New Unionism in the 1880's

Submitted by Matthew on 15 February, 2012 - 12:25

On Saturday 18 February, Workers’ Liberty will host “New Unionism: how workers can fight back”, a dayschool to discuss militant, class-struggle trade unionism, past and present, with a particular focus on the struggles that reshaped the British labour movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cathy Nugent outlines some of the important features of historical “New Unionism”.


Beginning in the late 1880s, a great unionising drive among unskilled and semi-skilled workers began. This period of “new unionism” lasted — with setbacks and shifts in character along the way — right up to the 1920s.

1887 marked the beginning of a trade boom — short-lived, like most capitalist booms and slumps at the time. And, as in the past, a unionising drive followed. It was more extensive than before. From the beginning of 1888 there was an upsurge in strike action, much of it in the basic industries around the UK — mines, cotton mills, iron and steel works. In 1889 a summer-long strike wave around east London included the most famous “new unionist” action of all — the London docks strike.

The foundations for new unionism had already been laid. In 1871 the population of Great Britain was 31.5 million people. Of these, 8.2 million men and 3.2 million women were waged workers. One estimate for the number of trade union members among them put it at just 143,000. By 1881, the population had grown to 35 million and trade unions had expanded to 266,000 members.

Trade unions in the 1850s and 60s had very much been craft societies and confined to the skilled workers. But by the 1870s mining unions and mill workers’ unions were organising all grades of workers. New sections of workers were now organising; gasworkers formed an East End Union in 1872. Some of these unions survived, others did not.

The leaders of Victorian craft-based unions tried to meet the expectations of Victorian employers, and took care to present themselves as skilled, responsible, steady workmen. In contrast, the bosses hated and feared unskilled, itinerant and casual workers.

Socialist Harry Quelch described the attitudes of the skilled artisan worker with contempt: “Can there be anything more exasperating than to hear a skilled artisan, who ought to know that the whole of society is living on the labour of himself and his mates, skilled and unskilled, talking of his home as ‘not bad for a working man’, his set of books as ‘quite creditable for a working man’, his children as ‘a good-looking set of kids for a working man’ and so on?”

Some of the most ambitious union leaders got themselves elected to Parliament. Alexander MacDonald and Thomas Burt of the Miners’ Union became MPs in 1874. But they were Liberals. The performance of “Lib-Lab” trade union-sponsored MPs — 12 were elected in 1885 — helped turn trade unionists away from both the toadying policy of the old unions and a reliance on the Liberal Party to deliver for the workers.

The first high-profile confrontation of the period came in July 1888 when matchworkers at Bryant and May’s east London factory struck in solidarity with a sacked colleague. Conditions at the firm had been exposed by the socialist H H Champion in the Labour Elector, by Tom Mann in an 1886 pamphlet arguing for the eight-hour day, and by Annie Besant in The Link.

The young, mostly casual, mostly women workers (some as young as 13) worked very long hours and were paid just four shillings an hour. They were subject to all kinds of humiliations including arbitrary fines for trivial misdemeanours. Because they ate at their benches, they ingested white phosphorus, causing a debilitating disease of the jaw (“Phossy Jaw”).

Annie Besant, a Fabian socialist, has been given most of the credit for the matchworkers strike. But as Louise Raw’s 2011 book, Striking a Light, convincingly tells us, they were a self-organised workforce with a history of struggle. And they went on to found a “new union”, the Matchmakers Union.

The matchworkers were the sisters, mothers, daughters, wives and inspiration for other East End workers who would strike a year later. Many were from Irish immigrant families. They could not have been more different — in temperament and in outlook — to the craft unionists of the earlier period.

The writing of the history’s next chapter was led by Will Thorne, a Birmingham-born gasworker who had been agitating for a gasworkers’ union at the Beckton works in east London from as early as 1884.

The story of how the gasworkers’ union (the ancestor of the modern GMB union) was founded is the clearest example of how socialists influenced the formation of the new trade unions.

Who were the socialists? The Democratic Federation, later the Social Democratic Federation, was for many years the largest and most influential socialist organisation of this period. It was set up in 1881 by a well-to-do man, H M Hyndman, who had an idiosyncratic reading of socialist theory and an autocratic manner, and who denied the importance of trade union struggle.

Neither the SDF, nor its split off, the Socialist League of William Morris, had much idea about how to prepare the ground for political working-class struggles or how to develop workers’ organisation. Their role was simply to make propaganda, to prepare for “the crisis”. Morris explained his resolve at the time of the SDF-SL split: “To teach ourselves and others what the due social claims of labour are... with the view to dealing with the crisis if it should come in our day, or handing on the tradition of our hope to others if we should die before it comes.”

But the SDF was not a homogenous organisation. Leading trade unionists Tom Mann, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett were all members at one time or another. As socialists began to throw themselves into the class struggle they had to think about how to address the issues thrown up — union recognition, the employers’ offensive, strike-breaking…

Will Thorne and his workmates had been powerfully affected by general socialist agitation for an eight-hour day (Tom Mann had set up an Eight Hours League in 1886). Their job of stoking the monster furnaces was made more hellish by the fact that they had to work 12-hour shifts.

Thorne made a new attempt to organise a union in spring 1889, spurred on by the introduction of “The Iron Man” into the Beckton works. This new machine was constantly breaking down causing extra time to be worked making the repairs. Some men on the Sunday shift were asked, with no notice, to work 18 hours. Thorne, talking many years later about that time, said: “This was the psychological moment for forming the union.” Like the matchworkers, the gasworkers had simply had enough.

Following a mass meeting a union was formed. By mid-April 1889, the union had 3,000 members. It was to be a general union for unskilled workers.

It grew incredibly quickly, and by the middle of July 1889 both of London’s major gas companies had acceded to the new union’s eight-hour day demand.

In 1889 the main docks in the port of London were in the control of five companies.

Alongside the docks was a complex of wharves spread out along the river, which by the mid-1800s handled the bulk of trade.

This complex and busy industry created a highly differentiated workforce with many separate and specialised trades and jobs. A multitude of other workers serviced the port trade. But the biggest segment was made up of relatively unskilled, very casually employed (often surplus) workers. Their lives were grim — a daily struggle against starvation, homelessness.

The rise of the wharf business had resulted in huge competition within the port. There had also been a tailing off of the rate of overall increase of trade in the port. A squeeze on profits followed, and that led to a squeeze on an already deeply impoverished and underemployed workforce.

The hourly rate of wages (usually 5d) was supplemented by an extra payment called “the plus”. This was calculated on a tonnage basis but the company never disclosed the scales on which the plus was based. In the late 1880s the scales were revised downwards.

At some docks the work was let out to small contractors who would employ as few dockers as possible and worked them as hard as possible. These abuses came on top of daily humiliation at the “call on” — the practice at some docks of choosing the casual workers. A contemporary report in the Times said:

“There is a chain put up right across the entrance to the docks, and the contractors are on one side of the chain and the men the other.... 1,500 to 2,000 men crowded together, the front men forced up against the chain: the back men are climbing over the heads of those in front, and the contractor behind the chain is picking out the men, generally his own favourites or somebody recommended by his own favourites.

“I myself had had eight or 10 men upon my shoulders and my head, and I have been hurt several times in a struggle for employment like that.”

There had been earlier attempts to organise. Socialists involved in the Land and Labour League (an early socialist organisation) built a dock workers’ union and led a strike in 1872.

In 1887 Ben Tillett, who became the leader of the 1889 strike, set up a new port workers’ union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Union. It was very hard going.

But on 12 August 1889 a dispute broke out at the South West India Dock over the distribution of the “plus” on the “Lady Armstrong”. The strike quickly spread and demands were shaped. These included 6d an hour (forever known as the “dockers’ tanner”), a minimum shift of four hours work, a reduction in the number of “call ons”, and an overtime rate of 8d an hour.

The solidarity of the stronger, more “craft”-oriented stevedores union was crucial. They encouraged other port workers to join the strike, they already knew how to organise a strike committee, and they were a powerful group of workers whose action could bring work at the docks to a halt.

Tillett called on other socialist organisers such as Tom Mann and John Burns to help in the dispute. Burns was already well-known as a socialist “stump orator” around the docks. Eleanor Marx acted as the unpaid secretary for the dispute. Funds were very short and only grew when big donations came through from Australia (where over £30,000 was raised). The women of the docks organised a rent strike.

At the end of August, in the face of continued intransigence by the dock companies, a plan was hatched to call a London-wide general strike. Tom Mann was probably the main architect of the plan.

The plan was quickly abandoned, but it was based on a real and continued general unrest in London. Groups of workers on strike during 1889 included: printers, export iron mongers, millers, Pickfords workers, jam factory workers, young women rope makers, iron workers, Bryant and May workers (again), coal depot workers, brewery workers, sea-going engineers, carpenters, shipwrights, Peak Frean biscuit factory workers, Billingsgate cutlery workers, ordinary engineers, builders at Woolwich Arsenal, laundry workers. At the beginning of September, Jewish tailors, cigar and cigarette makers and book finishers went out on strike.

The docks strike came to a successful end when the ship owners put pressure on the dock companies and a section of the wharf owners moved to settle. 6d an hour and negotiations on an end to the “plus” and contract system of employment were granted.

The great London docks strike was an enormously important turning point in the history of the British labour movement. The new union which emerged — the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Workers Union (with 18,000 members by the end of 1889) — set a pattern for other “new unions” in and outside London.

The innovations of this period were:

* The organisation of workers deemed to be “unskilled”.

* The recruitment of members from a wide range of industries and occupations. The establishment of general unions such as the Gasworkers’ Union.

* The commitment to being “fighting unions”, charging low membership subscriptions, and using what funds they did have for strike pay.

* Militancy. In a pamphlet on new unionism, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett described new unions as centres for educating workers in collective class consciousness.

* Political radicalism, questioning the adherence to the Liberal Party.

* Making space for the organisation of women workers.

By 1891 there were 274 unions with 1,500,000 members. Other important unions organising semi-skilled and unskilled workers were the National Union of Dock Labour (Glasgow and Liverpool), the National Amalgamated Union of Sailors and Firemen, the National Amalgamated Labourers’ Union (Cardiff), the National Amalgamated Union of Labour (Tyneside), the Metropolitan Cab Drivers’ Trade Union, the London County Tramway and Omnibus Employees’ Trade Union. There were some 2,400 strikes and 11 million work-days lost between 1889 and 1890.

By 1893, one third of the new membership had been lost. Entire unions collapsed and died. Some of the unions which became extinct were small and local, and others disappeared through merger, but nonetheless there was a big slump in organisation. Why?

The short answer is that by 1892 economic slump and rising unemployment had re-emerged, lasting until the second half of the 1890s. And new technology — such as the introduction of steamships — was putting many out of work.

In these years, the employers went on the offensive. They set up explicitly anti-union, bosses’ combat organisations. The Shipping Federation, for example, organised armies of strike-breakers with military precision. It would be 20 years before the unions felt strong enough to put up a really serious defence.

In the meantime, and increasingly, the surviving new unions built stronger links with each other. In 1896 the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers was set up (the employers’ offensive was not confined to the UK).

The century ended with a lock-out of engineers by a newly formed employers’ organisation. It was a test of strength in which the engineers lost. In this context Tom Mann worked on the formation of the Workers’ Union (in 1898) — a union for the unskilled and semi-skilled workers which unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers simply were not organising (despite rule book changes to facilitate it).

The Workers’ Union was not an industrial union (that was the “big idea” whose time would come later). It was a general union. In Mann’s words, it was “open to any section of workers of either sex for whom no proper union already existed”.

Despite the setback, the experiences of “new unionism” laid the basis for two other developments. These were a parallel development of growing independent “labour” politics and a future wave of industrial militancy, beginning around 1910: the Great Unrest.

In late 1889, the Gasworkers’ Union had stood for, and won, two seats on the Barking School Board (an important arena for working-class political representation). West Ham Council had four “new unionists” as councillors.

The founding conference of the Independent Labour Party, held in Bradford in 1893, was, according to Henry Pelling, visibly the product of “new unionism”.

Here was “a new type of political delegate — the intelligent, respectable, working trade unionist of the new labour clubs. Men [mostly men, though many women joined the ILP] of this type, young and friendly, their countenances gleaming with good humour above their loose red ties, dominated the scene. They were not politicians for politics’ sake; they were the working class in earnest, the product of the new education and the widening franchise. Their enthusiasm and discipline impressed the observers in the gallery and the reporters who crowded at the press table. They were the tangible evidence of a new factor in British politics”. The ILP and its founder Keir Hardie (elected MP for West Ham South in 1892) were sure that Parliament was a useful arena for working class politics.

Although held back by declining union strength and the anti-union climate (the Taff Vale judgement of 1901 undermined the legality of strike action), the class struggle did begin, incrementally, to rise.

Union membership grew from 1.5 million in 1895 to 2 million in 1900. A rise of real wages between 1900 to 1910 began to tail off; this was a crucial factor behind growing unrest.

The “Great Unrest” (1910-14), as it became known, was preceded and inspired by several precursor struggles — Penrhyn Quarry strikes (1901), the Belfast Dock Strike (1907), the Plebs strike (1909), the Durham and Northumberland miners strike (1910), and the Cambrian Combine strike (1910).

Revolutionary industrial attitudes, methods and ideas became an influential force within the renewed movement. The extent and exact nature of the influence of explicitly revolutionary ideas is a matter of debate, but they were certainly key parts of big movements internationally — in parts of Europe, the USA, Latin America and Australia. Groups of like-minded individuals and organisations were known variously as “industrial syndicalists”, “revolutionary syndicalists” or “anarcho-syndicalists”. The different labels reflected slightly different strategic goals.

The profile of the syndicalists in Britain was raised by the involvement of Tom Mann – his organising flair helped galvanise struggles like the Liverpool Transport Workers’ strike (1911). Mann had been “converted” to syndicalism while living and working in Australia.

As the trade unions became increasingly concerned with the formulation of state policy directed at working-class lives and protecting their interests more consistently, the capitalist class was looking for ways to defuse class struggle by incorporating trade union representatives into bargaining institutions. One of the features of the Great Unrest was local and particular unions testing and challenging the functioning and basis of those institutions.

Increasingly, trade unionists were dismayed at the resistance of union officials to any kind of direct action at a time when direct action was desperately needed. That is both the story of then, and of our own times.

For details of the “New Unionism” school, 18 February, London, see here.

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