Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

The Big Singer Strike

Issue 35

UP UNTIL 1911 the British sewing-machine trade had been remarkably free of any serious industrial action - a claim that German manufacturers of the time could not match.

But in February of that year it all changed when the first rumblings of what was  to become the biggest-ever sewing-machine workers' strike were heard. It was on February 21 that a small commotion involving 400 hands took place. It was over in days and the event and its amicable settlement were not even deemed  worth a mention by by the sewing-machine press of the day.

But this row was only the prelude to a massive walkout just one month later  which involved nearly 11,000 workers.

It all started in the wood-polishing department when a dozen girls were given extra work which had previously been done by other employees. What's more, they were to receive no additional wages for the job.

The girls were paid piecework and earned around 16 shillings per week. Any defects in the jobs were made good by a second band of girls who earned 14 shillings.

What the management decreed was that the higher-paid girls should make good their own defects.

On hearing of the plan, the girls approached the male staff of the polishing shop who took up the matter with the foreman. He would not discuss it and the girls, together with the other 2,000 females at the factory, went on strike.

The Singer company might have got away with it but for the fact that for some months a trade union, "The Industrial Workers of Great Britain", had been infiltrating the male workforce, and within days the strike force had risen 6,000.

Twenty-four hours later just about every worker was standing on the wrong side of the Kilbowie gates.

The timetable went like this:

  • Day 1: 1,500 hands on strike - many announcing that they had quit early in
    sympathy with the piece-work girls.
  • Day 2: Strike force up to 10,500. Demands were made for an extra 2s per week for the girls. Only the men still working are those whose union did not sanction the strike. Kilbowie manager Jim Park was on his way home from the Continent to negotiate.
  • Day 3: More men join strike. Factory superintendent Mr Macfarlane states he will not negotiate until all workers are back at their benches.
  • Day 4: All but 500 men are now out.
  • Day 5: Many meetings held at which it is reported foremen have tried to bribe men to go back to work.
  • Day 6: Strike committee report that 250 more hands have ceased work, including the electricians, and that a small number of strikers have returned to the factory. More talks.
  • Day 7: Management proposals rejected by strike committee.
  • Day 8: Strike force now exceeds 11,000. Strikers subscribe to help urgent calls of poverty.
  • Day 9: No change.
  • Day 10: Singer management claimed that the workers were being unduly influenced by the strike committee and sent a postcard to each of the 11,000 staff asking them if they really agreed with the stoppage.

Despite efforts by the strike committee to block the referendum, 6527 workers replied and agreed to go back.

A report on the event in the trade paper, the Sewing Machine and Cycle Gazette, gave a highly coloured view of the affair:

" -- the stoppage was absolutely unwarranted. The employers have suffered much inconvenience -- merely because four girls objected to a slight alteration of their duties -- if properly approached their employers would have dealt justly with them.

"This grievance came to the ears of a socialist gang which saw it as an
opportunity to serve its own petty ends. -- clear that the strike committee would not be content until it had the Singer company under its heels.

"Socialist agitators will no doubt find their presence at Kilbowie unwelcome for years to come".

Like I said, a highly-coloured view from a trade paper. Could it have had something to do with the amount of money Singer spent on advertising within its pages?