Combination Laws, passed in 1799, made it illegal for workers to join together
to press their employers for shorter hours or more pay. As a result, trade
unions were thus effectively made illegal. The trade union leader, Francis
Place, led the campaign against this legislation. In the House of Commons,
Joseph Hume and Sir Francis Burdett also led the fight against these laws.
To safeguard their own interests, the Block Printers at Lennoxmill formed a trade union, and agreed amongst themselves to a self-denying ordinance whereby they restricted their wages to £7 per month and latterly to £6 per month.
Trade unions of the present day are great friendly societies, usually making provision for disablement by sickness or accident, or in the case of death. Some unions seek to enhance the value of their member labour by restricting their day's work, or by combination to influence the rate of wages. The block printers confined themselves exclusively to the latter option, and to regulating the terms of admission to their trade, and the amounts to be paid on entry.
For a monthly fee of 1s and 6d per man, and 9d for an apprentice, workers could join the Block-printers' Trade Union.
These monthly remittances gradually accumulated until they had between £6000 - £7000 credited to their funds. This was considered a substantial amount, and the printers felt it afforded them some security and advantage when negotiating with their employers.
For some time there had been controversy concerning the amount block printers were paid for each 'over'. The 'over' was the number of times a pattern had to be repeated over the 'piece', which was generally four or five overs. For this they would be paid 2d per over - 8d or 10d on a piece of cloth 24 yards long.
Narrower pieces of only 3 overs, but 28 yards long were then introduced; paid at the same rate as the 24 yard piece. The printers considered this unfair and claimed 1/2d per piece for the extra 4 yards. Management refused to pay the difference, and unrest grew among the workers.
Then as new styles were introduced with many different patterns and numbers of overs from the old ones, further complaints were made, but since the dispute could not be settled amicably, strike action was decided upon.
Some workers with previous experience of the miseries of strike action, even when successful, advised caution and patience, and were opposed to the strike. Some were threatened and found it wise to leave the district for a time. Block-printers at Kincaid and Lillyburn came out in sympathy with those at Lennoxmill.
Employees, secure in the knowledge that they had their funds to fall back on, refused to climb down, and employers dug their heels in and they also refused to budge. As a result, the struggle became protracted, causing those on strike to scatter over the country in search of whatever employment was available.
Gradually the places vacated by the printers became filled up with weavers from Kirkintilloch, Camladie and Millguy ( now Milngavie), providing a large quota of new workers, or 'nobs' as the strikers called them.
The employers sent out parties to recruit workers willing to accept the terms and conditions, but the new employees had to be marched into Lennoxtown under protection. However, once inside the gates of the print field, they were harassed by fellow workmen who sympathized with the strikers. They were jostled, hooted and intimidated. Hostile collisions took place between opposing parties; these resulted in legal proceedings, convictions and imprisonment, which furthered the embittered feelings.
Sympathizers from Milngavie and neighbouring villages and towns, demonstrated by marching in procession through Lennoxtown encouraging the strikers to persist in their efforts.
Excitement reached fever pitch, and the threat of setting fire to Lennoxmill brought matters to a head, and an application was made to civil authorities for a Military presence to protect the Field and those employed in it. A detachment of the Enniskillen dragoons was dispatched, and was quartered inside the Field, in what became known as 'The Barracks in Lennoxmill'.
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