IN THE summer of 1889 the London Evening News and Post reported on the huge strike wave then sweeping the capital. The Bryant and May match girls' strike a year earlier had been, it concluded, 'the proverbial small spark' which had 'kindled a great fire'.
Trade unions at that time were the preserve of a minority of skilled craft workers. The unskilled, and all women, were unorganised. But the match girls' fight had heralded a wave of strikes that drew in unorganised workers, like gas workers, dockers and seafarers. These and countless others joined unions for the first time and went on strike. Their action changed the face of the British working class movement
At the head of the struggles were socialists, people like Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx (Karl Marx's daughter), Ben Tillet and Tom Mann. They had been a minority putting socialist arguments for years. Now they suddenly found themselves leading tens of thousands of workers in struggle.
The Bryant and May match factory in east London employed some 1,400 workers, mainly young women under the age of 15. They worked in appalling conditions for up to 13 hours a day. Many suffered the disfiguring 'phossy jaw' from handling the phosphorous used in match production. A socialist journalist, Annie Besant, had exposed the conditions in the factory. When management sacked three women for talking to Besant it detonated the anger. Hundreds of the young girls rushed out of the factory and charged through the streets of London.
With the help of socialists they launched a strike. They organised themselves, with regular meetings, a strike committee and collections from other workers. A middle class commentator captured the spirit of the match girls, even through a patronising attitude: 'She cheeks her employer and laughs at passers by, but is like wax when a fellow worker falls ill or a collection has to be made for a sick companion. She lends her clothes and her boots. She shares her last crust with a girl out of work.' After three weeks the strike won, and the workers formed a trade union. It was just the beginning.
The struggle seemed to come out of nothing. The great Chartist revolt of the 1840s had been defeated and the British ruling class was at the height of its power. The wealth that flowed from its empire was a key factor behind relative social peace. But in the years running up to 1888 there had been a swelling of anger in the working class which expressed itself in an important series of political battles.
Three months before the match girls' strike a mass demonstration over the government's repressive policies in Ireland, a key issue in British politics, had taken place in east London. In 1885 and 1886 socialists had been at the centre of agitation over the right to free speech on the streets. Then in 1887 a series of protests over unemployment, Ireland and in solidarity with the Haymarket Martyrs – workers executed in the US after being framed for a bombing – had swept London. This political protest was a key element feeding the explosion of 1888 and 1889.
The revolt of 1889 started in east London, but it spread across the country, to Northumberland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bristol and elsewhere. It began with a meeting called by socialist and gas worker Will Thorne in east London's Canning Town Hall at the end of March. On the platform alongside him was fellow socialist and worker in the nearby docks Ben Tillet.
Some 800 gas workers joined the union founded that day, the forerunner of today's GMB. In two weeks over 3,000 had signed up, rallying behind the demand for an eight hour day. Will Thorne argued the simple message, 'It is easy to break one stick, but when 50 sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job.' The threat of strike action was enough to force the employers to retreat. It was a breakthrough. It set the tone for the mass recruitment to trade unions, in what would soon be called 'New Unionism'.
The revolt spread to the dockers. Along the Thames there were around 150,000 of them, the most powerful group of workers in the capital. They had long been regarded as unorganisable. Many were in casual work and divided by an often bitter competition for work. Some, like socialist Ben Tillet, had long dreamed of the dockers' potential strength. 'The Thames might and could be made idle, a thousand million pounds of financial power brought to a standstill.'
Then in the summer of 1889 that potential was seen in a row over pay and other issues. Dockers at South Quay on the Isle of Dogs walked out. The strike spread and tens of thousands flocked to join Tillet's fledgling union, the forerunner of today's TGWU. Soon a set of demands was put forward. One of these was for a pay rise, the 'dockers' tanner'.
Tillet invited people like Tom Mann and John Burns, neither dockers but both active socialists, to help organise the strike. By 22 August the whole Port of London was brought to a standstill by some 15,000 flying pickets. The dockers organised almost daily marches through the streets, collecting money to sustain their fight. Australian dockers sent a £30,000 donation.
THE DOCKERS' strike became a beacon around which other workers began to rally. Strikes seemed to spring up everywhere. Thousands of mainly Jewish tailors struck in nearby Stepney. The dockers, despite their own hardship, donated funds to help them win an important victory.
The East London News headline at the beginning of September was 'Strike Fever'. It reported, 'The present week might not inaptly be called the week of strikes – coal men; match girls; parcels postmen; car men; rag, bone and paper porters and pickers. The employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railway works have found some grievance, real and imaginary, and have followed the infectious example of coming out on strike.'
The dockers' strike ended in victory in September. Other workers took up the drive to build unions and win better conditions. In November, for example, Eleanor Marx was involved in the fight of women workers in east London's rubber industry, with thousands striking and demonstrating. Across the country there were major strikes in Cardiff, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Manchester, Halifax, Hull and Tyneside.
In Leeds thousands of gas workers joined the union and won an eight hour day. But in June 1890 the employers went on the offensive, and tried to bring back the 12 hour day and smash the union. A huge battle culminated in the employers trying to bring in scabs. Some 30,000 workers battled with the police and scabs.
An eyewitness account in the local paper describes the ranks of workers lining the railway bridges and roof buildings ready to pelt the scabs with missiles. 'As [the scabs] came within range the fire was directed with terrific force on them. The scenes that ensued simply defied description; bricks, stones, clinkers, iron belts, sticks were hurled into the air to fall with sickening thuds and crashes upon and amongst the blacklegs and their escorts.' The scabs retreated, the employers caved in and the union won.
The years afterwards saw a counter-offensive by the employers across Britain, and workers suffered some heavy defeats. But the breakthrough to mass trade unionism was permanent and has shaped the development of British politics and society since.
The strike revolts of 1888 and 1889 led to a massive May Day demonstration in London in 1890. Frederick Engels, Marx's lifelong collaborator, was there and wrote, 'The English working class, rousing itself from 40 years of hibernation, rejoined the movement of its class.' And of the great revolt too, John Charlton concludes in his book, 'If it could happen then, it could happen again.'
'It just went like tinder' – The Mass Movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889
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