 1921 Britain had lost its ownership of most of Ireland.
Revolutionary agitation against the war underpinned the success of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky in securing the first successful workers revolution in Russia in October 1917. This was an event which shaped the whole of the 20th Century and inspired millions of workers across the planet.
In November 1918 Germany was in a state of chaos. The Kaiser had been forced to abdicate and a socialist republic was declared. Armed insurrections developed and soldiers mutinied. Lacking an organised and strong socialist party the aspirations of socialists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemberg to follow in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks in Russia were eventually crushed in January of 1919 following the Berlin uprising https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/spartacist-uprising-berlin.
Similar armed uprisings, soldier and sailor mutinies and large scale riots spread across Europe engulfing France, Hungary, Italy and England. In fact war cabinet papers reveal the intention of Churchill to crush the Bolshevik threat in France, Germany and Russia. He was determined to despatch thousands of troops to the new workers republic in Russia to strangle it at birth through brute force. He was determined to send British troops to join the armies of other countries who surrounded the new socialist republic and tried to invade. Those armies were repelled by the newly formed Red Army which, against all the odds, fought back the invading forces.
However Churchill’s anti-socialist aims were thwarted by another force, the force of rebelling and mutinous troops. Throughout January 1919 tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors in England and at Calais in France mutinied and refused orders to assemble to be despatched overseas again. Police officers in several English cities formed a trade union and went on strike. Soldiers and sailors formed committees and mimicked the soviets that had been formed in revolutionary Russia. Britain truly was in the midst of turmoil and had a strong and credible socialist party existed at the time revolution could have been on the cards https://www.marxist.com/1919-britain-on-the-brink-of-revolution.htm.
This is the essential context to the brutal and bloody treatment of the striking workers in Glasgow on January 31st 1919. At least 70,000 workers were on strike according to contemporaneous newspaper reports but the Strike Bulletin of 30th January 1919 stated that 100,000 were involved and support was growing:
“To The Workers, 100,000 men are on strike in Scotland for the 40 hours week. This number grows daily. That so many men should have responded to the appeal for mass action on their own initiative is striking proof of the strength and virility of the demand for 40 hours. More men are responding every day, and by the end of the week the entire toiling masses in Scotland are expected to withdraw their labour if the Government do not concede the workers’ demand.”
This was in effect a general strike and a general strike organised by rank and file workers unofficially and not sanctioned or organised by the official trade unions. This was a genuine grassroots workers’ movement so no wonder the Government were literally shitting themselves.
The CWC had organised a mass meeting on January 29th in St Andrews hall in Glasgow city centre and it was so packed that four separate overflow meetings had to be held. The workers then marched to Pinkston Power Station and trams were brought to a standstill throughout the city. They ended up in George Square and the Lord Provost of the city received a deputation of the strike leaders, led by Davie Kirkwood and Manny Shinwell. The Provost offered to liaise directly with the Prime Minister Lloyd George to ascertain his position in relation to the 40 hour week demand. It was agreed that the strikers should return at 12.30 on January 31st to hear the response of the Prime Minister.
On this very day 100 years ago at 12.30 George Square was literally packed and the strike leaders were invited inside the city chambers building to speak with the Lord Provost and get the Prime Ministers’ answer. While inside the building the massed police ranks, without warning, charged the unarmed workers and cracked several skulls with their batons. A mass brawl started and a truck with empty glass water or lemonade bottles was ‘commandeered’ by some workers to allow a fight back. Davie Kirkwood was bludgeoned to the back of his head and blood poured from an open wound. Willie Gallagher, another strike leader, was also struck and arrested.
However the situation in the Square was getting so out of hand that the police chief inspector appealed to Kirkwood to address the crowd to ask them to leave the Square. A Justice of the Peace read the Riot Act giving the police sweeping powers of arrest and detention. The statement was snatched from his hand while he read it. Chaos reigned. A bloody riot threatened to develop.
Kirkwood was allowed onto the first floor balcony of the City Chambers to address the crowd and his appearance was met with loud cheers. He appealed to the workers to leave the Square and assemble in Glasgow Green. The workers accepted his appeal and proceeded to assemble in the Green 10 minutes from the Square. Fights continued in and around the Square and on the fringes of the Green. Glasgow was in turmoil.
The next day’s Glasgow Herald newspaper, Saturday February 1st 1919, ran the story under four separate headings:
GLASGOW STREET FIGHTING
The Riot Act Read
STRIKERS AND POLICE IN SERIOUS CONFLICT
LONG LIST OF CASUALTIES
“Unprecedented scenes of violence and bloodshed took place yesterday in Glasgow in connection with the present strike movement.”
Officially 19 policemen and 34 strikers were injured but the casualties among the strikers were much higher. Many didn’t want to report to hospitals for treatment in case they were arrested. By nightfall troops had been transported by train to Glasgow with six tanks and scores of machine guns. Three days of martial law was imposed and strike leaders were arrested. The Government was frightened of revolution. They were determined to crush it.
Were the strikers and the CWC revolutionaries? The answer is no and yes. No in the sense that there was no predetermined plan to cause chaos and seize power through factory occupations and the securing of guns to confront the police and army. But yes in the sense that in an economic system predicated upon the super-exploitation of workers to extract as much profit as possible for private enrichment then even a reformist demand like a shorter working week can become revolutionary. Revolutionary in that it challenges the right of capitalism to demand such unfair working conditions from ordinary workers.
The Forty Hours Strike Movement was radical and ahead of its time. It was progressive and sensible. Because of the war economy demands the average working week across Glasgow in 1919 was 54 hours. Yet tens of thousands of soldiers returning from the war were being denied jobs and thrown into the poverty swamp of unemployment. The rank and file CWC devised a solution. If the working week was reduced to forty hours and rates of pay were maintained then tens of thousands of jobs could be created and those in employment could live a better quality of life instead of being compelled to work 54 hours a week.
As the Strike Bulletin of 30th January 1919 stated:
“The strike is for a social aim, as the 40-hours’ week is meant to benefit all classes of workers. The 40-hours’ week will prevent unemployment and maintain the Union rates of wages in all industries. It will enable the men and women coming back to civil life to get jobs which will ensure a decent living in return for their labour. The 40-hours’ week means leisure for all and work for all.”
So there you have it in black and white. Yes a red flag was raised in George Square on Friday 31st January 1919 by the Forty Hours striking workers but it was not a revolution they were seeking merely “leisure for all and work for all”.
What a wonderfully progressive and sensible idea and aim. The strike continued into February before an official agreement with the official trade unions around a 47 hour week was agreed. The CWC was side-lined but the truth is without their radical action around the 40-hour week demand the reduction to 47 hours would never have been achieved.
Two final thoughts regarding the historic Forty Hour week strike merit some attention on this centenary day of 31st January 2019.
Firstly although the strike failed to secure the 40-hour week objective it did achieve a significant reduction in the working week and it did further politicise the whole city of Glasgow and much of Scotland. In the subsequent General Election of 1922 Glasgow elected 10 Independent Labour Party (ILP) candidates from the 15 Glasgow constituencies to become MPs. The ILP was avowedly socialist and among those elected to Westminster were strike leaders like Davie Kirkwood and Manny Shinwell both of whom had been arrested and charged in connection with the Bloody Friday riot. This election of 10 radical ILP MPs cemented the idea of greater Glasgow being described as ‘Red Clydeside’.
Secondly how pathetic is it that 100 years to the day after the Bloody Friday Forty Hour Strike riot the average working week in the United Kingdom is over 42 hours a week? (2016 – 42.2 Hrs per week; 2017 – 42.1 Hrs per week: Eurostat – Data Explorer)
What a shameful indictment of the so-called ‘free market’ economic system that 100 years after ordinary rank and file workers risked so much to secure a reduction in the working week to 40 hours and absorb the unemployed and improve everyone’s quality of life we are still, as a society, working more than 40 hours a week. If rates of pay are maintained we could move toward a proper work/life balance of 35 or 30 hours a week not 40 hours. Instead of working 5 or 6 days a week we could embrace a 4 day week. Productivity per worker would improve. Every single study into such improved working hours has proved that to be the case.
But much more importantly quality of life would improve radically. More time for your children, your partner, your parents, your friends, your hobbies, your sports, your relaxation. More time to read, learn and even study formally.
The lasting legacy of the Forty Hour strikers of 1919 is the campaign for a shorter working week must continue until we secure “leisure for all and work for all”.