The birth of the new unions

Submitted by cathy n on 13 August, 2007 - 2:54

Cathy Nugent continues a series on the life and times of Tom Mann

“During 1888, the years of propagandist effort on the part of the socialists, urging the people to bestir themselves and try to find a way out of the terrible poverty that existed were beginning to show results.“
Tom Mann, Memoirs

That was how, looking back with thirty years of hindsight, Tom Mann saw it. This was the beginning of the great upsurge of unskilled workers, how the most exploited workers formed unions to fight for better wages and conditions, the start of what became known as “New Unionism”. But did the socialists of that time, the middle class eccentrics and bookworms, the self-taught working-class militants — really have such an effect? These were the people who had often been laughed at as they stood proselytising for socialism on street corners.

The economic and social conditions must first be defined. 1887 saw the beginning of a 19th century trade boom. Often the workers would take advantage of these short lived booms to make a drive at unionising. This time when the drive to unionise started it was as part of a strike wave in London, centred around the East End and involving the people of the East End. But the strike wave, and the drive to unionise, was more extensive than ever before. The successful 1889 strike of the dockers for their “tanner”, their 6d a hour, had a deep impact on London society. Successful unionising in London, and the magnificent struggle of the dockers, inspired attempts to unionise outside of London.

But the new organisations were built with the memory of older, defunct organisations in mind, followed other struggles — against unemployment for instance.

Nonetheless it is true, in all of these events and through all of these time, the socialists, were there, either playing key organising roles, or simply trying to get things going.

It all began at a June 1888 Fabian society meeting about “the sweated trades” — then a popular choice of drawing room discussion for concerned middle class people. Tom Mann’s friend, Henry Champion, now expelled from the SDF, mentioned the appalling conditions at Bryant and May matchmakers. The firm had already been exposed in Champion’s new paper, the Labour Elector and described in Tom Mann’s 1886 pamphlet about the eight hour day.

The young women workers (some as young as 13) at the factory in Bow suffered very long hours — 13 and a half in summer. They were paid just four shillings an hour but subject to arbitrary fines for trivial misdemeanours. Because they ate at their benches they ingested white phosphorus, causing a disease of the jaw (“Phossy Jaw). Disfigurement, brain damage and ultimately, without removal of the jaw, death would follow. (Eating in areas contaminated with white phosphorus was not banned until 1908).

Fabian socialist Annie Besant — a real middle class eccentric for sure, former star of the Secular Society, who in a few years will have embraced Theosophy — decided to go down to the factory and talk to the women. She wrote up their experiences in a radical paper, The Link. Three women were sacked, accused by the boss of telling lies. The article and the sacking, brought home to the women, the injustice of their situation. They walked out.

Three weeks later, helped by Besant’s organising skills, but buoyed along by their own determination, the women won some concessions. Much more than this that had won the right to the union. Known forever rather diminutively as “The Match Girls”, they were the sisters, mothers, daughters and wives of other East End workers who would strike that year. This all could not have been more different to “old unionism”.

Who were the old unionists? Tom Mann knew them well. In many ways he looked the part of an old unionist, with his waxed moustache, watch fob and three piece suit. But perhaps he was always a little too sartorially elegant for his own old craft-based union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. He was certainly always too militant. He was probably railing against the leaders (and many of the rank and file) in What an Eight Hour Day Means to the Workers when he wrote:

“The average unionist of today is a man with a fossilized intellect, either hopelessly apathetic or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter.”

The leaders of Victorian craft based unions mostly tried to meet the expectations of Victorian employers, who in the last decades of the century had more or less accepted unions. The unions were seen to value skilled, responsible, steady workmen.

In contrast unskilled, itinerant and casual workers were hated and feared in more or less equal measure.

Some of the union leaders, the most ambitious of them, were integrated into political institutions. Alexander MacDonald and Thomas Burt of the Miners’ Union got themselves elected to Parliament in 1874.

But the performance of “Lib-Lab“ trade union MPs like Henry Broadhurst, the leader of the Stone Masons, helped turn trade unionists away from both the toadying policy of the old unions and reliance on the Liberal Party to deliver for the workers.Broadhurst ended up a Liberal minister in Gladstone’s post 1884 government, where he argued against the eight hour day. That stance eventually cost him his parliamentary seat.

Of course the “old unions” did win concessions for the workers. Equally there had been many attempts to organise unskilled workers. There had been attempts in the industries which became centres for the new unions — the gas industry and the docks. These were ultimately failures, but were important experiments in building up a culture of organising and militancy.

Tom Mann in fact assimilated some of the culture of the old unions — it’s steadiness and reliability; but he recast the values. He saw unions as organisations which could “lift up“ the worker. For Mann unions were centres for education. He carried that idea, as we shall see, into his work helping to organise the dock strike in 1889 and beyond.

And now to the setting for the “new unions” - the East End of London… The anarchist John Henry Mackay summed it up well in 1891:

“The East End of London is the hell of poverty. Like an enormous, black motionless, giant kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and wealth of the City and of the West End…”

The people of the East End, overwhelmingly poor — the best off workers on the docks and in its factories lived outside its broken down boroughs — were considered with fear and loathing by the ruling class in the 1880s. But some of the middle classes took pity. By this time there were hundreds of philanthropic enterprises in the area. Like today, however much charity was chucked at the area, the basic inequality stayed the same.

Charles Booth’s famous study of life and work in London, in which he set out to prove the socialists were over estimating poverty and ended up proving they were underestimating it, gives a cold, but arresting picture of what was like for the people of the East End. They lived in constant peril of sinking into an abyss.

“These people are, undoubtedly, ‘very poor’… protected from distress by charitable assistance. Imagine the man a drunkard, or the woman a slattern [sic], or take away the boy who earns half the income and put in his place a child of 10 or 12, who earns nothing and must be fed, and it is easy to realise the extremer form of want when distress is felt, or complete pauperism supervenes.”

But the poor of London, in East End and elsewhere were not just victims or objects of middle class pity. In the mid-1880s they had turned out in thousand for marches in London against unemployment. That experience fed into the “new union“ movement.

The unemployed marches started with protests organised by Tory protectionists; the socialists decided to organise separately. In a series of demonstrations, brutally attacked by the police, leading socialists came to prominence. John Burns became one of the best-known socialists of his time when he and others were arrested for sedition. He used his speech from the dock to indict the social system. The big London demonstrations were combined with local agitation by the socialists, deputations to local authorities, calls for higher relief, baths, washhouses, housing improvements and free school meals. The unemployed movement was, in part, the return of an older pre-Chartist tradition of agitation against the “poor law”. The demand for work, for a means of livelihood as a right, challenged the capitalist status quo.

Tom Mann was there too. In November 1886 he spoke at a march timed to coincide with that show of privilege and profit-making, the Lord Mayor’s Parade. He just managed to shout out Shelley’s “Men of England” before having to vacate the plinth of Nelson’s column to the Life Guards.

One last thing to know about the “new unionists“, who they were, where they lived and what they had experienced before 1887.

Many of them were Irish, more or less recent migrants to London’s East End. And the Irish question was big political news. Indeed on Easter Sunday 1887 150,000 Londoners gathered in Hyde Park to hear all kinds of speakers address the issue of civil rights for the Irish, then subject to coercive powers in Ireland. The socialists participated and formed contingents in the East End. They were attacked by police before they could get to Trafalgar Square. One man, Alfred Linnell, was killed. That day became known as “Bloody Sunday“.

“The interests of all workers are one, and a wrong done to any kind of Labour is a wrong done to the whole of the Working Class, and that victory or defeat of any portion of the Army of Labour is a gain or a loss to the whole of the Army of Labour, which by its organisation and union is marching steadily and irresistibly forward to its ultimate goal — the Emancipation of the Working Class…”

Preamble to the Rules of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers.
At the turn of 1889 Tom Mann was back in London after organising for the SDF in the north. But just about still a member of the party, but fed up with the back biting. He complained of being called a toady, an “old unionist”. He was now working as a voluntary inspector to enforce the 74 hour week for under 18s. Along with John Burns he had joined up with Henry Champion, writing for the Labour Elector (platform: for a Labour Party and the eight hour day). Then Mann and Burns got the call…

“I have a clear recollection of being with Mr John Burns one day when we met Mr Will Thorne, and other workmates of his, telling how they had been to to visit Mr Sydney Buxton, the then MP for Poplar, to ask if he could do anything to help them get an Act of Parliament to fix their hours of work at eight a day instead of twelve; and how they had met with but little encouragement… As a result of the conversation… the group of gasworkers saw the necessity of our contention that they must first organise industrially, and then put in the claim direct to the Gas Companies… John Burns and I promised to help all we could, if they would show they were in real earnest about it.”

It did not happen exactly like this. But Tom Mann and John Burns were as good as their word and they did help when it came to going out to the many gas works north and south of the river, to help recruit men to Will Thorne’s new gasworkers and general union. A little later Karl Marx’s daughter and socialist activist Eleanor was also there. She helped Will Thorne, who was an SDFer, learn to read and write and would organise a women’s branch of the new union.

By 1889 there were just two major gas companies in London. Gas was made in huge coke furnaces at giant works. The job of stoking the monster furnace was hellish and it actually required great skill. Men worked twelve hour shifts.

As a child Will Thorne worked at a brick works, then an ammunition works, in his native Birmingham. His first experience in a gas works was at Saltley. There the men worked a 24 hour shift in a change over shift, from Sunday morning to the following day. The work was relentless because fire in the machine must never go out. The machine consumed the workers’ lives. Quite literally, because the men would lose pounds in weight working in the 109˚F temperatures.

One day Thorne set off with some friends to walk the 120 miles to London. Eventually he settled there, finding work at Beckton. In 1884 Thorne tried and failed to form a union at Beckton. By1889 he was in a tiny union organised by fellow SDFer Ben Tillet, an attempt at organising the unskilled on the docks – The Tea Operatives and General Labour Association.

One of the impetuses behind Thorne’s new attempt in 1889 was the introduction of “The Iron Man” into Beckton. This machine speeded up the carbonising process but cut jobs and made life even more hellish for the workers. The machine was constantly breaking down and caused extra time to be worked making the repairs. Some men on the Sunday shift were being asked, with no notice, to work 18 hours. Thorne, talking many years later about that time, said “This was the psychological moment for forming the union.” Like the matchworkers, the gasworkers had simply had enough.

On 31 March Will Thorne called a meeting in Canning Town. His speech followed a noisy brass band. Will Thorne didn’t mince his words with workers whose past unwillingness to fight had probably driven him to distraction: “Stand together this time; forget the past efforts we have made to form you into a union… Some of you were afraid of your own shadow, but this morning I want you to swear and declare that you mean business and nothing will deter you from your aim.”

By mid April the union had 3,000 workers.

Thorne wanted the union to be a general union for unskilled workers. The slogan was “one man, one ticket, and every man with a ticket”. That strategy would cause conflict with dockers leaders later in the year, who wanted an industrial union, organising all the grades and types of workers on the docks.

As an SDFer Thorne would have read Tom Mann’s appeal for an eight hour day and that became the rallying cry of the new gasworkers union built throughout the spring of 1889, though Sunday meetings outside the premises of all the London gas works.

The claim was put into the employers. By the middle of July 1889 both gas companies had acceded to the new union’s demand. By the end of July the union had 60 branches, 44 of them in London. The union would have some trouble with the employers by the end of the year but for now, with only the threat of strike action, and by sticking to their cause, they were victorious.

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