Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book three: Home again

XVIII. Industrial solidarity
1910 to 1911

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


For some years considerable efforts had been made in this country to bring about a closer relationship between the various unions, and the French trade unions with their methods of direct action were arousing sympathetic interest. I declared myself definitely in favour of industrial unionism and direct action, not to the exclusion of other methods, but as the main channel for the outflow of our activities.

More especially did I admire the French movement because I knew it to have been the main stimulus that led the Americans, in 1905, to hold the convention which culminated in the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World. At that time, a well-known and active socialist in London, Guy Bowman, translator of Gustave Herve’s book My Country, Right or Wrong, proposed that we should go to Paris and visit the CGT (Confederation General du Travail) to study its methods of procedure. My old friend Charles Marck, whom I had long known in connection with the seamen’s and dockers’ movement, was an executive official of the CGT in Paris, so the way was open. To Paris we went, and examined thoroughly the principles and policy of the CGT, the syndicalists of France.

The term syndicalism has often been used in this country to frighten the timid and to scare the simple. A brief explanation of the syndicalist doctrine, and some account of the movement, will therefore be in place here.

Every person who hears that a syndicate has been formed is apt to conclude that it is a group of persons who unite to run some business or other. They think of a “syndicate” as equivalent to a company, and this is in the main correct. Syndicat is the French name for an organisation of persons to achieve a specific end. When French workers organise themselves into what we in Britain designate a trade union, the French call it a syndicat, and the persons who join a union are known as syndicalists, the exact counterpart of trade unionists. Just as in our trade-union movement we have members of every variety and every shade of opinion — industrial, political, and social — and yet, being trade unionists, they are all called by that term; so in France they have every variety of reactionary, moderate, and revolutionary in the syndicalist membership, and the term syndicalist is applied to all alike, seeing that originally it meant nothing more than organised worker. In course of time, however, the word has acquired an additional signification.

About forty years ago the Municipal Council of Paris decided to erect a large hall for the unemployed, and in connection with it a number of offices for the trade unions. This was the outcome of a demand from a considerable percentage of the electorate of Paris, which had returned socialists to the Municipal Council, demanding in their program a Bourse du Travail, or Office of Labour. The hall was to serve as a rendezvous for the unemployed. An official was appointed and paid by the municipality. The main building served as a Labour Exchange; the offices attached were let, for a comparatively low rental, as trade-union headquarters.

This arrangement worked well until some of the unions were engaged in disputes, when the police invaded the union offices at the Bourse du Travail, claiming the right to inspect the books. The municipal authorities supported this claim, and insisted that the police were entitled, in addition, to investigate, at any time, the financial position of the various unions whose headquarters were at the Bourse du Travail. Several of the union executives refused to let the police see the books, and were thereupon informed that unless they gave up the books to the police they would be expelled from the offices, which were the property of the municipality of Paris. The unions persisted in their refusal, and cleared out of the bourse, joining forces to secure premises elsewhere, at 33, Rue Grange aux Belles.

All along there had been a considerable number of anarchists in the trade unions who were opposed to any kow-towing to the authorities. They were energetic and effective trade unionists. With further experience of the police claim to investigate, and of the use the police made of the information thus obtained, additional unions left the bourse and joined the original seceders. They now formed themselves into the CGT. These unions showed increasing dislike for government — national and municipal alike. They declared themselves anti-parliamentarian, and were confident of their ability to achieve the economic emancipation of the workers through industrial organisation independently of the machinery of state.

When occasions came round for popular demonstrations, such as the visit to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, in memory of the massacre of the communards in 1871, the syndicalists, ie, the trade unionists, of Grange aux Belles would organise their own demonstration, whilst those still working harmoniously at the bourse and recognising the authorities, would take steps to organise a demonstration also. Before the date fixed for the celebration arrived, the Prefect of Police would send an intimation that no demonstrations would be allowed: the law-and-order men of the Bourse du Travail would drop the idea, but the CGT men would ignore the Prefect of Police and his (as they said) attempt at dictatorship. They persisted in holding their demonstration. Before it was over the police would interfere and a forcible dispersion would take place with a few lively incidents on either side. The Paris correspondents of the English papers, alert for copy, would enquire who were in collision with the police. Being told that the demonstrators were “syndicalists”, these journalists referred to this section alone as syndicalists, unaware that all trade unionists, whatever their views and whatever their activities, were syndicalists. The result has been that, in the British press the term has been almost exclusively applied to the revolutionary trade-unionist section of the French workers, and this is how the word has become a bogey to frighten the uninformed.

After our visit to Paris, Guy Bowman and I, with the support of a few representative trade unionists, decided to organise in Britain on lines similar to those which had been adopted by the French comrades. We were far from proposing to ignore, belittle or supersede the extant trade-union movement. We were convinced that the members of the unions could make these organisations what they desired them to be, for the unions are working-class organisations which can be modified and improved as the workers themselves desire. We published a small monthly called The Industrial Syndicalist. The first issue appeared in July, 1910. In view of what took place a year later, I will give a few excerpts. In July 1910, I wrote, stating the syndicalist case on broad general lines, but aiming also at precision:

What is called for? What will have to be the essential conditions for the success of such a movement?

That it should be avowedly and clearly revolutionary in aim and method.

Revolutionary in aim because it will be out for the abolition of the wages system, and for securing to the workers the full fruits of their labour, thereby seeking to change the system of society from capitalist to socialist.

Revolutionary in method, because it will refuse to enter into any long agreements with the masters, whether with legal or State backing, or merely voluntarily; and because it will seize every chance of fighting for the general betterment — gaining ground and never losing any.

Does this mean that we should become anti-political? Certainly not.

Let the politicians do as much as they can, and the chances are that, once there is an economic fighting force in the country ready to back them up by action, they will actually be able to do what would now be hopeless for them to attempt to do.

The workers should realise that it is the men who manipulate the tools and machinery who are the possessors of the necessary power to achieve something tangible, and they will succeed just in proportion as they agree to apply concerted action.

The curse of capitalism consists in this — that a handful of capitalists can compel hundreds of thousands of workers to work in such manner and for such wage as will please the capitalists. But this again is solely because of the inability of the workers to agree upon a common plan of action. The hour the workers agree and act, they become all-powerful. We can settle the capitalists’ strike-breaking power once for all. We shall have no need to plead with parliamentarians to be good enough to reduce hours as the workers have been doing for fully twenty years without result. We shall be able to do this ourselves, and there will be no power on earth to stop us so long as we do not fall foul of economic principles.

Having been invited to attend an executive meeting of the Dockers Union by the general secretary, my old colleague, Ben Tillett, I submitted a proposal urging that invitations be sent to the various transport workers’ unions with a view to forming a National Transport Workers Federation." This was done, and a conference, held in London, achieved the object.

In November 1910, an Industrial Syndicalist Conference was held at Manchester. Albert A. Purcell, of the Furnishing Trades Association, presided. Here, an Industrial Syndicalist Educational League was formed, and under its auspices much propaganda work was done. I was continuously on platform work, covering the whole country. I spoke under the auspices of any union, but always advocated the same industrial policy. This went on till the spring of 1911.

Havelock Wilson, of the National Sailors and Firemens Union, whom I had known as a colleague from the time of the London dock strike of 1889, had been in the United States during 1910, in part to organise British seamen on the other side of the Atlantic — for in normal times they are easier to get in touch with there than on this side, where their homes are. Wilson, and the union of which he was president, had been subjected to many and severe buffetings by the International Shipping Federation. The membership of the union had fallen off seriously, and the shipowners, over a period of many years, with the aid of clever lawyers, did their utmost to make Havelock Wilson a bankrupt. In the whole history of the trade-union movement of Britain, there is no case of such persistent, systematic, and venomous persecution of a union official as that to which Havelock Wilson was subjected by the shipowners of this country.

In ultimate ideals and objective, Havelock Wilson and I have nothing in common, but I have had occasion to work in close relationship with him in trade-union affairs, and we have been colleagues in many industrial disputes. I have always found him a straightforward, honourable, and loyal comrade. Moreover, he was always at his post early in the day, tackling the most difficult tasks with the utmost readiness. I take the opportunity of saying this because there is considerable feeling against Wilson for certain of his activities. I like to dwell upon other phases, and especially upon what happened in 1911, in the industrial arena of Britain, and particularly in connection with the transport industry. Whereas I always aimed at a fight for the complete economic emancipation of the working class, my friend Wilson was not concerned about complete economic freedom, nor did he appreciate the gospel of internationalism for the overthrow of the capitalist system; but I knew well that he had waited long in the hope of a favourable opportunity to reorganise the union.

The shipowners, through the International Shipping Federation, not only gave their officers instructions to refuse to employ any seaman who was a member of the National Sailors and Firemens Union, but they actually made it a condition of employment that the men should become members of the organisation that they, the shipowners, brought into existence, that the men must pay for and carry the card of membership of the bosses’ organisation. The conditions under which the medical examination of the men took place after signing on for a voyage, in many firms (not all), was such as to sicken any decent person, and make a man justifiably indignant at the humiliating and disgusting methods. But, having power, the shipowners and the medical staff, used the power ruthlessly.

I had faith in Wilson’s ability to seize the opportune time for vigorous action, knowing that he was in deadly earnest and above all things anxious to make no mistake when the right time came. I was informed of conferences held quietly in the chief ports. Wilson told me he was convinced that the summer of 1911 would be the time for the rebuilding of the union and for the putting forward of the men’s claims.

I readily agreed to identify myself with the intended effort, for I shared Wilson’s hopes and beliefs, though all the time eager for a broader and bigger outlook to prevail. The great movement among the seamen that took place in Britain during the months of June, July, and August 1911 is a matter of history.

A severe struggle had been waged in South Wales between twelve thousand miners and the Cambrian Combine. General interest had been aroused, and in the ports solidarity with the miners had been earnestly advocated. Some union officials, however, positively refused to participate in the effort, which they regarded as untimely. In some cases they went further and tried to stultify the movement. In May it became evident that the time for action was at hand. We decided to approach the shipowners through the Shipping Federation once more, requesting them to meet us in conference and endeavour to adjust matters. The reply from the chief official of the federation was of that haughty type characteristic of dominant capitalism. This left us no alternative but drastic action. The Sailors and Firemens Union therefore had another conference, and decided to call a strike for the middle of June.

The SS Olympic, the largest ocean liner ever built up to that date, had just reached Southampton from the builders at Belfast. She required coaling for the voyage to New York, whence she was to bring back the American millionaires who were to take part in the coronation celebrations. However, the coalies had decided to commence operations for improved conditions. The big ship was held up, and on June 14 the strike was declared in all the chief ports of Britain. The men responded splendidly. On the morning of the 14th the newspapers were pouring scorn and contempt upon those who were connected with the union movement, but they were soon to learn that that strike was something out of the ordinary. The experience was unique in industrial battles. Shipowners who had absolutely refused to have anything to do with the workmen now earnestly endeavoured to arrange for a conference, the Shipping Federation proved utterly incapable of helping its clients, and, after having dictated conditions for over twenty years, it had in a single day lost all its power. The workmen simply folded their arms, saying that they were quite willing to return to work when their demands were granted, not before. The shipowners begged of union officials to “instruct the men to take out the mail boats and others”, on the assurance that they would meet in conference without delay, and discuss all points desired. But it was too late for such a proposal; the situation had now reached a stage when discussion was out of the question. Nothing but the granting of the men’s demands would end the dispute.

These consisted of claims for increased pay, alteration of the conditions under which medical examination was to take place, the right of the men to belong to any union they pleased, and to wear the union badge when and where they liked, the Shipping Federation ticket to entirely disappear, the presence of a union delegate on each vessel at paying off and signing on of crews, etc. To the surprise of everybody, all these demands were complied with in a few days.

The fighting spirit had seized other sections of union and non-union men. After the terrible inaction that had lasted for over twenty years, since the dock strike in 1889, dockers and carmen in all ports demanded improved conditions. A spirit of solidarity was shown by those sections that had already obtained better conditions, the men refusing to return to work until the demands of the others were conceded.

It had not been the intention of any of those having special responsibility to include the railwaymen in the struggle; but before the rest of transport workers had achieved their aims, many of the railwaymen had determined upon action on their own account. This was especially the case in Liverpool, where a number of union and non-union railway carters took the initiative. In a few days, thousands of other railway employees, more particularly the lowest paid, joined hands with them. The men waited on the strike committee, and asked that their case be taken up; this was done in spite of the fact that the executives of the railwaymen’s unions were opposed to any railwaymen leaving work and making demands, the officials arguing that they were tied down by the decisions of the conciliation boards, which they had accepted under the Lloyd George arrangement. The ASRS officials were confident that there would be no concerted action by railwaymen; they were sure that the companies would be able to crush any attempt made at so inopportune a moment; and so on.

In face of all this, the strike committee took upon itself the responsibility, grave as it was, of undertaking the railwaymen’s case. The shipowners promptly declared that unless the dockers and others returned to work, terrible consequences would follow. They called a joint meeting of union officials and shipowners. The chairman of the White Star Line, who presided at this meeting, read a prepared statement detailing the situation, sermonising the union delegates and officials, and warning them of the wrath to come. The worthy gentleman looked more like a parson reading a sermon and addressing a homily to those about to be executed than the captain of industry he believed himself to be. The chairman of the White Star Line was thanked for his inspiring address and the delegates withdrew.

Now came the results of plucky action. The railwayman’s officials, seeing the determined spirit of the men and the strong backing that these were receiving, immediately called their respective executives to meet in Liverpool and decide upon a policy in view of the exceptional situation.

The executives met and unanimously agreed to back the men. Here, indeed, was a departure; those who had hitherto preached of law and order now unanimously endorsed the rebels’ stand, and dispatched their secretaries to London to see whether the way was open for negotiation with the heads of the companies.

The reply being satisfactory, the executives proceeded to London, and for some thirty hours maintained a sturdy attitude, and insisted on negotiating direct with the company officials.

At this stage prominent politicians began to exert an influence, with the result that the government immediately placed at the disposal of the companies an unlimited number of military, not only to guard property, but actually to try and replace men on strike. Some two hundred and fifty thousand of the railwaymen had responded to the appeal of the executives to come out, and there are good reasons for believing that another two hundred thousand would have been out in a couple of days if the strike had been allowed to take its normal course.

The “statesmen” and the Labour Party politicians got to work, and the government sent down to Liverpool two MPs and a Board of Trade official, which combination they termed an Inquiry Committee. This committee never came into contact with the strike committee, but saw persons of their own political bias, and kept up communication with the Board of Trade.

It must be remembered that the Liverpool committee had obtained improved conditions for some seventy thousand seafaring men, dockers, carters, warehousemen and others, and that these were making common cause with the railway workers; therefore, the shipowners had again declared war. While negotiations were going on, the strike committee had found it necessary to call out the tramwaymen to help in the fight of the railwaymen.

To the credit of the railwaymen’s executives, when in Liverpool, they declared they would not accept any terms of settlement that did not include the reinstatement in Liverpool of all the men who had been and were still out on their behalf. This resolution was again carried by the joint executives in London, and Mr Williams, of the ASRS, acting as secretary of the joint executives, wired the decision to the chairman of the strike committee at Liverpool, and confirmed the same by typewritten letter. Without any further communication from them, the strike committee only learned of the settlement on the Sunday morning in the same way as the general public, and this though no change had taken place in the situation at Liverpool, where the hostility between the shipowners and others was more intense than ever.

This gave us special trouble in Liverpool. However, it was overcome, and we were all glad that the railwaymen had shown such splendid solidarity. If only they had attended to their own affairs on industrial lines, instead of bringing in the politicians, there is no doubt that their gains would have been far more substantial.

As it was, the government and the plutocracy generally saw that there was a power in the hands of the workers they had never dreamed of.

Solidarity had truly worked wonders, and many of the capitalists thought that already the social revolution was upon them.

When the London transport workers demonstrated their ability to decide for themselves and to control the situation, and this in conjunction with the three hundred thousand transport workers of the country; and when unanimity was shown amongst all in Glasgow and the Scottish ports, Dublin and the Irish ports generally, the Bristol Channel, and the North-East Coast — the eyes of the hitherto-blind were opened as to the possibilities of industrial solidarity.

Never in my experience did so many workers in such varied occupations show such thorough solidarity as on the occasion in Liverpool. I was chairman of the strike committee for the seventy-two days that the strike lasted, with the exception of three days when I had a hurried run to Paris, which I will refer to later. Further, the seven thousand carters of Liverpool have very close relationship with the north of Ireland, and the much larger number of dockers in Liverpool are correspondingly identified with the south. The differences that arise between these are frequently of a very emphatic character, but I have pleasure in recalling that when we commenced the strike and began committee work, it was definitely agreed that neither political nor theological opinions were to find advocacy or expression on the committee. We were engaged purely on an industrial subject, and that alone should receive attention.

Not only was this undertaking strictly carried out, but no vote was taken until the very end of the proceedings. When a proposal was made, this was dealt with, modified, enlarged or rejected, without the usual rigmarole of what is called parliamentary procedure. By this means we avoided all those risks of getting a few more votes for one proposition than for another, with the consequent recriminations that so often ensue. Finally, when all our demands had been conceded, we decided to close the strike. The thirty-three members of the committee were present and the decision was unanimous. This was on August 24. The strike had begun on June 14.

We had carried it through with the sailors and firemen, cooks and stewards, dockers and carters, and all other sections, until the railwaymen also came in, much against the advice and instruction and in spite of the threats of the officials of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. As the outcome of the success achieved through joint action, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the General Railway Workers Union and the Signalmen and Pointsmens Society amalgamated into the one organisation very shortly after the Liverpool strike, the new body subsequently adopting the name of National Union of Railwaymen.