Socialist Worker

The rise and fall of New Unionism

by Julie Waterson
Issue No. 2174

The trade unions of today came out of working class struggle. Socialists played a critical role in developing them.

The New Unionism of the 1880s heralded a new chapter for the working class in Britain.

It broke the decades of defeat that followed the decline of Chartism, and gave birth to general trade unions.

Before this only 10 percent of the working class were in trade unions.

These unions were skilled and elitist. Their leaders were either Liberals or worked with the Tories. In 1870 just 400,000 people were members of unions.

Hundreds of thousands of “unskilled” workers struck and joined unions in the following decades—dockers, gas workers, matchgirls, picklers and bottlers, laundry workers and tailoresses.

They formed what are some of the biggest unions of today—the GMB and what has become Unite.

One key battle was the 1889 east London dockers’ strike, involving 100,000 people.

For five weeks they fought for the closed shop—automatic membership of trade unions—and the “docker’s tanner”, a wage of six pence an hour.

They were, until this point, unorganised.

And they won—without the support of the established craft-based unions and the London Trades Council.

The New Unions were led by socialists—members of the Socialist Democratic Federation (SDF).

This was a large but propagandist party, whose leader denounced strikes as “a waste of energy”.

Despite this, many activists in the SDF played a leadership role in the union struggle. This led some of them to take the opposite position and to denounce “politics”.

This division between political and economic struggles weakened the battle for working class power, and strengthened the state and parliamentary politics.

Eleanor Marx, along with Frederick Engels, William Morris and others, had broken from the SDF.

She played a central role, becoming an executive member of the gas workers’ union.

The rising class struggle transformed the craft unions, with miners, rail workers and engineers striking and challenging their conservative leaders and the Tory government.

As the struggle declined, the ruling class planned revenge.

Their offensive led to lock-outs of the workers and mass sackings.

Agreements were ripped up. Union membership fell by 40 percent between 1890–93.

The membership of the biggest New Unions plummeted from 320,000 in 1890 to 80,000 six years later, and from constituting a quarter of the TUC’s membership to only one in ten.

This was a new political landscape. In the absence of a socialist organisation rooted in the rank and file, other traditions formed—trade union bureaucracy and the belief that capitalism could be reformed.

The defeats had a demoralising impact on many of those who had led the struggle.

Eleanor Marx committed suicide. John Burns, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett—all former leaders of the New Unions—moved to the right.

Burns was to become a Liberal cabinet minister, saying that he was getting tired of “working class boots, working class trains, working class houses and working class margarine”.

Thorne and Tillett became Labour MPs.

Their reaction to events was borne from objective circumstances and not personal weakness.

Defeat at Bradford’s Manningham Mills in 1890–91 gave birth to the Independent Labour Party and the demand for workers’ representation in parliament.

The birth of the Labour Party was rooted in defeat, but was progressive as it was a break with the existing ruling parties of the Liberals and the Tories.

The trade union bureaucracy also became stronger.

There were no full-time officials in 1850 but 600 by 1892 and almost 4,000 by 1920.

The left in Britain remained divided between economic and political struggles.

The objective circumstances of war and revolution raised the urgent need for unity against a common enemy.

The Communist Party was formed in 1921, bringing together militants with a rich tradition of organising against capitalism.

They were to play a decisive political role in the development of 20th century unions.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.