How British workers rebelled against the First World War

Tom Orsag explains how the sacrifices demanded during the war produced mass resistance and opposition amongst the British working class

Amid the nationalist celebration of Gallipoli and the First World War in Australia, one thing we won’t be reminded of is British workers’ wartime resistance to speeds ups, inflation and undermining of unions.

The war required a huge increase in output, especially of the metal trades. To achieve this massive state intervention in industry was needed. By the end of the war the government controlled 90 per cent of total imports and the home production of food, coal and most other raw materials.

It controlled the distribution of food, through rationing, and of raw materials, through allocation. The engineering and shipbuilding industries were totally dominated by government orders and government controls.

But the control of labour was the most important of all.

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the majority of the socialist parties across Europe capitulate to support their own governments’ in the war. In Britain Labor Party leader Arthur Henderson, after urging workers to “stand together for peace” before the war, became one of the leaders of the parliamentary recruiting committee.

Collaboration of the union leaders with the war effort was also crucial. Early in 1915, Munitions Minister Lloyd George persuaded a conference of national trade union executives to agree, “there shall in no case be a stoppage of work upon munitions and equipment of war or other work required for a satisfactory completion of the war.” This was the so-called Treasury Agreement. The mining unions alone refused to sign.

In June 1915, this was given legal force by the passage of the Munitions Act, which also provided for the prosecution of workers, for “losing time and other misdemeanours”.

A system of “leaving certificates” was introduced which prevented any worker on “war work” from leaving their job except by permission of the employers. There was no corresponding provision to prevent employers sacking workers.

But the willingness to accept sacrifices for the war was far from universal amongst the working class. As the war continued price increases and shortages produced a decline in workers’ living standards, feeding bitterness at the war effort.

In July 1915, 200,000 South Wales miners went on strike for a new agreement. The strike was “proclaimed” as illegal under the Munitions Act.

It was then discovered that proclamations do not dig coal, and since that commodity was in acutely short supply, the government and the employers caved in after one week. The strike demonstrated that a group of determined and strategically placed workers could take on and beat the combined forces of the state, the employers and the Labour MPs.

Clyde Workers’ Committee

But the key city of workers’ resistance was Glasgow, the second city of the British empire and a centre of munitions manufacture and other heavy industry vital for the war.

Glasgow’s population doubled between the 1860s and 1914. New groups of workers moved into overcrowded tenement blocks on the Clyde River.

The chief industry was metalworking, employing one-third of all workers, in large shipyards, marine engineering and factories.

The general level of metalworks trade unionism in Glasgow was high, with four out of five workers in their appropriate union. The strongest was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE).

At the end of 1914, on the expiry of a three-year agreement, the Glasgow District Committee of the ASE asked for a small pay rise. The employers rejected it.

An overtime ban was imposed. The union’s executive council tried to persuade an aggregate meeting of members in early February 1915 to call off the ban. It failed.

Then, on 15 February, a strike started at Weir’s engineering works against efforts to speed up production. It quickly snowballed into a general stoppage for the pay rise. Some 10,000 engineers from at least 26 factories came out.

The ASE district committee joined the executive council in trying to kill the strike and, after a fortnight, succeeded. The eventual arbitration gave half the pay rise demanded as a “war bonus” plus 10 per cent piece rates.

The remarkable thing about this dispute was the emergence of a new body, the Clyde Labour Withholding Committee, composed largely of ASE shop stewards, which was accepted as the leadership in the companies on strike.

It would later be re-named the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC). Three hundred delegates would meet every weekend in Glasgow. The vast majority were stewards in metal works and the shipyards.

The CWC was not an alternative to the trade unions, nor was it set up in opposition to them. It was a rank-and-file leadership formed to overcome the limits of the trade union bureaucracy.

The CWC’s first leaflet from November 1915 still remains a guide to independent working class action, “We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the worker, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”

Key to the CWC’s strength was the fact that many of its stewards were socialists, members of the British Socialist Party (BSP) or the Socialist Labour Party.

Sadly, the socialist organisations that existed at the time, in particular the BSP, disdained involvement in workers’ economic struggles.

The BSP’s socialism, confined to soapbox speeches Sunday after Sunday, was irrelevant to the day to day concerns of workers radicalising in struggle.

John Maclean was not an elected member of the CWC. He was a primary school teacher.

But such was his standing as a socialist, an educator, an activist at factory gates and an internationalist against the war, that he and two of his supporters, Peter Petroff and James MacDougall, were initially accepted as having an important contribution to make to the committee’s strategy and tactics.

Maclean’s great strength was to break from the BSP’s approach and immerse himself in these struggles, while remaining true to socialist principles. He was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the great dock strike of 1907. For the first time unskilled Protestant and Catholic workers fought side by side against the sectarian Protestant state and the bosses. Maclean witnessed for the first time the politicising effect of a major industrial struggle on masses of workers.

From there he went on to be involved in the Singer Sewing Machine strike of 1911 in Glasgow and the coal miners’ strikes in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales in 1911 and 1912.

Maclean’s approach was a breakthrough on the British Left. He continued to argue for socialist politics, not just sectional union struggles, but was involved in strikes and union struggles. This was unusual, if not unique, on the British Left at the time.


The other main group in the CWC, the “syndicalists”, rejected the idea of political leadership or the need to raise politics within the fight for workers’ economic interests. When a major political issue like the war posed itself, their abdication of political leadership proved disastrous.

Union strength in Glasgow was based on the dependence of factory bosses on skilled engineering workers. The key issue the CWC faced was dilution, the introduction of thousands of new unskilled workers into jobs formerly reserved for skilled men. This was part of the huge expansion of industry to feed the war.

But it was not enough simply to oppose this on sectional grounds, defending the higher wages of skilled workers against the introduction of lower paid workers.

The government argued that expanding the workforce was necessary to win the war. Opposing dilution was impossible without linking it to a fight against the war.

But the syndicalists in the leading positions of the CWC rejected the idea of political leadership, as a result of their experience of betrayal by political leaders in the Labor Party and the unions. Its chair, Willie Gallacher, expelled Maclean’s supporters over their attempts to argue for strikes against the war.

The CWC had built few links with stewards across Britain. The government would now take advantage of this isolation to break up the shop stewards committee.

In 1916 the government jailed or deported from Clydeside key CWC shop stewards, as well as John Maclean. Emboldened by its victory in Glasgow, the government pressed ahead with dilution in other cities.

A new city-wide shop stewards committee sprung up in Sheffield, another key metal working city, with Barrow and Manchester also having mass strikes.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia electrified the working class in Britain, feeding the growing anger against the war. Mass agitation led to Maclean’s release from jail in June 1917, halfway through his three year sentence. In February 1918 he was appointed as consul for the new Bolshevik government in Russia.

A few months later Maclean was on trial for sedition. In his speech from the dock he said, “I am not here as the accused, I am here as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot.”

The shop stewards in the Clyde and Sheffield were catapulted again into leading mass strikes, the biggest during the war with up to 200,000 workers involved.

But although most stewards were socialists, they rarely raised the issue of the war inside the factories, fearing this would isolate them from the workers. They never raised an end to the war as a solution to the problems facing the working class, as John Maclean did.

Practically every issue facing workers—wages and conditions, industrial and military conscription, dilution—was a result of the war.

But the politics of the shop stewards, with their reluctance to raise political issues or offer leadership, prevented them from developing the movement beyond the narrow limits of trade union or economic demands.

Maclean wasn’t able to build an organisation to overcome these problems. But his approach was a beacon for the left to build on.


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