The National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers based in Charles Square, Hoxton, 1955. Image courtesy of Hackney Archives.
This series explores histories about some of the people behind Hackney’s buzzing garment trade which thrived during the 20th century and was the epicentre of production in the UK. This blog post explores the story of striking workers at two large factories in Hackney and how they rallied together to oppose their employers, using the power of song.
Trade unions for garment workers
Much of the work in the large factories was done by female workers. Many of these were young and from Jewish families in Hackney. Some of these women belonged to trade unions so they would receive support during disputes with employers over issues like pay, hours and working conditions. The main trade union which represented workers was The National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (NUTGW). Their London headquarters were once based in Hoxton. The NUTGW often supported workers’ strikes, however, a flurry of industrial action in Hackney in the 1920s tells a different story.
In 1928, the owners of Rego Clothiers moved their factory from Shoreditch to Edmonton in North London. The relocation meant that their employees had to spend more money and time travelling to work. 600 female ‘rag trade’ workers participated in a 12-week strike in response. Sam Elsbury and Sara Wesker, who were both officials working for the NUTGW in Hackney, led the strike.
Both Elsbury and Wesker were part of the large Jewish community who worked in the garment industry in Hackney. They went on to be important figures in the history of trade unionism in the East End. The pair are also known for their affiliations with branches of the Communist Party of Great Britain as well as their participation in anti-fascist action in London.
“R stands for Rego, who don’t know what they’re worth.
E stands for Everything, they want the blooming earth.
G stands for Glory, when workers will be free.
O stands for what we Owe to solidarity.“
‘R.E.G.O.’ from Rego and Polikoff Strike Songs, United Clothing Workers Union, 1929. Reprinted by Centerprise, 1983. Courtesy of Hackney Archives.
A new kind of trade union
Advert for the new trade union featured in Rego and Polikoff Strike Songs, United Clothing Workers’ Trade Unions, 1929. Reprinted by Centerprise, 1983. Courtesy of Hackney Archives.
The NUTGW and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) denounced the Rego strike on account of Elsbury and Wesker’s associations with communism and their militant approach to striking. In response, Elsbury and Wesker formed a breakaway union – the United Clothing Workers’ Trade Union (UCWTU). Where the strikers lost the
support of the NUTGW, they gained allies elsewhere; the strike and UCWTU was supported by lots of other trade unions. The workers even received donations from needle workers in the USSR.
The newly-formed UCWTU attracted around 10,000 workers nationally, many of whom were Jewish. Hackney garment workers such as those working at Polikoff’s factory on Mare Street started to join the new union too but factory owners and NUTGW executives were keen to steer workers away from Elsbury and Wesker. Polikoff’s displayed posters in their factory windows branding Sam Elsbury a ‘Red Agitator’. Despite this, 700 workers from Polikoff’s went on strike in May 1929 over the right to choose their
own union and in support of the UCWTU.
“We work at Polikoff’s:
All factory workers
United under the Union banner
We raise our emblems to the blacklegs,
The Union Banner triumphantly“
Excerpt from ‘The Union Banner’ (Bandiera Rossa) from Rego and Polikoff Strike Songs, United Clothing Workers’ Union, 1929. Reprinted by Centerprise, 1983.
Courtesy of Hackney Archives.
The Singing Strikers
The Rego and Polikoff workers are remembered for their passionate and energetic songs which boosted morale. The ‘Singing Strikers’ marched on the streets in Hackney, singing humorous parody songs to well-known melodies. Song lyrics took aim at Rego and Polikoff bosses as well as the NUTGW and TUC. The Communist Party of Great Britain published song books which were sold to raise funds for the workers. Many of the songs had communist undertones; the Rego and Polikoff strikers encouraged revolution and used tunes such as Bandiera Rossa, a famous Italian socialist song.
After less than a month, the Polikoff strikers returned to work but pledged to ‘remain loyal to the union that refused to be “part and parcel” of the capitalist machine’ (A. B. Elsbury). The Rego and Polikoff strikers are recognised for their pioneering use of a strike song style which blended different musical genres with East End humour, communist motifs and scathing parody. These strikes in Hackney are one of the first instances of such songs being used in British working class history. Today, the young women are remembered as the workers who ‘sang themselves into victory’.
Rego and Polikoff Strike Songs, United Clothing Workers’ Trade Unions, 1929. Reprinted by Centerprise, 1983. Courtesy of Hackney Archives.
Content for this blog series originally featured in the exhibition ‘Faces Behind the Fashions: Hackney and the Garment Trade‘ at Hackney Museum 15 September 2022 – 20 February 2023.