leeds clothing strike 1970Back
The situation in Leeds’ clothing industry in 1970 was, according to the works manager at Hepton’s factory, “Just like a keg of gunpowder ready to go up.”
Thirty minutes after he said that, five hundred of Hepton’s workers had blown up. They were out in York Road with eight hundred others from Sumrie’s, marching to the centre of Leeds where 2,500 workers from Headrow Clothes, Benjamin Simon’s and Collier’s were into their second day of unofficial strike action: striking against the bosses, against the union, and against a system that favoured men but benefited no one.
The strike started at Collier’s, on Thursday 12th February 1970, but its beginning was much further back. By the end of the sixties Leeds’ clothing industry was the envy of the world it dressed; Leeds’ multiple tailors — the manufacturers that had mastered branding and High Street retail — made and marketed 60% of all suits sold in Britain.
Leeds’ factories were producing tens of thousands of suits every week, but automation could only do so much for an industry that depended on craft and precision. Made to measure suits had to fit perfectly and that meant a human touch, and more production meant more humans. A quarter of all working people in Leeds worked making clothes, and half the working women; and to keep suit prices competitive, they were among the lowest paid, with the lowest increases of workers in all British industry, during a time of rising prices for rents, food, gas and electrics.
They were also among the most divided, with ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ used euphemistically in place of male and female. Tailoring was traditionally regarded as a male concern, and the male tailors of the factory cutting rooms had been determined to protect their interests and environment. Eighty-five percent of the workforce — the women — were kept out, at their noisy sewing machines on the great factory floors, and kept at a lower rate of pay. They included an above average number of unmarried women and mothers, who struggled to make ends meet.
The national pay agreement of 1969, between the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers and the Clothing Manufacturers’ Federation, brought decades of unfairness on to the streets. Men’s wages were increased five pence an hour, and women’s four pence an hour, and that inequality was the last, as women and men alike rejected the agreement and demanded a full shilling per hour increase for all.
The union declared the strike unofficial and implored the workers to return, promising to negotiate on their behalf; but by now the men at the top of the union were seen as equal enemies as the men who ran the factories.
Day by day the women who were driving the strike forward filled the streets, marching from factory to factory to call their comrades out to join them. Within one week, 1,000 striking workers from three factories became 20,000 from forty-five. Two thirds of Leeds’ clothing industry was on strike.
Two bitter weeks followed, of bitter weather and bitter arguments. At open air meetings outside factories and on Woodhouse Moor, thousands gathered in the cold to redouble their demands for a bob an hour for all; until they got it, they wouldn’t go back.
Pride in the industry that made Leeds famous — several striking workers praised conditions at the firms they were fighting, calling them “The best in the world to work for” — had been pushed too far, and now those proud workers were pushing back.
The strike lasted two weeks; negotiations — “Not bitter, but they were tough” — lasted two more. The workers got the increase they’d demanded and the industry began to move towards equal pay and parity with other industries.
But what weren’t resolved were the other problems a complacent industry had allowed to mount while it enjoyed its post-war successes. By 1970, along with an angry workforce, Leeds’ tailoring companies were manufacturing unfashionable products in outdated factories, and unless the situation blew up like gunpowder, like the workers, they lacked the impetus to innovate and secure their businesses long term. The workers went back to work in 1970, but there were only a few years of work left ahead of them. ••