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20 October 2014
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How did the Unions respond to the War economy?

Prior to the War the Unions had been in dispute with the Government over the issue of 'unionisation', plus a three year agreement over wages was shortly due to come to an end adding to the tension. Although the Unions had agreed to a 'strike truce' before the War and supported the war effort, the situation put an increased strain on industrial relations. Workers were being expected to accept working conditions that ordinarily they would not have faced, such as longer working hours with no extra pay.

In response to this there was a growth in membership to the Unions from 4,145,000 in 1914 to 6,533,000 in 1918. Whereas employers would have originally opposed unionisation, the labour shortage meant that they had greater bargaining powers. This made it difficult to oppose them. As Asquith noted in 1915 :

'For the first time in the history of the country since the Black Death, the supply of labour has not been equal to the demand, and the working man knows it.'

This increase in the power of the worker can be illustrated by a strike in February 1915 of engineers on Clydeside, Glasgow. Around 10,000 workers went on strike in demand for an increase in wages.

'The urgent demand for war munitions had led to steep rises in inflation and wholesale attacks on working class living standards. As such workers were demanding an increase in wages to offset these increases in living costs.'

Many people felt that going on strike at a time of war was wrong, especially when those who were in the armed forces were risking their lives in horrific conditions and did not have such an option. Dr. Noel Chavasse indicates how soldiers felt about this in a letter addressed to home 31st May 1915:

'The striking of munitions workers for a half penny extra a day, while poor jaded and terrified boys of 18 years of age are shot for shirking the cruel hardships of winter trenches – fills us with dismay and rage. Why should trench exhausted men be driven to collapse while boozy and cushy slackers at home are cajoled only?'

Do you think the workers had good reason to strike?

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A -Workers felt it was wrong that they should put up with poor wages, when prices and rents were increasing and their employers were making big profits form the wartime industry.

B - If they did not stand up for their rights in the work place now it would be too late to make changes after the War.

C - The general feeling was that it was wrong for those at home to go on strike. It hindered the war effort and it did not seem fair when compared with the hardships faced by soldiers.

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