Updated: Oct 16, 2020
The Belfast engineering strike of 1919 is an almost totally forgotten episode of Belfast’s turbulent history, one that brought the city to a total standstill in an attempt to secure a shorter working week.
The strike should be seen in the context of what was happening globally:
There had been recent revolutions in Russia and in Germany, as well as activity closer to home with various strikes during the First World War. Further back, you may even argue that the Dublin lockout of 1913 and the Belfast strike of 1907 were still fairly recent events in 1919 and would have shaped how workers chose to react in testing circumstances. It is also worth including here that on Saturday 30 November 1918 there was a gathering of trade unionists and Labour activists in Belfast’s Ulster Hall to pledge support to the Labour candidates in the upcoming general election. It would have been easy to pass over this event, however the Freeman’s Journal described it as ‘the most remarkable demonstration of trade unionism ever witnessed in Belfast’, using the headline ‘The North Awakening’, with echoes of Eoin MacNeill and ‘The North Began’. Among the Labour candidates were several men who would go on to be leaders of the engineering strike. Looking back at it, you’d be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that there was a revolutionary ambience in labour circles at that time.
Perhaps more importantly though, the Belfast strike should be seen in the context of the end of the First World War; a cataclysmic event that was not only devastating for servicemen and their families on a human level but also for European economies. Here in Belfast, the war had forced local industries into confrontation with the state at various points, and so the idea of strike action was a path well-trodden. Added to economic crisis was the demobilization of servicemen at the end of the war. The city of Belfast had provided some 46,000 volunteers for military service during the First World War and, by 1919, many of these were in the process of returning to Belfast and looking for employment in their old stomping ground.
This strike itself was fundamentally about a reduction in the working week. During the war, the working week at Harland & Wolff and Workman Clark, for example, was 54 hours before overtime – it was not uncommon for men to be working 60 and 70 hour weeks in this period. Therefore, the battle was to reduce these hefty working hours to 44 hours and, in doing so, create opportunities for returning servicemen. In that sense the intentions were entirely admirable. The demand for a reduction in the working week was coupled with the demand that there should be no reduction of pay. Again, this does not appear to have been unreasonable in the context of some others. In Glasgow, for example, the initial intent was to go on strike for a 30-hour week before they eventually did go on strike for a 40 hour week.
From July 1918 there was an attempt, by the engineering trade unions across the United Kingdom, to negotiate the working week down to 44 hours with no reduction in pay. Predictably though, employers were resistant. On the face of it, a shorter working week appears to have made good sense, given that the end of the war would simultaneously reduce demand for orders and increase demand for employment. However, following an employers’ ballot, the best offer on the table was a 47-hour week, not the 44-hour week that workers and trade unions had hoped for. Many workforces in Great Britain voted in favour of the 47-hour proposals, however Belfast and Glasgow voted against. Consequently, the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions for Belfast and Glasgow threatened strike action.
On 5 December 1918, the campaign for a 44-hour working week was brought to the Ulster Hall for a mass meeting. It was just over a week until the UK general election and all candidates were invited along to offer their views. On the platform were Sir Edward Carson and 10 other election candidates, though not Joe Devlin (Nationalist MP for West Belfast) who sent apologies that he was suffering from a cold. During the meeting, James Freeland from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers proposed that the meeting should collectively call for a 44-hour week to be introduced from 1 January 1919. Amongst other speakers, Sir Edward Carson offered his views. They were what could be described as measured considerations, not designed to win friends or votes. Carson agreed with the principle of their stand, he began by saying ‘for a great part of my professional career I used to get up at half past four in the morning and work very often until late at night. I never liked getting up at half past four and at last I came to the conclusion that it was a dog’s life and I gave it up’. He went on to say that he had no issues with the 44-hour week being proposed, but that he did have reservations about Irish workers being out of sync with workers in GB and the potential implications for economic competitiveness across the UK. His preferred option was that Belfast workers should convince GB workers to stand with them in their campaign for 44-hours, that way there would be parity. Nevertheless, Freeland’s proposal was unanimously accepted at the end of the meeting and in doing so they had hastened the possibility of a strike in Belfast.
The Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions met again on 8 January 1919 in order to decide how to proceed. They opted to ballot their membership on the issue of strike action. The ballot was held on Tuesday 14 January. At 12.00 noon, about 30,000 shipyard and engineering workers downed tools and streamed out of places like Harland and Wolff, Workman Clark, Mackies and Sirocco Works. They joined a procession on Queen’s Road and were led into the centre of Belfast by a fife & drum band, some bagpipers and the Sirocco Works Brass Band. Some of the slogans carried by this dungaree-clad army included: ’44 hours means work for demobilized soldiers’, ’44 hours means no unemployment’, and ’47 be hanged, we want 44’. One man simply carried a plain iron shovel with the figure 44 inscribed on it. When they reached Belfast City Hall they took part in a brief open-air meeting where addresses were given by leading trade unionists. They then marched to their respective union headquarters to vote overwhelmingly in rejection of the offer of 47 hours; they were still insisting on 44 hours.
The next day, at a meeting in the Assembly Hall in Belfast, the results of the ballot were read out. Meanwhile, employers were busy scrambling meetings of directors to try and find a resolution – the unions publicly informed them however that if the resolution was not a 44-hour working week then they would cease work on Saturday 25 January at 12.00 noon. The scene was set. When the day arrived with no resolution in place, workers belonging to the Federation of Shipyard Workers, Engineers and Allied Trades left work under a pledge not to return except on the basis of a 44-hour week. Workers were immediately withdrawn from the city’s gasworks and power station, while no trams could be seen after 4.00pm. The gas supply was cut off the next morning and the electricity supply was cut off on the Monday morning - hospitals, though, were spared any power disruption. Over 40,000 people were out of work either by choice or by compulsion and, in the space of just two days, Belfast had become an idle city in darkness.
A strike committee of 126 members assumed total control of the city during this period, so much so that the strike was being referred to in some quarters as a ‘soviet’. The committee ran the city in conjunction with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, while the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) appointed 300 special constables nominated by the strike committee to help maintain law and order and avoid battles with the police. Yards were closed and pickets prevented anyone from going down Queen’s Road without a pass from the strike committee. They even stopped company directors. Anyone who wanted a power supply had to apply to the strike committee to be re-connected. However, this did not prevent city centre businesses (including the Belfast Telegraph office) trying to tap into emergency power supplies intended for hospitals, resulting in them being stoned by crowds of workers until they closed. Other than this incident, violence had largely been avoided in Belfast, primarily due to the foresight of Unionist politicians who saw that it would be counter-productive to risk the intervention of British soldiers, hence why the strike committee were able to exude such power in the early days of the strike. It was also helped by the strike committee who arranged regular patrols of the streets to prevent ‘hooliganism’ as they termed it. George William Hackett Pain, a former leading member of the UVF and of the 36th (Ulster) Division, was now the Chief Military Officer of British forces in the north of Ireland. Hackett Pain insisted that troops be kept in their barracks. Also, R. Dawson Bates, future Home Affairs minister at Stormont warned Edward Carson that, “Once one of the workers got injured in a melee with the troops nothing could save Belfast from becoming a scene of disorder... the consequences of which were far reaching”.
The press suffered some short-term problems also - the Irish News was closed down until 14 February. The Belfast Telegraph was closed for a week and the Belfast News Letter missed a single issue, but the Northern Whig did somehow manage to keep going, though reduced in size and in circulation. In order to maintain the flow of news and information, The Strike Committee published their own newspaper, the Belfast Strike Bulletin from Artizans’ Hall on Garfield Street. You can see an original copy of the 3rd issue of this Bulletin here at the Linen Hall Library. Other issues were definitely produced during the strike but I can’t say for certain where exactly the other original copies might exist. There is one copy at the Public Record Office but it happens to be the same issue as the copy at the Linen Hall.
On closer inspection, though, it’s a curious little publication – only 4 pages long but laced with fighting talk and high aspiration. To quote from it at length: ‘Readers will observe our little paper is growing. It was a humble little sheet at first, but it always contained the real stuff. We intend to make it a much bigger thing. We are going to place it among the best periodicals published. We hope in time that it will take the place, in the workers’ hands, of those rags which seize every opportunity of misrepresenting the workers, of pouring abuse upon their motives and of hurling contempt at their efforts when an attempt is being made to lighten the intolerable burden which Labour has had to support in the past. We anticipate in the near future being able to put into the hands of the public a much better paper than any hitherto produced in Belfast, and as a result we shall have the only paper produced’.
Is it any wonder, after such hostility from the Strike Bulletin that the Belfast Telegraph and Belfast News Letter went on to be openly critical of the strike, basically labelling all those involved as Bolsheviks, anarchists and Sinn Feiners. Elsewhere in the Strike Bulletin one could read an update on the outcome of any recent meetings held by the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions – very much keeping the men informed. My personal favourite though is the section simply called ‘the Bulletin’. At this point I will let the Bulletin speak for itself: ‘Newspapers play a part in the commercial and general life of the communities that cannot be performed in any other manner. Fortunately or unfortunately, the usual news-sheets of the city are just now very considerably curtailed. We are supplying this deficiency, and will print Personal Notices, Lost and Founds, Wanted, For Sale, Births and Marriages, or anything you like, at rates that are very reasonable’. I just love the idea of some shipyard worker from East Belfast posting a marriage notice in the Belfast Strike Bulletin!
By the second week, the strikers’ resolve was beginning to waver. They hadn’t counted on a long drawn out strike that would impact them financially, or that their dramatic actions of the previous week would yield no concessions. As Charles McKay, one of the leaders of the strike, put it on 28 January, ‘the fight would be bitter and some of them had got to suffer… It was better to make it fast and furious, short and sharp.’ They had hoped to drive the key local employers, people like William James Pirrie of Harland and Wolff, to the negotiating table and to win quickly.
On Tuesday 4 February a huge demonstration of strikers made its way from Carlisle Circus to Belfast City Hall. The meeting ended with an extraordinary scene. The funeral of George Cuming, the Managing Director of Harland & Wolff, passed the City Hall, and members of The Strike Committee led many of the workers in joining the cortege. By this stage of the strike, there was an attempt by William Pirrie to negotiate its end, but ultimately it came to nothing. On 12 February the Glasgow strikers surrendered, leaving Belfast isolated. By now the authorities, the press, and the employers were becoming increasingly frustrated at the situation. The Lord Mayor issued calls for individuals to return to work, and this was followed by a military operation where armed troops moved to regain control of the gasworks and power stations. The men were told to return to work and most of them did.
The strike had fallen apart, and attention switched to securing the 47-hour week which they had previously been offered and had rejected. By Tuesday 18 February the unions were admitting defeat and The Strike Committee were advocating an end to the strike and a return to work on the basis of a 47-hour week. By Thursday 20th a vast majority of those involved were back to work with their new working hours. The strike was over.
The Strike Committee argued that the failure of the Belfast workers was due to the collapse of the movement in Great Britain which had left them isolated. In the final edition of the Belfast Strike Bulletin they printed, ‘we feel that if the same spirit had been shown elsewhere as was exhibited in Belfast, the end would have been immediate victory. As it is, the 44 is only delayed’.
Ultimately, the strike had failed to achieve its key demands, but it did prompt something of a red wave of industrial unrest across Ireland and Britain, paving the way for further reductions to the working week. In May 1919, for example, c.100,000 people reportedly turned out for the Belfast May Day rally at Ormeau Park; possibly the biggest ever May Day rally held in Ireland. The first opportunity to cash-in some of this momentum was in the council elections of 1920 when the first preference vote for labour candidates was highest in Belfast. Here they won 13 seats on the Belfast Corporation. Was this a direct consequence of the engineering strike? Well, quite possibly yes. 5 of the 13 elected were leaders of the 1919 strike. – Sam Kyle for example topped the poll on the Shankill Road, while in Sandy Row another strike leader topped the poll, and so on.
Yet, within a few months, organised trade unionism in the shipyards was smashed and many members of the strike committee were expelled during an episode of shipyard expulsions when labour activists and Catholics were systematically punished. Among them were many Protestants, labelled “rotten prods” for their perceived disloyalty. From then until 1922, Belfast became engulfed in some of the worst sectarian fighting that the city has ever witnessed – before or since – and with it, the hopes of a strong labour movement which might have transcended religious and cultural differences were dealt a heavy blow.