Tom Mann 3 —1889: The Great Trade Union Turning Point

Author: 

Cathy Nugent

Continuing a series on the life and times of Tom Mann with an account of the London dock strike of 1889.

Today the trading and industrial activities of the port of London are a shadow of what they once were. The areas where docks and wharves once heaved with cargo, boats, ships and people, are now sites for skyscraper office blocks, exclusive apartments, trendy studios and pricey restaurants — a product of Thatcher’s demolish and “develop” project for the docklands in the 1980s.

Go to the London Docklands Museum (located between two bistros and opposite a smart marina) and you will find out how working-class people fought to stop their communities being smashed up, scattered and pushed out of the docklands. London’s great dock strike of 1889 — which forged solidarity between desperately poor people — helps us understand why people wanted to save the docklands communities.

The port of London was built up haphazardly to accommodate the 18th century’s growth in trade. By 1850 the congestion of ships, boats, people and goods coming in and out of the port’s sprawling system of docks and wharves would have been immense. The main docks — West India (Limehouse), East India (Blackwall) London and St Katherine’s (Wapping), Royal Victoria and Royal Albert (West and East Ham) and Surrey (south of the river) — were in the control of five companies. Alongside the docks were a complex of wharves spread out along the river, which by the mid-century handled the bulk of trade.

This complex and busy industry created a highly differentiated workforce with many separate and specialised trades and jobs. A multitude of other workers serviced the port trade (carmen, rope makers, engineers etc, etc). But the biggest segment were relatively unskilled and casually employed — these were the ordinary dock worker. In his Memoirs Tom Mann described their importance to Victorian capitalism:

“There has long been no more than a dogged acquiescence in the conditions insisted upon by the employers, more particularly on the part of those classed as unskilled labourers. Skilled and unskilled alike were dominated over by their employers; and at the same time the unskilled, not being yet organised, were in may instances subject to further dictation and domination by the organised skilled men.

The industrial system was (as it still is, with some modification) creating an army of surplus workers, who, never having been decently paid for their work, had never been decently fed; every occupation had its proportion of the surplus.

Irregularity of work, coupled with liability to arduous and dangerous toil when employed, characterised the dock workers in an exceptional degree; and although dock labour was classed as unskilled, in grim reality it often required a considerable amount of skill…

Nevertheless in the struggle against death by starvation, a larger percentage of worn-out men (cast-offs from other occupations) made their way to compete for casual labour at the docks and wharves of London, than to any other place or to any similar occupation.”

Historical accounts tell us much more about the dock worker. He may not have lived in London for long, if he was a cast-off of Britain’s declining agricultural economy. He may have been an Irish migrant or the son of an Irish migrant. Although some ordinary dockers were permanent employees, most were employed by a dock company or by a “ganger”. He was the nineteenth century zero-hours contract worker — hired for a day or just part of a day.

The amount of work fluctuated wildly from season to season. When sailing ships ruled the waves, changes of wind and weather added to the instability of employment. Indeed these conditions were used by bosses to justify casual employment. Being employed part-time, for short times and unpredictable times, the docker could never get enough wages. He and his family would always be close to entering the workhouse or even starvation.

By the late 1880s two long-term changes were happening in the port. The rise of the wharf business had resulted in huge competition within the port. There had also been a tailing off of the rate of overall increase of trade in the port. A squeeze on profits followed, and that led to squeeze on an already deeply impoverished and underemployed workforce.

The hourly rate of wages (usually 5d an hour) was supplemented by a piece-work system, an extra payment called “the plus”. This was calculated on a tonnage basis but the company never disclosed the scales on which the plus was based. In the late 1880s the scales were revised downwards.

At some docks the work was let out to small contractors (at the London Dock there were 250-odd contractors!) who of course would employ as few dockers as possible and worked them as hard as possible. By the late 80s the contractors were getting less money for the contract, and so they put the squeeze on the men.

These abuses came on top of daily humiliation at the Call On — the practice at some docks of choosing the casual workers. A contemporary report in the Times describes the proceedings.

“The news that ships are due in any particular dock soon spreads and the gates of that dock are besieged in the morning. The struggle varies in intensity according to the system pursued in engaging the men.

‘The first thing,’ says a witness just fresh from the struggle, ‘is this, that there is a chain put up right across the entrance to the docks, and the contractors are on one side the chain and the men the other. You can imagine for a moment from 1,500 to 2,000 men crowded together, the front men forced up against the chain: the back men are climbing over the heads of those in front, and the contractor behind the chain is picking out the men, generally his own favourites of somebody recommended by his own favourites.

I myself had had eight or ten men upon my shoulders and my head, and I have been hurt several times in a struggle for employment like that.”

Ben Tillet, the main dock union leader in 1889, described how the contractor delighted in the wretched condition of the dockers: “As a brute would throw scraps to hungry wolves to delight in the exhibition of the savage struggle for existence, with beasts tearing each other to pieces, so these creatures would delight in the spectacle, which, while it imbruted the victims of such a tragedy, impeached and cursed society.”

Although conditions of life would have made these men restless, pugnacious and properly disrespectful of the niceties of Victorian morality, that did not make them mere objects of pity, a “submerged class” as some middle class observers would have it, suitable only for herding into the soup kitchen and church. Dockers, just like anyone else tried to lead a normal life.

One room in an East London slum may have been the home; family life, for women and children too, may have been spent eking out an existence… it was, nonetheless home and family. When the match-makers struck and the gas workers organised, the dockers, who were their relatives, neighbours and friends, did not look on with indifference, but with hope and a definite perception that it was “our turn next”.

Strikes had sporadically broken out on London’s docks right back to the 18th century. In the early 1870s a nationwide unionising drive impacted on London’s docks. Socialists involved in the Land and Labour League built a dock workers’ union and led a strike in 1872. This was an important precursor, remembered by many dockers in 89, particularly on the south side of the Thames.

The 1870s union fell apart during a slump and in the face of the tremendous difficulties of organising among such a differentiated workforce. But the stevedores (the men who load and unload on board ships) managed to create permanent organisation — in two unions!

In 1887 Ben Tillet, then a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation (and life-long friend of Tom Mann) instigated a new port workers’ union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourer’s Union. Tillet described the difficulties in his memoirs: “It was almost impossible to obtain a hearing... Insult, physical violence, and filthy refuse, stones... were thrown at us. Contractors... hired their boozed bullies to break up our meetings.” In 1889 the union had just a few thousand members, next to no funds and had not yet recovered from a crippling defeat at the new docks in Tilbury, where Tillet himself worked. But the success of the gasworkers’ struggles, in which Tillet participated, encouraged him to begin again.

At the beginning of August there was a mood for action on the docks. Associates of Will Thorne organised meetings for dockers in Canning Town and at the South West India dock in order to set up another new union. This prompted Tillet (who had a competitive relationship with Thorne) to get behind the moves for strikes.

And so Tillet found himself at West India Docks on 13 August talking to the men who upset about the way their “plus” was being paid on their job on the ship Lady Armstrong. The men wanted to strike instantly.

Tillet persuaded them not to but instead to write a letter to the dock authorities about pay and conditions demanding an answer by the next day. But the next day the South East India dock was empty of men and the strike looked set to spread.

Tillet quickly contacted his socialist trade union friends, Tom Mann and John Burns, asking for help. Mann recalls “I was at the office of the Labour Elector… on 14 August…when about midday I received a wire from Ben Tillet asking me to make my way to the South West India dock. I went at once. There was no difficulty in finding the men, for Ben was with them and they were about to hold a meeting… Serious discussion must have taken place prior to the Lady Armstrong difficulty, because almost immediately it was proposed that now they were out, they should insist in the future on an established minimum of sixpence per hour for ordinary time and eight pence an hour for overtime.” (Memoirs).

When Mann arrived the men who would be the other stalwarts of the strike were already there — the Tea Operatives’ most important organiser, Harry Orbell, and stevedores leader Tom McCarthy. Other socialists joined in the organising work. Along with John Burns, there was SDFer Harry Quelch. Eleanor Marx, who was a great friend of Will Thorne and organiser of women workers in his union, also came to help, immersing herself in detailed administrative work.

Tom McCarthy, as Secretary of the Amalgamated Stevedores, had already brought out his members in solidarity. He did this precipitately, without the agreement of his own Executive! But he won them over and, after a fight, the other stevedore union too.

The stevedores were not natural allies of the dockers. They were socially isolated from the ordinary dockers. The impetus for their solidarity was the bosses’ employment of scabs in the docks. A well-established union culture and in-bred hostility to strike breaking brought the stevedores out. But their support was vital to the ultimate success of the dispute in three ways.

First, their action encouraged other port workers to join the strike: seamen, firemen, lightermen and watermen.

Second, their well-organised strike committee formed the basis for an expanded committee including Tillet’s dockers and other groups of workers as they came out.

Third, the stevedores were a powerful group of workers whose strike action could bring work at the docks to a halt.

After the first couple of days up to 20,000 men were on strike. By the 20 August the entire docks was out.

The strike committee was in almost permanent session. Its headquarters were the Wade’s Arms (with landlady Mrs Hickey keeping unruly customers in check).

From early on, marches along a particular route — West India Dock Road, Commercial Road, Fenchurch Street, Gracechurch Street, Leadenhall street and the dock directors’ headquarters — were organised. Crowds followed behind brass bands, colourful banners, effigies of the bosses on poles, and improvised floats displaying the different trades of the dockers. The favourite songs were the Marseillaise and Rule Britannia! It was a London Port Workers’ Spectacular which served to galvanise the strikers and take the cause out to the people of London.

The dockers relied heavily on the money made from collections on the marches. The southside dockers organised their own marches through New Cross, Bermondsey and Peckham. They had their own union and later on their own strike committee. Tom Mann was sent to liase with the south side dockers — a difficult task because they felt themselves to be and were isolated from the rest of the strike.

Funds were very short at the beginning and middle. They only eased up when big donations came through from Australia (where over £30,000 was raised). The lack of “strike pay” could have broken the strike quite early on had the strike committee not begun to issue shilling food tickets which were accepted by local shop keepers.

The situation — desperate men and women and few resources — got pretty hair-raising. Tom Mann’s special skills of persuasion were welcome here:

“On the last day at Wroot’s [up to end of August, the strike headquarters] Tom Mann took the relief work in hand… There was a crowd of nearly 4,000 men waiting outside. Mann pledged them his word that every man should get his ticket if he would take his turn and bide his time; then planting himself in the doorway, his back jammed against one side of the frame, his foot up against the other, he allowed the men to creep in, one at a time, under his leg.

“Hour after hour went by, while Tom Mann stripped to the waist, stuck to his post, forcing the men down as they came up, to him, chatting, persuading, remonstrating, whenever the swaying men of dockers got out of control, until at last the street was cleared.” Smith and Nash, The Story of the Dock Strike1889.

The women of the docks organised a rent strike:

“The weekly rents fall due today from the labourers, but it is expected there will be some difficulty in collecting them… A banner hangs at the top of Star Street, Commercial Road, inscribed as follows:

‘Our husbands are on strike; for the wives it is not honey,

And we all think it is right not to pay the landord’s money,

Everyone is on strike, so landlords do not be offended;

The rent that’s due we’ll pay you when the strike is ended.” (Evening News and Post, 26 August).

The strike committee organised mass meetings. The socialists, particularly John Burns, were always there and were very popular. They used the meetings to underline the case for striking and refute the arguments being used against the strikers. They preached class struggle rather than socialism. Did this represent a shift in orientation?.

For John Burns it may have been a shift towards respectability. Mann — who was once or twice accused of being immoderate in the dispute — was trying to build strong organisation. Then again, the idea of “socialism” was not necessarily popular with the dockers. An account from the Times of a meeting at Tower Hill is probably accurate enough: “During the speeches a Socialist flag was brought to the ground, whereupon the greater number of those present demanded that it be taken down, saying they did not want Socialism brought into the strike.”

There were many attempts by the bosses to divide the strikers and bring in scab labour. The dock companies got in touch with a “scab herder”, William Coulson, who described himself as the “Apostle of Free Labour”. Financially supported by Randolph Churchill and other Tories, Collison had built up an organisation of scabs, who were used prior to 1889 to break up strikes.

So pickets, sometimes mass pickets, were organised. In most, but not all of the docks, the pickets were successful. Harry Orbell ran an intelligence system from inside the docks at Tilbury. Men posing as blacklegs would spot ships coming in with (often unwitting) men from Liverpool or Newcastle.

The dock strike inspired a rash of other strikes in the general dock areas north and south of the Thames. (Indeed some say the strike is best seen as part of a strike wave in London). Strikers included: printers, export iron mongers, millers, Pickfords workers, jam factory workers, young women rope makers, iron workers, Bryant and May workers (again), coal depot workers, brewery workers, sea-going engineers (although other engineers at the port did not come out), carpenters, shipwrights, Peak Frean biscuits, Billingsgate, cutlery works, ordinary engineers, builders at Woolwich Arsenal, laundry workers. At the beginning of September Jewish tailors, cigar and cigarette makers and book finishers went out on strike. The all-important gas workers too were also at one point considering striking. It was not a general strike, but it was an extraordinarily broad class movement.

There was a potential for a breakdown in the old order, the smooth running of factories and sweatshops, the buzzing activity of trade; at least that is how it was perceived. “If it goes on a few days longer, all London will be on holiday. The great machine by which five millions of people are fed and clothed will come to a dead stop, and what is to be the end of it all? The proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelop the whole metropolis.” (The Times)

Because of the increased demand for relief funds, the strike committee felt obliged to put the brakes on the action, by refusing to pay out to “men engaged in any trade or occupation who come out on strike without our authority.”

At the end of August, in the face of continued intransigence by the dock companies, some strike leaders were thinking about how to “up the ante”. A plan was hatched to call out London’s workers on a general strike. Tom Mann was probably the main architect of the plan.

On 29 August a “No-Work” manifesto was drafted. Twenty-four hours later, doubts set in (even with Tom Mann) about the popularity of such a move and the manifesto was withdrawn, a counter manifesto issued.

In the meantime — and very fortunately for the dockers — news of significant funds from Australia arrived.

Perhaps if there were more, stronger “new unions” among London’s less skilled workers a general strike could have happened. If it had happened it would have taken the dockers into a bitter conflict with the leaders of London’s older, craft unions.

The strike came to an successful end when the ship owners put pressure on the dock companies and a section of the wharf owners moved the settle with the strikers. But not before the intervention of the Lord Mayor and the Catholic bishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning! Manning, a reactionary in theological matters, was very interested in civilising the “labouring classes”. According to one of his friends, he wanted to “retain civilised labour for the Church.” After the strike — in one of the strangest periods of Mann’s life — Manning almost persuaded Mann (a committed Christian) to become a clergyman!

Manning helped bring about negotiations which succeeded in securing for the dockers their 6d an hour and negotiations on an end to the “plus” and contract system of employment. A secondary dispute immediately broke out over when the wage increase would be granted. Eventually that was fixed for November 1889. It was a tremendous victory for the most downtrodden group of workers.

The great London docks strike was an enormously important turning point in the history of the British labour movement for many reasons.

Another new union had been born — the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Workers Union — which at the end of the strike had 18,000 members. It was a union of the unskilled and hitherto unorganised, but unlike Thorne’s gas workers union it was not to be a general union — a distinction that would re-emerge as a controversy in the early years of the twentieth century.

Mann and Tillet wrote a polemic defending the new unions. They saw them as centres for educating workers and creating a collective culture, representing a new, inclusive workers’ movement: “the basis of action now is altruistic, a willingness and a desire to be of use, striving to work for the general good, trying to avoid sectionalism and narrowness, and to work on lines that shall conduce to the general welfare…”

Mann carried through his perception of the new unions into his work as President of the new dockers’ union. He attempted to centralise the union, which was probably a mistake in the complex conditions on London’s docks. Sporadic strike action by small groups of workers was probably inevitable.

Mann tried to bring the strike action under the control of the union and though there is no evidence he wanted to quash it, there was a contradiction between his aims — disciplined, class organisation — and the “natural” shape of the dock workers class struggle.

Mann was right to favour solid organisation, because the new dockers’ union had to deal with an increasingly belligerent set of bosses. Shipowners were building up a scabbing operations. Dock employers were trying to undermine the unions’ attempts to set up a quasi-closed shop.

By April 1890 Mann felt under personal threat by the hired thugs of the bosses: “I am obliged to carry a revolver. They threaten all kinds of nice things, going to make a soup of me and so on but I reckon, I’ll come out all right.”

Mann was looking for ways in which dock workers could assume more control over the industry — for instance he devised a set of proposals, a Port of London for the People of London, an alternative plan for the organisation of the trade so that dockers could get regular employment. The union tried to organise agricultural workers, as their migration into London caused a glut of workers which the bosses used to undermine the regular employment of dockers.

Ideas about workers’ control, would become a theme of Mann’s later political development, when he became a advocate of syndicalism twenty five years later. But it would be a mistake to see a straight line from “new unionism” to “syndicalism” either in the British labour movement or Mann’s own political career.

Before Mann arrived at syndicalism he had to spend some time exploring and getting involved in the labour movement’s attempts to establish a “party of labour”. The experience of new unionism would also feed into those experiments.

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