By John Newsinger
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1911—when workers took control of Liverpool

This article is over 1 years, 6 months old
The first in a series of columns revisiting the highest points of class struggle
Issue 2822
A black and white photo shows workers in Liverpool crowd around a platform listening to Tom Mann

Strike leader Tom Mann speaks to workers

From 1910 until the First World War was a period of intensifying class struggle throughout Britain. As wages were being effectively cut by rising prices, and the bosses were trying to worsen working conditions, the workers rebelled.

The rank and file led the way, dragging the union leaders—many of them extremely reluctantly—along behind them. And one vital dimension of this strike wave was the readiness of workers to take solidarity action in support of each other.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Liverpool. Seafarers, who began an official national strike on 14 June 1911, led the way.

The fight proved contagious. On 5 August, railway workers in Liverpool walked out on unofficial strike. The action spread outside of the city until some 50,000 workers were out. 

Liverpool dockers boycotted rail traffic in solidarity and were promptly locked out. The following Sunday, over 80,000 people flocked to a massive demonstration in support of the strikers.

The police brutally attacked demonstrators, clubbing and beating men, women and children in an attempt to break the movement. Over 350 people were injured.

This led to fighting between the police and the Liverpool working class over a number of days and nights. On 15 August, demonstrators attempted to free prisoners from a van taking them to prison.

But troops opened fire and shot dead John Sutcliffe, a transport worker, and Michael Prendergast, a docker.

Soldiers bayoneted a number of other workers. Meanwhile, King George V urged the Liberal government to give the military a “free hand” to teach “the mob” a lesson. He urged that strikes should be banned and if that was not possible at the very least that picketing should be outlawed.

A city-wide strike committee, chaired by the veteran syndicalist militant Tom Mann, responded to the deployment of over 3,000 troops by calling a general strike. Some 60,000 workers walked out and the city was effectively in the hands of the workers. Nothing moved without the permission of the Strike Committee.

One journalist, Philip Gibbs, described Liverpool as being “as near to a revolution as anything I had seen in England…nothing moved”. Both the employers and the Liberal government were terrified by the display of militancy and solidarity.

As Mann said, the ruling class “saw that there was a power in the hands of the workers they had never dreamed of. Solidarity had truly worked wonders, and many of the capitalists thought that already the social revolution was upon them”.

The Liberal Home Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill, had a cruiser, HMS Antrim anchored in the Mersey, ready for all-out war against the strikers.

After 72 days since the first workers had walked out, the strike committee called an end to the action on 24 August.

What was the Labour Party leadership’s response to this militancy? Senior party figures proposed tough legislation clamping down on strikers’ rights.

These proposals were abandoned after outraged protests from party members. What the Liverpool general strike achieved was a decisive shift in the balance of class forces in the city.

Workers who had been too scared of the sack to join a union, won improved pay and conditions. And union membership across the city rose dramatically.

The wave of militancy, the Great Unrest, that lasted from 1910 through to the summer of 1914 saw national union membership rise from 2.5 million to 4.5 million.

Workers won against both the employers and the Liberal government, often in defiance of their union leaders. Their example is an inspiration to us today.

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