[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

From a Spark to a Blaze

O ye rich men hear and tremble; for with words the sound is rife,
Once for you and death we laboured; changed henceforward is strife,
We are men and we shall battle for the world of men and life
And our host is marching on …

William Morris, The Song of the Workers

The decade of the 1880s proved to be a further watershed in the history of British trade unionism. As explained, the new situation in which the working class found itself arose from the changed international position of British capitalism. From having a monopoly on the world market, due to her early industrialisation and maritime supremacy, she now faced intense competition from Germany and the USA, which were now industrialising their economies at an unprecedented rate. Taking the example of steel production, a key index of industrial power, German steel output rose from about 300,000 tons a year in the early 1870s to over six million tons in 1900. On the other hand, Britain’s output of steel at the turn of the century was less than five million tons. With the close of the Victorian Age, the “British Century” of unbridled power was unceremoniously coming to an end.

Britain, nevertheless, still retained an important global position. It still possessed its Empire, which by 1900 consisted of some 370 million people, covering an area of over 13 million square miles. In Africa, one territory after another had been annexed or placed under British “protection”. The British colonialists described their mission patronisingly as, to use Kipling’s expression, “the white man’s burden”. Cynically, they marched into Africa with the Christian Bible under their arms, and marched away with the land and its resources. In 1875 less than one tenth of Africa had been turned into European colonies; by 1895, only one tenth remained unappropriated. In the decade between 1883 and 1893, Britain’s foreign and colonial investments increased at an annual rate of 74 per cent. By the turn of the century, British capitalists had around £1.7 billion invested overseas, which drew an annual tribute of at least £100 million, a colossal figure at the time. This world supremacy had granted the British capitalists tremendous advantages. It was able to soften social tensions at home by granting timely concessions where necessary and fostered an “aristocracy” of labour upon which to lean.

This was regarded as the British “genius for compromise”, on which the ruling class and right-wing trade union leaders prided themselves as an exclusive Anglo-Saxon invention. However, this situation was now becoming increasingly untenable. The periodic crises of capitalism, with its accompanying mass unemployment and wage cuts, plunged the majority of the working class into terrible insecurity and destitution.

“The crash of 1866 was, indeed, followed by a slight and short revival about 1873; but that did not last”, noted Engels in 1885. “We did not, indeed, pass through the full crisis at the time it was due, in 1877 or 1878; but we have had, ever since 1876, a chronic state of stagnation in all dominant branches of industry. Neither will the full crash come; nor will the period of longed-for prosperity to which we used to be entitled before and after it. A dull depression, a chronic glut of all markets for all trades, that is what we have been living in for nearly ten years.”

Although real wages grew throughout the century after 1815, according to some estimates, by 1880 real wages were only on a par with the fifteenth century![1] In the face of economic crisis and the prolonged stagnation of the “Great Depression”, the old amalgamated unions had become, in the words of the Webbs, “nothing more than a somewhat stagnant department of the Friendly Society movement.” Reason had become unreason. The old unions had become increasingly incompatible with the new situation. It was time for a fundamental change in the shape and form of trade unionism.

The dominant trade union leaders – the “Old Gang” as they came to be known – abdicated all the responsibilities of leadership they once had. Applegarth and Co. had been replaced by similar types of men, such as Henry Broadhurst (secretary of the TUC), John Burnett (Engineers), J.D. Prior (Carpenters), and George Shipton (London Trades Council). Their whole policy could be summed up as “contemptuous inactivity”, again to quote the Webbs.

However, the 1880s, which heralded an epoch of social upheaval, experienced a new revival of socialist ideas not seen in Britain since Chartist times. Although the franchise was partially extended under pressure in 1867, the smattering of “Labour” or working class candidates were always tied to the coat-tails of the Liberal Party. By 1886, following Gladstone’s Reform Acts, which ensured a majority of urban and rural workers the right to vote, there were ten trade unionists elected to the House of Commons, none of whom had the slightest idea of class politics. Far from it! Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC marched at their head. He was feted by Gladstone, made Under-Secretary of State, was invited by Royalty to stay at the Palace, and even boasted once that the Prince of Wales poked his bedroom fire! Broadhurst epitomised the political ambitions of the “Junta”, whose aspirations didn’t quite stretch to the emancipation of the working class as a whole – only themselves.

In June 1881, a new party was formed called the Democratic Federation led by a certain Henry M. Hyndman. Three years later it changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation, and proclaimed itself a Marxist party. Hyndman knew Marx personally, and based his party on the ideas of class struggle and scientific socialism. It was the first openly socialist political party to exist in Britain and was closely modelled on the German social democracy. In the same year, as a counter to Hyndman’s Marxism, the Fabian Society was set up by middle-class intellectuals to promote the ideas of gradual social reform and enlightenment. Ironically, they both had something in common: neither of them was interested in the trade unions. The SDF concentrated on abstract socialist propaganda and work amongst the unemployed, whilst the Fabians moved in rarefied petty bourgeois circles.

“The Fabians here in London are a band of careerists who have understanding enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution,” noted Engels, “but who could not possibly entrust this gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone and are therefore kind enough to settle themselves at the head. Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle. They are the ‘eddicated’ par excellence... Hence, their fanatical hatred of Marx and all of us – because of the class struggle. “[2]

Despite the sectarian and aloof stance of the SDF, it was from the ranks of the socialists, and primarily this organisation, that individuals emerged that sought to challenge the “Old Gang” and came out for a new form of militant trade unionism.

Even within the ranks of the SDF there was a marked difference of opinion and approach to the unions. Hyndman took a very sectarian and haughty approach to the unions (”... in fact, the trade unions... stand in the way of a genuine organisation of the proletariat”, he announced), which predictably antagonised and alienated ordinary trade unionists. This narrow barren sectarianism led Engels to break off political relations with Hyndman and the SDF. Lenin subsequently explained how a prevailing opportunism produces its polar opposite – sectarianism, dogmatism and adventurism. The movement often pays for the opportunism of its leaders by the emergence of ultra-left tendencies, which are head and tail of the same coin. In contrast, the SDF trade unionists took an entirely different approach, recognising the need to transform the unions and win the workers to their ideas. These were people like Tom Mann, John Burns and Will Thorne, who all subsequently left the SDF and launched into a campaign for “New Unionism”. As there was no question of setting up a rival trade union movement, the only practical alternative was to reform the old one. If the workers were expected to transform society, then surely they would be able to transform their existing organisations. It was simply common sense to fight from within.

“To Trade Unionists, I desire to make a special appeal”, wrote Tom Mann in a pamphlet called What a Compulsory Eight-Hour Working Day Means to the Workers (1886). “How long, how long will you be content with the present half-hearted policy of your unions? Readily grant that good work has been done in the past by the unions, but, in heaven’s name, what good purpose are they serving now?” This appeal found a ready audience in the rank and file.

The following year, the conflict between the militants and the “Old Guard” burst onto the floor of the TUC conference, when a young miners’ delegate from Ayrshire, Keir Hardie, launched an all-out attack on Broadhurst and the rest of the leadership. As expected, in response, he countenanced the full wrath of the trade union hierarchy. Broadhurst ripped into Hardie: “those who spread dissension in the unions and seek to destroy unionism by vehemently attacking its prominent representatives... Their emissaries enter our camp in the guise of friends; in order that they may the better sow the seeds of disruption. Let the workers beware of them!” and concluded with the comradely refrain, “hound these creatures from our midst.”

Engels from his days in the First International had kept in touch with a number of prominent trade union activists. His move from Manchester to London, to work alongside Marx, placed him far more in the centre of developments. He was now able to observe the leaders of the movement at close quarter and participate in events more fully. These valuable links gave Engels the opportunity and platform later to put forward his views when the London Trades Council launched a newspaper in early 1881, called the Labour Standard. Engels was asked to write a series of articles for the paper. These brilliant articles, which should be read by all activists today, represent a penetrating analysis of the economic situation of the time, the problems of trade unionism and the need for independent working class political organisation.

“The fact cannot be any longer shirked that England’s industrial monopoly is fast on the wane”, he wrote in June 1881, “... It will do one great thing; it will break the last link which binds the English working class to the English middle class… That monopoly once destroyed, the British working class will be compelled to take in hand its own interests, its own salvation, and to make an end of the wages system.”

And again another article published in the Labour Standard:

“More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the consciousness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wage system itself. This knowledge once generally spread amongst the working class, the position of trades unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organisations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole.

“Thus there are two points which the organised trade union would do well to consider, firstly, that the time is rapidly approaching when the working class of this country will claim, with a voice not to be mistaken, its full share of representation in Parliament. Secondly, that the time also is rapidly approaching when the working class will have understood that the struggle for high wages and short hours, and the whole action of trades unions as now carried on, is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means, but only one of several means towards a higher end: the abolition of the wages system altogether.”[3]

By the end of the decade, the working class had begun to break out if its “groove” and new militant young forces were stirring in the East End of London. In July 1888, after the exposure in the socialist press of the harsh conditions endured by women workers employed at the large Bryant & May match factory at Poplar, a strike broke out led by two socialists, Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows. After less than a fortnight, the girls won a number of concessions, including the abolition of fines and deductions from wages, a wage rise and a certain job security. The historic victory of these seven hundred women, who formed a union out of the strike, the Matchmakers’ Union, was a harbinger of what was to come. It was the largest union composed entirely of women and girls in England. It “turned a new leaf in trade union annals”, commented the Webbs.

From a Spark

The Bryant and May strike was described by Engels as the “light jostle needed for the entire avalanche to move”. The lessons of the strike were not lost on workers. It certainly provided the spark; the blaze was to follow in the magnificent struggle of the gasworkers and dockworkers, and was to culminate in the explosion of New Unionism.

In early 1889, the young SDF branch secretary and gasworker, Will Thorne, began to organise a union at the Beckton Gas Works near East Ham.

“The news of the meeting spread like wildfire,” Thorne wrote later, “in the public houses, factories and works in Canning Town, Barking, West Ham, everyone was talking about the union… Sunday after Sunday we would start off from 144 Barking Road, our headquarters, to encourage the men at other gasworks. As many as twenty brake loads of workers would go out on these Sunday morning crusades. The idea caught on; enthusiasm was at a high pitch, and within two weeks we had over 3,000 men in the union. Never before had men responded like they did. For months London was ablaze. The newspapers throughout the country were giving good reports of our activities. They were curious to know what we wanted and what we were going to do. I knew what we were going to do. I kept in mind all the time my pledge to the men at the first meeting. To work and fight for the Eight-Hour Day – that was my first objective, soon to be won.”[4]

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, her husband Edward Aveling, and other SDF members Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillett closely assisted Thorne. The union spread rapidly given the unrest amongst the workforce, and within four months 20,000 had joined up. Strike notices were handed in demanding an eight-hour shift, a twelve day fortnight, and pay of a shilling (five pence) an hour. The Company, fearing a strike, conceded all the demands, except that the wages were less than they demanded, two-and-a-half new pence an hour instead of five pence. This was the victory, stated Tom Mann, which “put older and larger trade unions to shame.”

Will Thorne, a committed Marxist who was personally acquainted with Engels, became the first general secretary of the 60,000 strong National Union of Gasworkers & General Workers (today’s GMB) and Eleanor Marx was unanimously elected to its executive committee, drew up its rules, and became secretary of the first women’s branch of the union.

“Eleanor Marx-Aveling took a leading part in the strike”, recalls Thorne. “An eloquent speaker, fluent in several languages she did good service both among the men and women, and formed a women’s branch of the union at Silvertown, of which she became the secretary. She sat as delegate from this branch at all our delegate meetings, and was elected to the committee of the union when the rules were altered to permit women to be seated on the committee.”[5]

In fact she also helped Thorne with his reading and writing, which he says “was very bad at the time.”

Under these stormy conditions, the first May Day in Britain in 1890, proved to be a massive affair, exceeding even the most ambitious expectations. There were nearly 200,000 people in London’s Hyde Park.

“At last the English proletariat seems to be coming into the movement in its masses”, wrote Engels proudly. “I consider this the grandest and most important part of the whole May Day Festival, that on 4 May 1890, the English proletariat, newly awakened from its forty years’ winter sleep, again entered the movement of its class... And that is an epoch-making fact… The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle.”[6]

The links between the gasworkers and dockers were always very strong. Within a short space of time, the dockers, overwhelmingly a pool of casual workers at the lower levels of the proletariat and ruthlessly exploited by the owners, were now also rising up off their knees. Crowds of men, desperate for work, would line up everyday in all weathers at the dock gates hoping to be hired for a day’s labour. Now, dockers demanding action against their inhuman conditions besieged the young Ben Tillett. He drew in Tom Man, John Burns, Tom McCartney of the Stevedores, and of course, Eleanor Marx (who became the secretary of the strike committee), to help organise the men. Dockers, when they managed to get work, were earning five and half old pennies an hour – the same wages as in 1802! Now, in 1889, they launched a massive union drive and a strike for a wage rise to sixpence an hour (the dockers’ tanner), with meetings and processions throughout east London. Faced with blackleg labour, on Mann’s initiative, they decided to call for a general strike of all London trades.

In a fine display of working class solidarity and internationalism, London dockers received massive assistance from dockers as far away as Australia. They collected and sent over aid amounting to a gigantic £30,000, which served to strengthen the strike and eventually helped to bring the employers to their knees. Once the workers’ main demands were conceded, the union was established on a permanent basis, with Ben Tillett as the secretary and Tom Mann as its president. By the end of November 1889 it claimed 30,000 members, and became the forerunner of today’s giant Transport and General Workers’ Union. It was during this strike that John Connell composed the working class anthem the Red Flag, with the stirring words “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here!”

A new militant spirit of trade unionism was abroad. The dockers’ success resulted in the biggest upsurge in trade union organisation since the pioneering days of Robert Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. The Dockers’ Union covering London spread to other provincial ports. The gasworkers union also organised general labourers throughout the provinces. New unions were then formed on the railways. The General Railway Workers’ Union (later the NUR, then the RMT), in a clear rejection of the “model” unions of the past, passed a resolution at its first conference, stating, “that the union shall remain a fighting one, and shall not be encumbered with any sick or accident fund”. The Miners’ Federation, formed in 1888 with 36,000 members, had mushroomed by 1893 to over 200,000. In the printing industry, the workers formed their own union that became NATSOPA (the forerunner of today’s GPMU). Given the eruption of trade union organisation, between 1889 and 1891 over 60 new Trades Councils were established throughout the country, drawing the various unions together on a town and city-wide basis.

Despite all claims to the contrary, this example clearly shows the important influence that Marxism played in the development of the modern Labour movement. Marxist activists were to make a vital and lasting contribution to the building of the British trade unions. This role grew out of the changed objective situation that had arisen from Britain’s decline as a world power. With little room for manoeuvre, the working class was forced to struggle in this new environment. At the time, the Marxists not only recognised the change, but strived to put themselves at its head, to organise and generalise the struggle. Mann, Burns, Tillett were the catalyst for the new movement, nothing more. But without such determined leaders, the movement could have been dissipated or at least remained still shackled to the old set-up. The experience showed once again the importance of the subjective factor, the importance of leadership, in the class struggle.

This movement, born out of the “stagnant pool” of London’s East End, was

“far more important... even than the actual progress socialism has made in England generally”, wrote Engels, for “the new unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were socialists, either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited respectable bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ‘old’ unionists. And thus we see now these unions taking the lead of the working class movement generally, and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud ‘old’ unions... And for all the faults committed in past, present and future, the revival of the East End of London remains one of the greatest and most fruitful facts of this fin de siécle [end of the century], and glad and proud I am to have lived to see it.”

New Unionism Under Attack

But the “Old Gang”, who correctly saw it as a threat to their authority, refused to give up without a fight. On every occasion they denounced New Unionism. George Shipton, secretary of the London Trades Council and member of the “Junta”, wrote extensively about this struggle in the June 1890 edition of Murray’s Magazine. In the most hysterical terms, Shipton attacked the attempts by the new unions to organise the closed shop, their refusal to work with non-unionists, their fomenting of strikes, their demands for increased pay for less hours, and lastly, the fact that they were being run by “outsiders”! Shipton displayed contempt for the docks’ strike, and in utter desperation denounced the new unions as “mushroom growths”, doomed to an early end! As for unskilled general workers, he considered them beyond the pale and incapable of unionisation. But, as events were to demonstrate, it was the “Junta” that was doomed.

In a bitter exchange, both Ben Tillett and Tom Mann struck out at Shipton’s petty-bourgeois life-style:

“East End labourers are not in George Shipton’s line. Picnics to the Channel Tunnel, Sandringham, and deputations in connection with various semi-politic and patriotic and demi-semi-trade unionist and pseudo-philanthropic movements... are much more agreeable.”

The 1890 TUC Congress became a battleground between the forces of the old and the new. Feeling cornered, the “Old Gang” attempted to defend themselves by shouting down opposition delegates. Yet the resolution from Burns and Mann for the eight-hour day was passed 193 votes to 155, which prompted Broadhurst’s resignation as TUC secretary. The old timers attempted to cling on, but their grip was eventually broken. The following two TUC Congresses confirmed once and for all the socialists’ victory and the defeat of the old regime.

As was to be expected, the employers were not simply going to sit back and accept this new militancy. The birth of New Unionism was soon tested by a series of counter blows. But it was in the militant coalfields that it was put to the greatest test as troops were sent against two big miners’ strikes in the Federated area and in South Wales. The 1893 miners’ lockout lasted five months but the 25 per cent wage-cut demanded by the owners was successfully resisted. It was regarded as one of the most bitter struggles in the history of the miners’ union. As a result, the miners’ victory was greeted with jubilation everywhere. In Lancashire, “men, women and children of the working classes in the districts affected”, wrote the secretary of the Lancashire Miners’ Federation, “joined the miners in their rejoicing, with singing, dancing, shouting, laughing and crying for joy, and in several districts the church bells were set ringing to celebrate the event.” The 1898 strike stirred up feelings of class solidarity across the coalfields and resulted in a historic break-through in the South Wales with the formation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.

The working class had awoken from its long “winter slumber” and once again flexed its muscles. Not only were new unions of the unskilled created, but also many of the craft unions became infected with the new mood. This served to break down the old prejudices and opened up their ranks, including those of the old ASE, to the mass of unorganised workers. In fact, not only was the ASE transformed out of all recognition, but it even went to the length of electing Tom Mann as its general secretary. This demonstrated once again that the traditional organisations of the class, even when they are firmly in the grip of the right wing, as events unfold, could be transformed and retransformed into organisations of struggle.

The end of the century had witnessed the triumph and the consolidation of New Unionism. Nevertheless, the process was not complete. New Unionism now opened up new possibilities on the political front. New defeats and new problems served to propel the trade union movement into a political direction. Great events, as always, arose to force the issue to the foreground. This was eventually to lay the basis for the next giant leap forward and the formation of the Labour Representation Committee at the turn of the century. The working class was coming of age.


[1] Glyn & Sutcliffe, British Capitalism and the Profits Squeeze, p.18, London 1972

[2] Marx & Engels, Correspondence, p.453-4, Progress Publishers 1965

[3] Marx & Engels, On Britain, p.516, Progress Publishers 1962

[4] Thorne, My Life’s Battles, p.70-71, London 1989

[5] Thorne, Ibid, p.96, London 1989

[6] Labour Standard, 4 May, 1890, Marx & Engels, On Britain, pp. 517 & 527, emphasis in original