Tom Mann

The Development of the Labour Movement

Source: Nineteenth Century, March 1890, p. 709-720. (5,267 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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In every country in Europe there is now either war or the rumours of war between employers and workmen. Not a week, scarcely a day, passes but we witness determined struggles between these opposing bodies, the workers demanding better conditions and the employers resisting those demands. Strikes and lockouts are so common that it would be difficult to find a manufacturing town in Great Britain of any importance where one or more struggles are now not being waged. The cry may be raised about driving trade away from the district or country, but that cry is powerless to stop the forces at work. The struggles are entered upon all the same, although those who do so often see how great the probability is of themselves and their families being brought to starvation before the fight is over. The public press may praise or denounce; the chairmen of limited liability companies may condemn or approve; politicians or philanthropists may urge moderation and quietude, but all their united efforts cannot do more than temporarily slow down the ardour that impels the workers onward.

These workers themselves much prefer peace to warfare, but not peace at any price; and when they find that the only basis upon which they can have peace is by calmly submitting to conditions that outrage their manhood, as men they declare war, even though war might mean annihilation. That submission may mean much the same thing witness the case of the chain-makers of Cradley Heath, where men work bard a whole week through for 10s. or 12s. The gun-lock filers of Staffordshire get less still; thousands of labourers in Lancashire, in towns like Bolton, get no more than 15s. a week; and in towns like Ipswich in the eastern counties many are working for 11s. and 12s. a week, out of which they have to pay 3s.6d. or 4s. rent and 1s.4d. a cwt. for coals; whilst before the great strike in London thousands of dock labourers considered themselves fortunate if they averaged 8s. a week.

Of the existence of such a spirit in the United Kingdom no one will require proof who has witnessed what has happened during the past twelve months.1 The Blue Book on strikes and lockouts, issued by Mr. John Burnett, sets forth, in as complete a manner as the staff and information at his disposal will allow, what has happened during 1888. That a similar spirit actuates the workers of America may be gathered from the official statement here given, taken from the Report of the Commissioner of Labour2 (1887), showing the number of strikes in the United States by years from 1881 to 1889:—

Years Strikes Establishments Average establishment’s to a strike Employees striking and involved
1881 471 2,928 6.2 120,521
1882 454 2,105 4.6 154,671
1883 478 2,759 5.8 149,763
1884 443 2,367 5.3 147,054
1885 645 2,284 3.5 241,705
1885 645 2,284 3.5 241,705
1886 1411 9,861 7.0 499,489
3,902 22,304 5.7 1,323,203

The number of employés originating the strikes was 1,020,156.

The number of employés in all establishments before the strikes occurred was 1,660,835, while the number employed in the establishments involved after the strikes occurred was 1,635,047, a loss of 25,788. There were 103,038 new employés engaged after the strikes, and 37,483 were brought; from other places than those in which the strikes occurred, showing the percentage of new employés after the strike of the total number of employés before strike to be 6.20 and of employés brought from other places of the number of new employés after strike to be 36.38.

During the same period lockouts were ordered in 2,214 establishments, affecting 175,270 employés. It will be seen from this that England does not stand alone in its many labour disputes.

A very important consideration is, In how many cases of the previously mentioned disputes did the men come off victorious? The excellent report gives all details, and the summaries show that for the strikes, out of the whole number of establishments affected, viz; 22,304, success followed in 10,375 cases, or 46-52 per cent. of the whole, partial success was gained in 3,004, or 13.47 per cent. of the whole, and failure followed in 8,910 establishments, or 39.95 per cent. of the whole number; for 15 establishments, or 0.06 per cent., the strikes were still pending on the 31st of December, 1886.

For lockouts, 564 establishments, or 25.47 per cent. of the whole, succeeded in gaining their point; 190, or 8.58 per cent., partially succeeded, and 1,339, or 60.48 per cent. of the whole, failed. The remainder were pending on the 31st of December, 1886.

It will be interesting to note the principal causes of such a vast number of struggles as this array of figures indicates. Of the total number of strikes alluded to no less than 9,439 were for increase of wages, 6,229 of which were successful, 796 partially so, and 2,414 failed; 4,344 were for reduction of hours, only 1,055 being successful, 966 partially so, and 2,323 failed. 1,734 were against reduction of wages, 1,692 for increase of wages and reduction of hours; 800 were for reduction of hours and against being compelled to board with employer; 360 were for change of the hour for beginning work, 238 for increase of wages and against contract system, 215 for increase of wages and against employment of non-union men.

The causes of the lockouts instituted by the employers were as follows: 382 were to enforce the task system; 314 against demand for increase of wages; 229 to enforce reduction of wages; 218 to force button-hole makers to join the boss tailors’ union; 173 against employés leaving work before the close of working hours on pay day; 167 against demand for union apprentice rules. Of the 314 against increased wages only 73 succeeded; of the 382 to enforce the task system (a kind of piece work) everyone failed.

This indicates a terrible amount of discontent, and that similar discontent exists at home everyone knows. From what does it arise? Some employers and not a few of the leader writers in the press pretend to believe that it is all due to a few agitators who refuse to let well alone; others admit that the conditions under which the workers toil and live may not be all they ought to be, but fancy that at the bottom of the whole business it is so much ‘pure cussedness’ in the workman’s nature that makes him prefer to be at loggerheads with his employers rather than go along quietly like a peaceable and God-fearing machine-minder ought to. There are, however, others who know that this constant rebellion on the part of the workers is due to the fact that their demand for the necessaries of a human existence is denied them whilst their power to produce these necessaries is abundant. In proportion as they are men and women with aspirations worthy of humanity they are struggling to get those aspirations satisfied, and they know first of all that it is not God, not nature, that stands between them and all necessary employment for the production of commodities. Men and women starve for want of work, while their fellows work fourteen hours a day for a wage that barely supplies them with the commonest of food; they huddle together with less than half the house accommodation requisite for healthful conditions, and the furniture in tens of thousands of workmen’s is such that would disgrace any decent set of savages, but, in country with a history of a thousand years, with machinery that enables us to make ten suites of furniture where our fathers made one, can weave a thousand yards of carpet where our fathers turned out ten, can turn out clothing and boots and shoes as if by magic, we, the workers of Great and glorious Britain, are deprived of these things, and must take sticks for furniture and crumbs for bread. The people that dare not revolt under such conditions have a very short future before them. It is revolt or live and be content and die, and a people who can read and reflect upon the daring deeds of our ancestors in throwing off the yoke of the tyrants are not the people to quietly submit to the degrading conditions that obtain in the present year of grace in this or any similar country.

What, then, is the method by which the workers of are likely to work out their social salvation? In the combinations of workmen and workwomen formed for the express purpose of taking defensive and aggressive action are absolutely requisite and have been seen to be requisite for a long time by many of the skilled workers of this country. But the great mass of workers have failed to make use of this their only powerful weapon, and the skilled men who in years gone by combined amongst themselves have failed to reap a tithe of the advantages that might owing to the mass of unskilled and handy3 men who stood outside the pale of their organisation. Neither did these skilled men take steps, as they should have done, to lift up the large body of workers who were much worse off than themselves, Now, however a different spirit pervades them, and skilled and unskilled are working harmoniously together for the rapid extension of labour organisations. Even yet the work is not much more than well begun, but he that runs may read the signs of the times, which signs are that the working masses will no longer tamely submit to their lot, but, are even now taking the most practical of all steps to bring about very great changes.

Will the combinations of the workers be met by corresponding combinations on the part of employers? I think so. In any case it is very desirable that they should; the serious changes that must take place will very materially affect the employers, and in their own interests they must combine, for it is certain that those in a comparatively small way of business will be driven out of the field by their competitors who produce or distribute on a more extensive scale, and who will be able to yield to the workmen’s future demands better than the employer in a smaller business. Of course this will happen in any case, but fresh demands from the workers will materially hasten it. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary for employers in their own interest to combine. Their weakness, however, will lie in the fact that those with the most extensive concerns will fight shy of a combination with small competitors when they see clearly the advantages of subdivision of labour and most elaborate machinery which only the largest and wealthiest establishments can provide, and when they know that the increasing demands of the workers will make it impossible for the smaller competitive establishments to compete with them successfully, so that the big fish will certainly swallow up the smaller ones.

The public, it is said, are getting tired of labour struggles. That’s a pity, perhaps; but still we need not fear much on that score, as the discontent covers practically the whole of the workers, and when employers and employed are eliminated that section of the public that remains can only be of minor importance in difficulties of this nature. But whatever the bystanding public thinks about trade union activity the formation of trade unions among employers goes on apace.

Quite recently the employers in connection with the shipbuilding and engineering trades of the United Kingdom took steps to form themselves into a national federation, whose objects are as follows:

(1) To watch over all Bills brought into Parliament affecting the general interests of shipbuilders and engineers.

(2) Generally to protect such interests.

(3) Mutual support in resisting interference by workmen’s associations with free contract work, number of apprentices engaged, &c.

(4) To support any association or combination of firms, in a district or single firm, in bringing any unreasonable strike to end by not employing, or by the adoption of any other means decided on.

(5) To arrange for alterations of rates of wages in all districts taking place for stated periods and at fixed dates.

(6) To prevent men (by the systematic use of enquiry forms) from deserting their work and obtaining employment under assumed names.

Such an organisation of capitalists cannot long pursue these ‘objects’ without coming into collision with the organisations of the workmen; it therefore necessitates more perfect combination on the part of the men. That the various workmen’s organisations promptly recognised this, and were equal to the occasion is shown by the fact that on the 13th of February last a conference of workmen connected with the most important organisations of those engaged in shipbuilding and engineering met at Manchester for the purpose of forming a federation of all those engaged in the trades mentioned, that they might be able to cope with the federation of employers. The societies represented at this conference were the Amalgamated Engineers, Boiler-makers, Amalgamated Carpenters, General Union of Joiners, Steam-engine Makers, Shipwrights, Associated Blacksmiths, Co-operative Smiths, and the Ironfounders.

Among the decisions unanimously arrived at by the delegates was the following:—

Whenever any dispute, exists between an employer or employers and any society belonging to this Federation, no member or members composing the forming this federation shall do any work of the men in dispute.

It is provided that in case of dispute the same shall be referred to a court of arbitration, selected by both parties, who again shall, if necessary, appoint an umpire whose decision shall be ‘final and binding.’

Thus we shall shortly witness national federations of capitalists and workmen facing and fighting each other in a manner that will make the struggles of the past insignificant by comparison.

It is no use any crying peace when there is no peace; it is of small use preaching moderation to workmen while employers are changing their old 10-pounders for ‘81-tonners.’ Correspondingly we workers must do the same.

It may be the case that to be prepared for war on a scientific basis is the best way to command respect and to obtain redresses for pressing grievances. In any case it will be far better for a representative committee of organised workers in a given industry to meet a similar committee of organised employers and face each other, remembering that either side has great resources to inflict terrible punishment, than to rely on the guerilla warfare to which recourse must be had in the absence of standing armies. In the majority of eases such deliberations would probably result in settlements by means of arbitrators and umpires. What we stand in greatest need of, therefore, is more extensive organisation on both sides. The object of boards of conciliation and arbitration is to minimise the friction between employers and employed. Such boards have worked effectively in the North of England in the coal and iron industries, and there is no reason why similar boards, rightly established, should not work very beneficially in London. It must, however, be borne in mind that London, owing to the cosmopolitan character of its industries, has not presented the same coherence either on the side of employers or workmen that the North of England has afforded in its staple manufacturing trades. We have quite recently had very serious disputes between gas companies and their workmen, dock directors and wharfingers and their workmen; and, apparently in consequence of the great difficulties then experienced, the Chamber of Commerce now comes forward with the best of intentions and proposes in a wholesale manner to establish conciliation committees for the respective trades or groups of trades, and a board of conciliation elected from employers and workers, the elections to take place every three years.

All trade unionists are in favour of settling their grievances with the least possible amount of friction, and are of course favourable to settling them by argument rather than by strike; but before we can have conciliation committees effectively established, capable of adjusting the difficulties between employers and workers, we need that which in London we have not yet got—that is, something approaching complete organisation on the part of employers and workmen alike.

As trade unionists we do not yet feel complete confidence in committees arranged for us by an outside machinery unnecessarily elaborate and likely to be handled by men who through lack of experience in labour difficulties would increase rather than lessen the friction they seek to avert. To give an instance, the members of the Dock Wharf and Riverside Labourers’ Union would far rather deal direct with a committee of dock directors, wharfingers, and granary keepers than they would conduct negotiations through the medium of another committee not directly representing the interests at stake.

In riverside industries the men are now organised, and it needs corresponding organisation on the employers’ side; then will follow the necessary committees, very much like those proposed by the Chamber of Commerce, but free from the encumbrances that will be entailed by the Chamber of Commerce proposals. There are directions in which the Chamber might with advantage exert its influence, and that is in urging amongst employers the necessity for combination and in lending assistance when disputes crop up between workmen and employers who are not organised and who therefore have not the necessary machinery with which to conduct negotiations, also in providing a final court of appeal. Experience shows that the development of the labour problem takes the following course: first, the spasmodic difficulties that arise between employers and unorganised workers; then the workers organise, and this causes combinations amongst employers; next, sectional societies amalgamate, then a federation of those engaged in kindred industries. When matters have reached this stage it is easy to appoint committees of conciliation, &c.

So far trade-union methods only have been considered, not that the labour question cannot be helped in other directions, but because experience proves that until men are prepared to make efforts on their own account it is practically useless to endeavour to surround them with conditions that can only be utilised by those whose ideas of life are expanding and who are on the highroad from ignorance to intelligence inspired with a divine discontent.

But the effort being put forward by the workers by means of their voluntary combinations justifies them in using their powers as citizens to get their grievances rectified by means of legislation, either by local governing bodies or by Parliament. My duties as a trade unionist do not clash with my duties as a citizen. The object of good citizenship, I presume, should be the getting rid of abuses, the elimination of the causes of physical and moral degradation, and the establishing of those conditions which will operate most beneficially to the body politic. Chief amongst the causes that degrade are excessive hours of labour and insufficient wages. It is the duty of the trade unionist to rectify these wrongs; it is equally the duty of the citizen. To argue that all such changes should come solely by trade union effort, as some politicians are doing, is to argue that the highest: functions of citizenship are to be left unperformed by the citizen.

Long hours of work invariably mean relatively low wages. Men and women work from ten to fifteen hours a day, and thereby keep wages down and other people out of work. They lessen the amount of work, because of their own ineffective demand for goods, owing to the small wage received and by taking away the purchasing power from others who would be at work were they not, working so long. By becoming physically exhausted they are utterly incapacitated from entering into the pursuits that tend to the development of true manhood and womanhood. Under these conditions it is easier to be vicious than virtuous; consequently vice stalks about our thoroughfares, is in our homes, and ultimately finds lodgment in jails and workhouses. Surely it is the duty of the intelligent citizen to remove the causes of such degradation by every legitimate means. Combine voluntarily most assuredly, but to stop our efforts there would be madness; trade-union efforts should be, and must be, supplemented both by county councils and by Parliament.

What can Parliament do? At least this: it can set a good example in the State workshops and factories by at once prohibiting systematic overtime, and by reducing the hours of labour in all Government departments to 48 hours a week. It can insist upon all those firms who obtain Government contracts paying trade-union rates of wages and complying with the 48 hours a week limit. It can, and ought, and must give ear to the almost unanimous demand of the miners for an eight-hours’ maximum working day. In my opinion it is much to be regretted that the miners are so moderate as to ask only for the eight-hours’ limit for those who work below ground. I know from a somewhat bitter experience what work is down the mine and on the bank, and I contend that an eight-hours day should be the maximum for all connected with mines, either above or below ground. I do not say that Parliament should fix the working hours for those who do not request such limits being made, but when the demand is properly made it is the bounden duty of any and every true member of Parliament to respect the same and supplement trade-union efforts.

The railway workers are among those whose hours of labour are excessive, and surely the citizen is not forthcoming who will say that this is in the interest of the community. The facts in connection with the men themselves show that they have organised; the employers have practically combined also. Some demands have been forwarded by the men to the employers, and a few trifling concessions have been granted, but it still leaves the average hours of railway workers at twelve a day; nor is it possible to get them materially reduced by trade-unionist efforts alone without entering upon a terrible struggle that will practically stop the rail traffic of the country, and thereby dislocate many trades, and of necessity inflict much suffering, which will be borne cheerfully if it must come, but which every true citizen ought to try and render unnecessary. The men have organised various unions, one of which is now 40,000 strong, another 20,000. They have proved that they are men of sterling worth, not merely by an honourable discharge of their everyday duties under exceptionally hard conditions, but also by showing that they have the capacity for organisation, that they know exactly what their grievances are, and have the ability to state them in a dignified and rational way. They do not piteously appeal for the State to help them, but as a very important body of men (representing, with their families, probably one and a half million of persons) realising that they are part and parcel of the State, and that by their labours they contribute much to its welfare, they are now beginning to ask why they should not use their powers of citizenship to supplement their trade-union efforts, and thousands of other workers are asking the same question, and no one as yet has given any satisfactory reason why, under such circumstances, we citizens should not exercise our rights of citizenship to reduce working hours and make them somewhat uniform over such large areas as that covered by our railway systems. To reply that workmen can best do this for themselves is beside the point; the workers will do it for themselves, whether it be by striking for it or by voting for it, but no genuine mechanic will make use of a machine that wastes a large percentage of power in avoidable friction, and that more friction would be generated by striking for reduced hours for these railway men than would be the case by bringing the same about by legislative action no one can reasonably doubt.

Trade unionism has at last taken root amongst the shop assistants of the metropolis; both sexes are now enrolling, and will in a few months be able to bring considerable pressure to bear on their employers. Their average hours at present are 86, while thousands work 96 to 100. The effect upon the young men is most baneful, but upon the young women it is scarcely less than murder, standing or walking in a shop, oftentimes very ill-ventilated, with the fusty smells that arise from the goods, especially in certain kinds of drapery. These unhealthy conditions not only shorten the lives of the women but unfit them for becoming healthy wives and mothers. Scores of eminent medical men have issued authoritative statements setting forth the terribly injurious effects of these long hours on young women, and yet nothing is done. Cannot something now be done by the local governing bodies to supplement the efforts of these young persons, who, under the greatest difficulties, are now establishing branches of their trade unions in the various districts of London? Or will the ‘let alone’ section still say, ‘It is no business of the legislative body, and these women must redress their grievances by organising a strike’? Politicians and statesmen (?) who offer such stones for bread will not be argued with much longer; they will simply be quietly ignored by the bulk of the electors whose heads are clear and whose hearts are not yet dead. It is difficult to state the number of employés engaged in distributive occupations in London, but there are at least 400,000, and their hours of labour might, with advantage, be reduced by 25 per cent. and thus add to their own health and well-being immensely, and at the same time provide occupations for many of the workless. Ah, but who is to stand the expense? it will be asked. Where the employer cannot, the public must. Who are the public, once again? Five-sixths belong to those who, in some form or other, work for a living; and these men and women in distributive establishments are as much a portion of the public as any similar number of persons otherwise engaged, and their interests are bound up with the rest of the public and cannot be isolated from them. And what the public have now got to face squarely and deal with promptly is this: Shall we best secure the well-being of the State by insisting that all who work shall obtain reasonable rates of pay for a reasonable amount of work or is the proper course that of ignoring the surroundings of the workers, leaving matters to right themselves? Public responsibility has long been recognised in this country, as witness the Factory Acts legislation, that has operated so beneficially,

There is a serious danger confronting the labour party, which is that politicians of either side, who are politicians merely, are endeavouring to obtain the confidence of the workers to leave their case in these politicians’ hands. I am convinced that the real educational work on labour questions is now going on mainly in the thousands of trade-union branches and trades councils that exist in all centres of industry. The rapid spread of trade unionism which is now going on will certainly qualify the workman to perform his duties as a member of society better than he was able prior to his taking an active interest in his own welfare; but should he allow the sacred question of labour to become the subject over which contending political factions shall fight, it will, to my mind, show a lack of dignity and keenness of perception which will be extremely pitiable. Two things are essential if these evils are to be avoided. There must be a large decentralisation of power-that is, the power now vested in Parliament must be largely transferred to the local governing bodies, the town and county councils; and the workers themselves must (and they will) take a continual interest in and share in the administration of these local bodies. At the present time Parliament is utterly unfitted to deal with the intricacies of London’s labour difficulties, and so of all other centres. It has not the time, the ability, nor inclination; and if it had ability and inclination it could never have the time to attend to the multifarious demands that are certain to crop up as labour questions press for solution.

And, again, it is not in any way desirable that an Imperial Parliament should even attempt to exercise control over the hundreds of questions that must arise in each of the hundreds of British manufacturing towns. Imperial authority it ought to have, but local questions should be settled by local authorities. The unhealthy atmosphere of Parliament has choked many a well-intentioned man, and it is likely to choke many more, and if there were no other direction in which the vital interests of the workers could be properly attended to the abolition of the grievous wrongs under which labour groans would be postponed indefinitely. It may be urged that a county council is little more likely to pay proper attention to such questions as affect labour than Parliament. Workmen are, however, beginning to realise that it is due to themselves that they should solve these questions by every legitimate means, and having organised and disciplined themselves in their voluntary combinations (trade unions), they as citizens will take a direct and positive interest in the same questions, and attend to their application on a more extended platform. This will bring health to local administrative bodies, tone to the minds of the citizens, and wean from the gaudy and superficial attractions of St. Stephen’s the more sturdy and upright of the nation’s real workers of all grades.

The county council is, in my opinion, destined to become a most powerful factor for the rectification of our social wrongs. In close contiguity, as it will be, with the trades council, knowing exactly where and how to supplement the good work of that council, the majority composing it being themselves real, not nominal workmen; women’s interests being properly looked after; the welfare of the workers at large being the principal business of such a body—when this is so the day of our redemption will be nigh. The interest of no honest man will be ignored; all that is best in the community will be drawn out, and the baneful influences that at present trample down so much that is good in our natures will be removed.

The hope for the future lies in the extension of labour organisations on the side of the workers, corresponding combinations of employers adjusting differences by conciliation or arbitration whenever possible, the work of trade unionism being supplemented by the local governing bodies, by workers habitually taking a direct working interest in connection with them, such bodies absorbing all smaller and at present conflicting authorities, thus developing the best qualities of the citizen in the true work of citizenship and gradually assisting in the development of the co-operative ideal, when the workers shall include the whole of the able-bodied community, and when peace and plenty shall abound as the result of harmonising the at present antagonistic tendencies of different sections of society.




1. Report of the Strikes and Lookouts of 1888, by the Labour Correspondent of the Board of Trade. Eyre & Spottiswoode, East Harding Street. Price 10d.

2. Report of Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labour, Washington, D.C.

3. By handy men is meant those who cannot be classed as skilled men, they not having had a proper training as apprentices, but who have picked up some of the trade while working as labourers and who in times of disputes are used by employers against the skilled, and to an ever increasing degree are supplanting skilled men even in times of peace as manipulators of machines. The following extract from a speech recently delivered at Newcastle-on-Tyne by the chairman of the Association of Foremen Engineers and Mechanical Draughtsmen will serve to illustrate the point. He had been dilating upon the superior quality of the work turned out when compared with that of a few years previous, and said it was not due to increased skill on the part of the mechanics; and if not to increased manual skill, to what, then, are we to attribute the superior work? In my opinion mainly, if not entirely, to multiplied mechanical appliances, and to more accurate and special machines which have superseded skilled manual labour, and which are in a many cases worked by unskilled men labourers.