Labour Strife
The Struggle for a Living Wage

 

There were a number of contentious issues on the increasingly industrial scene in Rochdale around which disagreements raged. The first was the wage rate. After drawn-out negotiations a complicated system of payments was agreed in Rochdale. Known as the Statement Price it was settled in 1824. However, from that point on, wages entered a downward spiral that sparked-off a series of strikes and other labour actions.

Working Class Home

Another highly contentious issue was the practice of some employers to pay their workers in kind. Using what were known as Truck Shops workers took their pay in food and goods. The goods were expensive meaning that the worker saw very little return for his or her sweat. Worse than that, they were often rotten or adulterated, with chalk added to the cheese, white sand in the sugar and mud in the coffee.

There was, of course, the problem of mechanization. The replacement of workers by machines was a major issue in 19th century Rochdale, and continues to affect management-worker relationships around the world to the present day. Rochdale, with its emphasis on wool rather than cotton, was somewhat slower to introduce highly mechanized production and relied for much longer than other Lancashire textile towns on hand-weaving, for instance. The new machinery became the target of attacks from frustrated hand-weavers who saw the price they were being paid fall dramatically.

Rochdale weavers fought an ongoing battle during the early decades of the 19th century just to hold on to what they had, in terms of living and working conditions, and to stave-off the efforts of their employers to introduce changes which eroded them.

From 1801 until 1824 it was illegal for workers to form trade unions. In 1824 the weavers and spinners in Rochdale, both men and women, formed the Rochdale Journeyman Weavers' Association.

It wasn't long after the Association was formed that the attacks on the Statement Price began. Over the coming years the workers employed various strategies to combat their employers. When two mill owners began to undercut both wages and prices, the workers convinced twelve other employers to stand with them. The dissenting mills actually took on the workers who struck the two undercutting mills. In the end, the workers earned a reinstatement of the rate and forced the two mill owners to contribute to the union's strike fund.

Forcing divisions between employers came to a swift end and, in fact, the mill owners began to forge their own alliances. The union countered this by seeking the financial support of Rochdale's retail traders. To achieve this they made it quite clear that to not support the union would result in a boycott of the offending business.

The union assiduously denied its part in the workers' action against mills that were introducing mechanization. In May of 1829 twenty workers, involved in an attack on a mill, were arrested. A mob attacked the Rochdale jail where they were being held. Ten people died when the troops guarding the jail opened fire.

By 1830 wages in Rochdale were about 40% below the 1824 rate and a general strike broke out involving six to seven thousand workers. In June of that year John Doherty, of the National Association for the Protection of Labour, made an appearance in town. His address was so convincing that the spinners and weavers voted unanimously to join his national union. However, the promised advantages of belonging to a powerful national association soon proved to be unfounded. When it became clear that Doherty's words were not backed by effective action, and when it was revealed that the Rochdale subscriptions to the union had been embezzled, the association came to an end.

Things were to get worse. By the time the dreadful winter of 1841 hit, the Rochdale workers were trying to cope on one-third of the average wage for working people. Strikes broke out again in August of 1842. Strikers moved in groups from town to town bringing production to a standstill by pulling the plugs on the steam boilers in the mills. They became known as "Plug Dragoons". In the end, though, starvation forced the strikers back to work.