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A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein

Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen



Published in the Glasgow Weekly Mail, 14 December 1878, p. 7.
Ye rivetters of Govan,
Who stay at home at ease,
And live upon the “strike fund”
As idle as you please,
While wiser men, and better,
Who lazy ways don’t like,
Must starve through keeping idle,
Because you’re out on strike.

In vain you hope to profit
By spoiling Govan trade;
Ye rivetters of Govan
You’re thoughtless, I’m afraid.
You hinder other’s labours,
To serve your selfish ends;
Behaving to your neighbours
Like foes, instead of friends.

“No man can serve two masters,”
And consequently you
Can’t well obey trades-unions
And serve employers too.
Cast off trades-union shackles,
And work, or you must know
That all the trade of Glasgow
To foreign lands will go.

By strikes you’ll never profit.
’Tis published far and wide
That strikes have nearly ruined
The shipyards of the Clyde.
Be wise now, and reflect, lads,
You’ve children to be fed;
And half a loaf is better
Than not a bit of bread.
The shipbuilding industry on the Clyde expanded spectacularly in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. During the boom years, the population of Govan—fueled by a flood of immigrants from Ireland and from the Highlands—grew from 14,000 in 1871 to 91,000 in 1901. Yet there were also years of stagnation and actual decline. Between 1877 and 1879, when opportunities for work were less abundant, the population of the burgh fell by two thousand. In October 1878 the Clyde Shipbuilders’ and Engineers’ Association had averted a general strike by agreeing to reductions in the workers’ wages and in their working hours. But on 9 November the Mail reported that, rather than accept these reductions, a few squads of boilermakers and riveters had walked out. “At the present time,” the paper related, “there are scores of starving families in Govan and Partick, and the prospects for the winter are anything but encouraging.” While Bernstein’s position on the strike may seem antithetical to the sympathy she often expresses for the impoverished working classes, it is consistent with the political perspective shared by many Glaswegians of differing social backgrounds, who regarded strikes as threats to the wealth and progress of Clydeside. As Leonard observes: “A radical in one tradition might be conservative in another. Marion Bernstein, though a pioneering feminist in her work, attacked Govan shipyard workers for striking” (17). Her poem created some discomfort for the Mail, whose editor wrote: “While we permit the opinions of our correspondent we do not of course endorse them; it is an easy thing to say but exceedingly difficult to prove that either strikes or trades-unions have influenced the Clyde trade in any degree.” Her poem also elicited a condescending response in verse, in which an unpracticed poet accused Bernstein of trespassing on an issue beyond her comprehension: “Take a hint and be wise, / Ne’er again criticise / Trades unions nor strikes of the men; / For though it may seem strange, / They’re quite out of the range, / Of your knowledge, experience, or pen.” Undaunted, Bernstein replied: “As a woman, I’ll say / It is womankind’s way / To heed all the affairs of our brothers; / Very ill would men fare / Without counsel or care / From their wives, sisters, daughters, or mothers.” Less important, perhaps, than her attitude toward the strike is the fact that she was willing, as a woman, to express a political opinion on an issue regarded as the province of men.