In today’s workplace the Trades’ Unions remain an important means of supporting and protecting workers, fighting for fair pay and decent working conditions. But in the 19th century the unions were faced with employers who appear inured to the fact that their workforces were dying in vast numbers.
And so it was that men like John Wilson from Uphall, a man said to look like Napoleon, took it upon himself to fight the mine owners, where he ‘held his ground pugnaciously, and would seldom submit to compromise.’
In his early life John Wilson considered entering the ministry. However, on passing a miners’ meeting in the mid-1880s he suggested a course of action they should take. Impressed by his eloquence the miners quickly appointed him their agent. On the creation of a Shale Miners’ Association he immediately set out to put the organisation on a sound footing, creating branching across the shale fields. The result of this action quickly proved effective and he won concessions and later a compromise in two strikes in 1887. His writing about these strikes can be seen in his diary.
Aware that his ‘eloquence and power of reasoning’ was proving beneficial to the lives of the shale miners, the coal miners appointed him as their agent also.
The following years saw him take an interest in all levels of politics. He was elected to Uphall School Board, but failed in bids to become a councillor on Glasgow Town Council and an MP for Edinburgh Central.
John Wilson died in April 1912 aged 50 years. As the funeral cortege passed through Uphall on the way to the cemetery the streets were lined with hundreds of miners, businesses closed and blinds were drawn, as a mark of respect.
But whilst the work of Wilson and others like him may have alleviated the problems for the miners, and those in other industries – in 1900, 180 men were killed in Scotland’s mines, in 1930, 123, and in 1960, 38 – it certainly did not remove them. In the early-20th century workers were forced to rise up in Glasgow in an attempt to obtain better working conditions, leading to the positioning of tanks in Glasgow’s George Square. Other strikes were widespread.