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Leeds' forgotten dispute: The 1913-14 Corporation Strike
During the 1911-14 Great Unrest many strikes took place in and around Leeds, including the lockout of textile workers in Aireborough (see the Socialist 765).
The Leeds Corporation Strike was a pitched battle between the Tory-led council (corporation) and its employees over pay.
After sectional strikes achieved increases of one to two shillings a week for most strikers. A Federal Council of Municipal Employees was established between eight trades unions to push for across-the-board rises.
The employers played for time, delaying the dispute for several months until after the November local elections.
Although those elections saw Labour gain seats, the Liberals were given a disproportionate amount of the undemocratic aldermanic seats which were elected by the councillors themselves.
On 1 December 1913, the council offered increases to a large number of workers, but not the across-the-board increases demanded, the first of a series of divide and rule manoeuvres the council would pull.
At a mass meeting of 3,000, the workers voted to go on strike within a week. The strike began on 11 December with 3,000 workers on strike, with another 1,000 employed by the council thrown idle.
During that day the tramwaymen, who had a separate agreement with the council, deliberated on whether to join that strike.
When they did so at midnight, they swelled the ranks of the strikers to 4,292. This meant only a skeleton tram service ran, gas supplies were limited, street lamps weren't lit and waste wasn't collected.
Yet as the city ground to a halt, the ruling elites plotted their response. Preparations had begun during the run-up to the strike to set up a Citizens League of Law and Order.
The conservative-orientated Yorkshire Post established a fund for non-strikers and, like the other four local daily newspapers, was incredibly hostile to the strike.
Even the liberal Yorkshire Observer justified attacking the workers as "legitimate journalism".
Police forces from all along what is now the M62 corridor were drafted in and attacked several of the striking workers' demonstrations. 200 out of 660 students from the recently established Leeds University were used to strike-break.
But the key force in defeating the strike was the Tory-Liberal Special Committee appointed on Wednesday 17 December by the council consisting entirely of aldermen.
Its first action was to issue an ultimatum for workers to submit applications for reinstatement to the committee by 6.30pm that Friday.
Mistakenly, the Gasworkers and General Labourers' Union (GGLU) treated this as a toothless ultimatum and ignored it.
But the tramwaymen agreed to go back on condition of not having to cover other strikers' work. The united front among the council workforce crumbled.
2,028 workers, mostly tramwaymen, were reinstated with the rest remaining on strike. Protracted negotiations began on 20 December.
The drift back to work continued and a few days before Christmas only 1,000 jobs hadn't been filled by those returning to work or scabs given permanent jobs.
Too late, the strike leaders increased strike pay and tried to appeal for further solidarity action.
GGLU president and Labour MP JR Clynes went to negotiations for four days with the corporation, reporting back to a 9am mass meeting on 13 January.
But Clynes quickly left the meeting and took the 11am train back to London. He had failed to secure even the minimum measure of reinstating all strikers.
Like many other disputes, this bitter strike showed the determination of working class people to struggle, but also the need for a leadership that understands the lengths the bosses will go to in securing their interests.
The Battle of Leeds
and other episodes of workers' struggles in West Yorkshire
by Iain Dalton and Manny Dominguez
Just £3 plus £1 p&p
Available from Socialist Books
PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD
020 8988 8789
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In The Socialist 22 January 2014:
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