Events of 100 years ago show that workers, often with no militant tradition and with the most cowardly union leaders, can suddenly explode into militant mass action.
Throughout the year there were hundreds of strikes, mostly unofficial. This massive outburst of class struggle became known as the Great Unrest.
For instance, in Bermondsey, south London, 15,000 women workers from over 20 factories spontaneously came out on strike in April. Most of those involved were in food processing—many in jam-making.
Strike leader Mary Macarthur said, “While women are badly paid because of their unorganised condition, they remain unorganised mainly because they are badly paid.” The strike won pay rises and unionised the area.
In 1911 some 961,000 workers were involved in strikes—more than ever before. The government, employers and trade union leaders were all at a loss on how to control the strikes, or even to predict where they would happen next.
The historian George Dangerfield, wrote in the classic book on the period, The Strange Death of Liberal England, that the working class “took a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary conclusion”.
The first shots in this class war had been fired in September the previous year, when over 300,000 miners struck in South Wales over pay—despite opposition from an increasingly conservative trade union bureaucracy. They remained on strike until the end of the summer of 1911.
In May, seafarers across Britain started unofficial strikes over union recognition and working conditions. The strike was solid and won.
Then, through July and August, a wave of unofficial rail strikes broke out. Wage negotiation through conciliation boards (workers called them “confiscation boards”) had broken down as bosses reneged on deals.
Rail workers spread the action informally from company to company. Some 50,000 workers were out on unofficial action before the union leaders even got involved.
The general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, desperate to regain control, announced a national strike with the words: “War is declared, the men are being called out.”
On 17 August the national railway strike began. The government deployed 58,000 troops against it—but it was panicked.
Home secretary Winston Churchill declared, “The men have beaten us. We cannot keep the trains running. There is nothing we can do. We are done!”
The unions’ national demand was for recognition. In a sense they got it two days later, when the government convened talks. So on the promise of a Royal Commission, a proposal they had rejected three days earlier, the union leaders called off the strike.
In some places, union leaders were less able to keep control. In Liverpool, the seafarers’ earlier victory gave confidence to others and 4,000 Liverpool dockers reacted to it by walking off the job on 28 June.
Other groups of workers followed. By the end of the day 10,000 were out. The seafarers came back out in support of the dockers.
After a shipload of scab labour appeared in the River Mersey. A newspaper reported that revolutionary strike leader Tom Mann told strikers, “If that boat were sunk he would for his part rejoice. If he were able to sink the ship himself, he would do it. As for the scabs on board, the sooner they went to heaven or hell the better for the world.”
Within a week, the dockers won.
Soon, tug boat workers, Mersey Ferries workers, coopers (barrel-makers) and labourers at the giant Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse, Cotton Exchange porters, brewery workers and workers at the rubber plant all struck. Importantly, the strikes united Protestant and Catholic workers in a city riddled with sectarianism.
When 1,000 dock porters struck on 7 August, a city-wide strike committee—including, vitally, the rail workers—agreed that all transport workers would add their support through sympathy strikes.
The next day 4,000 railway workers struck—against the wishes of senior rail trade union officials. The docks were closed and there were no freight trains out of Liverpool at all.
The strike committee had, in effect, taken the leadership of the rail strikers in Liverpool away from the union officials.
Predictably, the government drafted an extra 2,400 police and 5,000 troops into the city. When some 80,000 people turned up to a mass meeting called in support of the strike on Sunday 13 August, police and troops repeatedly attacked the crowd.
Two days later, five prison vans carrying some of those arrested at the rally, escorted by army cavalry, were attacked, with furious attempts made to rescue the prisoners. Two dockers, Michael Prendergast and John Sutcliffe, were killed by soldiers.
The government dispatched two navy cruisers to Liverpool. The strike committee began to look like an alternative organ of class power. Most goods could only be moved with the agreement of the strike committee. The authorities were powerless.
Most of the bosses wanted to settle, but the tram company refused to re-employ strikers they had sacked, so the strike continued until the tram workers were finally reinstated on 25 August.
The workers’ victories inspired a wave of school student strikes. On 5 September, 30 boys marched out of Bigyn school in Llanelli, South Wales to protest over the caning of a pupil.
One boy told a reporter, “Our fathers strike—why shouldn’t we?” Llanelli was one the most militant areas of the rail strikes.
Within days, pupils in more than 60 towns across Britain had taken to the streets. In London’s East End, school students marched with union banners, iron bars and sticks.
The Times reported that at one school in Deptford, pupils “organised a demonstration outside the school, and amused the neighbourhood by shouting ‘We are on strike’.”
The students chalked demands on the pavement: the abolition of home lessons and the cane, and an extra half-holiday in the week. Many carried “ammunition”: stones and other missiles.
The great wave of struggle continued for the next three years. And while the onset of the First World War stemmed the strike wave, it had transformed the union movement.
Total union membership grew from 2,477,000 at the end of 1909 to 4,135,000 by the end of 1913.
The Great Unrest left another lasting legacy—breaking the Liberal Party as a political force.
As George Dangerfield put it, “A movement which had started impulsively among the obscure and the unskilled suddenly revealed itself in all its infinite promise: here was power. Here was something all the respectable diplomacy of earlier years could never have achieved—power.”
Background to 1911, the great unrest: why did strikes break out?
Britain was at the height of its imperial power. Profits were increasing, and newspapers were full of stories about the extravagant spending of the wealthy. Since the last big upturn in workers’ struggle, from 1888 to 1892, workers had been defeated in a series of major confrontations.
But at the same time the ruling elite was in serious crisis. The dominant Liberal Party was ruthless but weak and trapped by three linked issues. It was struggling against a mass campaign for votes for women.
At the same time the Tory opposition was openly calling for violent revolt to crush the Irish independence movement. The government relied on the votes of Irish nationalists to stay in office.
And huge pools of bitterness existed among working people. Prices and rents increased, but average real wages fell by around 10 percent between 1900 and 1912.
This combined with the generalised political crisis meant radical voices were beginning to gain a hearing from growing numbers of workers.
The most important of these groups was the syndicalists—revolutionary trade unionists. The syndicalists rejected the idea that gradually securing a workers’ majority in parliament would be enough to tame capitalism.
The syndicalists were brilliant militants and organisers. The growth of reformist ideas and conservative bureaucracy in unions and politics pushed the syndicalists to an emphasis on collective direct economic action.
As Tom Mann put it, “The object of the unions is to wage the class war and take every opportunity of scoring against the enemy.”
As a revolutionary reaction to the growth of reformism, the syndicalists pushed trade unionism to breaking point.
But they did not fully grasp the way bureaucratic pressures affect trade union leaders, and underestimated their strength.
Neither did they have an answer to how the working class could take power.
But still, many syndicalists went on to become important figures in building the Communist movement internationally.
1911, the Great Unrest: Further reading
- The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
- British Syndicalism 1900-1914 by Bob Holton (out of print but available in many libraries)
- Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism by Ralph Darlington