Socialist Worker

How unrest built the 'new unions'

The second column in our series by Sadie Robinson looks at class struggle before the First World War

Issue No. 2208

Some argue that attacks on workers’ rights and trade unions mean that workers are less able to fight—let alone make a revolution. Others cite the relative low level of strikes as proof that class struggle is dead.

But mass resistance has often erupted among the most unlikely sections of the working class and at the most unlikely times.

In the late 1880s, after decades of apparent calm, strikes spread through Britain. They seemed to come from nowhere.

The “match girls” strike was one of the best known battles. It took place at the Bryant and May match factory in east London in 1888.

Anger at horrendous conditions in the factory, and the sacking of three workers, sparked the strike. Some 1,400 workers walked out, many were Irish immigrants and the majority young women under the age of 15.

They won a number of concessions after three weeks and lit “a great fire”—as the London Evening News and Post put it.

Hundreds of thousands workers struck and joined unions as the “New Unionism” spread—including gas workers, dockers, garment workers, laundry workers, seafarers, picklers and bottlers, post workers, rubber workers, miners, transport workers, rag, bone and paper porters and pickers.

Socialists like Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann led the struggles and many of these battles built the unions.

Prior to 1910, only around 10 percent of workers were unionised and they were skilled workers organised by craft.

Now new groups flooded into unions—including “unskilled” workers, women, young people and Irish migrants. New general unions were created and the movement was transformed.

In London, the 150,000 dockers along the Thames had long been seen as unorganisable. Many were employed on a casual basis and competition for work sometimes divided them.

Yet they walked out over pay and conditions in the summer of 1889 and tens of thousands joined the union. Thousands of flying pickets shut down the whole Port of London. They won their demands.

Hundreds of thousands were striking and winning—and each victory spurred on other groups to fight.

Bosses launched a counter-offensive. They inflicted some defeats on workers. But they couldn’t undo the lasting impact of the struggles—mass membership of trade unions.

As the struggle declined, some former strike leaders became pessimistic about the potential for workers to fight. They turned to reformism and parliamentary politics, with trade union leaders playing a central role in the setting up of the Labour Party.

Labour was a retreat from militant class struggle but it was still a step forward from when workers could only vote Liberal or Tory.

But one of the biggest workers’ uprisings in Britain’s history began just a few years later—the Great Unrest.

Political battles over votes for women and home rule for Ireland mixed with an explosion of workers’ struggle.

In 1910, the real value of wages was falling, fuelling bitter anger among workers. In September, over 300,000 miners struck in South Wales over pay—despite opposition from an increasingly conservative trade union bureaucracy.

The ruling class and the government were terrified—particularly because so many strikes broke out in defiance of union leaders.

When seafarers struck unofficially in Southampton for union recognition, their action quickly spread to other cities. Railway workers struck unofficially and thousands came out to support them.

Around 1.2 million people struck in 1912—three times the total number that had struck between 1895 and 1909.

The ruling class’s reaction revealed the lengths it would go to protect its power. In Liverpool, gunboats sailed down the Mersey to quell the unrest. Troops and police were sent to protect scabs and bosses.

Union membership grew from 2,477,000 at the end of 1909 to 4,135,000 by the end of 1913.

The Great Unrest showed the immense power of workers. But the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought the struggles to a temporary halt. Many people who had been at the forefront of mass resistance lined up with the bosses to support “their” side in the war. Union leaders called off strikes.

Their nationalism destroyed the momentum of the unrest and threw away its potential.

But it didn’t stamp out struggle for long.


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