When people think of centres of working class militancy in Britain, Gwynedd in North Wales would probably not feature at the top of the list. Yet it was the scene for one of the most bitter disputes in the history of working class struggles in Britain, with a series of strikes and lock-outs at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, culminating in a three year long strike as hard fought and vicious as any in working class history.
In the area, the main employment was to be found in slate quarrying and mining – indeed not only was it the area’s major employer, but it during the 19th century it produced about 90% of British slate
To give an example of the conditions that workers had to endure, in Bleanau Ffestiniog in 1875 the average life expectancy of someone who worked in the slate mine was just over 37 years whereas it was just over 67 years for those who didn’t! But quarry mining was quite a skilful occupation, taking many years to learn, a position that gave the men a large say in how they worked in the quarry.
The organisation of the workers engaged in this struggle, the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union, had been established in 1874 and came immediately under attack from the bosses, with workers at one mine after another given the choice between repudiating the union or losing their jobs. This culminated in lock-outs at the two biggest quarries, Dinorwic and Bethesda owned by the landlord-capitalists Assheton-Smith and Lord Penrhyn – one becoming rich off the back of the Lancashire cotton trade and the other off the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The two quarries employed about 2000 workers each (to give an indication of the relative weight, the total membership of the union at their first conference the following year was 7,196). In Dinorwic the lockout lasted five weeks, but the dispute was most fierce at Bethesda where after being threatened the men drew up their own demands and won – seeing an increase in wages and the quarry management being replaced. Boosted by this triumphant emergence, the union won wage increases and decreases in hours over the next few years.However, the union faced its first major test in 1878/9 when an economic downturn affecting quarry production was expected. The union leadership was not made up of workers, but rather mostly other locals who supported the union and were able to help finance it. Their concept of the union was of an organised pressure group, and they were tied to the Liberal party, whose main local figurehead, David Lloyd George was at that time a leader of the radical nationalist group Cymru Fydd (Future Wales) who attempted to unite all Welsh people regardless of class distinctions against English. (After the collapse of this movement, Lloyd George moved into the mainstream of English politics, ending up as Prime Minister in World War I) The version of the union these well-meaning middle class men aspired to was one that was based on ‘strict adherence to the rules of a market economy’. Such strict adherence saw them advocating acceptance of wage cuts expecting that these would be reversed when the short downturn they expected was over. Instead the downturn turned into a depression and the wages were not increased back, a warning to those union professing the greatness of ‘partnership’ today.This union leadership group however, stayed in control of the union for about twenty years after this when several defeats led to a clamouring for quarrymen to be in the leadership of their own union. The first of these was the 1885-86 Dinorwic Lockout where a further management onslaught in the wake of the depression that had hit the industry at the end of the last decade was leading to wage cuts and redundancies, with management locking out the workforce until they accepted the new conditions. Even after trying re-open the quarry several times without one of the locked-out men returning, management still managed to win a victory after the union ran out of funds and had to stop paying lock-out pay , but the defeat left the impression that the leadership had been far from sympathetic, misleading the men into a bad deal.Second was a planned pay rise claim in 1892 across all the Gwynedd quarries of 5s a day. The strike ballot was won 5,781 to 1,534, but the leadership blundered and lost the moment and the men’s confidence in them and support dwindled. But the final straw was the first Penrhyn lock-out in 1896-97. The union lodge here had been one of the main proponents of a united wage claim earlier in the decade, but had been restrained by the leadership.
The actual dispute occurred over the men wanting leave to attend a Gwyl Lafur (Labour Day) demonstration in Bleanau Ffestiniog. After they were refused leave, over 2,500 stayed away from work and were subsequently suspended for two days. After this attack on their conditions (men expected to be able to take the day off whenever it suited them) they drew up demands including this and a wage increase, which was rejected by management with the agreement of Lord Penrhyn. Although the quarry workers agreed to take strike action in March (when the quarry industry would pick up more and alternative employment on farms was available), but management provoked them to strike in November by sacking 74 of the most militant union members. The men’s response was to call a mass meeting of 3000 where they burned pro-Penrhyn newspapers and declared a strike. Funds were a priority after Dinorwic and collections were carried out at other quarries, during public meetings and at concerts. The biggest contributors were trade unions across Britain. Even despite this, over a thousand former workers at the quarry were soon to be found working in other quarries, coal mines, docks and brickworks throughout Wales and North-West England. Like Dinorwic, there were several occasions when management tried to re-open the quarry, and again no workers went back. However, behind the backs of the workers committee, the union leadership negotiated a sell-out deal that effectively meant the de-recognition of the workers committee as the voice of the workers at that quarry.Although the quarry management used this deal to further attack working conditions at the quarry, the main leaders of the quarry workers committee squarely put the blame on the non-worker union leadership and took over the union leadership at a special conference.The union membership at Bethesda was at an all time low, but a ban on collecting dues led to union membership doubling at the quarry. Such an increase in membership gave the union the opportunity to try and claw back some of their working conditions, but a tit-for-tat battle between the union and management led eventually to a court case after several supervisors (newly brought in to dictate to workers what stone they were to cut, previously workers had worked in a manner that reduced waste, but now management wanted speedier production) were assaulted and thrown out of the quarry. When the men marched into Bangor in November 1900 in support of the men on trial, they were suspended for a fortnight.
The Second Lockout
With this incident the second Penrhyn Lockout from 1900-03 began, with a conscious plan of the quarry management to smash the union and reduce the workforce. Penrhyn tried to re-open the quarry in July 1901, which saw a mere 500 return. However, this saw the beginning of the lock-out becoming very bitter, attacks were made against blacklegs (scabs) and they became socially ostracised. So bitter was the divide, in Bethesda today the houses of the scabs are worth less money simply because of this. By June the following year, despite a trickle back to work, only 700 were back and 2000 were still out of work. The dispute however, came to a head when in September 1903 the General Federation of Trade Unions stopped paying strike pay to the men (after the previous problems at Dinorwic they had signed up to a joint fund with other unions), and a mass meeting decided by a small majority to return to work. But Penrhyn was determined not let any men back who were too ‘disloyal’ and four years after the end of the dispute the quarry was only half full.The dispute had however, wrecked the Welsh slate industry. Because most of Penrhyn’s income came from rent from land and property in North Wales, with the quarry as an extra he could afford for it to be relatively idle for all those years. It was not until 1908 that a newly formed ILP branch in Bethesda raised the slogan of the nationalisation of the land that could have been used to unite the tenant farmers around the workers and given the potential to break Penrhyn’s stranglehold. Penrhyn also had the full weight of the state behind him, not only with the original trail but also with the hundreds of police and troops moved into the area, some of whom to escort the scabs to work. Finally one lesson that was made perfectly clear by the strike was to not put the support in radical Liberalism, but a need for an independent voice of the working class – which was reinforced when Keir Hardie spoke to 4000 at a mass meeting in the area.
Looking back on these strikes, the sheer determination and bravery of these workers has to be admired. But this is often unfortunately not enough to win. Bold and far sighted leadership is needed. The quarrymen’s defeat was due to a great extent to the half heartedness of the union leadership.
Today, the quarry workers’ battles are seen by the ‘official’ historians of the labour movement as the last stand of workers in an industry that was doomed to die. On the hundredth anniversary of the final Bethesda strike there were commemoration events with the bigwigs of the major parties in Wales attending.
A much better way of remembering these struggles would be to carry on the fight they begun for a fairer society, where workers have control of their lives, the socialist society that the Socialist Party fights for today.
Top of the Lake
6 hours ago