The precise date escapes me, but it was certainly in the Spring of 1936, when I was in the first year of my engineering apprenticeship in the Sirocco Engineering works, that the Apprentices’ Strike, in which I participated, took place.
I had joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union on July 8th 1935 and a few months later, while only sixteen, became a Branch Officer as a Checkbook Keeper on the Contributions Table in Belfast 6 Branch which met fortnightly on Mondays in the Old Bill School (no connection with the police) on the Beersbridge Road, Bloomfield.
As part of my training I was working with a Journeyman Fitter on Plant Maintenance called Jimmy Wilson, with whom I got on fairly well, learning a lot from him, although he was often irascible.
One morning, we started at five past eight, the papers were full of news about apprentices striking in Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Tyneside and elsewhere for higher wages and better conditions. Jimmy Wilson, an ardent trade unionist, spoke scathingly to me of my and our inaction in allowing others to fight our case, telling me that, as a union member, I had a duty to generate some response from my fellow apprentices.
Stung into action by his comments, and, being on the maintenance squad, able to move freely around the Works, I visited the Foundry, Patternmaking, Machine and Fitting and Sheet Metal sections, suggesting that we should discuss some form of action.
We held a joint meeting the same day and four representatives, including myself, were elected to approach the Management. The basis of our claim was that in 1931, as part of the Economic policies of the National Government, apprentices had their wages cut by 10%, and whilst Craftsmen had had some restoration, apprentices were still at 1931 levels.
We met the Management, including the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Alfie Agar, the following day, and it fell to me to be spokesman. He listened to us sympathetically, but pointed out that the firm was a member of the Engineering Employers Federation, and could not act on its own. However, he undertook that as Vice–Chairman of its Northern Ireland section he would raise the matter at the next meeting, which was due in a few weeks time, three at the most. We agreed to take his assurances back to a meeting in the works for which he gave permission. During our discussion he asked who would make this report and my three colleagues looked in my direction, one saying, ‘the usual person’. Looking at me he said, ‘So, we have an orator here, you’ll either land up in Parliament or Gaol!’ I replied, ‘As far as I have seen, both have been linked together.’ Happily for me, I’ve never experienced the latter and have never been selected to the former.
The meeting accepted our recommendation that we await the Employers’ Federation’s reply. However, when I got home, I was met by a number of lads from the Belfast and County Down Railway Workshops who had been refused a hearing by their management, and alleged that they had been locked out. They solicited my support. They were upset when I told them of our decision to hold fire until we had a reply to the claim.
In the next few days apprentices in several of the city’s ngineering firms went on strike and, in flying pickets of the day, on the Friday morning, besieged our Works where the gates were shut against them. Two of us were allowed out to meet them and the Management eventually agreed that two of us could attend a mass meeting of apprentices in a city centre hall, whilst still on full pay. I was of course one of them.
At this mass meeting it was agreed that all apprentices should be asked to strike for the half day on Saturday morning (we worked a five and a half day week). On our return to work from the meeting we were summoned to the Work’s Manager’s office, but we refused to tell him what had been decided, saying we had first to tell the members whom we represented. We duly did so and they reluctantly decided to strike for the half day and we informed the Works Manager to this effect.
The following morning I arrived outside the works gates, intending to picket, to find the apprentice workforce milling around uncertainly and the manager trying to persuade them into work. But quietly, together with a few stalwarts, I shepherded them into the City Centre to the meeting in the Labour Hall in York Street.
That meeting was unruly, a kind of Bedlam, but we elected a Committee to process the claim. I was elected Vice–Chairman, and we were getting order established, when we received a message that a Conciliation Officer from the Ministry of Labour wanted to see us.
The Committee agreed to see him and after much questioning and discussion he told us that the Engineering Employers had set a date for their meeting which would take place within two weeks, provided we returned to work. He subsequently gave this pledge to the mass meeting and, after a heated argument, they agreed to return to work on the Monday and the lock–out of the railway apprentices would also be ended.
The Employers held their meeting and restored the Apprenticeship Wage Rates to the pre–1931 level. My own personal rate nearly doubled as simultaneously with the restoration I started the next year of my apprenticeship.