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This Day in Labor History: August 14, 1889

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On August 14, 1889, workers on the London docks walked out on strike. Over 100,000 workers eventually struck and they won an incredible victory, one of the greatest achievements for organized labor anywhere in the world during these years.

Dock workers lived terrible lives, as did much of the British working class. The British poor was really tremendously impoverished. G.R. Birt, general manager of the Millwall Docks, testified before Parliament of these workers:

The poor fellows are miserably clad, scarcely with a boot on their foot, in a most miserable state … These are men who come to work in our docks who come on without having a bit of food in their stomachs, perhaps since the previous day; they have worked for an hour and have earned 5d.; their hunger will not allow them to continue: they take the 5d. in order that they may get food, perhaps the first food they have had for twenty-four hours.

To say the least, the dock employers weren’t going to pay them enough for this to really change. Making it worse was that work was entirely dependent on how many ships showed up on a given day. While one can naturally seen why this would be the case, it ensured that the workers doing this labor were the most desperate. It was sheer brute force labor as well, just picking things up and moving them around. Workers were not even guaranteed a full day of work. The employers wanted to have lots of people show up so they could pick just a few and then pay them almost nothing. Of course, the docks ensured they conducted this process with extra insults to workers’ dignity. Ben Tillett, one of the leaders of the emerging dock workers’ movement, described how the workers were chosen:

We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattlemarket, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work.

Moreover, the British union movement, not unlike that in the United States, was dominated by craft workers, leaving the masses of industrial and very poor workers without much organization. In 1887, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association formed when the East and West India Dock Company ordered a pay cut to the workers unloading tea at its warehouse on the docks. It grew pretty rapidly, spread to the other docks, and renamed itself the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union. It was hardly the only union forming at the time and had a pretty strong rival for the dockworkers’ loyalty.

At the heart of the 1889 dispute was the East and West India Dock Company again. In this case, it cut the so-called plus money, which was a bonus paid for rapid work. It did so to reduce the overall costs it charged the ships in order to attract them from its rival docks. In other words, like so much of capitalism, it saw the route to profit through squeezing ever more blood from the poorest people. The General Labourers Union, which is what it became known as, had done the work to organize many of the workers in the last two years and stepped up significantly here. It called for the closing of the London docks entirely in protest of this and the terrible conditions at so many other docks. It also began to attract the support of other unions, most importantly the Amalgamated Stevedores Union, which was more established and had financial resources to keep the strike going for awhile. Their demands included general wage increase, overtime pay, the elimination of the plus system, a minimum of four hours work when they could get it, and union recognition. They succeeded in closing the docks by August 20.

With up to 130,000 workers on strike by August 27 and the entire action moving closer to a general strike, the Dock union and the other involved unions had to control these workers and lead them in productive actions. They did so by holding enormous marches through the streets of London. Legendary British labor activists John Burns, Ben Tillett, and Tom Mann led this movement. They also built on actions that affected other parts of the workers’ lives. For instance, when landlords demanded rent from striking workers, they put up huge banners telling all landlords that they would not pay so don’t bother trying.

The union also built transnational connections. The strike fund, which was not large, was quickly overwhelmed. This is often a killer for a strike. But Australian unions rapidly raised 30,000 pounds and wired it to London, helping the strike survive. This was critical, as workers and their families were literally starving and the entire employer strategy was just waiting for them to get too hungry to remain out while giving them nothing on their demands.

With the financial state of the Dock union strengthened, the dock owners’ hope that the strike would be quickly crushed died. With the state not going to intervene as might have very well happened in the United States and with religious leaders seeking to mediate the strike, the employers began to cave. On September 5, they agreed to mediation, led by the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal H.E. Manning, who was pretty openly on the side of the strikers, many of whom were Catholic and of course Irish. The dock workers won most of their demands by September 10. On September 16, they went back to work, victorious. The GLU became established as an important union, with Tom Mann as its first president.

The importance of this strike cannot be overstated in British labor history. Unlike in the United States, where craft unionism would remain effectively in total control of the labor movement until the 1930s, the IWW’s somewhat chaotic efforts notwithstanding, and where it always represented the majority of unionists, in Britain, the success of the dockworkers led to mass-based organizing decades before the United States, which superseded the dominance of the craft unions and created a class-based labor politics in Britain that completely outclassed that of the USA. In 1888, there were 750,000 union members in Britain. By 1892, it was 1.5 million and over 2 million by 1899.

This is the 279th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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