The Belfast Linen strike of 1911

Reprinted from the 1983 pamphlet, Ireland - Socialist Reprints

Conditions for working class people in the Belfast of 1911 were horrendous. Wages were low, lower even than in Britain. Only Dublin workers were paid less. Work was scare and unsecured. Malnutrition was widespread and serious illness and disease rampant in the working class districts. Dr Baillie, Medical Officer for Belfast, reported 1,317 cases of consumption (TB) in the city in 1909.

The linen and textile industry was one of Belfast's biggest employers. Over 18,000 textile workers, mainly women, were unorganised and worked in sweated conditions. Home workers, who did finishing work for the textile trade, were paid a pittance. For example, the payment for embroidering 308 dots by hand onto a cushion cover was one penny. Wages in the mills were little better, the conditions, if anything, worse. James Connolly graphically described it thus:

"Imagine a spinning room so hot with a moist heat that all girls and women must work in bare feet…hair tied up tight to prevent it irritating the skin rendered irritable and tender by sweat and heat: imagine the stifling, suffocating atmosphere that in a few months banishes the colour from the cheeks of the rosiest half-timer and reduces all to one common deadly pallor; imagine all the windows closed in such a place…imagine all the machinery driven at ever increasing speed in such an inferno, and imagine those poor slaves at meal hours catching up their shawls and rushing out….to snatch up a few badly cooked mouthfuls off badly nourishing food and be back in their places inside 45 minutes"

Dr Bailie the Medical Officer again in his report held that these conditions were responsible for the extraordinary level of premature births in the city "most prevalent among women who worked in mills and factories".

To these conditions, the employers added a speed-up in production in October 1911. A vicious system of fines was also announced; any worker who laughed, sang, talked to even adjusted their hair during working hours was liable for a fine. Bringing sweets or knitting into the mill would result in instant dismissal. The result was spontaneous strike. Enough was enough.

The Textile Operatives Society - a union sponsored by the Trades Council - and led by Mary Galway, refused to support the mill-girls in their 'unofficial' struggle against eh new rules. The women turned for assistance to James Connolly, then the Transport Union organiser in Belfast.

A wage claim was lodged, as well as the demand to withdraw the new rules and practices. Meetings were organised, several in the open air. One indoor meeting was attended by 1,5000 striking women.

Miss Galway, having declined to assist the strikers, and some of her own members having gone out on strike, accused Connolly of 'poaching' her members and called a demonstration to denounce the strike. She was unsuccessful. The Catholic Church also denounced the strike.

The mill girls were undeterred. From a previous strike, Connolly had organised a 'non-sectarian Labour band'. This band now paraded through Belfast taking up collections for the strike fund. Two shillings a week was paid out to every striker.

As the weeks went by, the strike remained solid but the employers refused to negotiate. The strikers decided to return to work, following Connolly's advice, but on the basis of ignoring the new rules. If one girl was reprimanded for singing, everyone was to sing. If one was sacked, all were to walk out. Production would be reduced to chaos. The employers were forced to give way - the new rules were made redundant. The main issue of the strike was won. The workers were jubilant.

The lesson of the strike was clear - unity and organisation had won the day, and a new section of the trade union movement had come into being, the textile workers' section of the Irish Transport Workers Union.

By Norma Prenderville.

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