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The Calling of the 1932 Cotton Strike

A. Bullen
issue number: : 
3

The last mass strike between the wars was the four week cotton strike during the summer of 1932. Over 150,000 cotton operatives in the manufacturing section fought a struggle to maintain existing wage levels and the principle of reinstatement of strikers. In view of the unemployment among such operatives the response to the strike call was magnificent. The negotiated settlement that ended the strike however, failed to achieve either of the two demands, although a County Agreement was regained.

In June 1932 the employers in the manufacturing side of the cotton industry abrogated the county agreement on wages and hours. The decision to abrogate came after the operatives had first broken off the More-looms negotiations, (the employers wished to introduce a system of more-looms to a weaver), and secondly had refused to accept the need for a wage reduction. The reason for abrogation however, is not so straight forward, many factors playing a part. In addition to the reasons already mentioned there was the abrogation by the Spinning side of their agreement in the preceding December and the failure of the negotiating machinery to produce results. Even more important the employers felt that their organisation was in danger of ' breaking up. Over the preceding few years in particular, individual mills had broken away from the employers association, arranging agreements with their own operatives. As various negotiations dragged on into 1932 this movement for mill agreements mushroomed. One way to regain the initiative for the Central organisation was a demand for an all round wage cut, but with the operatives refusing the demand, the employers were split on their willingness for a county lock out. By abrogating the agreement the employers organisation was allowing their more militant members the right to impose wage cuts where they could. At the same time abrogation would force the operatives organisations to find a solution to the deadlock at the negotiating table. Unfortunately the operatives side was not the body to take up such an initiative.

The operatives side was represented by the Northern Counties Textile Trades Federation, an organisation made up of ten separate unions. By far the largest of these was the Amalgamated Weavers Association (who also organised the Winders) with 160,000 members, followed by the General Union of Associations of Loom Overlookers with 8,00, members. The smaller unions included the Twisters and. Drawers, the Textile Warehousemen, the Warp Dressers, the National Engineers, the North of England Enginemen and Firemen and both the North East and South East Lancashire Tape Sizers Unions. As would be imagined these unions not always saw the situation in the same way, especially as proposals often had varying effects. Positive actions therefore were always more difficult to pursue than negative ones. Each union not only had to report the actions of the Central Board of the N.C.T.T.F. to their own executive, but quite often due to the federated nature of the unions involved, the executive had to get endorsement from the districts. Representatives were unwilling to take major decisions on their own authority. While this was no problem with a printed agenda, when it came to open discussions the operatives side were handicapped. With each discussion needing sanction, negotiations were bound to move slowly. On the offensive this structure could work well, but on the defensive it was inadequate and unproductive. It was with this basic weakness that the operatives tried to deal with the employers demands.

All the unions were of the opinion that no wage reduction should take place. Similarly they were all concerned about the effect of the introduction of the more looms system on employment. It was therefore no surprise to see the rejection of first the more looms proposals and then secondly the reduction in wages. On these two issues the various unions were almost solid. Only when the employers had abrogated the agreement did the unions begin to waver. On April 19th a joint meeting of executives met and each union in turn gave, a reply to the employers offer. Only one union the North East Tape Sizers, who felt that too many operatives were already working an a reduction for strike action to be effective, were opposed to the rejection of the employers offer of discussions with the prior acceptance of the heed for a wage cut. The Overlookers for their part wanted to know the nature of the proposed cut. Of the others the Firemen would fall in with the majority. The 'remaining unions unconditionally opposed any cut. When the executives met again on the 19th May, after the notice of abrogation had been posted, it was to consider asking the employers for a joint meeting. After some discussion about the' loyalty of members the Weavers put forward a proposal for an industry wide stoppage. Naesmith, the Weavers General Secretary, argued that a general strike "would capture the imagination of our people." The resolution was lost however by 4 votes to 5 and in its place that instrument for the indecisive, the ballot, was proposed. The ballot was to consist of two questions mutually exclusive:one in favour of strike action,the other for negotiations. This action was supported by all but the Weavers and the. Tape Sizers, obviously for different reasons. The returns of this ballot 11-1.d to be rejected because the operatives voted for both proposals, and a second ballot failed to get sufficient majority for either option. Meanwhile individual employers were pressing home their advantage introducing wage cuts and longer hours.

The N.C.T.T.F's decision to take a ballot made the situation even worse. There was firstly the disillusion felt by the operatives who wanted to take strike action. The ballot results undermined their confidence. The lack of a clear cut decision likewise undermined union solidarity. In the 'districts where the operatives came face to face with the militant employers, action had to be taken without effective guidance. Some districts were therefore to interpret the situation differently from their neighbours and where one came out, the other stayed in. Local agreements between employers and union districts became more common and disagreements between members of local Textile Trades. Federations led to half measures and accusations of disloyalty. It was all very well for the N.C.T.T.F. to continue discussions while the employers embarked on guerilla warfare, but for many operatives the struggle had already begun on the wrong terms. By far the most important consequence of the path taken by the N.C.T.T.F. was the weakening of the operatives position in negotiations. The two ballots encouraged the employers into thinking that the unions were incapable of strike action and would therefore have to agree to come to terms. The need for firmer action was felt most deeply by the Weavers Amalgamation whose districts in the North East of the County were calling for the weavers to strike alone if need be. Still the Central Board of the N.C.T.T.F. seemed incapable of moving.

No doubt had the situation been allowed to develop the C.B. of the N,C.T.T.F. would have accepted a wage cut in order to regain a county settlement without striking. (Whether the Northern districts of the Weavers Amalgamation would have accepted a cut without a struggle is a different matter). Certainly a compromise reduction was on many leaders minds although not made known. What was to halt this development and to bring to the situation a new dimension was the Burnley Town Simike in July. The cause of the strike was the posting of reduction notices by the bulk of Burnley Employers. The operatives asked for a joint meeting to discuss the question, the offer of which was turned down by' the employers. As a consequence the local Textile Trade Federation called a town strike to begin on Saturday July 23rd. The response of the Burnley operatives to the call was spectacular in view of the unemployment and disloyalty elsewhere, most firms being closed. Not only did this show of solidarity dispel the fears of many operatives in the possibility of a general strike failure, it also provided the issue which would swing the N.C.T.T.F. leadership over to strike action.
The immediate effect of the Burnley strike however, was to strengthen the operatives hand in the joint County talks to begin on the following Monday. Had there been no action from Burnley the operatives position would have been crippled. When the two sides did meet the employers were to claim that the strike would have no effect on talks. Indeed, that looked the case with the operatives, who in reply to the employers demands offered a definite reduction By the 5th August however, the situation had altered, the employers were now accusing the Weavers of using the Burnley strike as a tactic in the negotiations. What was happening was that the Burnley strike was demonstrating to the employers that their estimation of the union strike capabilities was wrong. While the employers were aware of the changed position the C.B. of the N.C.T.T.F. were yet to be convinced. They continued to talk in the sphere of concessions and the avoidance of a strike. The Central Board was split 10 to 9 for rejecting the employers last offer. Those such as the Warpdresser, Twisters and Tapesizers were new deciding the policy for the N.C.T.T.F. Only when the issue of reinstatement of Burnley Operatives, now on strike, had been rejected by the employers, did those unions fall in with the rest of the Board and reject the employers offer.

By this time the Weavers had reached a position that a break away from the Federation was more than a remote possibility. The Executive of the Weavers had given their assurance to the General Council of the Amalgamation that they would strike without the Federation if their support was not given at the August 15th meeting. It was these two factors, the Weavers willingness to strike alone, and the failure to secure reinstatement, which finally led to the N.C.T.T.F. strike call. If it had remained a question of wages alone no majority decision for a strike would have been reached; even at this stage some leaders were looking for compromises. The decision to strike had been taken more in sorrow than in anger. Three months had b-en spent in trying to avoid the strike, now they gave almost two weeks notice in order that someone might intervene.
Intervention came with an invitation from Alderman Titt of Manchester for a joint conference. Both sides agreed to the meetings, but once again the negotiations broke down on the reinstatement question. What the Titt meetings did show however, was the union leaderships desire to stop the strike taking place. Naesmith was to offer 1534 off list prices if the question of reinstatement was solved. The employers seeing the operatives position, and their own lack of control over the Burnley Employers, refused to bend.
It can be seen therefore, that throughout the negotiations and the strike, it was the militant employers who dictated the nature and terms of the conflict. The militant sections of the operatives side were never to make effective changes in N.C.T.T.F. policy, their shifts in position resulting mainly from employer initiative.

On the defensive the more militant Weavers and in particular the North East districts were outvoted by the more moderate craft unions. Resolutions for strike action were defeated at almost every level of the Federations structure, while the militant wing of the employers had complete mastery over their respective side. Every significant turning point was due to their action. It was this group who brought about abrogation in order to facilitate wage cuts. Likewise, it was their individual action in imposing those mill cuts that led to the guerilla warfare that was destroying the operatives unity. While others awaited the outcome of negotiations it was their action that brought about the Burnley strike. Finally once the strike in Burnley had begun it was the same employers, despite their own Federations pressure, who ref% sed to reinstate their striking operatives.

With such a challenge to trade union principle even the more timid of the union leadership were unable to maintain their conciliatory stance. The strike would take place.
For an account of the strike and settlement see "The 1932 Cotton Strike." Undergraduate dissertation by A.J. Bullen for Manchester Polytechnic General Arts degree 1975. Copy in Manchester Polytechnic Library.