Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The McCorquodale's Strike of 1915

I watched a film a while back based upon the efforts of Dagenham women workers to get equal pay with men. It was a good story and it was well told but you would come away from this film believing that this was the first time women had taken industrial action. This was the 1960s but in 1915 the women of McCrquodales at Wolverton were out on strike for better pay and conditions.

This was the period of the Great War of 1914-18 or World War I as it is sometimes known. Many men signed up and many unfortunately did not come back. The war changed Wolverton as many of its railway workshops were diverted to war production. The work load increased at McCorquodales because increased government activity resulted in increased demand for printing services.

These pressures were put upon the work force, which would have been fair enough, except that it was not fair enough. Women had  traditionally been paid less than men, the argument being that the man was the breadwinner and his higher pay took account of these responsibilities. But 1914 brought about a huge social change. The traditional bread winner was at the war front risking life and limb and their wives were left at home with the responsibility of making ends meet.

Ends could not meet. Living costs were rapidly rising and wages were - not for the first time - not keeping pace. The first representations by the women were largely ignored but the trigger for the strike came when it was learned that the relatively few men working at McCorquodales were being paid a 'war bonus". The women mobilised. Over 500 of them joined the Paper Workers Union.

The Wolverton Express reported:

The work girls and men at Messrs McCorquodale’s works were locked out on Thursday the 20th May, in consequence of a demand for a war bonus which it was alleged had been given to some of the men. Some 800 to 900 workers have been affected.
This photograph from the Living Archive collection shows the strikers on the Stratford Road. they appear to be very orderly and there are women with prams and push chairs and other children in the picture.

The "lock-out" was a favoured tactic of management at that time, believing that by punishing everybody the troublemakers would be quickly brought to heel. They eventually discovered that such tactics only served to unite the workforce against them. Sir George Askwith who had been appointed Chief Industrial Comissioner by the government was called in. He appears to have patted the girls on the head (metaphorically) and assured them that everything would be alright. On this assurance some went back to work only to find that management was not prepared to honour anything. They rejoined their colleagues on the picket.

I have looked in the archive of The Times to see if the strike got any national attention. It did not, and obviously The Times reporters had more interesting work to do than focus on a protest by women workers.

The National Union of Paper Workers was formed in 1914 and in 1921 it merged with another union. Apparently very few records survive from those war years.

Thus the McCorquodale's strike has been buried in history. We know from the Wolverton Express that there was a strike and that it was eventually settled by offering the women a 7.5% increase for the duration of the war. 

The practice of paying women less money than men continued for many years after this but the strike of 1915 must be some sort of milestone in the march to equality. 

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