|From A History of the National Boot & Shoe Operatives by A. Fox. Transcribed by Jacky Lawrence
The Great Lockout 1895
By 1895 there was great concern about the presumed militancy in the boot and shoe industry. If it was to be challenged the Federation leaders needed to choose their moment carefully. Strikes and lock-outs were not allowed by the 'Rules' unless the other side had wilfully transgressed them. So, the Federation had to wait until the Union put itself in the wrong and in the September of 1894 an opportunity presented itself. The men at the Freshwater factory at St. Albans, which the Union believed was non-federated, were brought out on official strike for a minimum weekly wage of 3Os.
The firm then claimed to be a member of the Federation and invoked Federation support, which they got. Sir Thomas Wright, the President of the National Conference, instructed Inskip to send the men back to work as Federation membership entitled the firm to protection under the 'Rules'. Inskip refused as the firm had only joined the Federation when it was clear the Union intended to enforce the minimum wage. Wright submitted to pressure from Inskip to hold a small informal meeting in Leicester so that the Union arguments could be presented.
Wright decided that the Union was in the wrong and again instructed Inskip to send the men back. Instead, Inskip brought counter-charges against certain employers in Birmingham, Northampton, and Rushden, demanding that the Federation attend to these grievances as a condition upon his sending the Freshwater men back to work. Wright refused and there began a long and involved correspondence between them.
Eventually Wright decided to have no more to do with the issue and with him out of the way and the Union constitutionally in the wrong the Federation's path seemed clear. Inskip sent the Freshwater men back but requested a National Conference to discuss the defaulting employers of Birmingham, Northampton, and Rushden.
The Federation leaders were extremely reluctant to have a general lock-out if it could be avoided. Proposals were suggested known as ‘The Seven commandments’.
All the local Manufacturers' Associations were now instructed by the Federation to take the seven proposals as rules governing their procedure on the local boards, and not to discuss any question contravening them. Inskip's immediate reply was vehement. 'A more damnable position was never taken up by a body of employers’.
A Special Delegate Meeting was called to test Union opinion was held at the Secular Hall in Leicester from January 24th to the 26th, 1895. The ‘Seven Commandments’ were rejected but a specific mandate from the rank-and-file membership was needed. He wanted no risks of possible recriminations from the militants and accordingly prepared an alternative statement and submitted both to the Union vote. The size of the subsequent vote was, in Inskip's words, 'a great disappointment' had but the vote itself supported the E.C.'s proposals.
The Executive's reply was duly sent to the Federation who stated that there could not be any possible utility in a Conference with the National Union as it refused to accept any one of the proposals. It was deadlock. Peace could be preserved only by the Union accepting a two years standstill and the contracted scope of collective bargaining. The Federation was not prepared to bargain on any new claim, so for two years the Union could only attempt to secure fresh concessions by means of strike action. It was now obvious that any such strike action would be met by a general lock-out.
Inskip waited until the winter and slack trade had passed and then, when the brisk Easter season began, threw down his challenge. To have accepted the Federation's 'standstill' and its restriction of bargaining issues would probably have meant loss of all effective power to the militants.
The challenge was delivered to the Leicester and Northampton employers whose position had already been found to be in accordance with the seven proposals. On the Leicester Board the employers' representatives refused to discuss an advance for clickers and pressmen as did Northampton.
The Union put in notices on six firms in Leicester for the abolition of 'basket work' and an increase in the clickers' and pressmen's minimum, and on three firms in Northampton for a revision of the statement on welted work. The notices expired without the employers either conceding the demands or indicating readiness to put them before the local boards. The Council then called out the men of the firms concerned and by March I3th, 1895, the Federation struck. The Great Lock-out had begun.
It applied to all the federated centres: Leicester, Northampton, London, Bristol, Leeds, Kingswood, Birmingham, Kettering, and Rushden, plus a few minor places.
Non-unionists were employed and had to sign a declaration agreeing not to join the Union and not to help any Union member financially Pressure was put on federated firms not to purchase goods from firms still working and where this was unsuccessful, threats were invoked against the leather merchants to dissuade them from supplying materials to those firms.
The stoppage had aroused intense national interest and was featured strongly in both national and provincial press and as the weeks passed the sufferings of the unionists and non-unionists locked out became acute.
Union leaders sought to maintain morale by organizing processions. Although even the 'moderates' among the Union leaders were speaking passionately and bitterly there was little or no violence and intimidation. Despite a few small disturbances and some stone-throwing in the main centres, the general consensus was that the stoppage was remarkably trouble-free in these respects.
Writing of local activities in the Rushden and District Branch, Mr. John Spencer, J.P., gave a typical picture of how the stoppage was conducted:
With such powerful allies behind him, Inskip continued to make defiant speeches threatening indefinite resistance to the employers' tyrannical demands. But the defiance was now hollow and the Federation leaders knew it. Over £56,000 had drained away in Lock-out Benefit, the Sick Fund had been raided and loans raised from branch funds. Thus ended, after nearly six weeks, the Great Lock-out, the last major battle waged in the industry. On April 19th, at the offices of the Board of Trade, Inskip and his fellow negotiators signed the Terms of Settlement.