Manchester wiredrawers’ strike, 1934

This photo dates from 1934, during the nine-month strike by 650 workers at the firm of Richard Johnson & Nephew Ltd, Wiredrawers, of Forge Lane, Bradford, Manchester. Strike leaders Alf Bywater and Bill Dunn are shown addressing the workers.

Wiredrawers' strike leaders Alf Bywater and Bill Dunn addressing the workers.

The cause of the strike was the introduction of a system designed to maximise productivity: the Bedaux System. This represented a method of time and motion study, and worked by timing employees’ tasks in the factory with a stopwatch.

A TUC Inquiry of the time concluded: ‘The object of such systems is to produce the maximum output per worker and carried to extremes, this has very undesirable results both physiologically and psychologically. Overstrain and fatigue may follow and may, over a long period, cause serious injury to the health of the worker. Moreover, the worker under such systems is made to feel that he is a cog in an inhuman machine for increasing output’.Many rank-and-file trade union organisations contributed to a Fund set up by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council to support strikers and their families. Although £1900 was raised, this did not go very far between 650 men, over a period of many months – but it helped.

The wiredrawers’ union issued vouchers valued at two shillings and sixpence to be spent at the local Co-operative Society, and gave out Christmas hampers for two years running.

Many of the local shopkeepers nearly bankrupted themselves with the amount of ‘tick’ they gave the strikers’ families.

An anonymous donation, reputed to be a well-known Manchester businessman, presented pickets with 400 pairs of boots.This epic Manchester struggle, which involved mass picketing, police intervention and tremendous hardship for the strikers and their families, ended unhappily. On 11 July 1936, the Union agreed ‘that members in dispute be encouraged to accept employment, where such is available, at other firms instead of waiting indefinitely for reinstatement at Messrs. Johnsons’.

Yet, as Mick Jenkins wrote about the events in Our History (60), October 1974, ‘Strikes, whether won or lost, do not fail. Had these strikes not taken place, the standards and conditions of working people would have declined, or would not have been improved to the extent they have been.’

When the firm had declared all vacancies filled in 1935, and the men could register as unemployed at the local Labour Exchange, not a man applied for a job at Richard Johnson & Nephew. Later in 1935, when the men ran out of benefit at the Labour Exchange, many were forced onto public assistance, but none went to Richard Johnson & Nephew for a job. It has been said that only four men who came out on strike actually attempted to go back to work during the strike and that six went after the strike.

The photograph is now held in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.