A Sense Of Belonging – Episode 05

“Dinnae tell us ye’ve no heard about the new spinning frames.” Maggie Cruickshank, a well-known socialist and out-spoken member of the militant Dundee Jute & Flax Workers Union, stepped forward, her stern face covered in jute dust.

“What are you doing here, Maggie?” Euan asked. “Shouldn’t you be in the batching house?”

“I’ve come tae talk tae my fellow millworkers,” she answered, looking him square in the face.

His eyes narrowed.

“Stir up bother, mair like.”

“It’s time we did something tae protect oor jobs!” a voice cried. “We need tae let the management ken how we feel!”

“That’s right!” Lightning fast, Maggie faced the crowd again. “’Cause what’s happened in the preparing-room is just the beginning if the management get their way. It’s capitalist greed, plain an’ simple. Bringing in new machinery an’ sacking half the bobbin shifters without notice. How long before the rest o’ us are out o’ work an’ a’? New machinery means mair profit fer the owners while we a’ end up on parish relief.”

An audible mixture of fear and discontent rippled over the gathering.

“It’s hard enough tae feed the bairns.”

“The owners dinnae care aboot us.”

Euan couldn’t deny that most of what was being said was true; the mill owners were shrewd, at times ruthless businessmen, and life was gruelling for the millworkers, mostly women because they cost less.

“It’s a’ right fer yon weavers o’er the road in their la-di-da factory,” someone said. “They’re making guid wages, but we’re no’. Nine shillings for forty-eight hours in this filthy place, choking on stour, deaf wi’ the noise. Dae ye cry that fair, Euan?”

“Look,” Euan said with real concern in his voice. “For most o’ us, the mill’s been part o’ our lives as long as we can mind. But things have tae change. It’s no’ like the boom days during the war when we had orders for millions o’ sand-bags. It isnae easy tae find work, so why risk losing the job you’ve got?”

Deliberately, he stopped, then, in a quieter voice, he said, “Nothing’s been said to me about new machinery in here, so let’s not jump to conclusions.”

“It’s a matter o’ time,” Maggie said in a scathing voice.

Euan considered the situation. Could he diffuse the tension? Could he get the millgirls back to their machines before the supervisor returned? How he wished he could promise that none of them were at risk of losing their jobs, but he couldn’t. As well as a slump in demand for jute, rivalry between family-owned mills was driving prices down and several mills had gone out of business.

“I cannae understand why yon Wall Street crash over in America should cost us oor jobs,” a familiar voice spoke up. It was Olive Bain who lived one stair down from him. Finding her face in the crowd, Euan sighed.

“Look at it this way, Olive you can stand here and wave yer fists, which in my opinion is pointless, or you can go back to your machine and get on wi’ earning a wage.”

“Dinnae listen tae him,” Maggie insisted. “Workers have rights! The voice of the workers should be heard! I urge each an’ every one o’ ye to join me at the Union demonstration in Albert Square this Saturday! Let’s show the mill owners that they’re no’ the only ones that mean business! We deserve fair wages, safer conditions and job security!”

Another cheer went up, but more resounding this time.

“Nine shillings is better than nothing,” Euan said, struggling to be heard.

But it was too late. Maggie had done the Union proud.


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