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1912 East End tailors’ strike is lesson for 2012 Olympics says War on Want

PUBLISHED: 07:00 26 May 2012

Tailoring workshop off the Commercial Road in 1913, year after the Great Strike (Jewish Museum archive)

Tailoring workshop off the Commercial Road in 1913, year after the Great Strike (Jewish Museum archive)

Jewish Museum

The centenary of the Great Tailors’ Strike in the sweatshops in London’s East End in 1912 has been marked by a fresh campaign using the 2012 Olympics to stop similar conditions in the Third World.

The immigrant Jewish tailors, seamstresses and felling hands in the hundreds of small back-street garment workshops around Whitechapel and Spitalfields were on strike for five long weeks over their poverty wages and long hours.

Now trade unionists and organisations like War on Want are engaged in repeating the struggle.

But this time it’s not in Whitechapel, but the villages of Bangladesh and other Third World countries.

Their ‘behind the label’ campaign is aimed at exposing the sportswear providers for the 2012 Games who they say put their top brand names on imported goods made on the cheap in the back streets of places like Gujurat.

Poplar & Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick went on a fact-finding tour to Bangladesh four years ago to see conditions for himself.

Last month, a delegation of Bangladesh garment workers arrived in London and met Jim and other MPs at Westminster to press Olympic suppliers to make sure goods bearing their label are made on living wages.

War on Want’s director John Hilary told the Advertiser: “They’re not doing right by the workers in the Third World who are struggling in poverty.

“They spend millions in sponsorship and promotion, but these top brands have the buying power to make sure their suppliers down the line pay living wages.”

The centenary of the 1912 strike was marked with an assembly at the Bishopsgate Institute last Wednesday, staged by the Jewish Socialist Group.

Its coordinator, David Rosenberg, explained: “The strike ended the sweatshop downward spiral payment system and brought in standardised wages and a shorter working day from 14 or 18 hours.”

A Master tailor who had to undercut rivals to get the work would employ only the skilled cloth-cutters, steam pressers and machinists, while they in turn had to take on seamstresses from their own wages to rough-stitch the garment ready to be machine sewn. Lower down the spiral, seamstresses hired felling hands to take out the rough-stitch after the machine finished.

Felling hands only got five-shillings a week (25p), a-quarter of what William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, saw as the 21 shillings subsistence. His East End survey in the 1880s found 35 per cent of the workforce on or below that poverty line.

The 1912 strike changed all that. The sweatshop workers were galvanised by a German exiled anarchist, Rudolph Rocker, who edited a radical Yiddish newspaper, the Workers’ Friend. He spoke at public meetings at the Mile End Assembly Rooms and the People’s Palace urging workers to support a strike by West End tailors to prevent factory owners switching production to the cheaper East End labour market.

The Whitechapel tailors saw it as an opportunity to improve their own conditions. Strike meetings attracted up to 13,000 until the whole trade was brought to a standstill.

Now those same bad conditions have sprung up in the Third World in places like Bangladesh.

Today’s campaigners are using the London 2012 Olympics to highlight conditions that their forefathers in the East End changed in 1912.


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