Industrial action with a difference . . . The singing strikers

Staff pictured working in the shirt factory in the 1930s. Picture used courtesy of the Bigger and McDonald Collection WELB.
Staff pictured working in the shirt factory in the 1930s. Picture used courtesy of the Bigger and McDonald Collection WELB.

In recent weeks employees of foam manufacturer Vita Cortex, La Senza fashion chain and Lagan Brick have staged ‘sit in’ strike protests at announced redundancies and the size or lack of severance packages.

The Vita Cortex employees have staged a sit in protest at the Cork plant for five weeks now.

The Mssrs Bryuce and Weston shirt factory which operated on teh Strand Road. The building is now home to Longs Supermarket.'Picture used courtesy of the Bigger and McDonald Collection WELB.

The Mssrs Bryuce and Weston shirt factory which operated on teh Strand Road. The building is now home to Longs Supermarket.'Picture used courtesy of the Bigger and McDonald Collection WELB.

When handed their final notices on December 16, without any compensation, the 32 workers refused to leave the plant and have been in occupation ever since. They seem set to escalate their protest in the coming days.

A similar, if somewhat more lighthearted, situation occurred in Derry in June 1937 after one of the leading shirt manufacturers, Mssrs Bryce and Weston, attempted to ‘downsize’.

One newspaper report stated that industrial relations were already strained at the time: “Derry City, which is becoming famous for novel strikes, has become the scene of another.”

Derry’s shirt industry was a world leader. At that stage almost 20 factories were operating within the city limits. Shirt factory owners in the early 1900s employed more people in Derry than every other business and industry combined. Shifts starting at 8am and finishing at 8pm were commonplace, such was the demand for Derry-made shirts. In the 1920s factory owners had set up a system of ‘spriggers’ - stitchers made shirts at home and these were collected and due wages settled. By the 1930s the city’s place as industry leader was under threat and factory owners made frequent changes to rates of pay and the number of people employed both in and out of the factories.

The Messers Bryce and Weston factory stood on the Strand Road, in what is now Longs Supermarket. When management attempted to reduce the size of the work force by terminating the employment of one Mr. W. Kennedy, the female workers revolted, albeit in an unusual way. Reports from the time relay the fact that Mr. Kennedy, a departmental manager at the factory, was a popular man among employees. He had worked at the factory for 23 years and was 60 years-old in June 1937. Initially the hundred or so girls belonging to Mr. Kennedy’s department discussed staying in the factory overnight. As The Derry Journal of June 9, 1937, reported: “The matter reached a head on Monday evening, when the girls considered remaining in the factory during the night. Police were called to the scene but the girls changed their minds and went home.”

Tensions, however, remained high among employees and employer alike as: “Police were on duty when the girls arrived for work the following day and it is understood the management refused the girls admission unless they gave an undertaking to start work.

“When the girls entered the factory they adopted ‘stay in strike’ methods. No work was done in their department and they sang, danced and called to passers-by in the street.”

Messers Bryce and Weston then requested two police officers to be stationed in the department in question, apparently to prevent any damage, and they remained on duty during the day.

“The girls, however, sang and danced while the police sat placidly looking on, apparently enjoying their unusual beat.

“The girls did not go home at lunch time but threw lines to the street from the windows and had provisions hoisted up to them. After a workless day they left the factory last evening at their usual stopping hour.”

The Journal reports that Mr. Kennedy asked the girls to abandon their strike, saying “he would not return now even if they succeeded in their demands of management.

“He stated that when he learned that he was to be discharged he told the girls, in order to avert trouble, that he was getting on in years and was tired of the job. Mr. Kennedy then advised the girls against striking but they protested against his discharge so vigourously on Tuesday that they refused to work and began to dance to while away the time.”

While work continued in other departments on the first day of the strike, the striking Derry women soon won the support of their colleagues.

By day two of the strike the number of workers dancing rather than sewing grew from 100 to 250.

The strike lasted two full days. However, with Mr. Kennedy stating that he had no intention of returning, coupled with the employer’s threats to dismiss any employee who failed to return to work, what became known in Derry as ‘The Stay in and Dance Strike’ ended.