'Sweated labour' calls for hat trade union

Allegations of sweated labour in the straw trade and calls for a trade union were beginning to be voiced in the correspondence columns of The Luton News.

A letter writer signing himself "Live And Let Live" wrote in the January 28th edition: "I should like to ask the workers in the straw trade if it isn't time they began to look round and see what they are doing for themselves by working for the wretched prices some firms are paying for their work. Can anyone wonder there is poverty? Is anyone getting a living? Can they expect to get a living? And, most important of all, don't they know they are absolutely ruining the straw trade?

Boaters"There is straw work coming to Dunstable and being machined at 9d per dozen (chip). Isn't it a disgrace and a shame that a worker should be asked to work for that price? It isn't work, it is slavery, and I think , apart from the machinists, the manufacturers who give such work out should be publicly exposed. Do they expect us to live? Do they think, for just one moment, how people can do it at the price? If they did I should say they would blush with shame.

"There is also tagal being machined for 1s, 1s 4d and 1s 6d per dozen. There are also chips and tagal being run out and panned for 3d per dozen.

"Now then, workers, prices of foodstuff keep rising, and it is for the workers to say whether the prices in the straw trade shall rise or go down. Now is the time for each one to say, 'No. I will not do it at the price'. Let us all stand out, and we shall win anyhow.

"What we want (and we want it very badly) is a union. But still, even without that, the workers can get a little more of their rights if they choose. All we want is the chance to earn a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, not forgetting the weeks we have to walk about and earn nothing."

In the February 4th, 1915, edition a writer signing himself "A Worker," also said there was a great deal of dissatisfaction in the local straw hat trade with the present low rates of pay to the operatives. It was mow than sweating, it was robbery - harsh and unconscionable robbery.

"We all know Luton is getting as very expensive town to live in, and yet how many of its workers get even a living wage? With many it nothing but pitiful existence.

"There are manufacturers in the town today executing orders upon cheap samples of hats quoted at very low rates during the slack weeks of last November and December. These manufacturers are expecting their hands to stiffen and block these hats at 3d and 6d per dozen respectively, knowing right well they should be paying at least half as much again.

"Do the people who buy the hats know - would they believe? - the blocker pans them at the rate of two a penny? Might I ask who has the extra profit?

"No wonder a man, after a year or two in business in the hat trade, can afford a motorcar, while his name shines in big letters on some subscription list.

"The manufacturers have the hat trade in their hands. It could be a good trade, one of the best, and everyone engaged in it could get a decent living. As it is, it is being killed, and that fast. The workers have to live about four months of the year upon what they can scrape together during the other eight months. Under present conditions it cannot be done.

"Cannot the Chamber of Commerce suggest a means of bringing these manufacturers to their senses, or do they work for one section of the community only? The cost of living is going up fast. Men are urgently wanted in other trades, not necessarily skilled.

"The manufacturers will have to do something quickly, or they will, have to work at the bench themselves in order to get their orders out, and keep their connections together. This will be a change for them. They have had matters all their own way the past few seasons, but with the great stocktaking that is taking place (we are all finding our value) there will be a great change, and labour conditions generally will have to be very much different, and for the better."

In the February 11th edition "Another Worker" wrote: "In the midst of the unrest which exists today in the straw hat making industry, I would draw the attention of the public to the disgraceful rates of wages which are being paid to those engaged in 'Lining Running'.

"The pay which certain employers allow for a gross of linings is actually 2d, and when the public are aware of the real facts I am perfectly certain that they will feel ashamed to think that they have been assisting an industry which imposes such awful conditions on those who labour in it.

"Working continuously from 8 am to 9.30 pm. six days per week, we are very rarely able to earn 30 shillings, and, taking into consideration the trying and monotonous character of the work, this is disgusting pay. This is supposed to be a busy season, lasting about eight months of the year, and during the course of that time we have to save enough, over and above what it costs to live, in order to tide over the other four months of slackness.

"But during the last three years we have not been at any period what one might call busy, and, consequently, there has been no opportunity to make a provision for the slack period of the year. How we manage to exist is a question which is not of material interest to the employer. The great central factor which dominates his life is how to get the greatest possible profit with the least expenditure on labour.

"But it is perfectly useless discussing aimlessly the hardships and sweating to which we are subjected. What is wanted is a determined effort to demand from the employers the right to live a decent and healthy existence, and that effort can only be made with every single individual in the industry co-operating.

"I would urge that someone of strong personality come forward and lay the foundation of a trade union. I feel sure that the response would be rapid, and very soon we should be in a position to extract from the employer by force that which he is loath to give upon just and reasonable grounds."