In 1919 British prime minister Lloyd George warned the world’s statesmen at the Paris peace conference, “The whole of the existing order is being called into question by the masses from one end of Europe to the other.”
Between 1910 and 1914 Britain had been convulsed by a series of bitter, unofficial mass strikes known as the Great Unrest.
This led to ten million strike days a year and a doubling of union membership.
The outbreak of the First World War brought this militancy to a halt. Strikes were banned and workers prevented from changing jobs. Labour and the union leaders acted as recruiting sergeants for British imperialism.
Yet the impact of war soon made the munitions centres fertile ground for militant trade unionism and socialist agitation.
Spiralling prices led to new struggles, throwing up new forms of organisation.
Most old unions were divided by craft and organised only a skilled minority. But new workers’ councils that emerged during the war in Britain, Italy, Germany and Russia embraced the working class as a whole.
A powerful shop stewards movement, based on rank and file workers, was born in Glasgow and across Clydeside, where engineers had to confront new technology and new US-style management.
By 1914 Glasgow had developed a network of factory militants. In part this was helped by the presence of small groups of revolutionaries, active before 1914. John Maclean’s weekly Marxist classes had attracted hundreds of young workers.
This helped the rank and file network withstand the jingoism at the start of the war, and to initiate industrial action in defiance of both union leaders and the state.
The engineers who were at the centre of the new militancy seemed an improbable source of opposition. They were seen as relatively privileged “labour aristocrats”.
But increasing arms output during the war meant all of the concessions they had won were being stripped away. To lead effective resistance the union leaders would have to have called massive strikes that sabotaged the war effort.
There was never any chance of this. But the shopfloor had no choice but to resist.
And while other workers might be intimidated with the threat of conscription, a skilled engineer was more useful to British capitalism in a factory than in a trench. This gave them the confidence to fight.
Things came to a head at the start of 1915 when the workers at the Weirs factory demanded a wage increase. Union officials opposed any action and management was determined to smash the power of the engineers.
But the workforce walked out in an illegal strike and within four days 25,000 engineers from 24 other factories had joined them. A central strike committee was set up. One of the stewards described how the strike was run:
“Every morning mass meetings were held and decisions of the previous day’s committee meeting reported. Every afternoon and evening the committee was in session. The organisation and contact between the factories and between the areas and the centre was near perfect.”
The strike won and in every workplace shop stewards committees were set up.
As the government tried to smash organisation in different plants, it became clear that permanent city-wide organisation was required and the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC) was born.
Its marvellous founding leaflet is the essence of rank and file trade unionism:
“We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
The CWC provided a model for workers across Britain. Independent rank and file organisation in the existing unions is the model we still look to today.
Revolution in Russia and in Germany, which ended the war, had a massive impact in Britain. Shop stewards began to see the factory committees as embryonic workers’ councils or soviets.
A 40-hour strike that began on Clydeside in February 1919 led to panic among the ruling class. The strike was defeated because political weaknesses allowed the union leaders to sabotage it.
And the power of the CWC was finally broken in a lockout in 1922.
Yet the formation of the CWC was an important development. Despite its weaknesses, the embryonic workers’ council movement, which appeared in Britain during wartime, provides a model and an inspiration for anti-capitalists today.