#whitefeather diaries

Striking against war

Monday 21 March 2016

While conscientious objectors were resisting war by refusing to serve in the army, the government was also facing resistance on other fronts. Parliament had passed the Munitions Act, restricting industrial action in war-related industries. This did not stop workers in radical areas, such as the Clyde and South Wales, from going on strike illegally. Not all of the strikers opposed the war, but many did.

John Maclean was a Scottish socialist and anti-war campaigner who encouraged workers to strike despite the Munitions Act. He parodied the language of war, talking of “the great conflict” to mean the clash between classes rather than nations. Here is an abridged version of one of his articles, written in late 1915. Later in the war, he was sentenced to five years in prison for sedition.

The Munitions Act, better known as the Industrial Slavery Act, since it was meant to tighten the chains of economic slavery on the workers, was the outcome of the suggestions of Mr William Weir of Cathcart, whose upstart arrogance forced his men to stop work and precipitate the Clyde Engineers' strike, the first great workers' revolt after the Great Slaughter Match commenced. He demanded that the government ought to prevent the workers' unions from being used to force up wages to improve conditions during the war. The government has not only practically adopted his ideas, but it has appointed him supreme controller of munition supplies in Scotland. The men, and even the women, inside his big workshop, are bubbling over with discontent, as are those employed from end to end of the Clyde smelting, engineering and shipbuilding area.

The Munitions Act has been applied cunningly in petty cases with fines starting at 2/6 each. Now a number of shipwrights have been fined £10 each. These men will be fools to pay the fine, or let the union pay it. That would make them criminals, and acknowledged criminals at that. As other workers see the drift of the Act now, all are afraid that they will sooner or later be trapped and likewise made criminals at the request of the masters who rob them.

Every worker who recognises the infamy of the Act must be ready to down tools and follow the example of the Welsh miners if these shipwrights are sent to prison. The Clyde is ripe for a blow at the infamous audacity of the masters. Let them have it, comrades. Remember that you shall have the backing of many of our Lanarkshire comrades of the mining villages. These men have assured us that they are prepared to do their bit in the great conflict, if one is needed.

Prices are still rising, and pounds being put on to rents. The limit is not in sight. When the workers ask for more to meet the increased difficulty to live, they are insulted as traitors who ought to be shot. These insults and threats come from the very men who ask us to throw away our lives for freedom! If the workers strike to get more money they are denounced as drunkards and shirkers, and are held responsible for a war failure absolutely due to the incompetence of the men who blackguardise them.

Source: John Maclean, writing in The Vanguard, 1915; quoted in Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War, edited by A.W. Zurbrugg (Merlin Press, 2014). 

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