By Edd Mustill
The summer of 1911 saw the high-point of Britain’s pre-war industrial unrest with a strike wave that engulfed the country’s ports and railways. On Merseyside, the situation developed into something approaching a regional general strike.
It began with seamen in Southampton. The immediate issues were medical examinations, which they regarded as humiliating, and the employers’ “ticket” that the men had to pay for in order to be taken on any job. But the deeper underlying issue, as it was for many disputes during the “great unrest”, was that of union recognition. The Shipping Federation refused even to communicate with union representatives, let alone recognise them.
Soon dockers, who had their own list of grievances, were joining in the action across the country. The docks of imperial Britain were sprawling industrial complexes which employed tens of thousands of people. For many, work was casual and irregular. Labourers’ pay had barely increased since the great London dock strike of 1889. Docks were also home to thousands of rail workers who fared little better; Liverpool’s railway porters earned 17 shillings per week and worked as much as 16 hours per day.
The complex system of employment on the docks meant that there had been many different unions representing sectional interests, along with the general unions which had appeared during the wave of New Unionism twenty years earlier.
Because of the nature of dock work, their membership was transitory. They would grow vastly during strikes and collapse again in periods of defeat. But they came together to form the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF), which held its first annual conference in Liverpool at the beginning of June 1911.
Ben Tillett, veteran union leader and sometime member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and Independent Labour Party (ILP) , was an important figure in the NTWF. Other activists included revolutionaries who believed that such industrial unions were the most effective way of fighting capitalism. They wanted the merger of smaller and craftist unions into larger, more powerful organisations that did not shut out unskilled workers.
Few embodied this spirit more than Tom Mann. He set up the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), dedicated to spreading militant syndicalist ideas, influenced by what he had seen in France and his own experiences organising in Australia. He saw unions as potentially revolutionary organisations and urged direct action. Mann described wage conciliation boards as “Capitalist agencies for tying workers down and keeping them down without a further thought.”
Mann arrived in Liverpool early in the summer and quickly became a force on the strike committee. He started a paper, the Transport Worker. It was like an extended workplace bulletin covering the whole transport industry, dedicated to strategic debates. Its contributors were trade unionists reporting on their own disputes from across the north west, in their own words.
When the strikes broke out in June, the NTWF was therefore well-placed to co-ordinate action across the transport industry. On the weekend on 25-26 June the seamen’s strike was generalised in Merseyside, and shore-based workers started to boycott work on ships belonging to offending companies. This kind of industrial solidarity was the most striking feature of the period.
Some of the bigger shipping firms very quickly conceded big wage increases, showing how easily they could afford them. But the principle of union recognition proved to be much more contentious.
The same was true on the railways and trams where Merseyside workers had been involved in a simmering dispute for a few months, which had included taking one-day wildcat strike actions. By the first week of August, they were joining the strike from the dock depots, and starting to picket out other locations. This, along with other unofficial action in the north of England by members of the Amalgamate Society of Railwa Servants (ASRS), precipitated a national railway strike.
It coincided with the hottest week of unrest in Liverpool. Police had been brought in from Birmingham, and soldiers were deployed to the city. At a mass outdoor meeting on “Red Sunday,” 13 August, the police attacked three youngsters and the situation soon escalated into brutal street fighting. “The fight between the workers and the police,” reported the SDF, “Was carried on from the roofs of the houses with slates, bricks, and bottles.”
At the meeting, Mann got approval for what he called a general strike of all transport workers in the city. In the event, cargo workers were locked out by the employers first, and the general strike began on Tuesday 15 August. The same day, the rail unions met in Liverpool and presented employers with a 24-hour ultimatum to come to the negotiating table before a national strike was called.
Home Secretary Winston Churchill had dispatched troops to over 25 railway towns. In the face of the overwhelming military presence Mann wrote “Let Churchill do his utmost... not all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to the sea.”
On the Tuesday, a crowd attacked a convoy of prison vans carrying protesters who had been arrested on Sunday. Soldiers, who were supposedly in the city to help forcibly move goods from the docks, killed two men. Four days after that, with the railway strike gathering steam, a similar incident would occur at a mass picket in Llanelli in Wales, resulting in the shooting dead of two more.
Prime Minister Asquith showed no remorse. When rail union representatives rejected the government’s offer of a Royal Commission to look at their grievances on the 17 August, in between the deaths at Liverpool and Llanelli, he reportedly replied: “Then your blood be upon your own head.”
This was the week when, famously, the government dispatched two warships to be stationed in the Mersey. Ben Tillett described it as “a week so pregnant with possibilities that some of us old campaigners had our nerves shaken.”
During this week it appears that even Tom Mann recommended that the dockers, threatened with a general lock-out, return to work. But the majority resolved to stay out to support the rail workers.
Strikes occurred in industries as diverse as tailoring, rubber manufacturing, and sugar refining. Some of these won quick, almost instant victories, again showing up the companies’ claims that they couldn’t afford to pay more. Many disputes included women workers who were building up union organisations from scratch, like Mary Macarthur’s NFWW. Transport Worker recorded action being taken by previously unorganised workers like taxi drivers and paper boys.
Although the Merseyside strike committee which had been formed included some representatives from these sectors, like the bakers, it remained overwhelmingly dominated by the NTWF. By mid-August, the strike committee was issuing permits for the transportation of essential food and supplies, which could only be undertaken by unionised workers. Because of this, many of the city’s hostile employers suddenly allowed their workers to join unions.
George Dangerfield remarked that “the unions had not gone forth to convert the disorganised and the underpaid, it was the disorganised and the underpaid who had converted them.” Were the older leaders getting soft? There was certainly the stomach for a fight, but also a sense of apprehension about what the consequences would be. No-one, socialist or syndicalist, seemed ready to acknowledge the huge political implications of the general strike.
The national rail strike was called off by union leaders after three days, with the question of recognition still not settled. By September, Liverpool had calmed down, and most sections of workers had settled their disputes favourably. The issue of reinstating sacked tram workers was still a live one and provoked solidarity demonstrations.
Britain’s small socialist movement was challenged by the unrest. The SDF had previously been ambivalent about or hostile to strikes, believing them to be a distraction from the fight for socialism. The ILP had a similar attitude.
But members of both these groups were active in unions and sat on strike committees during the unrest. They eventually forced their parties to reappraise their views on the value of industrial work.
Nevertheless, old habits died hard for the leadership. The internal struggle was reflected in the confused attitude of the SDF in August 1911: “We Social-Democrats stand by the workers in any conflict in which they may be engaged. We do not advocate strikes, although we support them; but we never cease to insist upon the truth that, whatever they may gain by a strike, the emancipation of the working class can never be achieved save by the conquest by that class of political power.”
It was probably this ambivalence that helped drive Mann out of the SDF and towards setting up a syndicalist organisation. While Tillett wrote that he was “proud to associate myself with my SDF comrades in this big fight,” the reality was that revolutionary industrial militants got little or no help from their party, and were more-or-less left to get on with it.
By the end of the summer’s strike wave, some on the SDF left were urging the party to send speakers to every union branch, and to actively recruit trade unionists. E.C. Fairchild began to write in favour of synthesising industrial and political struggles. But it would take more shop-floor experiences and an ousting of the old leadership during the war to make the party finally take industrial action seriously.
The rail workers retreat from action certainly represented a defeat nationally. Nevertheless, the Merseyside labour movement was seriously strengthened by the end of the summer.
The ship stewards more than doubled their membership, while the number of unionised dockers increased nearly fourfold. Big sections of the workforce had won significant pay rises and promises to recognise the union card. Even the railway bosses were forced to quietly recognise the unions in the following months.
The story of the unrest does not end in autumn 1911. Strikes would continue, with mixed success, until the outbreak of the First World War. Liverpool’s railway workers would be out again, boycotting scab goods during the Dublin lockout of 1913.
Many contemporaries, on the right and the left, saw the unrest as the beginnings of a revolution. Liverpool probably represents the furthest the working class went in these tumultuous years towards wielding actual power over a part of society, albeit only for a few weeks. The city saw a level of working-class self-organisation seldom reached in British history before or since. A repetition on a national scale would have seen the country on the verge of a revolutionary situation. Unfortunately, the labour movement was not quite strong enough, materially or ideologically, to achieve this.
ASRS: Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. One of the big rail unions that organised drivers and station workers, it merged with others to form the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913.
ILP: Independent Labour Party. The ILP rejected revolution but suffered internal tension between its moderate and radical wings.
ISEL: Industrial Syndicalist Education League. The propaganda group founded by Mann in 1910 to spread syndicalist ideas in Britain.
NFWW: National Federation of Women Workers. Some unionists encouraged women to join this rather than their own, male-dominated, unions.
NTWF: National Transport Workers’ Federation. Founded in 1910 as an alliance of unions, it was the main forerunner of the TGWU.
SDF/BSP: Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party. The SDF, Britain’s biggest Marxist group, was in 1911 beginning the process of merging with others to form the BSP.