Them and us in history

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Today when the working class is under sustained attack from the Tories, John Newsinger's new book on the class war in Britain is timely. Here he picks out the lessons from the explosive year of 1911.

The year 1911 is one of the most important in British history. It is not remembered as such because there were no royal babies, no great military conquests or massacres, no notable parliamentary occasions.

Instead it is important because the mass action of hundreds of thousands of British working class men and women shifted the balance of class forces in their own favour.

Living standards were falling, work was intensifying and management tyranny was becoming increasingly oppressive. A fightback was inevitable.

The great struggles of that year began with a strike by one of the most downtrodden groups of workers, the seamen. They confronted vicious anti-union employers, who maintained a permanent strike-breaking organisation with scabs always on call.

The seamen called a strike for 15 June, but men began walking out as early as the 9th with port after port being tied up.

The strike spread to other port workers, with the dockers walking out in sympathy with the seamen and for their own demands.

Workers employed in dock-side factories, many of them women, struck for recognition and increased pay. The strikes were fuelled by an exuberant rage that swept all before it.

The employers retreated, recognising unions and conceding increases in pay and improvements in conditions.

The tyranny of the management in the workplace had been challenged and rolled back. Inspired by the success of the seamen and the dockers, railwaymen in Liverpool began walking out on unofficial strike on 5 August. Within a few days 50,000 men across the country were out.

In Liverpool the dockers blacked railway traffic in sympathy and were promptly locked out. The strike committee, chaired by Tom Mann, held a great demonstration on St George’s Plateau on Sunday 13 August.

It was attacked by the police with many injured. This provoked days of rioting that left two workers shot dead by troops and others with bayonet wounds.

King George V wrote to then home secretary Winston Churchill to complain that not enough was being done to make the workers fear the troops.

Tom Mann and the strike committee responded by calling a general strike, effectively taking control of the city. Liverpool, one cabinet member complained, was on “the verge of revolution”.

Once again the employers retreated. In a city where joining a union had once put your job at risk, union membership now became customary. The dockers’ union had only 8,000 members at the start of 1911. By the end of the year it had 31,000.

Militancy and solidarity had triumphed in the face of the employers backed up by the courts and the police, reinforced by armed troops.

The railwaymen’s unofficial strike continued to spread and the union leadership was eventually forced to make it official. This was the only way it could regain control.

Across the country militant action shut the railways down. Railwaymen and their supporters blocked the tracks and stormed signal boxes. Churchill mobilised some 58,000 troops in support of the employers. On 8 August at Llanelli, troops shot two men dead, sparking serious rioting.

Instead of forcing the employers to terms, the union leaders, eager to display their moderation, sold the movement out even while the strike was getting stronger.

Troops could not be effectively deployed because the trains were not running, yet the union leaders accepted an offer that had been on the table when they made the strike official. They only got it endorsed at mass meetings by lying about what had been achieved.

They were assisted in this by the enthusiastic support of the Labour Party leadership for the deal. As George Barnes MP pointed out, if the men had known “the full text and character of the settlement…no restarting would have taken place”.

Despite this setback thousands of workers took action, walking out in tumultuous displays of defiance. In Bermondsey in London that same August some 15,000 women workers employed in food processing, box making and glue factories walked out. They marched from factory to factory calling their sisters out in a tremendous show of militancy.

They demanded more pay, better conditions and union recognition. There were similar outbreaks in many places once it became clear that the employers were on the run.

By the end of 1911 union membership had increased by more than a fifth. What was the Labour Party’s response to this rank and file revolt? Labour MPs proposed a 30-day cooling off period before workers could strike, and punitive fines for unofficial strikes.

Labour had failed to learn the lesson that we must: militancy and solidarity work.

Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939 is published by Bookmarks and is available now for £7.99
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