Rarely has our “free” Press had such an innings as during the recent cotton lock-out in Lancashire (and during the Parliamentary recess, too). Thousands of columns of servile paid trash have been written “about it and about.” Let us sift out the wheat from the chaff, and see what really is the position of the workers in Lancashire. Children leave school to work half-time in the weaving mills at the age of twelve, and full time at about thirteen. After “tenting,” or helping a four or six loom weaver, they get first two looms to look after, then in the course of time, three and four looms. Four is the usual number — when six are minded a “tenter,” or help, is necessary.
The average earnings per loom (given by Wood in his “History of Wages in the Cotton Trade”) are 6s. 6d. per loom per week for a two loom weaver ; 5s. 11d. per loom per week for a three loom weaver ; 6s. per loom per week for a four loom weaver; but many have help to pay for. Weavers having happy family connections or other exceptional help may become overlookers and earn 45s. or 50s. weekly, conditioned by the earnings of the weavers. The overlooker, paid on the weavers’ earnings, is thus tempted to keep production up to the maximum.
A large number of weavers are women, and when married many continue their employment. The sight of women taking out infants to their nurse at half past five on a winter’s morning is an incident of family life which only an anti-Socialist can appreciate. In Burnley, out of the total number of married women and widows, 33.8 percent. are occupied in various industries. The average earnings per loom before mentioned only applies to times of regular employment, “bad” times come, when many looms are stopped and fewer hours worked. Taking all in all, the outlook for a lad or lass when school is left behind, is, in Lancashire, much the drab, dull outlook of the worker the capitalist world over.
Beaming Radical politicians gloat over the extravagant prosperity of the weavers compared with the poverty of their forebears. Let us briefly examine the course of events.
In Lancashire, says Toynbee, “we can trace step by step the growth of the capitalist employer. At first we see, as in Yorkshire, the weaver furnishing himself with warp and weft, which he worked up in his own house and I brought himself to market.” By degrees he became dependent on the merchants at Manchester, who gave him out warp and raw cotton. Finally the merchant would get thirty or forty looms in a town — then came the great mechanical inventions.
The times when the weaver fully or partially controlled his product were decidedly his golden age. Down to the year 1810 the hand-loom weaver waxed fat; then the power loom caused a catastrophe. Even in 1833 the hand loom weavers out-numbered the power loom weavers by three to one. Says Mr. Wood: all the records agree that an extraordinary fall in prices paid and amounts earned by hand loom weavers took place between the early years of the century and 1830-40. In Lancashire in 1806, according to the same authority, there existed :
80,000 to 100,000 factory operatives earning 9s 6d. to 10s 6d. per week.From the year 1806 down a rapid change took place in the earnings of the hand-loom weavers, a reduction in wages of 50 per cent. taking place in 25 years. The competition was drastic, and it was not until 1840 that the turn was taken, and not until the year 1890 that the wage level (nominal wage) of 1800 was again reached truly a century of progress for the workers.
165,000 hand-loom weavers earning 18s. to 24s. per week.
Besides changes in piece wages (for over 30 years stationary) there are two factors affecting the wages of weavers: the speeding-up of the looms and the increase in the number tended. These factors become more important if we remember that in the year 1901 over 350,000 fewer persons were employed in the textile trades than in 1851; a diminution contemporary with a constant increase in the quantity of textiles produced. If we take the cotton trade alone we find a slight increase in the number employed, an increase, however, negligible compared with the vast difference in the amount of stuff produced This is the truth: after a century of mechanical change we have not equalled the conditions existing prior to that change — now power loom production is established the worker is in many ways in an inferior position to that of the weaver in the palmy days of the hand-loom. If it is not so I should be pleased to see some textile union leader haul forth some facts.
To come to the lock-out, during the past year an attempt has been made to bring non-unionists into the ranks of the textile unions. Oral persuasion failed in some cases, and the weavers at an Accrington mill refused to work with non-unionists. The reply of the masters was to lock out the bulk of the weavers in Lancashire. Now what were the masters' motives for their action ? Were they anxious that a few non-unionists should have freedom or license or liberty or some other abstract concept? Reverse the position and imagine that but ten percent. of the weavers were in the union, and that the ninety per cent. non-unionists threatened to cease work unless the unionists abandoned the union — would then the bosses have prated about freedom and liberty? It is not at all likely. The unionists would have to surrender, for at such a time, in the midst of a trade boom, the mills would never have closed, and it would have been left to the philosophers to prate about liberty. So in the case of the lock out it cannot be possible that the bosses were much bothered about the few non unionists.
In searching for reasons for the lock out it is necessary to ask: Were the masters opposed to the trade unions on principle? Would they not rather negotiate with the unions than with unorganised workers? The following quotation from the “Manchester Guardian” of Jan. 20th, the day following the settlement, is apt here :
“Comparatively few employers could be found to deny, or even question, the advantage winch they as employers have gained from the regulation of wages and the general systemisation of conditions of employment which their own associations and the uuions have jointly brought about. We believe that a great majority of employers wish the unions to be strong, if for no other reason than that they shall be able to prevent the minority of what may be described as non-union employers from competing unfairly with them by paying wages less than the standard rates.”
The following gem is from the “Blackburn Daily Telegraph'' of Jan. 19th. The manufacturers “have a direct interest in the effective working of the employees’ unions, which they have no desire to see smashed, as they operate effectively in keeping prices at a uniform rate. The absence of these organisations would result in certain firms underpaying, to the detriment of all fair competition.”
Such citations could be reproduced in abundance from the capitalist Press at the time of the lock out.
It is the writer's opinion that the cotton capitalists do not desire to smash the unions so long as they retain their present servile position. Then why the lock out? Why this apparently disproportionate, huge lock out in reply to a strike at a single mill? Does it not look as if it were a case of using a steam hammer to smash a nut, even if there was danger of an extension of the strike? The truth is probably this—that within the Lancashire unions exists a militant section, and it is this minority which has taken the initiative on the non-unionist question and forced action upon the supine majority in the unions. The capitalists are not afraid of trade union leaders of the old school, but, rightly or wrongly, they look with suspicion on the activities of a section of the workers.
The lock-out was settled on terms that left the weavers in a worse position than before the non-unionist agitation. When the terms were known meetings of protest were held in many weaving centres; in Nelson. Accrington, Blackburn and other towns vigorous language was used anent the terms obtained, a majority of those who take an interest in the working of the unions condemned their “delegates” Unfortunately, many are insensitive to humiliation by employers, and it is such the “delegates” lean upon for a mechanical support.
This minority I speak of are not Socialists; they are no doubt reformers and would disavow the class war. But the silly habit of looking upon capitalism as a thing that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, is fading away. A more rebellious, if uninformed, spirit animates many of the workers. It is this which the masters fear.
Many factors are at work which will in the near future bring these operatives to see that Socialism is the only way out of the mire. Their stationary wages, the increase in the cost of living, the failure of the Labour Party, the “flitting” of their leader, Shackleton, the obvious permanency of their proletarian condition under the present system—all such factors must tend to compel the workers in Lancashire to make the war against the bosses political besides industrial; and permanent, not haphazard and fitful.
John A. Dawson.