The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter III: Industrial Unrest

Just before the First World War, Britain experienced industrial conflict on a level rarely, if ever, previously known. The underlying cause was the condition of capitalism in this country: encountering ever-increasing difficulties, employers tried to solve their problems by placing the burden on the shoulders of the working class. Confronted by this challenge, the trade unions failed, abjectly. Small, fragmented, led by cautious and conservative-minded officials, they proved incapable of repulsing the employers’ offensive, and initiative passed to the shop floor. It remained for the rank and file to develop its own ideas and forms of struggle. Respectable union leaders were brushed aside and, under the banners of industrial unionism and syndicalism, workers conducted struggles of great militancy. All this happened in a political climate unfavourable to the ruling class: it was a time when wealthy women, wanting the vote, smashed windows and encouraged lawlessness; when die-hard Tories, incensed at the thought of Home Rule for Ireland, encouraged the Orangemen of Ulster to take up arms seditiously; and when the constitution itself — in particular, the place of the House of Lords — was brought into question. The cumulative effect of these crises was to lessen the cohesion of the upper echelons of society and their ability to cope with the discontent emanating from the lower depths. It also weakened the power of authority: with Acts of Parliament being flouted by those of exalted rank, persons who should set an example, how could a plausible law-and-order appeal be made to workers?

The problems of the British economy arose from its relative decline. Other countries were developing more rapidly and beginning to outstrip Britain’s industrial production. Britain’s share of world manufacturing output dropped from 31.8 per cent in 1885 to 14.1 per cent in 1913. [1] It is impossible to dwell here on the reasons for the country’s poor performance. Economic historians attribute it, among other things, to a lack of enterprise by British businessmen; to an over-reliance on old staple industries, like textiles and coal; to a failure to play a leading role in new, rapidly-expanding industries, like chemicals and electrical goods; to an absence of large home markets, permitting full advantage to be gained from economies of scale; to an inadequate provision for scientific and technical education, resulting in Britain having a smaller pool of skilled labour than its main rivals; and to an unwillingness by manufacturers to adapt goods to the special needs of overseas customers.

Whatever the actual configuration of causes, one effect of Britain’s decline remains indisputable. Instead of ploughing back profits into home industries, capitalists found it more lucrative to invest abroad. In the period 1901-05, an average of under £50 million a year went in foreign investment; by 1907-10, the figure had shot up to £150 million a year; and in 1911-13, the figure reached a colossal £200 million. This meant the ownership of overseas assets by British citizens rose from £2.4 milliard at the turn of the century to £4 milliard by the outbreak of the First World War. From 1907 onwards, annual investment abroad exceeded net investment at home. [2] This was quite satisfactory to the capitalists. They did not mind where their income came from, home or abroad, so long as it grew! But for the British worker the picture was rather different: new equipment was being installed in other countries and, although he did not possess modern machinery, he was supposed to compete with the foreigners’ output. Extra effort was expected to compensate for lower investment.

Squeezed profit margins pushed employers in the same direction. As the yield of capital invested in Britain dropped, they sought to offset this by lowering labour costs and increasing productivity. The capitalists mounted a three-pronged assault: first, they used their superior bargaining position vis-à-vis the workers; second, they introduced new techniques that helped to lower the wage bill; and, third, they tightened up laws that could be employed against trade unionists.

Capitalists derived their superior bargaining position from the natural development of economic forces. Larger concerns tended to grow at a faster rate than smaller ones, which were more liable to go bankrupt or be taken over. Hence, there was a tendency for a few giants, perhaps even one, to dominate a given industry. Augmenting this process, firms joined each other to form trade associations. These reached agreement on pricing policies and often had a common attitude towards trade unions. The consequence was that capital arrayed itself with vast strength and unity. In contrast, working-class forces were weak and disunited. There were 1302 trade unions in 1900, squabbling among themselves, not possessing sufficient financial resources for a real battle with the employers. [3] Functioning unsatisfactorily, providing an inadequate service, unions recruited a small proportion of the working class — only one worker in eight held a card. [4]

In any trial of strength between the giants of Capital and the Lilliputians of Labour, the outcome could easily be predicted. Even one of the most powerful unions, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, failed to repel an attack: the 1897 lock-out ended after 30 weeks, with the society compelled to accept humiliating terms as a condition for a return to work. [5] In his Presidential address to the TUC in 1898, James O'Grady described the Engineering Employers Federation as ‘a mammoth combination of military-led capital, whose object, as openly stated by its leader, was to cripple, if not crush, the forces of trade unionism’. What made matters worse for organised labour was the continuing deterioration of the situation. EJB Allen, a talented socialist and advocate of industrial unionism, acknowledged this fact: quoting Board of Trade figures, he showed that there was a tendency for employers to win a greater proportion of industrial disputes. Workers had been successful in 40 per cent of the struggles in 1893; by 1904 the figure had slumped to 17 per cent. [6]

Defeats naturally served to reinforce the caution and timidity of the trade-union leaders, and high in their list of priorities was the need to avoid class conflict. So when employers sought to introduce new production methods — greater specialisation and standardisation — they could usually rely upon pliant union officials, ready to smooth over any problems that might arise. Similarly, as the principles of scientific management came into use, union leaders counselled their members to accept the new arrangements.

A highly-paid craftsman might find his job had been broken down into a number of simple operations that could be speedily accomplished by women or young people — at much lower rates. Professor Phelps Brown explains what happened:

The new high-speed steels in cutting tools, the wind hammer or the electric drill in the shipyard, the sheer RPM of the new and rackety machines built to be run to death, threatened ‘technological unemployment’. With the pneumatic chisel, it was reported from the Clyde in 1902, a boy could do in a few hours the day’s work of a man; and boys had never been so plentiful. [7]

The rate of exploitation increased. In their history of the foundry workers, Fyrth and Collins state that employers pushed up work-norms, abolished breakfast breaks, and expected men to do jobs previously done by other types of workers. One of the results of speed-up was to increase the accident rate: in 1898 22.5 per thousand foundry workers were injured; by 1907 the figure had risen to 48 per thousand. The tempo of production became too great for many older men and the cry of ‘too old at forty’ began to be heard. To get jobs, men with grey streaks began to dye their hair and tell foremen they were still in their thirties. [8] With variations, what happened in the foundries also occurred elsewhere in industry.

The impact of new production methods and speed-ups naturally aroused opposition, and employers usually had enough strength to deal with it. But where their resources were stretched, or when they wished to administer a salutary punishment on the workers, they could always rely on the Law. Friends in Parliament and the judiciary were determined to preserve the rights of property, and during the engineers’ lock-out of 1897, chief constables and magistrates were asked to adopt a more stringent line towards picketing. ‘Imprisonment with hard labour soon became the rule’, as a Royal Commission on Trades Disputes in 1906 was informed. [9]

A spate of court cases also whittled away the workers’ rights to strike. The most well-known was the Taff Vale judgement, which arose when South Wales railwaymen struck without the approval of their union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. A prominent local member had been victimised. The railway company, which did not recognise the men’s union, took a determined stand. It set about recruiting blacklegs, and sued the union for losses incurred through industrial action. In December 1902, the High Court awarded the Taff Vale Railway Company £23,000 in damages. When its own legal expenses were added, the litigation cost the ASRS a total of £42,000, a considerable amount for those days. [10]

The significance of the Taff Vale judgement was that it provided employers with a legal weapon for nullifying the effect of strikes. When workers downed tools, they merely damaged themselves; employers could recoup their losses by suing the unions. What was more, no limits were placed upon the amount of damages: union coffers could be drained. Awareness of this danger served to reinforce the already strong influences within union leaderships to renounce militancy and strive for industrial peace.

It is common knowledge that, as a result of the Taff Vale judgement, railway workers were fined £42,000 for breaking the law; what is perhaps less clearly recognised is that the rest of the working class was ‘fined’ an immeasurably bigger amount for obeying the law. In its desire to avoid litigation, the trade-union movement failed to seize opportunities, provided by an upswing of the business cycle, to win wage increases. As Cole and Postgate pointed out: ‘The Taff Vale judgement had so paralysed trade-union action that, despite the high profits which were being made, they were powerless to strike for higher wages.’ Sidney and Beatrice Webb endorse the same conclusion. In their History, they say that, with the Taff Vale judgement, ‘trade unionism had to a great extent lost its sting’. [11]

In these circumstances, it may seem amazing that many union leaders actually welcomed the Taff Vale decision. They saw it as a powerful weapon in their fight to curb militancy and assert their authority. James Sexton, General Secretary of the Dock Labourers, thought ‘that the decision in the Taff Vale case will be a blessing in disguise, and will tend to strengthen executive control and minimise, if not entirely kill, irresponsible action in the localities’. [12] Likewise, WE Harvey, the Derbyshire miners’ leader, thought that the judgement:

... would never have been given but for the harum scarum action on the part of the ILP and socialistic men. It brought before them many object lessons, and they ought to see how it applied from their side. It behoved them to exercise the greatest care in the selection of representatives and officials.

Subsequently, Harvey used the fear that union funds would be jeopardised to thwart a strike threat. [13] Richard Bell, General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the union that was £42,000 poorer (or wiser) as a consequence of Taff Vale, wrote in the Railway Review that the judgement may have ‘a useful influence in solidifying the forces of trade unionism and in subjecting them to wholesome discipline’. He went on to declare: ‘Rules, executive committees and responsible officials have been ignored.’ In his opinion, the court decision would have a beneficial effect in bringing ‘some of the rank and file and the young bloods of our trade unions’ to act with more responsibility. [14]

It is important to place the reaction of trade-union leaders to Taff Vale in historical perspective. They were the second or third generation of officials who had grown accustomed to establishing close working relations with the employers. Class-collaboration had become a way of life. Long ago they had come to regard the existing economic system as natural, inevitable and beneficial. Fifty years of experience lay behind this attitude. Professor Royden Harrison described how it emerged in the 1850s:

Just as the Professor of Political Economy at Oxford thought ‘it might be convenient in times of trouble, which are perhaps not so far off as many think, that we should be able to work upon the mind of the working classes through teachers and advisers whom they trust’, so the New Model employers themselves cultivated the trade-union leaders. Lord Elcho would have the miners’ leader to a champagne breakfast and AJ Mundella would congratulate himself on the good effects of wining and dining delegates to the TUC. Special relationships grew up between particular employer politicians and trade-union politicians. For example, such relationships existed between AJ Mundella and Robert Applegarth; Lord Elcho and Alexander MacDonald; Samuel Morley and George Howell; Crawshay, the ironmaster, and John Kane. Just as Samuel Plimsoll concerned himself with the welfare of the merchant seamen, so his fellow employers, Bass and Morley, actively aided trade-union organisation among the railwaymen and agricultural workers. [15]

Trade unionism was no threat to capitalism so long as it did not try to increase wages through industrial strength. The provision of friendly-society benefits, helping members when sick or unemployed, could be positively beneficial to the employer. Instead of having to engage men who were too thin and emaciated to do a good day’s work, a boss could hire men who, despite the misfortunes they had suffered, were nevertheless in fine fettle and capable of hard work. Friendly society arrangements were a collective form of self-help: they combined the capitalist virtue of thrift with that of prudence.

Moreover, many trade unionists had another important capitalist attitude. Far from wanting to unite the working class and overthrow the existing economic system, they sought to differentiate themselves from the rest of the working class, to rise up the social ladder. They aspired to become an aristocracy of labour, as interested in keeping less skilled workers at arms’ length as they were to remain on amicable terms with their employers. It would be wrong to think that such trade unionists begrudged their leaders a much higher standard of living: rather than being taken as a sign of selling out to the bosses, their affluence was the symbol of a success story from which many union members gained vicarious satisfaction.

Capitalists derived considerable benefit from arrangements with unions of this kind. As industry grew in size, the need increased for established channels of communication between management and men. The dangers of misunderstandings and strikes were lessened when the men’s spokesmen were respectable, responsible individuals. Such officials acted as a shock absorber, minimising conflict and transmitting ideas, especially those of the capitalists, to the workers. But the benefit was not entirely one way: real wages rose throughout the 50 years from 1850 to 1900. People accustomed themselves to slowly improving conditions. The comforting theory of the inevitability of progress, an expression of the prevailing mood of capitalist optimism, pervaded all sections of society by the turn of the century. So when adversity hit wage-earners, workers’ leaders were inclined to see it as a temporary setback, not the beginning of a new trend. Instead of attempting to organise resistance, union officials tried further to strengthen existing links with the employers.

An interesting move in this direction was the formation of the National Industrial Association in 1900. It sought to organise both sides of industry, being ‘a National Association of Employers’ Associations and Trade Unions’. Its literature emphasised the underlying common interests of all classes and the need to cultivate goodwill. Created in the same year as the Labour Representation Committee, the NIA had some significant people among its leadership. On the employers’ side, these included GB Hunter, the Tyneside shipbuilder, who fought the 1900 general election as a Liberal candidate. His running-mate, Alexander Wilkie of the LRC, in the two-member constituency of Sunderland was also prominent in the NIA. Richard Bell, of the Railway Servants, remained active in both organisations. As one of the two Labour MPs returned at the 1900 general election, he was well placed to influence LRC policy. An avowed anti-socialist and elected to Parliament with active Liberal support, he visualised the LRC playing the same role politically as the NIA did industrially. To gentlemen like Richard Bell, class-collaboration was all-encompassing.

Capitalism had nothing to fear from trade unionism so long as officials of the Richard Bell type stayed in control. Such leaders sometimes actually went out of their way to point out to employers their peaceful intent. David Shackleton MP, leader of the weavers’ union, proudly declared that unions were spending very little money in strike pay. Quoting government returns, he showed that total expenditure of 100 trade unions in the 10 years ending 1904 was £16 million, of which only £2 million was spent on dispute pay. The tendency, moreover, was for the amount to dwindle: by 1904 the number of disputes had fallen to less than half the 1899 figure. [16] Unions were well on the road to operating merely as friendly societies, steering clear of industrial confrontation.

While this strategy created a feeling of self-satisfaction among union leaders, it produced mounting discontent in the rank and file. To many workers, the raison d'être of trade unionism was the fight for higher wages and better conditions. When it ceased doing this, then it stopped being of much use to workers. In 1904, Will Thorne reported to the gas-workers’ union annual conference that ‘members have threatened to leave the union if the EC did not allow them to come out on strike’. Four years earlier, the gas-workers’ union quarterly report quoted an aggrieved member as asking: ‘What is the use of men being in a union if the employers are to act as though no union was in existence?’ [17] The answer to the question, which must have been asked in many parts of the movement, sometimes appears to have been ‘None’. After 1900, union membership began to drop. By 1904, there were 60,000 fewer workers holding union cards than four years previously. This trend must have been as disturbing to the union hierarchies as the growing restiveness displayed by those who remained members.

There were deep and powerful reasons why the traditional policy of class-collaboration was being challenged. First, there was the fact that real wages declined from 1900 to 1913 somewhere between three and five per cent. Professor Pollard has suggested that these figures underestimate the decline for most of the period: 1913 was an exceptionally good year for wages: if 1909-11 had been taken, then workers were receiving in real terms only 90 per cent of what they had done 10 years before. [18] Second, while workers received less, they produced more: between 1900 and 1913 productivity per man rose by seven per cent. [19] And, third, at the same time as workers experienced growing impoverishment, they saw other sections of society becoming richer. Real national income per head rose by 8.5 per cent between 1900 and 1913. [20] All this went to create a situation in which inequality became greater and more difficult to bear. Explosions of working-class anger were the inevitable consequence.

A strike wave of unprecedented dimensions hit the country. The number of days lost through industrial disputes quadrupled in 1908. In the years 1910 to 1913, the figure never dropped below 10 million per annum, while in 1912, due largely to the coal dispute, it reached the hitherto unheard of total of 38 million. It was not, however, merely a question of magnitude. Industrial strife at times verged on civil war.

Sir George Askwith, a conciliation officer of the Board of Trade, drew vivid descriptions of the more important struggles. This is what he witnessed in the 1907 Belfast lock-out:

The city of Belfast held up by a state of civil turmoil, with guards at the railway station, double sentries with loaded rifles at alternative lamp-posts of the Royal Avenue, a very few lorries with constabulary sitting on bales and soldiers on either side, proceeding to guard congested but lifeless docks, and ten thousand soldiers in and about the city. There had been fights in the streets, charges of the cavalry, the Riot Act read, shooting to disperse wrecking mobs, a few men and women killed and scores wounded, and the whole business of the city at a standstill. [21]

A similar scene greeted Sir George when he visited Hull during the 1911 seamen’s strike: ‘One ship-owner came to me and discussed the matter; he spoke of it as a revolution, and so it was.’

Sir George discovered that Goole and Hull workers had new leaders, men hitherto unheard of, and that the employers did not know how to deal with them. As he attempted to get both sides to reach agreement, news reached him that fires, looting and rioting had broken out:

I heard one town councillor remark that he had been in Paris during the Commune and had never seen anything like this, and he had known that there were such people in Hull — women with hair streaming and half nude, reeling through the streets smashing and destroying.

Ultimately, when agreement had been reached, a mass meeting was held to tell workers the terms of settlement:

It was estimated that there were 15,000 people there when the leaders began their statement. They announced their statement: and before my turn came an angry roar of ‘No!’ rang out; ‘Let’s fire the docks!’ from the outskirts, where men ran off. [22]

Meanwhile, a general strike gripped Liverpool. Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, sent two warships to the Mersey, and they trained their guns on the rebellious city. The police, wielding truncheons like flails, broke up a peaceful demonstration. In its account, the Manchester Guardian declared that ‘even when the crowd was separated into groups, the police continued the onslaught... It was a display of violence that horrified those who saw it.’ [23] Later, troops with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets were brought to Liverpool. They fired on the crowd, killing one man and wounding others. But the strike committee remained defiant:

Let Churchill do his utmost, his best or his worst, let him order ten times more military to Liverpool, and let every street be paraded by them. Not all the King’s horses nor all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea. The workers decide the ships shall not go. What government can say they shall go and make the carters take the freight and the dockers load same, and the seamen man the steamers? Tell us that, gentlemen? [24]

Equally bitter was the Cambrian Combine strike of 1910-11, which spread until it involved 26,000 South Wales miners. After pitched battles between police and strikers, who were trying to stop the colliery pumps, the authorities telegraphed for military reinforcements. These were promptly despatched by Churchill, along with contingents of Metropolitan Police. From this time forward, reported Ness Edwards, ‘the “specially imported police” sought any and every excuse to attack strikers, and were aided in their atrocious work by detachments of the Hussars and the Lancashire Infantry’. [25]

The most serious incident happened at Llanelli. This was described, from the official viewpoint, in a telegraphic report from the Chief Constable of Carmarthenshire to the Home Secretary:

Attack made on train which passed through Llanelly station, under military protection, at railway cutting sloping on either side to considerable height near station. Troops under Major Stuart quickly on scene, followed by three magistrates. Troops attacked on both sides by crowd on embankment hurling stones and other missiles. One soldier carried away wounded in head and others struck. Riot act read. Major Stuart mounted embankment and endeavoured to pacify mob. Stone throwing continued, crowd yelling defiance at troops. Shots fired as warning. [This, as the inquest later proved, was untrue — RC.] No effect. Attitude of crowd threatening and determined. Other shots fired. Two men killed, one wounded. Crowd fled. [26]

The ferocity with which industrial struggles were fought can be attributed to a number of factors. First, there was the pent-up anger of the strikers — men who for years had endured intolerable conditions and who were prepared to fight, desperately if need be, for their cause. Second, there were in all towns the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed and the most helpless, who would gladly seize the opportunity to go on the rampage, smashing shop-windows and looting. Third, and most important, was the provocative conduct of the authorities, who used violence whenever they felt it would serve their purpose — to cower, to intimidate, to destroy the workers’ will to struggle.

But the extensive use of troops did have its problems. The young men who volunteered for the army were of the working class and might resent being used against their own kith and kin. Militants made a number of attempts to make soldiers realise that they were acting as tools of the capitalists, helping the employers to depress even further workers’ living standards.

The most famous, the ‘Open Letter to British Soldiers’, written by a Liverpool worker named Bower, began:

Men! Comrades! Brothers!

You are in the Army.

So are we. You, in the army of Destruction. We, in the Industrial, or army of Construction.

We work at the mine, mill, forge, factory or dock, etc, producing and transporting all the goods, clothing, stuffs, etc, which makes it possible for people to live.

You are Workingmen’s Sons.

When we go on Strike to better our lot, which is the lot also of your Fathers, Mothers, Brothers and Sisters, you are called upon by your officers to murder us.

Don’t do it.

This ‘Don’t Shoot’ leaflet, first published in James Connolly’s Irish Worker, was reprinted in January 1912 in the Industrial Syndicalist and three months later in The Socialist. A railwayman, Fred Crowsley, had 3000 copies printed, at his own expense, which he distributed among soldiers at Aldershot. A series of arrests quickly followed. Crowsley received a four-month jail sentence, the printers of the Industrial Syndicalist six months, and its editor, Guy Bowman, nine months.

To show solidarity with his imprisoned comrades, Tom Mann courted arrest by reading the ‘Don’t Shoot’ at the beginning of the 1912 coal strike, when troops were deployed around the coalfields. In his memoirs, he described what happened:

In Manchester, where I then was, the authorities were having premises prepared as temporary barracks, and were concentrating military forces a few miles out of the city. At public meetings, I drew attention to this, and asked what the temporary barracks were for. I described what had happened the previous year at Liverpool, when everything was orderly until those responsible for Law and Order caused disturbances. I also directed attention to the imprisonment of my comrades in connection with the ‘Don’t Shoot’ letter, read the letter to the audience, and declared I believed in every sentence of it. [27]

Mann was arrested on his return to London, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for incitement to mutiny. The attendant trial aroused widespread interest, particularly among working people. Mann was regarded as a proletarian hero, a victim of class injustice. Syndicalism became well known as the creed of militancy. Its typical supporter may not have been aware of the subtleties of syndicalist doctrine, but he wholeheartedly identified himself with Mann’s declared aim, ‘to fight the employer, to fight him, to fight him, to fight him’. [28] And in this struggle between the two great clashes, many battles did take place, each developing its own characteristics according to the grievances of the workers in that particular sector of industry.

The railways were one of the most trouble-torn sectors of the economy before the First World War. This was partly due to an Act of Parliament, passed in 1894, which deprived railway companies of the right to raise fares and freight rates. As this was a period of rising costs, the companies found this restriction especially irksome. Working expenses as a percentage of total receipts rose from 55 per cent in 1880 to 62 per cent in 1900. Dividends tended to fall.

Managers strived to counteract this trend with improved efficiency. They introduced bigger trains and wagons, abolished unnecessary duplication, and economised generally. But these moves had a detrimental effect on railwaymen. What was involved was a lessening of labour costs through a reduction in the number of men employed and simultaneously a reduction in the wages of those still employed relative to those workers in other industries. In the 1880s railwaymen were among the most highly paid; in the next 20 years the wages of industrial workers as a whole rose by 25 per cent whereas theirs crept up by only five per cent. [29] Moreover, railwaymen’s hours were longer than those of many other workers: most worked a 60-hour week, and some even 72 hours, whereas engineers and building workers were on a 54-hour week. Another advantage of the railwaymen, that of security of employment, vanished as companies cut staff, and promotion prospects dwindled as fewer well-paid jobs were available. As a result, talented young railwaymen who, a generation before, would have had their eyes fixed on the promotion ladder, now realised that the only way to better themselves was along with their fellow workers. Instead of becoming foremen, they became trade-union militants.

All railway companies, with one exception, failed to recognise the unions. A general manager, HA Walker, expressed the employers’ argument in the following manner:

There is no doubt that the most serious effect of the recognition of the trade unions from the point of view of the railway companies would be the lowering of the standard of discipline throughout the railway service. Without a high standard of discipline, the safe working of the line would be jeopardised. The entire responsibility for the maintenance must rest with the railway companies. [30]

George Findlay, General Manager of the London and North Western Railway, expressed the same idea more bluntly. He told a parliamentary enquiry in 1893: ‘You might as well have a trade union or an amalgamated society in the army, where discipline has to be kept at a very high standard, as have it on the railways.’ [31] Lord Claud Hamilton, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, said they wished to maintain cordial relations with their servants, ‘untrammelled by the coercion and tyranny of an outside irresponsible body’. [32]

The policy of non-recognition was subjected to growing pressure as trade unions recruited more members and could be seen to be speaking for the labour force. The All-Grades Movement, started in 1906, was highly successful. Within 12 months, unions had almost twice the membership they possessed two years previously in 1905. Simultaneously, the campaign, a genuine expression of the rank and file, sought to unify the unions as well as to break down the divisions between various grades, deliberately fostered by the railway companies to prevent united action.

In October 1907, members of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants voted, by a large majority, to withdraw their labour until recognition had been achieved. This move, which could have caused considerable damage to the entire economy, led to the rapid intervention of the government. A series of meetings were held, and a compromise agreement reached. This provided for the setting up of a conciliation board to which the men could elect their representatives, who could be union members or not. What this meant was that the unions had not achieved their aim: they had not clearly established the right to negotiate with the employers on their members’ behalf.

Many rank-and-filers, disgruntled at the sell-out of Richard Bell and the rest of the leaders, echoed the question asked by The Socialist:

Why were the terms accepted by the officials without the men being asked to vote upon them, especially when the men had voted in favour of striking to gain that which the terms of the agreement deny them? [33]

The answer, blunt but true, came from one of the officials, who pointed to the powerlessness of the protestors because ‘we control the purse-strings’. All most railwaymen could do was fulminate against the union leaders. One of the rare opportunities to demonstrate their feelings came with the South Leeds by-election early in 1908. A Fox, the General Secretary of the engine-drivers’ union, was the Labour candidate. Five branches of the ASRS in Leeds asked members to withhold their votes as a protest against the 1907 sell-out. This boycott gained extensive support, and Fox secured only a little over half the votes he won at the general election a few months earlier.

For railwaymen, the 1907 settlement had disastrous consequences. The newly-created Conciliation Boards, operating on a sectional basis, had the effect of dividing the men. United action became more difficult, and the union officials stifled any militancy. In this way, by showing their respectability and their power to control the men, they hoped to secure eventual union recognition by the companies.

Naturally, these tactics did not have the blessing of the militants. One of them, Charles Watkins, noted that the 1907 settlement, which had placed railwaymen ‘more completely in the grip of the capitalists’ than ever before, had ‘the warm approval of their own trade-union leaders’. He went on to describe the impact of the new arrangements at grass-roots level:

The immediate result of the ‘settlement’ was the dispersion of the men’s forces, the dissipation of all energy generated by the National Movement, and the indefinite postponement of the consideration of the men’s grievances. [34]

The quiescence of railwaymen was merely temporary. As unrest spread throughout the working class generally, they would not remain unaffected. The spark that ignited their smouldering discontent came in 1911, with the big strike in Liverpool. Initially involving dockers and seamen, railwaymen became implicated when they refused to handle goods. Ultimately the strikers emerged victorious: the Shipping Federation conceded almost all the men’s demands. Clearly this demonstrated to railwaymen that militancy paid. A wave of unofficial strikes quickly spread. With a quarter of the labour force away from work, and more coming out daily, union officials had to take a drastic step to regain control of their members, and of non-members who were showing remarkable solidarity in the struggle. The General Secretaries of the four railway unions called a joint meeting of their Executive Committees, which unanimously agreed to call a national stoppage to secure official union recognition. As the official history of the railwaymen said: ‘The leaders had to race to get up level with the men.’ [35]

The widespread dislocation occasioned by the strike led to rapid government intervention. Again, a settlement was soon reached, but this time it was more favourable to the unions. To a large extent, de facto recognition was gained. In the flush of victory, the National Union of Railwaymen was formed — a closer approximation to industrial unionism.

While the 1911 dispute, the first national strike on the railway, changed the class relationship of forces, it did not change economic reality. The railway companies, still saddled by the 1894 Act, continued to try to keep wages down, and the men’s discontent was unabated. In the period around 1911, more unofficial strikes occurred on the railways than in any other place. Rank-and-file opposition to union officialdom grew and, for a time, a journal called the Syndicalist Railwaymen was published.

As the militants realised, the underlying cause of conflict on the railways lay in the very structure of the industry. As long as it stayed in private hands, the companies, with the meagre profit margins, would not be able to pay a decent wage. But this did not mean that nationalisation was the simple answer. For, as the Syndicalist Railwaymen declared, workers:

... have little reason for placing any great degree of confidence in the state as an employer. As the conflict ‘twixt capital and labour becomes keener, the workers are having impressed on them the real character and functions of the existing state... the state is essentially a ruling-class organisation and its functions are chiefly coercive. [36]

The answer was public ownership with workers’ control. Only when the workers themselves democratically controlled the railways, as well as the rest of the economy, could they be sure that the industry would be run in their interests. If the railways were merely placed in the hands of the state, then they would still be run in the interests of the capitalists. The level of wages, as an article in The Socialist pointed out, was determined by the forces of supply and demand. If the railways were nationalised, there was likely to be a more efficient utilisation of labour. Hence demand for labour would lessen, and wages would accordingly fall. [37]

The clamour for workers’ control proved to be so strong that in 1912 the annual conference of the ASRS passed a resolution demanding that complete control of the industry be put in the workers’ hands. Dr Pribićević states that it became the first union to declare in favour of workers’ control. [38] But it had been done against the advice of the union leaders, to whom such notions were an anathema. Once the ASRS had been involved in the merger that resulted in the creation of the National Union of Railwaymen, the leaders seized the opportunity to water down the policy. The resolution passed by the NUR conference in 1914 simply asked for ‘a due measure of control and responsibility’. Notwithstanding this setback, a powerful section still advocated workers’ control.

Like railwaymen, militant miners reached the conclusion that industrial democracy was required. But they arrived at this answer along a different route. In contrast to the railways, where the fight had been concentrated on the need for union recognition, employers in the coal industry had realised, ever since the 1893 lock-out, that clear gains could be made by recognising the union. Periodically both sides met on a conciliation board to regulate wages for the industry. Criticism of this arrangement grew, particularly after 1902, when a series of pay cuts were introduced.

The basic reason for the employers’ offensive was the economic position of the coal industry. Those seams nearest the surface, easiest and cheapest to mine, were mostly exhausted. Coal-owners sent their miners deeper and deeper, with the consequences that more men had to be employed on haulage and the maintenance of roadways — essentially unproductive tasks. As a result, output per man fell and the cost per ton of coal rose. To make matters worse, coal-owners had to contend with mounting competition in the lucrative export trade from other countries, where collieries had been constructed relatively recently. Their coal tended to be easier and cheaper to mine, and foreigners had the further benefit of greater technological sophistication. In Britain, only eight per cent of output was mechanically cut by 1913, and an even smaller percentage was mechanically conveyed underground. British pits also seemed backward in the use of electricity, steel and modern production methods, although geological conditions may have been partly to blame.

In this economic context, coal-owners sought to put the full burden of the industry’s problems on the shoulders of the miners. Conciliation boards helped towards this end: there was equal representation of masters and men on the board, with an ‘independent’ chairman, usually a superannuated Tory peer, who could be relied upon to side with the owners on any crucial issue. Faced with this challenge, the unions failed to use their bargaining position to the full. Steeped in the ideology of class-collaboration, they restricted their activities to the conciliation board, not mobilising the strength of the union at coal-face level.

In 1908, the British economy suffered a trade depression. As demand for coal is derivative, fluctuating with the level of industrial production, the recession had a serious effect in the mining industry. Output, prices and employment all fell. In the course of a year, the owners secured two wage reductions of five per cent each through the conciliation board, and they put in for a third. Having the awkward task of making their members accept a reduction in their standard of living, union officials had difficulty in persuading a recalcitrant rank and file. The Miners Federation President, Enoch Edwards, argued forcefully for maintaining existing procedures:

The system of conciliation is better, after all, than the rough and tumble methods of strife with all its drawbacks, and there is always the solid advantage that you do keep the continuity of peace generally. [39]

But the men who worked underground did not necessarily regard peace, bought for such a high price, as an advantage. George Harvey, a Durham collier, declared:

The leaders must resort to compromise because the waging of a conflict endangers not only the existence of their unions but their own soft jobs also. Compromise is the union official’s god.

Harvey went on to suggest that this attitude vitiated the organisations themselves, as well as the leaders:

They have developed into dues-collecting concerns pure and simple. Their salaried officials have everything to lose and nothing to gain in a struggle, and they prefer to obtain such tit-bits from the masters as will satisfy their dues supporters without attempting in any way the fighting of the class struggle. In fact, the trade-union movement is tending to create a sort of organ of oppression within the masters’ organ of oppression — the state — and an army of despotic union chiefs who are interested in reconciling, as far as possible, the interests of masters and men. [40]

When conflict flared, union officials fought the blaze. No word of protest came from them when some of their members were sent to jail. In County Durham, miners of Swalwell and Washington ‘absented themselves from work without notice’. Prison sentences were imposed on the leading militants. They had broken the law, said the union officials, and therefore did not deserve the protection of the union. The militants’ reply was: if the union was so concerned about what the law thinks, why did it not prosecute the many coal-owners guilty of infringements of the Mines Acts?

In 1909, some Northumbrian miners struck. At Ashington, the putters — not falling into the trap of their brothers at Swalwell and Washington — gave due notice of their strike. This did not help them so far as gaining union support was concerned. Their dispute involved other workers who, unable to continue their employment as a consequence of the strike, applied locally for poor relief. But the Guardians, led by the Right Honourable Thomas Burt, refused, arguing that they should do the work of the men on strike rather than apply for relief. [41]

Burt and other union officials signed an agreement in 1910, and as this was done without the mandate of the membership, a hundred thousand miners downed tools. The agreement increased the hours that the colliery would operate and gave the manager greater labour flexibility. But the strikers pointed out that, among other things, the new arrangements would mean that hewers sometimes would be called upon to do the work of shifters. Since shifters were generally older men, it was feared that some aged miners might be thrown on the scrap-heap — as did, in fact, happen. [42]

The leader of the Northumbrian miners’ union, Thomas Burt, was one of the two first working men to be elected to Parliament, at the 1874 general election. After that date, he combined his industrial and political duties, sitting in Parliament as a Liberal MP. True, he was venerated by the press and his fellow politicians, especially when he became ‘Father of the House’, but many north-eastern miners, responsible for paying his salary, took a different attitude. Mutterings increased when Liberal coal-owner, Lord Joicey, presented him with a cheque for £260. A leaflet, published by some rank-and-file Durham miners, commented: ‘If £260 is the “price,” then miners’ leaders are cheap and worth getting hold of.’ Similarly, The Socialist remarked on Burt’s role:

By appearing on platforms and paying tributes to capitalists, by taking the Presidency of the National Liberal Federation, by trotting around to all kinds of capitalist ceremonies, he has fulfilled a mission for the capitalists and helped to rivet still tighter the chains of the working class. [43]

Union leaders like Burt, ageing and conservative, increasingly grew out of touch with the mood of the miners. A gulf developed between the officials and the rank and file throughout the country, and in no place was this more true than in the biggest coalfield, South Wales. There, ever since 1875, in the demoralisation that followed the defeat of the great strike of that year, whatever miners’ organisation existed was dominated by one man — William A Abraham, known as Mabon. Destroying militant opposition, he secured acceptance of the notion of a sliding scale, where wages automatically fluctuated with the price of coal. This obviated the need for industrial action. Wages went up — or, more usually, down — irrespective of the stage of the men’s union. Membership became pointless: by 1908 it had dropped from two-thirds to only half the labour force. South Wales miners felt defenceless. Not only was the sliding scale manipulated against them, but coal-owners used the miners’ lack of organisational strength to whittle away fringe benefits and traditional rights.

Sullen resentment turned to active opposition in 1910, when miners at the Ely pit in the Rhondda Valley were sent home by the management because of a quarrel about working in abnormal places. Two other pits, Nantgwyn and Pandy, stopped in sympathy with their locked-out brothers. This brought the principal union official, William Abraham MP, into action begging them to reconsider their decision — in the interests of the coal-owner!

‘My friend DA Thomas’, he said, ‘has been suffering from poor health; and I feel sure that on his holiday in France he will not benefit in health if he were to hear of such a strike as this. I beg you, I beg you to hold your hand.’ WH Mainwaring, one of the spokesmen for the Cambrian Combine lodge, tersely replied: ‘Mr DA Thomas may be your friend, Mr Abraham; he is not our friend.’ [44]

Efforts to avert the stoppage proved to be futile. Elsewhere in the coalfield, tempers were beginning to rise. The management of the Lower Duffryn colliery, Mountain Ash, suddenly decided to stop employees taking home waste wood; in future, it had to be paid for. Angry at the discontinuation of an old custom, men thought it the final straw when policemen searched them for timber, and they came out on strike. By the autumn of 1910, all 12,000 miners at the Cambrian Combine had stopped, as had about 18,000 men who worked for other companies.

The coal-owners felt confident of victory. They planned to import large numbers of strike-breakers, and the authorities intended rigorously to enforce law and order. A few tough sentences, it was hoped, would set an example; strikers would see the futility of further resistance. Then, Mabon and the rest of the moderates would regain control.

But the coal-owners, backed by the government, miscalculated. Far from cowering the men into submission, each time they escalated the struggle the strike spread and became more ferocious. They came to realise that they were fighting workers who had a new type of leadership. These were young miners — men like Noah Ablett, Noah Rees, WF Hay and WH Mainwaring — who were articulate, educated and Marxist. Many of them had studied at Ruskin College and participated in the strike there against the non-socialist curriculum.

These new leaders believed in industrial democracy. This was not merely their ultimate aim: it governed their day-to-day practice. As one of them later explained, all important questions had to be placed before mass meetings that would reach the final decision. Once this had been reached, then it was everybody’s duty to carry out the decision in a loyal and disciplined manner. [45] By these means, a remarkable enthusiasm and solidarity was generated in the mining villages. Officials of the National Union of Mineworkers attest to this fact.

The Miners Federation of Great Britain, alarmed at events in South Wales and afraid of trouble spreading to other parts of the country, had adopted an attitude of nominally supporting the strikers. Each week £3000 was despatched to them. In this way, the MFGB hoped to gain popularity among the strikers, and influence to secure acceptance of a settlement with the employers. Essentially, the role of Mabon & Co, now discredited, would be performed by officials of the MFGB.

But when two national officials, Vice-President WE Harvey and General Secretary Thomas Ashton, journeyed to South Wales, they discovered their task was very much more difficult than they had imagined. Ashton described the scene: ‘When we arrived at Tonypandy, the streets were full of men and youths who, to our surprise, shouted out: ‘No ballot’, ‘Go back to England’, ‘Keep your £3000’, ‘Give us the twentieth rule’ — a reference to the rule empowering the MFGB to call a general strike. [46] In the meeting, delegates displayed hostility to Ashton and Harvey. Afterwards, on the way back to the station, the two union officials, who received police protection, were roundly abused by the general crowd. Later, Harvey exclaimed:

Anything is better than the state of the anarchy and red riot such as prevails in Tonypandy today. I have been a trade-union leader for 30 years and have never witnessed anything equal to it. [47]

Despite the vehemence with which they fought, the South Wales miners succumbed to the united might of employers and government, secretly abetted by the national officials of their own union. But their 10-month battle did not end in barren defeat. In other coalfields, miners were stirred by the Welshmen’s tremendous struggle. A radicalisation occurred among pitmen throughout the country. The issue of abnormal places became translated into a demand for a minimum wage for all miners. The 1912 strike, the first nationwide strike of pitmen, came directly from the spark that was first struck in the Rhondda Valley. Equally important, 1911 gave a pointer to the ideological way forward. Probably no pamphlet published in Britain has had a greater impact on any industry than The MinersNext Step had in the coal industry. Every page was imbued with the idea of the potential power of the working class. For this power to be properly utilised, the pamphlet argued, two conditions were necessary: the democratisation of decision-making and centralisation for fighting. The old notion of Mabon & Co that an identity of interest existed between employer and employed was swept aside; class war must replace reliance on conciliation. For this to happen, conservative union officials had to be cast aside, and control vested in the hands of the rank and file. To attain this aim, the South Wales Miners Unofficial Reform Committee was formed, and similar groups sprung up elsewhere. Significantly, it was from this committee that many of the men who played a prominent part in the industrial struggles of the First World War came, and who were later to form the left-wing leadership of the South Wales miners’ union.

Developments closely resembling these took place in the engineering industry, where patterns and personalities that had emerged in the pre-1914 period were to dominate the later period. The trend away from craft unionism and towards industrial unionism, the emergence of shop stewards and the rise of unofficial rank-and-file movements — all have their origins in the years before the First World War.

Engineering workers suffered a grave setback in the 1897 lock-out. It took years for them to recover. Employers compelled them to accept humiliating conditions as a settlement. They arrogated to themselves almost unlimited managerial rights: freedom to introduce non-union labour, unrestricted overtime, piece-work, and any number of apprentices. Also, they overhauled the disputes procedure, providing themselves with devices to prolong, virtually indefinitely, consideration of victimisation and similar issues. With the 1897 settlement, engineering employers thought militancy was in its coffin, and union leaders, seeking to avoid strikes, had no desire to prove them wrong.

An important reason for the weakness of trade unionism in engineering was the proliferation of small organisations. Two hundred and five unions vegetated within the industry; militants like WF Watson, advocating amalgamation, thought there should be one. [48] Undoubtedly, the majority were too tiny to function effectively. A typical example is the United Patternmakers Association, formed in 1872. By January 1909, it had a mere 6963 members, 1395 of whom were unemployed. As a result of protracted unemployment, many craftsmen who were members drifted into unskilled jobs. The union was too weak to protect its members’ jobs, wages — or anything else. [49] But it did exert a negative influence: its members worked during the 1897 lock-out and again in the 1908 dispute. Such unions as the United Patternmakers, ordering their members to remain at work, could always have a baleful effect on any campaign for improvements. As Guy Aldred remarked: ‘The trade unionist blackleg proves a more effectual opponent of his class than either the professional or amateur blackleg.’ [50]

Many of these small unions failed to survive. Criticism of their effectiveness as well as their failure, in many instances, to provide a minimum service, led to their merger or demise. In the years 1900 to 1915, 196 trade unions vanished — in other words, well over the number affiliated to the TUC at the present time. The death of these organisations in the pre-First World War period was celebrated in a journal called Voice of Labour with a poem:

Ten Little Craft Unions
Ten little craft unions, working in a mine;
One of them went on strike, then there were nine.
Nine little craft unions, all digging slate;
One made a contract, then there were eight.
Eight little craft unions, working hours eleven;
One struck for shorter hours, and then there were seven.
Seven little craft unions, all making bricks;
One got blacklisted, then there were six.
Six little craft unions, trying to keep alive;
One scabbed on all the rest, then there were five.
Five little craft unions, working in a store;
One wasn’t recognised, then there were four.
Four little craft unions, good as could be;
One wasn’t good enough, then there were three.
Three little craft unions, working in a crew;
One committed mutiny, then there were two.
Two little craft unions, both on the run;
One lost its treasury, then there was one.
One little craft union, fighting all alone;
The business bought it, then there was none.

Despite the fatalities, the welter of unions that continued to exist made it impossible to formulate any common strategy. They proved to be incapable of coping adequately with the major problems of the time — namely, low wages, the cutting of piece-work rates, and the issues arising as a result of the rapid introduction of machinery of increasing magnitude and complexity.

Frequently, compounding the difficulties, trade unions’ own internal organisation precluded efficiency. In the case of the Associated Society of Engineers, the biggest union in the engineering industry, the most important body was the Executive Committee. This was too small, and was not supplied with sufficient information to deal properly with the myriad problems that cropped up in factories throughout the land. Besides the Executive Committee, the ASE held delegate meetings. These were convened irregularly. Usually the period between delegate meetings was much longer than a year, and they could exercise little control over the Executive Committee nor play a big part in the formulation of union policy. By default, much of the power within the ASE rested with the various district committees. The general picture was one of confusion, with no clearly defined decision-making procedures. One effect of this failure to delineate responsibilities within the union was that it helped, unwittingly, to encourage the growth of initiative at grass-roots level. But, to a large extent, the creation of shop stewards was a natural and inevitable development, a necessary concomitant of changes within the engineering industry. Messrs Clegg, Fox and Thompson, in their history of trade unions, make this point in the following way:

Changes in products, in tools and machines, and in workshop practice and organisation added further complexities. To cope with them district committees were revising their by-laws and port rules, either unilaterally or by agreement with local employers’ associations — some of which were reached after reference to central conference. But they could not cover the finer points of machine-manning and piece rates, or the growing number of disputes over discipline, clocking in and out, and job cards. On these matters the decisions depended on the strength and quality of union leadership in the shop, where the shop steward had already made his appearance. [51]

The ASE’s 1892 delegate conference empowered district committees to appoint shop stewards and direct their activities. Initially their main function was to maintain membership, to see that all remain in benefit, and tell any new employee that he must join the union. This last-mentioned task obviously could result in conflict with management: the workers’ desire to preserve the closed shop versus the employer’s wish to engage whoever he chose. In some factories, shop stewards’ duties gradually grew. The Manchester District Committee permitted its shop committee to negotiate piece rates with foremen. By 1897, Manchester employers were grumbling about ‘forms of interference... surreptitiously and continuously exercised by shop stewards’. [52] Soon similar complaints were heard from employers elsewhere.

The growth in number and power of shop stewards created tensions inside the union as well as for management. The rise of opposition to the ASE leadership was closely related to the emergence of this new force. Disagreement related primarily to two issues. First, there was the question of general strategy. The ASE’s leaders, painfully aware of the terrible drubbing the union received in the 1897 lock-out, wanted to adopt a conciliatory approach, avoiding conflict with the employers wherever possible. Among ordinary engineers, on the other hand, there was a mounting sense of annoyance at low pay and poor conditions, a desire to get even for the defeat of 1897. These contrasting attitudes laid the basis for the second major disagreement: the conflict between local autonomy and centralised authority. The ASE leaders, wanting to maintain a cautious attitude, saw that this could easily be jeopardised by precipitous action at local level. To avoid this happening, they sought to concentrate power in their own hands.

From the turn of the century, the union hierarchy of the ASE became more and more estranged from the membership. In 1902, it signed the Premium Bonus Agreement. The Executive’s conduct was so unpopular, it did not dare to place the agreement before the membership. The next year the Executive Committee quarrelled with the Clydeside engineers — significantly, an area where shop stewards were strong. In other parts of Britain, the ASE had accepted a wage cut of a shilling, but the Clydesiders refused. Despite the Executive’s recommendation, they held two ballots that rejected this advice and, finally, they came out on strike. This annoyed the national leadership, who stopped benefit from being paid to the men and ordered that all monies already paid, on local initiative, be refunded. Eventually, the Clyde engineers — much to the satisfaction of the Executive — returned to work and accepted the wage cut. ‘The men have been saved from themselves and a useless squandering of the society’s money had been prevented’, declared GN Barnes, the ASE General Secretary. ‘A much needed lesson in trade-union discipline has been taught.’ [53]

In 1906, another centre of shop-steward strength, Manchester, came into conflict with both the Executive Committee and central conference. ‘How long is this peace-at-any-price policy to continue?’, asked the Manchester District. ‘How long are the results of the debacle in 1898 to be with us?’ When it refused to accept the recommendations of the national leaders, the Manchester District Committee was suspended.

Erith District Committee suffered the same fate. It was suspended when it resisted the introduction of a bonus scheme at Vickers & Son, a scheme which, at the most, would have given workers only a quarter of the wealth accruing from increased production.

Also in 1907, the ASE Executive reached a general agreement with employers. Among its provisions was one which sought to introduce the single meal-break system — up till then engineers had had two. Of course, workers resented the innovation. When it became obvious that a majority would reject the agreement, the Executive took the unprecedented step of stopping a ballot. Then it issued a statement to the membership:

The principle of collective bargaining through negotiation is at stake... We are normally pledged to the terms of the memorandum, and its rejection would weaken us not only individually, but would weaken anyone who at any future time should be called upon to negotiate on your behalf. [54]

Despite this plea, members rejected the agreement by a two-to-one majority. Employers operated it without the union’s signature.

Its authority badly undermined, the ASE Executive soon encountered another serious challenge. Engineers in the north-east refused to accept the Executive’s recommendation that they accept a wage cut. Twice it was put to the members, and both times rejected. The Tynesiders argued that there was no need for a wage reduction, since local firms were doing well. Armstrong Whitworth, for example, had just declared a higher dividend. But even had this not been true, the north-east engineers said, they would still oppose the cut: engineers should receive a living wage. Irrespective of economic fluctuations, there should be a definite figure below which wages should not be allowed to fall.

The concept of a living wage was new to wage negotiations in the engineering industry. When the north-east workers struck to defend the principle, employers were apprehensive, noting the fresh wave of militancy. One industrialist referred to the prevalence among engineers of ‘the degrading doctrines of new unionism’. Local newspapers darkly hinted it was the result of a sinister socialist plot: the Tyneside engineers had ‘fallen under the influence of an extremely aggressive set of leaders’. [55]

As the strike continued, north-western industrialists became increasingly alarmed. The men remained solid, adamant in their determination to resist the wage cut, despite all the efforts of both employers and union. In desperation, the employers decided in July 1908 to refer the dispute to their national organisation, the Engineering Employers Federation, which threatened to start a nationwide lock-out unless the strike was quickly ended. With fears of a repetition of 1897 at the back of their minds, the ASE leaders made renewed efforts. George Barnes, the General Secretary, attempted to persuade the men to return to work. He was loudly heckled and left for Glasgow, where he referred to the ‘undemocratic feeling’ of the Tynesiders which ‘expressed itself in mistrust of officials and the transfer of power into the hands of unofficial leaders’. [56] The Executive expelled four of these Tyneside militants for publishing ‘an inflammatory leaflet’ criticising the Executive’s decision to send the dispute to arbitration. [57]

After a five months’ struggle, the strikers finally capitulated. They had been isolated; all other districts had accepted the wage cuts, and, moreover, during the stoppage the British economy had gone into a depression, so that the employers’ determination to impose the reduction was further stiffened. Many workers had been confused by the proposal of arbitration, which finally ended the dispute. Even so, a defiant 40 per cent of the men voted against the settlement.

The treatment of the north-east engineers aroused sympathy from other areas. The union leaders found themselves most unpopular. In a previous dispute, when they had come down firmly against the strikers, all four Executive members up for re-election had lost their seats. Probably recalling this fact, the Executive Committee refused to endorse the conduct of the ASE General Secretary. This placed George Barnes, who had held the post since 1892, in an impossible position. He had to resign.

Notwithstanding this attempt to curry favour, opposition within the union grew. In 1910, the ASE Reform Committee was formed, and in the same year, a member described the Executive — ‘in reality an autocracy’ — as ‘the most unpopular body’ within the society. [58]

The situation reached a climax at the thirteenth delegate meeting at Liverpool in June 1912. Up till then, the infrequently-held delegate meetings had generally endorsed, albeit sometimes grudgingly, Executive Committee decisions. On this occasion, however, the two bodies were in direct conflict. Delegates demanded the holding of regular annual conferences, the appointment of an independent chairman to keep a watch on the Executive Committee, and the opening of the ASE’s ranks to unskilled workers. For good measure, delegates called upon the entire Executive to resign, including those members who had just been elected.

Not prepared to accept these decisions, the Executive appealed to the branches over the head of the delegate meeting. Receiving considerable support, it resolved to recall the delegate meeting in December 1912, and make it rescind the resolutions previously passed. But delegates refused to do this, arguing that the delegate meeting was the supreme authority in the union and that the Executive was acting unconstitutionally. The delegate meeting, therefore, appointed its own provisional Executive Committee. But this new body’s authority was not accepted by the old Executive Committee, who took ample provisions into the union headquarters in Peckham Road and barricaded the place.

The siege of Peckham Road did not last long. Supporters of the delegate meeting gained access to the house next door and broke through the wall into the union headquarters. Ralph Fox, who was standing outside the building, gives a vivid eye-witness account in his autobiography:

We waited expectantly. Suddenly the door was flung open. Across the inside, pieces of wood had been nailed and these had been wrenched and hammered away. A few pieces were still stuck round the door, hanging up a nail or two.

Fifteen or twenty men stood in the hall, some of them had been busy on the door. They were a robust looking group: young workmen in their prime, energetic and excited with their activity...

‘And they call themselves engineers!’, said one, holding up a piece of wood which he had wrenched from the door. ‘It’s a disgrace to the trade! I'd be ashamed if I couldn’t fix a door better than that!’

A laugh answered this.

‘Take your coat off!’, said another to me — I was wearing a thick winter overcoat — ‘there’s two or three more upstairs that have got to be thrown out. We've got three down already!’

I looked around. At the foot of the broad flight of stairs was a sandy complexioned man with a fair moustache. He was ruffled and dishevelled. His glasses had been broken in the scuffle. His mouth was bleeding and he had lost one or two teeth. Another man, tall, pale, cadaverous, with dark hair, clung to the banisters. Several men were tugging him down.

‘This is an outrage!’, he cried. ‘I demand the names and addresses of everyone here!’

Another voice, cold and curt, answered him from the floor: ‘We don’t take orders from you anymore. I take full responsibility for everything that has happened!’

After a short parley the dispossessed Executive members agreed to go quietly. They were led out of the Reform Committee and stalwarts formed a chain across the foot of the wide stairs and the door was closed.

Suddenly a heavy knock came at the door. It was opened. Outside stood three Executive members. They had not been part of the all-night garrison. They were men on the further side of 50, big, slow-moving men with expanded waist-belts. Not bad men, I should imagine, but men whose consumption of beer and beef had outweighed their mental activities. A doctor might have recommended diet and exercise. A look of consternation and bewilderment passed over their faces as they saw the determined band blocking their passage.

‘You can’t come in’, the leader told them coldly. ‘You're trespassing!’

They gasped. [59]

Fox described the struggles as a victory for the rank and file. This is partly true. Many of the old agreements that had hung, like albatrosses, round the necks of engineers were swept away. The structure of the union was improved, but many of the gains were quickly lost. The main reason for this was that the opposition was heterogeneous, with no clear, alternative policy. Placed in the power-structure themselves, they quickly succumbed to the same influences that had made their predecessors so obnoxious. This transition to capitalist respectability was hastened by the First World War, when ASE leaders could submerge principles in a patriotic miasma.

To sum up on industrial relations from 1908 to 1914. The disputes were of unprecedented size and ferocity. While they were obviously very disturbing to both employers and government, they never constituted a serious threat to the existence of capitalist society. Coming into being after 50 years of working-class quiescence, they represented the first attempts at mass militant resistance. Like a child’s first efforts at walking, they were clumsy and confused, of significance primarily as a portent of future potential. This is not to denigrate the achievements of trade unionists during the period — many behaved in a bold and courageous manner — but it is to suggest that they must be seen in their historical context.


1. Quoted in DH Aldcroft and HW Richardson, The British Economy: 1870-1939 (London, 1969), p 65.

2. S Pollard, The Development of the British Economy: 1914-1950 (London, 1962), p 19.

3. GDH Cole, An Introduction to Trade Unionism (London, 1918), p 109.

4. GS Bain’s article, British Journal of Industrial Relations, November 1966.

5. JB Jeffreys, The Story of the Engineers (London, 1945), pp 144-49.

6. EJB Allen’s article, Socialist Standard, June 1906.

7. EH Phelps Brown, The Growth of British Industrial Relations (London, 1959), p 92.

8. HJ Fyrth and H Collins, The Foundry Workers (Manchester, 1959), pp 112-15.

9. Royal Commission on Trades Disputes and Trade Combinations, 1906, Q 3208.

10. PS Bagwell, The Railwaymen (London, 1963), p 224.

11. S and B Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (London, 1920), p 603; GDH Cole and R Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968 edition), p 458.

12. Quoted in HA Clegg, A Fox and AF Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1964), p 319.

13. JE Williams, The Derbyshire Miners (London, 1962), pp 389-90.

14. F Bealey and H Pelling, Labour and Politics: 1900-1906 (London, 1958), p 75.

15. Royden Harrison, Before the Socialists (London, 1965), p 36.

16. HA Clegg, A Fox and AF Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1964), p 327.

17. GDH Cole, An Introduction to Trade Unionism (London, 1918), p 112.

18. S Pollard, The Development of the British Economy: 1914-1950 (London, 1962), p 25.

19. AR Prest, ‘National Income of the United Kingdom, 1870-1946’, Economic Journal, Volume 58, no 229, 1948.

20. AR Prest, ‘National Income of the United Kingdom, 1870-1946’, Economic Journal, Volume 58, no 229, 1948.

21. GR Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes (London, 1920), p 109; Bob Holton, British Syndicalism, 1900-1914 (London, 1976), pp 73-122, gives a good account of the industrial unrest.

22. Bob Holton, British Syndicalism, 1900-1914 (London, 1976), pp 149-50.

23. Manchester Guardian, 14 August 1911; HR Hikins, ‘The Liverpool General Transport Strike 1911’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Volume 113 (1961), pp 169-95; Bob Holton, ‘Syndicalism and Labour on Merseyside, 1906-1914’, in Building the Union: Essays on the History of the Workers’ Movement, Merseyside, 1756-1967 (Liverpool, 1973) give a good account of the strike.

24. Tom Mann’s Memoirs (London, 1967), p 223.

25. Ness Edwards, History of the South Wales Miners Federation (London, 1938), p 40. It is interesting to note that, amid the mayhem and murder, Ness Edwards reports one bright spot — the King expressed his grave concern for the ‘safety of the pit ponies’.

26. Quoted in George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London, 1970), p 241. Brian Pearce, ‘Some Past Rank-and-File Movements’, Labour Review, April-May 1959, puts the Cumbrian Combine dispute and other strikes of the time into historical perspective.

27. Tom Mann’s Memoirs (London, 1967), pp 230-31. Commenting on the imprisonment of Tom Mann and his comrades, The Socialist (April 1912) said: ‘We are not syndicalists, we have no sympathy with syndicalism, but we are fighters for freedom, and we are determined to uphold the right, no matter what the consequences, the right of free speech and free press.’ The Socialist went on to reprint the ‘Don’t Shoot’ leaflet, and was not prosecuted. The first journal to publish it, the Irish Worker, felt a deep sense of injustice because the authorities had taken no action against them.

28. London Record, 2 December 1910.

29. EH Phelps Brown, The Growth of British Industrial Relations (London, 1959), pp 298-99.

30. PS Bagwell, The Railwaymen (London, 1963), p 96.

31. PS Bagwell, The Railwaymen (London, 1963), p 96.

32. EH Phelps Brown, The Growth of British Industrial Relations (London, 1959), p 301.

33. The Socialist, December 1907.

34. Quoted in Eugene Burdick, Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism in Britain until 1918, Volume 2 (Oxford PhD thesis, 1950), pp 8-9.

35. PS Bagwell, The Railwaymen (London, 1963), p 291.

36. Eugene Burdick, Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism in Britain until 1918, Volume 2 (Oxford PhD thesis, 1950), p 9.

37. The Socialist, October 1911.

38. Branko Pribićević, The Shop Stewards Movement and WorkersControl 1910-1922 (Oxford, 1959), p 5.

39. R Page Arnot, The Miners: A History of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, 1889-1910 (London, 1949), p 327.

40. George Harvey, Industrial Unionism and the Mining Industry (Pelaw on Tyne, 1917), p 3.

41. George Harvey, Industrial Unionism and the Mining Industry (Pelaw on Tyne, 1917), pp 7-8; The Socialist, February 1909.

42. The Socialist, February 1910.

43. The Socialist, August 1910.

44. R Page Arnot, South Wales Miners: Glowyr De Cymru: A History of the South Wales Miners Federation (1898-1914) (London, 1967), p 177.

45. R Page Arnot, South Wales Miners: Glowyr De Cymru: A History of the South Wales Miners Federation (1898-1914) (London, 1967), p 177; David Evans, Labour Strike in the South Wales Coalfield: 1910-1911 (Cardiff, 1963) gives a detailed account of the strike.

46. T Ashton, Three Big Strikes in the Coal Industry, Volume 2 (Manchester, 1927), p 187; R Page Arnot, The Miners: A History of the Miners Federation of Great Britain, 1889-1910 (London, 1949), p 231.

47. Eugene Burdick, Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism in Britain until 1918, Volume 2 (Oxford PhD thesis, 1950), p 233.

48. WF Watson, One Union for Metal, Engineer and Shipbuilding Workers (np, nd).

49. Industrial Unionist, May 1909.

50. Guy Aldred, The Logic and Economics of the Class Struggle (London, 1908), p 7.

51. HA Clegg, A Fox and AF Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1964), p 431.

52. Second Series of Examples of Restriction and Interference, given by Federated Engineering Employers, cited by HA Clegg, A Fox and AF Thompson, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889, Volume 1 (Oxford, 1964), p 431.

53. ASE Monthly Report, June 1903.

54. ASE Monthly Report, July 1907.

55. Northern Mail, 16 March 1908. Richard Croucher, ‘The North Eastern Engineers’ Strike of 1908’, North East Group for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, no 9, October 1975, gives a detailed analysis of the dispute.

56. Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 24 April 1908; North Mail, 24 April 1908.

57. The Socialist, August 1908; Newcastle Daily Journal, 23 April 1908.

58. JT Brownlie, writing in ASE Monthly Journal, September 1910.

59. RM Fox, Smoky Crusade (London, 1938), pp 102-03.