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Rail workers and WWI

Brian Denny looks at the lasting effects of the first world war on rail workers

One May evening in 1916 a National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) member, whose name is lost to history, was walking along a station platform on the outskirts of London when he noticed a hastily scribbled note. 

It had been thrown from the window of a train heading for Southampton by one of 17 conscientious objectors (COs), conscripts who were refusing to fight in the trenches of World War I, warning that they were being taken to France to face military discipline and possibly the firing squad.

The quick-thinking NUR member contacted the No-Conscription Fellowship which was mounting a vigorous campaign against the punishment of COs, known as conchies, following the introduction of the Military Service Act the previous March which brought in conscription for the first time in British military history.

The issue was immediately raised in Parliament where prime minister Herbert Asquith swore he knew nothing about the case. 

But it emerged that up to 50 men were being transported into the war zone, sparking huge protests led by public figures such as Sylvia Pank­hurst and Bertrand Russell, which forced Asquith to send a telegram to the army’s commander in chief ordering that no conchies be shot. 

This is just one story of one member of a militant union that had only just won enough strength to win better conditions from the private companies before Western powers launched their disastrous imperialist war in August 1914.

By the end of the war 184,000 railwaymen had joined up and 18,957 of them had lost their lives fighting in the armed forces. 

Despite the pleadings of the anti-war movement led by Keir Hardie, thousands of rail workers who could have claimed their work was of national importance flocked to recruiting stations to join the volunteer army.

In fact by September 1914 railway managers called for a halt of the stampede and the government ruled that no rail worker could enlist without permission of his employer.

This depletion of the labour force led to an increase in the volume of work for those who remained, which meant longer hours, greater responsibilities and fruitless struggles to raise wages to keep up with an explosion in the cost of living.

For the duration of the war and its immediate aftermath, the railways were removed from the control of private companies and managed by the government, which promised to pay shareholders dividends at generous 1913 levels.

By June 1917 the London and North Western Railway chairman told shareholders that the company had 12,000 fewer workers than 1914 while carrying an additional million tons of goods a year. 

The infamous Taff Vale Company, which had victimised its workers and sparked a strike 10 years earlier, was forcing its drivers to work 20 hours at a stretch.

The NUR executive committee noted that although the financial position of shareholders was protected by the government, those who toiled in the industry were not and demanded the same guaranteed rates for its members. 

NUR-backed Derby MP JH Thomas raised this “most one-sided arrangement” in the House of Commons in 1914. 

It is unlikely that the response of prime minister, the pompous and ineffective Liberal Party leader Asquith, reassured the union.

“I am quite certain that it is the desire and practice of the railway companies as a whole to share with their employees, particularly in an emergency of this kind, every advantage which they have gained themselves,” Asquith told Parliament.

Unsurprisingly the opposite occurred and attempts to stem the erosion of members’ living standards were the hardest job for NUR officials through the entire war.

NUR branches, district councils and ad-hoc “vigilance committees” consistently harassed the union’s executive about the need for action against the lack of concessions from the railway companies and rampant profiteering which was ramping up food prices. 

By 1916 calls for an end to the “industrial truce” agreed with the government grew, along with demands for strike action.

Finally the government called union representatives to a meeting of the board of trade where ministers lectured the NUR about the need to prevent industrial stoppages “even for one hour” as it would impede the war effort. 

Though not yet elected NUR general secretary, union delegation member JH Thomas shot back by asking: “If the position be so serious the rail companies should be called in so that they should be told of their responsibilities.”

The meeting had its effect and war bonuses were increased in September 1916, but the constant battle to improve the conditions of rail workers continued unabated.

Two of the most significant changes to come about due to the impact of the war were the acceptance of women into NUR membership and the introduction of national collective bargaining.

At the start of the 20th century, many within the trade union movement opposed the “dilution” of the workforce through the employment of women, not least because the lower pay women usually received undercut the wages of male workers.

Women had been employed on Britain’s railways throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, but in limited numbers and with a low profile. At the start of the war there were 18,200 women in transport generally. 

Four years later this number had increased to 117,000, mainly to fill the gaps left by large numbers of men fighting in the trenches. In 1914 there were just three female porters. By 1918 there were 10,000.

In recognition of this, the 1915 NUR annual general meeting voted to allow women to become members for the first time.

During the war, the NUR and drivers’ union Aslef negotiated jointly with the government to win wage increases for railway workers, although at levels below the high rate of inflation. 

In March 1919 the government announced its plans to reduce the wartime rates of pay, sparking the second national rail strike, which began on September 27 1919.

A key feeling during the strike was that sacrifices made during the war had not been acknowledged by the government. At a huge rally at the Albert Hall, NUR president Charlie Cramp warned the sea of strikers present that “all the powers of hell, the press, platform and perhaps the pulpit” would be used against them, but unity and determination would win the day.

He was right. After nine days of strike action the government capitulated, agreeing to the standardisation of wages across the railway companies at the current rate and the introduction of a maximum eight-hour day.

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