Country’s largest steel sheet galvaniser & Union Strikes
Unions strike over contract payment system
While relations between management and men are good, one of only two strikes in the history of the works interrupts production severely between November 1909 and December the following year.
It is one of the longest and bitterest inter-union wrangles in the history of the iron and steel industry and brings to an end the contract system under which a contractor organised the labour on a hand rolling mill and was responsible for paying the wages to the crew at the end of the week.
At Shotton, as at other rolling works, a contractor or bossman was often in charge of several mills and so was a person of standing in the works and the community. Wages were often doled out to the 10-strong crew of each mill in the local pub. Favouritism was rife.
The matter comes to a head when the contractors for the Staffordshire Mills at Hawarden Bridge ignore a decision by the Midland Board Sheet Trade Committee to pay a bonus to the day-wage men, the sheet mill underhands. Their belief is that beer not cash is the best stimulant to greater effort, a philosophy confirmed during the subsequent strike when two men who ask for dispute benefit from a local committee reveal that they are employed to carry beer into the works for thirty shillings a week.
The mill underhands are subjected to intimidation and coercion by the contractors after joining a newly-formed branch of the Steel Smelters’ Union and send an ultimatum to John Summers and Sons – abolish the contract system or face a strike of all mill crews.
The company gives notice to end the system, stating that tonnage rates will, in future, be paid to the mill crews by the company on a percentage basis according to the worker’s grade. The contractors and their right-hand men refuse to accept the new arrangement and strike. The factory entrance is picketed and police from as far afield as Manchester are drafted in to keep the peace and protect the works and those who want to work.
The mills continue to be operated by the underhands and in the week ending 5th March 1910, the bar draggers on the Staffordshire Mills earn £2.18s.7d, 14s.7d.more than under the contract system, and the scrap lads receive 18s.8d., a 2s.2d.increase. Weekly production averages 651 tons compared with 639 tons under the contract system.
The improvement in quantity and quality is short-lived, however, and with the majority of skilled and efficient men on strike, the company suffers financially.
At one point, the original strikers are at work and the undermen are out. When the company brings in labour from Liverpool, the Summers employees in work refuse to work alongside blackleg labour and so the whole works comes to a standstill. Not only are over 3,000 men out of work but shopkeepers in the district are also seriously affected. The Manchester Guardian reports that between February and November 1910, the company lost £60,000 because of the stoppage and the volume of defective sheets made by outside labour.
Harry Summers, after behind-the-scenes talks with both parties in the dispute, addresses a mass meeting of the workforce on 2nd December 1910, spelling out the consequences if the dispute is not resolved and promising work for “every efficient man.” By 29th December, the dispute is over and the contract system is replaced by an agreement that employment and the payment of wages will be a matter for the company.