Montreal Standard, 8 March 1919, page 14

BIRMINGHAM

Where they “Make Everything under the sun” – labor and manufacturing conditions in United Kingdom investigated for Montreal Standard and New York Tribune.

By Samuel Crowther

New York Tribune and Montreal Standard European Bureau.  Copyright 1919 New York Tribune, Inc.

Birmingham, England, March 8 – Birmingham is easily the key city of British industry.  Surrounded by a dozen or more industrial towns, it is the centre of every form of trade other than manufacturing – or engineering, as they call it here – except cotton, wool and the steel products of Sheffield. No list anywhere exists which includes all that this city of the Midlands turns out. A local manufacturer told me he had an old man in his employ especially for the purpose of finding the manufacturers of articles which he might happen to need in emergencies.

“None of us know just what it is made here.  There are thousands of little loft shops, and I have this man to locate them for me.  He knows the town.  When I want something made which I cannot well look after in my own shops – some unusual tool or part – I send out my scout and he always finds some one who can do the job.  I have never known him to come back saying that we must look elsewhere.  I think we make everything under the sun here.”

And likewise there are no statistics as to the total volume of the city’s trade. Three railways serve it, and because of their several desires not to let each other know how much business they do they refuse to give out figures. But we do know that Birmingham is supreme in hardware of every kind; that its goods go out into every quarter of the globe, and that during the war it has been the biggest of all supply centres for the army and navy.  The Birmingham Small Arms Company [where my grandfather worked just before the war -gilliandr] the biggest maker of rifles in the Birmingham has been their production centre.

LABOR UNREST NET WORRISOME

It has vastly extended its normal munitions trades, and also practically every other factory and little workshop has changed over from peace to war. A normal working population of about 150,000 males has been transformed into a war working population of at least 300,000 of whom about three-quarters are women, for Birmingham makes the small rather than the large and heavy goods, although they boast that they could make very part of a fabricated ship if only the railway bridges were tall enough to let plates pass down to the sea.

With a district that was probably the most active in peace having turned itself wholly over to the war, the transformation back to peace can be taken as fairly  typical. And I find here that practically the only thing which bothers the employers is the inability to get men with which to start peace work.  They do not in the least fear the task of immediate changing or what they will do when they have changed. All of the owners with whom I talked said that they have orders on their books that would keep them busy for nearly a year.  And likewise the labour unrest, which is so prevailing, does not seem to worry any one – employers or labor leaders – in this district, for they have between them settled these big points:

  1. The men have agreed not to limit production, but to co-operate in high production to the end that they may keep something of their high war wages.
  2. They have agreed generally on the forty-seven hour week and a mutuality of control through workshop committees.

BIRMINGHAM HAS ACCUMULATED MONEY

Birmingham has made money during the war – it reminds one of an American ammunition centre, for the streets are crowded with people, hotel rooms are not available, and every one is hustling and as rude as their leisure or haste permits.  The office buildings are crammed with government controls and inspection departments of all run with a particularly objectionable lot of civilians in officers’ uniforms acting as inspectors and the like who have somewhere read or heard that the main duty of an officer is to swagger and make himself annoying.  As a subject for clinical study the heart of the Black Country is interesting but it is no place for a human being.

The owners have made money and the workers have made money, but no large fortunes have been created – at least I could not discover any. But every one has money and the problem of peace is not at all hampered by the lack of means with which to finance. In fact I did not detect any fear of peace trade other than the fear that the demobilization of the army would be so slow that many opportunities would be lost. Take this manufacturer of jewelry [sic], who has been making fuses.

“All I have to do” he said to me, “is get new tools made, take out some of the machines and relocate others. Then I shall be ready to go on with my orders, provided of course, that I get a proper share of raw material; but I cannot get men.  I need tool makers first and when they have had a start I can take on my old men whom I promised to re-employ.  But the army does not give me the ‘pivot’ men who are supposed first to be demobilized.  Instead they have sent me fifty ordinary workers for whom I shall have nothing to do until the tool makers arrive.  Dozens of other firms are in the same position.  I know that the selective  discharge system will never work for the mass of men, but certainly it ought to work for just the few pivot men that we need to restart industry.”

FREE INITIATIVE IS STILL POPULAR

Outside of this single question of workers, the manufacturers are confident for have they not already the orders on the books? On the long feature they are equally confident, but not in the way of capturing new markets to any great degree or of engaging in any kind of a trade war under government auspices or in associated bodies – “cartel” fashion.  The Birmingham engineer is above all an individualist and he wants to go forward now exactly in the same general way, excepting for increased production, that he did in pre-war days. He detests fill forms of government control and is equally opposed to associated effort, except that he will take something in the way of a small flyer in new markets in combinations which promise to reduce the cost of the experiment.  This is the way the situation was summarized to me and it bears out my own observations:

“The war has made changes, of course; we had to give up practically all of our peace trade except that in hollow ware – which the forces needed – and change over to munitions.  But the firms that have made most of the munitions were those who were already in that trade before the war. They have let out to other makers various parts, and few of those parts have caused any great plant changes. We have put in automatic machinery, because few of us were making more than one or two parts; because we had automatic machinery we could dilute labour with women.  The women are not skilled mechanics; they are very good with automatic machinery, for they do not seem to mind the monotony. But they were only a war necessity.  We cannot use them in any great numbers in peace, for now we shall not have so much automatic machinery and also we have promised to take back all our men who survived the war.  And many of the women are tired of outside work and want to get back to household affairs.

“Before the war we could have turned out double what we did had it not been for the union restrictions on output. Now that these are done away with we can get production enough to pay higher wages than before – although not war wages.  But the men do not really press for war wages.  We are on good terms with them and I think, through the workshop committees and the general conditions in the engineering trades, we shall be able to adjust matters on a mutual basis.

Image from the Birmingham Mail
Image from the Birmingham Mail
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