Rank and file trade unionism during the First World War
by Edd Mustill
This pamphlet describes the development and activity of the Sheffield Workers’ Committee (SWC), an unofficial trade union organisation which came into existence in the city during the First World War. The Committee arose in the munitions factories of Sheffield’s East End, as a specific response to wartime conditions. At a time when strikes were regarded as a threat to national security, and workers downing tools could find themselves arrested, deported, or taken into the military, the SWC helped to organise industrial action on a large scale as part of both local and national disputes. Its core activists were mainly shop stewards in the engineering unions. They were mostly skilled workers who had discovered radical ideas in the pre-war years through a combination of self-education and the bread-and-butter organising work of the city’s socialist movement. They were, by and large, young men who were frustrated with the sluggish and conservative attitudes of the leaders of their own trade unions. As the Committee grew it came to encompass many other groups of workers, including some of the thousands of women who entered Sheffield’s factories to make munitions of war.
The SWC did not long outlast the war, but achieved remarkable things in its short existence. It mobilised tens of thousands of workers in strike action, winning major concessions for skilled workers from the wartime government which the national union leaderships had been unable to do. Moving beyond its initial base, it won large sections of Sheffield’s labour movement to the idea of working class unity, as opposed to the dominant outlook in the engineering unions which privileged the interests of skilled craftsmen above those of other workers. It advocated equal pay for women, and helped “unskilled” labourers win significant pay increases later in the war. Through key activists like J.T. Murphy, the SWC contributed theoretically and practically to the national and international labour movement.