Although on strike, these women workers at the Wolsey factory in Coalville came to work and spent their time singing and amusing themselves. This was later called a sit-in strike. (Leicester Chronicle)
In 1920, two hosiery firms, Robert Walker and Sons and W. Tyler and Company merged to form Wolsey. It became one of the UK’s most famous producers of socks and ladies’ knitwear. This is the story of a strike by mainly women workers at the company’s factories in Leicestershire. It lasted for about seven weeks from 1931 into 1932.
During 1931, the American Bedaux Company was employed by Wolsey to introduce a system of measuring and increasing productivity. This was measured in ‘Bedaux’ units, each unit indicating the amount of work done in one minute. A bonus was to be paid on work done in excess of 60 units per hour. Named after its inventor Charles Eugene Bedaux, an efficiency engineer, the system was introduced at the giant Wolsey factory on Abbey Park Road in Leicester.
Initially, the Hosiery Union was not totally opposed the system, but rather sought to remove the hardships and grievances it caused. It had also won a pledge from Wolsey that it would not introduce the system at its other plants until there was “reasonable satisfaction.” However, Horace Moulden, secretary of the Leicester Hosiery Union, found that he was unable to remove the difficulties caused by the system. He believed that this was not entirely the fault of Wolsey, but rather due to the rigidity of the system, as outlined by Bedaux Company officials. (1)
Millicent Hillebrand was a worker at the Leicester plant and this is her description of the introduction of the Bedeaux system: “They brought in public school boys to time girls on the jobs ……… They timed young girls just come out of school. I was 23, something like that, when this happened, so whilst I was a qualified worker, I wouldn’t probably been as quick as some of these youngsters at sixteen and so what ever you got over those 60 units a minute you got a bonus. Now our basic pay for a weeks work, which was 48, 52 hours, you got 32/6 a week. Now anything you could do above that, how many more garments you could get into sixty minutes then you got a bonus on it.” Two pay packets were issued to workers: one for basic pay and one for the bonus. Millicent remembered that: “I got two on this particular day, I got paid on Thursday, I said I’m alright this week I got some bonus, so I opened my basic for a start, 32/6 and then I opened the other packet, but you won’t believe this, but I got half penny in it, and I started to laugh you see, but they said what have you got Millicent, well I said I have got half penny here, it would cost more to produce that envelope than what is in it. (Interview with Ned Newitt, 1983)
In December 1931, without notifying the union, the Wolsey Company broke its pledge and introduced the system at its Coalville plant. Immediately, the Coalville ‘girls’ refused to work it and were promptly locked out by the, company. With union support, workers at the other factories went on strike and for eight weeks between December 1931 and February 1932, the union supported almost the entire workforce of 2,000 women and 1,000 men. All the other hosiery unions levied their members to send regular contributions, whilst financial support came from other local unions.
Despite the winter conditions, those few people still at·work had to face a mass of largely women pickets at the Leicester and Coalville factories. In Coalville, about a dozen women still at work were escorted to work by the police. In Leicester, the press reportws incidents where blacklegs were followed by several hundred people in groups to their homes, where they stood outside in the street booing. On the pavements outside the Wolsey factory there were scrawled messages in chalk stating: “Mass pickets win.” (2)
Millicent Hillebrand described what it was like being on strike: “Now it was in the winter time, it was such an upheaval, that the tramway people, and the motormen and the conductors was watching what happened with us because they said, if they could do in the factory with us, then it would go across the board with everybody. We used to have collecting tins, because we haven’t got the money, we used to stand, and especially the day when the tramway men were paid, which I again believe was on a Thursday and they gave us very generously, I mean 10 bob in those days was hell a lot of money, but you would get that, because they thought we were doing something that might be for them eventually. Whatever we can do to help the union we would do so, and we used to go on picket, mind you there was no nonsense, the only nonsense there was, some girls went into work, but they went in by coach, and we used to shout at them, but that was all there was.” (Interview with Ned Newitt – 1983)
There was considerable public support for the strike and hostility to the imported American wage system, which worsened working conditions. Nevertheless, one featured letter in the Leicester Evening Mail decried talk of sweated labour:· “it would do this country good to sweat a little. if this old country of ours is to pull through, there will have to be more efficiency, harder work and less of the love of pleasure, which has swept into English life since the war.” A reply, from ‘One who has tried Bedaux’, suggested that: “perhaps if he had to do one dozen men’s shirts (heavy weight) in 28 minutes and one dozen of men’s pants in 27 minutes and keep up the pace for 8¾· hours, he might change his mind.” (3)
As the strike dragged on, the Leicester Free Church Ministers offered to mediate, whilst the left wing Minority Movement urged the workers to totally reject the Bedaux system. The directors of Wolsey remained intransigent, claiming the Hosiery Union was interfering with their right to conduct the business of the firm. Horace Moulden argued that the dispute had not been inspired by union officials, but had arisen from the bitter experience of the workers; “they know what it means if they loose the fight and have to work under the system. The whole country is watching Leicester.”
Eventually the management gave way. On 10 February the strike was ended when the firm agreed to alterations in the Bedaux system. The strike had cost the Union £25,000, (4) In one of the few major industrial disputes in the hosiery industry during the 1930’s, the Leicester Hosiery Union could claim that it had won significant concessions from the employers. But it was not a conclusive victory, since unemployment, falling membership and sagging morale hampered the Union’s ability to fight for better conditions. Four years after the end of the dispute, one observer could note: “the application of so-called ‘scientific’ management, ‘modern’ labour incentives or wage systems is fairly easy in view of the weakness of trade unionism in the industry.” (5)
Millicent Hillebrand had a different view: … I was in digs, I mean I did all sorts of things; I scrubbed my landlady’s kitchen, all sorts of things, to help out. I was paying 18 bob a week board then, which was a lot of money, a lot of money. As I say, I think I was at home, about three weeks, something like that, and then I had a telegram to say starting work on Monday, and I came back, and Wolsey lent us a pound to start us up, but we had to pay it back, but after that, the thing was, we was re-timed on all the work that had previously upset everybody, after the trauma of the seven weeks strike and then it was agreed that we was re-timed, and then it was more moderate, and after that it went along, I don’t remember anyone having the same effect. We were so afraid that we might not come out equal, and so we then timed the average person, and we got a good deal, and I might say, from that day on I never looked back.
Bedeaux came from from Charenton (Val-de-Marne) and went to the USA in 1906. His methods of scientific organisation met with great success. In 1935, his network of consulting firms was operating in 22 countries, including Nazi Germany. He advised Henry Ford, and he became the fifth richest citizen of the United States. His methods served as a model for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Bedeaux organized a trip to Germany for Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson where they met the Nazi leaders. The Duke and Duchess were frequent visitors to Charles Bedaux’s castle in Candé in France. Bedaux also owned a house in Berchtesgaden, near Hitler’s cottage in the Bavarian Alps.
Charles Bedaux committed suicide in a Florida prison on February 18, 1944. The famed and wealthy industrialist was being held in Miami on charges of treason. Bedaux had been arrested on orders of General Eisenhower in North Africa soon after the November 8, 1942 Allied invasion . At the time of his arrest, Bedaux was preparing to build a pipeline to transport oils across the Sahara desert for the Vichy French government and the Nazis. He had also given the Nazis a plan to protect the Persian Gulf oil refineries, which Germany was preparing to capture, from bombing. He was sent to the United States when it was found unfeasible to put him on trial before a military commission on charges of treason and communicating with the enemy.
Many breathed a sigh of relief with his death, for Bedaux may have known rather too much about the connections between leading American industry leaders and the industrial development in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s.
There is still an Avenue Charles Bedaux “businessman”, next to the Boulevard Louis XI in Tours in France. (6)
(1) Leicester Evening Mail 13 January 1932 (2) L.M. 8 January 1932. (3) LEM January 6th & 7th 1932, (4) The Hosiery Unions 200 years: Richard Gurnham, NUHKW, 1976 p125, (5) Supplement to the Textile Manufacturer, October 1936, (6) La Nouvelle Republic