When trade unionism changed: 1888-1891


The total number of trade union members in Britain has fallen by very roughly half in 30 years, from around 13 million in 1979 to just over 7 million people today. Superficially, if we see trade unions primarily as large structures, with buildings, employees, funds, etc, this decline has had surprisingly little effect. Some unions have shrunk from significant bastions to mere shells (notably the miners’ union NUM, and Community, which was previously the steel workers’ ISTC and the textile union KFAT). But these are very much the exceptions. If we look beyond then, what is really striking is the mixture of continuity (at least in terms of membership base), and merger (i.e. unions have fused their structures to manage their decline).

Forty years ago, like today, there were private sector unions with a base in manufacturing (AEEU, MSF, EEPTU, now merged to form UNITE), transport (TGWU, now part of UNITE, and RMT) and sales (USDAW), and public sector unions with a base in the civil service (CPSA, now PCS), teaching (NUT, NASUWT, and the NATFHE and AUT further and higher education unions now merged as UCU), the utilities (FBU, and UCW now CWU), and local government and health (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE, now UNISON), as well as some “general” unions which straddled the public-private divide (notably GMB).

Overall trade union membership has fallen, and what unions do has subtly altered, but at the level of organisation this broad pattern has not significantly changed. Were the trade unions to grow rapidly, of course, we should expect these structures to change very quickly; as has always been the case during past strike waves.

Two weeks ago, I posted an article discussing the weaknesses of trade unions in Britain, their poor implantation in the private sector especially, and the problems of the ageing and isolation of trade union reps. In the same article, I also tried to sketch out what a renewal of trade unionism might look like. “The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.” (https://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/back-to-class/)

The purpose of this piece is to fill in a little of the historical detail, to show what the upturn of 1888-1891 meant, and in particular how socialists were involved in it.

Britain’s first recognisably socialist party, the Democratic Federation was founded in 1883, taking the full name Social Democratic Federation (or SDF) a year later. When asked what their party was about SDF members would come up with various familiar answers, the collective ownership of the means of production, internationalism, and above all the idea that the working class could change society through class struggle. Belfort Bax put the idea like this: “The doctrine of the class war as the general historical method of realising the new form of society” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/bax/1900/01/toleration.htm). Class struggle was a recurring theme of socialist propaganda; and can be found routinely in the writings of such SDF “celebrities” as H. M. Hyndman, Harry Quelch and others. But what qualified as “class struggle” for the SDF was mysterious.

To properly grasp the Federation’s history, you have to bear in mind two things. First, the SDF was the pioneer. If it had a model it was the Chartist campaign of the 1840s. Former Chartists were a definite presence within the SDF; they attended its meetings, and argued in support of different factional positions taken before by long-dead Chartist leaders. But Chartism was a campaign rather than a party. It, unlike the SDF, was neither socialist nor Marxist. It left very few practical lessons as to how to organise. And there had been no parties in the intervening years which offered any other sort of model either. Second, the SDF long preceded the “Leninist turn” which all the Communist Parties, starting with the Russian one, were expected to implement after Lenin’s death. It was expressly a multi-tendency party, soon working in collaboration with other forces on the left, several of which (trade unions, secular societies, the Fabians) shared an overlapping membership with it. Inevitably, the Federation’s politics were chaotic; one week’s campaign might contradict that week’s headline in Justice. In an earlier period, historians tended to see the organisation as sharing all the foibles of its dominant personality, the former Tory stockbroker H. M. Hyndman. The more we know about the SDF the less true that seems.

The first campaign in which the SDF took part to give the idea of “class struggle” any specific meaning concerned the rights of unemployed workers. This began with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in February 1886 over the right to work which ended with windows smashed and Mayfair shops looted. The campaign then revived in November 1887 with further marches which were attacked by the police, and at which hundreds of people injured, and one demonstrator Alfred Linnell killed. Some 120,000 people are said to have attended his funeral on 27 November 1887. The campaign, despite its flaws, brought the SDF’s name into the public domain, and earning it a respect (and notoriety) out of all proportions to its numbers.

In 1884, the SDF split over the autocratic internal habits of its leader H. M. Hyndman, and various rebels including William Morris and Marx’s daughter Eleanor, founded a new organisation the Socialist League. Understandably, given his immense stature within the international workers’ movement, historians have tended to followed Frederick Engels’ verdict on the 1886 riots and on the SDF without always acknowledging the extent to which Engels was both correct and factionally-minded in his criticisms. This is how he described the riots to Laura Lafargue:

“Of course you know what a meeting at 3pm in Trafalgar Square consists of: masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat, and a sufficient admixture of roughs and ‘Arrys to leaven the whole into a mass ready for any “lark” up to a wild riot [about nothing]…”

“To make a revolution – and that [about nothing] when and where [Hyndman and Co] liked – they thought nothing else was required but the paltry tricks sufficient to ‘boss’ an agitation for any vile fad, packed meetings, lying in the press, and then, with five and twenty men secured to back them up, appealing to the masses to ‘rise’ somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general, and trust to luck for the result” (http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/back/wnext19/Engels.html).

Subtly, the focus of socialist agitation was to change over the next three years from the East End unemployed to groups of workers in the same districts who were at the border of secure and insecure employment. The three best known incidents which illustrate the change were the Match Girls strike of summer 1888, the recruitment of 3,000 workers at Beckton Gas Works to a new general union in spring 1889, and the London dock strike of summer 1889. The latter especially involved tens of thousands of workers, and brought, as the historian John Charlton has shown, around 50 other workplaces out in a movement which came close to becoming a London-wide general strike (J. Charlton, It just went like Tinder (London: Redwords, 1999), pp. 98-9). Engels’ enthusiastic account of the dock strike shows how much had changed:

“Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty. Lack of resistance on the part of those broken by starvation, of those who had given up all hope was its salient feature. Anyone who got into it was physically and morally lost. Then last year came the successful strike of the match girls. And now this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers … This host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get the closest to the fellow who does the hiring, literally a battle waged in the competitive struggle among the much too numerous workers — this motley crowd thrown together by chance and changing daily in composition has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day!” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1889/letters/89_08_22.htm)

Prior to 1889, there were already unions. The most important was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (the distant ancestor to today’s UNITE), while others included the Operative Bricklayers’ Society, the Amalgamated Society of Iron Founders, and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The “Old Unionism” had given birth to the TUC in 1868; its typical forms were unions which sought to represent a single profession, generally skilled workers. The various Amalgamated Societies offered a multiplicity of workplace benefits (insurance against death, sickness, or unemployment); their strike funds however were deliberately modest. In The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897), Beatrice and Sidney Webb praised their leaders as a “class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity”. Yet the workers who signed up to the “New Unionism” of 1888-1891 were not working in the industries which had previously been organised.

New Unionism broke from Old Unionism in many important respects. It was a movement of the unskilled, rather than skilled workers. They were “general unions”, their intention was to recruit all the workers in a particular workplace or industry. Socialists played a prominent part in the leadership of the strikes and of the new unions. The New Unions, at least initially, prioritised strike pay over other benefits. In consequence, they tended to be dismissive of both the politics and even the social base of the Old Unionism. At the TUC, according to John Burns, “the ‘old’ unionists looked like respectable city gentlemen; wore very good coats, large watch chains, and high hats… Among the new delegates not a single one wore a tall hat. They looked workmen; they were workmen. They were not such sticklers for formality or court procedure, but were guided more by common sense.”

Eleanor Marx, who was delegated by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers [NUGW] to attend the International Socialist Workers’ Congress of 1891, explained the differences between the Old and New Unions as follows:

“It is an indisputable fact that for many years the old Unions have ceased to be an active and militant body, and that the vast mass of the army of labour has been left absolutely outside all organisation by them. Nay, it was to a large extent the aim and object of these old Unions to limit the number of their members and it is only recently that they have begun to recognise the suicidal character of such a policy…”

“The first successful attempt of the so-called “unskilled” workers to do for themselves that which — to their own greatest harm — the “skilled” Unions had never seriously tried to do for them, was in the March of 1889 when the Gas Workers of London determined to organise and to demand what no other body of men had yet, as a body, demanded — an eight hours working day…”

“In spite of many a bitter struggle; in spite of some defeats, [the NUGW] is today the best organised Union of unskilled workers: it counts within its ranks men and women belonging to over seventy different kinds of labour: it has obtained for thousands of men an eight hours day; for thousands upon thousands of others an increase of wages, ranging from five to as much as 50 per cent per week…” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1891/brussels-report.htm)

The transformation from “Old” to “New Unionism” was significantly assisted by the changing industrial perspectives of a generation of young socialist activists, who either were or had been members of the Social Democratic Federation. Most however were in the process of breaking with Hyndman’s leadership. A few biographies give a sense of how important the SDF was to New Unionism:

Annie Besant, the socialist journalist who publicised the struggles of the Bryant and May match-girls, was a member of the SDF having been converted to socialism in late 1885 and had acted as a pall-bearer at Linnell’s funeral in 1887. Following the split between the SDF and the Socialist League she had been suggested as a compromise figure who might edit a joint paper of both the factions (E. P. Thompson, William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), pp. 395, 524, 761). In 1888, her interest in the Bryant and May factory was sparked by another SDFer, henry Hyde Champion, who had spotted the company’s huge profits. Besant had recently founded a campaigning newspaper, The Link, publishing her account of their working conditions under the headline “White slavery in London”. Encouraged by Beasant the women workers went on strike for 3 weeks. Bryant conceded union recognition. Besant broke with the SDF in 1889, ultimately becoming a Theosophist.

John Burns began speaking on SDF platforms in 1884. In 1886 and 1887 he, even more than Hyndman, was the public face of the party. Jailed for his part in the 1887 riots, Burns’ speech in his defence was published as a pamphlet, “Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangements of the social relationd of mankind than that which prevails now…” Burns became dissatisfied with the leadership of the SDF in 1888-9, writing in his diary that he had dedicated his life to the wrong man [i.e. Hyndman]. An engineer, he was invited into the organising group of the 1889 dock strike, raising money for the strikes, and arguing for action by other groups of workers. He, along with Tom Mann, was used by the strike leader Ben Tillett as a sort of mobile strike news, and picketing service. Burns was needed to call out dockers, and in particular to break up the employer’s attempts to bring in strike-breakers, some from as far away as Belgium. Burns became a left-wing councillor on the LCC (the fore-runner to the GLC) and was elected to Parliament in 1892, becoming in effect a left-wing Liberal.

Will Thorne had joined the SDF in 1884. He did not play a prominent part in the unemployed agitation, but when challenged about it in the Beckton gas works, quoted back at his critics John Burns’ trial speech. At Beckton, the principal issue was the introduction of the “iron man”, a technology for drawing off the coke and increasing the intensity of labour. Thorne began to campaign for an eight hour day (a longstanding piece of Socialist propaganda). He launched the NUGW at a huge meeting in Canning Town Hall, speaking alongside Ben Tillett of the dockers union and Harry Hobart, also of the SDF. Thorne later described New Unionism as “the culmination of long years of Socialist propaganda” (D. Torr, Tom Mann and His Times (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957), pp. 163-4, 279). Unusually, he remained loyal to Hyndman’s leadership for many years to come. He became an SDF MP and was, like Hyndman, a jingo in 1914-1918.

Eleanor Marx had been a member of the SDF before departing at the time of the Socialist League split. In 1889, she dedicated her spare time to supporting Will Thorne’s activism, including teaching him to read and write. She spoke at the founding meeting of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers and helped to draw up the union’s provisional constitution and served on its executive, including for a time as its President. Under her influence, the union adopted a policy of equal pay for men’s and women’s work as early as 1890.

Another SDF member Ben Tillett had first founded a dock union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, at Tilbury in 1887. The 1889 strike began when dockers unloading a ship called The Lady Armstrong became dissatisfied with their pay and the deductions operated by sub-contractors. They turned to Tillett for help, and by turning to other dockers for support, he was able to turn a union of a few hundred members into one tens of thousands strong. Tillett was later a socialist on the LCC from 1892 and an candidate for the Independent Labour Party (the fore-runner of today’s Labour Party) at several general elections.

Tom Mann, another leader of the dock strike, had been sent by the SDF in 1888 to recruit miners in the Northumberland coal field. He founded 18 such branches, including one at Ashington with 100 members out of the SDF’s total national membership of just 783 (Charlton, p. 74). During 1889, he served with Burns as a public speaker for the dockers. Mann remained an activist for the longest of his generation. He was in the 1890s the Secretary of the ILP, in 1910-1914, a proponent of revolutionary trade unionism, in 1920, a founder of the Communist Party, and in the 1930s again a supporter of the campaigns of the unemployed.

This generation of SDF or ex-SDF activists was at odds with the dominant policy of their party, which even at the height of the dock strike tended to see the unemployed agitation, rather than the strike, as the appropriate form of socialist propaganda among the poor. The SDF newspaper Justice for example, responded scornfully to the dockers’ victory, with an article in September 1889 “congratulat[ing] on the v ery little modicum of success that has been achieved at so great a cost.” Another article in 1890 looked back on the dock strike as “a lowering of the flag, a departure from active propaganda, and a waste of energy”. And similar language could be found even in William Morris’ Socialist League. But the paradox remains that had it not been for the SDF the activists would not have met, would not have worked together, and would not have been in the position they were to lead the strikes.

This is perhaps not the only occasion in the history of the left where people’s sympathies have seen them right, despite their parties’ formal politics.

The break with Old Unionism meanwhile was not a complete break. The New Unions affiliated to the TUC, and grew in the upturn of 1889-1891 before declining as the number of strikes fell especially after 1893. In the fullness of time, the dockers’ and gas workers’ union would become the TGWU and GMB; no longer revolutionary exponents of mass strikes, but significant players within the union movement.

The activists of the 1880s would not have used such terms as “the privilege of backwardness” (i.e. to refer to the way in which newly organised industries are often the most strike-prone). But what they did understand was that trade unionism was a minority working-class experience. In 1892 (i.e. even after the breakthrough of New Unionism), there were just 1.6 million trade union members in Britain, representing about 10% all workers, compared to today when the 7.2 million people in unions include just 16% of all private sector workers (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/204169/bis-13-p77-trade-union-membership-2012.pdf). Then, like today, most workers were outside the unions. From this reality, previous generations of activists drew the conclusion that if their priority was the interests of the whole working class, then they needed to look beyond the ranks of the already organised. Had they not had the courage to do so, today’s trade unions would be a much depleted force.

If there is, in conclusion, a coherent theme to this history is it simply this. No previous generation of revolutionaries, worthy of the name, has ever contented itself with simply seeking to implant itself in the “bastions” of trade union strength, whatever those bastions were at any time. The people whose names are recorded as pioneers in socialist and labour histories had in mind a quite different vision, of organising the workers who were likely to be most combative in future, and therefore best placed to pass on an experience of struggle to others. Their socialism and their trade unionism was never based merely on what already existed but on what could be.


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