Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).

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Today in labour history: Mary Macarthur, womens TU leader, dies, Golders Green, 1921.

Mary Macarthur, the daughter of John Macarthur and Anne Martin, was born in Glasgow on 13th August 1880. The couple had six children, but only three survived, all of them girls. Mary attended the local school and after editing the school magazine, decided she wanted to become a full-time writer.

In 1895 the family opened a drapery business in Ayr and Mary was taken on as a book-keeper. John Macarthur was a supporter of the Conservative Party and an opponent of trade unions and sent his daughter to observe a meeting of the Shop Assistants’ Union.

Mary was converted to the cause of trade unions by a speech made by John Turner about how badly some workers were being treated by their employers. Mary became secretary of the Ayr branch and at socialist meeting in the town, she met and fell in love with Will Anderson, an active member of the Independent Labour Party.

In 1902 Mary became friends with Margaret Bondfield who encouraged her to attend the union’s national conference. She later recalled: “I had written to welcome her into the Union, but, when she came to meet me at the station, I was overcome with the sense of a great event. Here was genius, allied to boundless enthusiasm and leadership of a high order, coming to build our little Union into a more effective instrument.” Mary was eventually elected to the union’s national executive. Mary’s political activities created conflict with her father who had a strong hatred for socialism. Anderson proposed marriage but Mary decided to pursue a career instead, and in 1903 moved to London where she became Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League.

As well as her trade union activities, Macarthur was an active member of the Independent Labour Party in London where she worked closely with two other Scots, James Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. Macarthur was involved in the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and the formation of the Anti-Sweating League in 1906. The following year she founded the Women Worker, a monthly newspaper for women trade unionists. Later it was transformed into a weekly with a circulation of about 20,000.

Angela V. John has argued: “Mary Macarthur is perhaps best known for founding the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) in 1906. She began as president, but then exchanged offices with Gertrude Tuckwell (1861–1951) to become general secretary. By the end of its first year the NFWW boasted seventeen branches in Scotland and England and about two thousand members. Mary Macarthur was especially concerned about the relationship between low wages and women’s lack of organisation.”

Mary Macarthur was an inspirational figure and recruited many women into the movement. This included Dorothy Jewson and Susan Lawrence, who both went on to become Labour Party MPs. Active in the fight for the vote, she was totally opposed to those women in the NUWSS and the WSPU who were willing to accept the franchise being given to only certain categories of women. Macarthur believed that a limited franchise would disadvantage the working class and feared that it might act as a barrier against the granting of full adult suffrage. This made Macarthur unpopular with middle class suffragettes who saw limited suffrage as an important step in the struggle to win the vote.

Mary Macarthur sat on the executive of the Anti-Sweating League and gave evidence to the select committee on homework in 1908. Macarthur also campaigned for a legal minimum wage. In the summer of 1911 she supported the estimated 20,000 women involved in twenty concurrent strikes in Bermondsey and other areas of London and helped them win their demands.

Will Anderson followed Macarthur down to London and the couple married on 21st September 1911. Their first child died at birth in 1913 but two years later a daughter, Anne Elizabeth, was born. Anderson was elected to the House of Commons to represent Sheffield Attercliffe in 1914 but was defeated in 1918. Macarthur also stood as a Labour candidate in Stourbridge, but like the others who opposed the First World War, she was defeated in the 1918 General Election.

Mary was devastated when Will Anderson died in the 1919 influenza epidemic. She continued her work with the Women’s Trade Union League and played an important role in transforming it into the Women’s section of the Trade Union Congress.

Mary Macarthur developed cancer in 1920 and after two unsuccessful operations died at home, 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green on 1st January, 1921. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium three days later.

(post nicked, due to holiday malaise, from spartacus schoolnet, bar one tiny change, taking emphasis off Mary ‘organising’ the women workers of Bermondsey – they were already on strike when she got involved to support them.)

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This week in rebel history: Bermondsey’s women workers launch massive strike wave, 1911

“One stifling August morning, while the [transport workers’] strike was at its height, the women workers in a large confectionery factory, in the middle of Bermondsey, in the ‘black patch of London’, suddenly left work. As they went through the streets, shouting and singing, other women left their factories and workshops and came pouring out to join them . . . The women were underpaid and overcrowded . . . Yet they were oddly light-hearted, too. Many of them, dressed in all their finery, defied the phenomenal temperature with feather boas and fur tippets, as though their strike were some holiday of the soul, long overdue.” (George Dangerfield)

“The tropical heat and sunshine of that summer seemed to evoke new hopes and new desires in a class of workers usually only too well described as ‘cheap and docile’ . . . Most of them regarded the conditions of their lives as in the main perfectly inevitable, came out on strike to ask only 6d. or 1s. more wages and a quarter of an hour for tea, and could not formulate any more ambitious demands.” (Barbara Hutchins)

In August 1911, a wave of strikes in the southeast London borough of Bermondsey among 1000s of strikers, almost all women or girls, closed many of the numerous local factories and won huge improvements in their pay and conditions. They were initiated by around 15,000 women and girls employed in local jam, biscuit, confectionery and similar food-processing factories, tin-boxmaking, glue and other manufactures. The strikes began as a series of spontaneous demonstrations, among mostly non-union labour, calling for improved wages and conditions, but the intervention of National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) trade-union organiser Mary Macarthur helped to unify and give focus to the demands. The factory women’s action ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

The Bermondsey strikes took place during a year of militant upsurge in workers struggles to improve their lives throughout the country, with massive transport strikes the most visible aspect of an eruption of disputes across many industries. Workers in already heavily unionised workplaces, highly organised, were prominent. Many among them were expressing frustration with the existing union structures, and interest was growing in newer ideas and ways of organising, like syndicalism. Discussion and debate of socialist, communist, anarchist ideas increased. In response to the industrial unrest, troops were sent in to Liverpool and South Wales to intimidate and repress strikes beginning to coalesce into revolt; the government feared the new militancy. And although the peak of 1911 failed to match up to their fears and the dreams of some militants, the next few years would continue to see a rising tide of strikes, as well as political and social unrest.

The August 1911 Bermondsey strikes broke out in the midst of this ferment, but seemed even then to be very different to many of the other events of that year. Most of the local women workers were previously un-unionised, or had even been somewhat hostile to union recruitment; though fair numbers of male trade unionists had almost certainly not helped by regarding many of the workplaces women worked in as unreliable and women in general as not worth organising (a view expressed by gasworkers union leader and Labour MP Will Thorne, who said women ‘do not make good trade unionists’.) The eruption of strikes among the woman workers of Bermondsey took even local male union activists by surprise.

Bermondsey

The Bermondsey area spreads for over three miles along the south bank of the Thames, facing the City of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey, set up in 1900, included Rotherhithe, so that in the early twentieth century the borough stretched from London Bridge on the western side, bordering Southwark, to the Surrey Docks complex in the east, and as far south as the Old Kent Road. Bermondsey’s river frontage was the basis for its industry. Riverside docks and wharves created the primary source of employment for male workers in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, although railway and construction work also provided heavy labouring jobs. River transport for bulky raw materials fed Bermondsey’s semi-processing industries, such as leather tanneries and sawmills, and particularly the manufacture and distribution of food products, which explain Bermondsey’s title at the time of ‘London’s larder’. Tooley Street was the centre of this trade, with the Hay’s Wharf Company, the leading dockside distributor, responsible for handling a wide variety of foodstuffs including tea, and, after the introduction of refrigeration, which the Company helped to pioneer, an international trade in dairy produce and meat from the 1860s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of large-scale jam, biscuit and confectionery manufacturing and of ancillary packaging firms, such as those for tin-box making, food processing dominated Bermondsey’s industry, overtaking older industries such as leather tanning, and providing a major source of employment for women in the area. The Peek Frean biscuit company, for example, had existed in Bermondsey since 1859, but jam factories were not set up by major firms like Hartley’s and Lipton until the turn of the century. For male workers, major projects carried out around the turn of the century (which included the world’s first electric underground rail system, running from the City to Stockwell via London Bridge, and the construction of Tower Bridge in 1894 and of the Rotherhithe Tunnel in 1908) meant continuing opportunities for casual labouring jobs. With industrialization and the expansion of the transport system, the population of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe surged from around 65,000 in 1850 to about 126,000 in 1911.” (Ursula de la Mare, Necessity and Rage: the Factory Women’s Strikes in Bermondsey, 1911)

Bermondsey was well known for its particular poverty – 1,500 people lived in local workhouses. 40% of London’s population lived in dire poverty but in the dock areas it climbed to above 80%.

If this poverty was common to many other working class neighbourhoods, Bermondsey was marked by many individual characteristics which gave it a particular character. Its geography left it somewhat isolated and insular, and helped the growth of a cohesive community. Many people living locally were also born in South London, overwhelmingly so around the time of the strikes, helping to create a largely homogenous culture, predominantly working class. This contributed to the strength of industrial struggles; this was also partly a product of the domination of a few industries: the docks, and transport from them, and food manufacturing; workplaces people lived cheek by jowl with, their shared experiences linking both home and work life.

Local poverty was a consequence in part of the nature of employment there: dockers, for instance, the largest group of workers locally, depended on a system of daily and weekly hiring for subsistence wages; in 1892 the weekly pay for London dockworkers averaged between thirteen and seventeen shillings, and it remained at a low level into the 1900s.

Other trades among local male residents also dominated by low-paid or casual jobs, unskilled or semi-skilled, subject to seasonal variations and the vagaries of trade. Women’s work often topped up low wages of the male ’breadwinner’. “Female labour, as a consequence, became a source of supplementary earnings for family incomes, ‘a kind of reserve market . . . when the husband comes on bad time’. Booth identified the development of occupations for women outside the home with the pressures on male employment in Bermondsey, such as the increasing casualisation of dock work. This resulted, he said, in ‘a great extension of employment for women in the making and packing of jam . . . chiefly low-class work at low pay . . . largely seasonal in character’. He referred specifically to the Bermondsey and Southwark riverside as areas with family economies of male dock-workers and women engaged in jam factories and similar trades, or outwork. Statistical evidence indicates that in 1911 women in the jam, confectionery and biscuit-making trades were ten per cent of the female labour force in Bermondsey, with a larger proportion, twenty-four per cent, engaged in outwork such as sackmaking and furpulling.” (de la Mare)

Women workers were far from passive victims of poverty. Working in the jam and pickle factories might be badly paid, but was an improvement on some of the filthy, exhausting and degrading traditional jobs the area had provided, like fur-pulling, sackmaking and wood-chopping. And factory work did give the women a measure of independence from their menfolk, as well as a sociable and collective spirit (which manifested sometimes in ways disapproved of as immoral: the 1900 Bermondsey parish magazine, predictably censorious, reported attempts to reform ‘wild factory girls . . . half-drunk, and yelling the lowest music hall songs, and dancing like wild creatures’. Young women working in factories were often targets of moral reform campaigns: because they were working outside the traditional ‘place’ for women, because the pay they received could also even partly liberate them and allow them to party… among other reasons…)

However, work in the local factories was still badly paid, and the work was often seasonal, irregular… The women ere also often subjected to fines and deductions for ‘expenses’ by the managers. Hours were long, conditions tough, and facilities for the workers basic.

Prelude: the transport strike of 1911

The Bermondsey strike movement was influenced by the transport workers’ walkout during the previous month, part of a national transport strike. In the capital this included an all-London walk-out of the dockers, plus the Carmen (cart-drivers), including the men at the Surrey docks.

“In London the dockers’ union had been attempting, since 1909, to increase the hourly rate of pay of men employed by the Port of London Authority and reduce their hours. In 1910, the matter was again raised with the PLA by the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Trades Council, without result. J.A. Fox, branch secretary of the dockers’ union, complained in January 1911 that “a number [of men] work 84 hours per week for less than the dockers’ tanner and nearly all get considerably below the rate paid by private employers.” By summer the men’s patience was exhausted and on 4th July 300 grain trimmers as the Surrey Commercial Docks struck for a minimum wages of 8 pence per hour. These men were members of the Labour Protection League, and, on the advice of their leaders, resumed work pending a Port of London Authority decision on their demands. When the PLA finally agreed to negotiation in the face of a strike threat, the Shipping Federation, representing private firms, was unwilling to join the discussion and the newly formed National Transport Workers Federation, led by Ben Tillett and representing the dock labourers, refused to negotiate unless they were present.

The National Federation of Transport Workers (NFTW) called a mass meeting of all riverside workers at Southwark Park on Sunday, 22 July, which was addressed by leaders of the watermen and lightermen and the carmen’s union, by Harry Gosling, representing the NFTW, and Arthur Harris of the South London Labour League. The purpose of the meeting was to unite all the different grades of dock worker under a common banner and to refuse any settlement which failed to include any worker the association represented. According to press reports this statement was greeted warmly by the meeting.

On Monday, 24 July, the Shipping Federation finally joined the conference but the coal porters and Carmen announced a demand that the private employers should recognize their union and decided to strike until their grievances were settled. The conference took place behind closed doors and little or no information leaked out of any progress towards meeting the men’s demands. The men. Impatient and frustrated by the length of the discussions and the absence of any news, agreed to stand together instead of awaiting arbitration, and 20,000 dockers and Carmen struck at the beginning of August.

Meanwhile, although the NFTW reached agreement with the PLA, the agreement fell short of the initial demands. However, it did represent a distinct improvement of between 4 and 5 shillings per week in wages. Agreement had not been reached with those employed by the Shipping Federation who were demanding an increase from 7 pence to 8 pence per hour, nor the question of lunch breaks which were left to arbitration. Harry Gosling said that every section of the workforce must be settled or members of the NFTW must be ready to come out on strike.

In the face of a strike threat at Surrey Docks, one of the private wharves, Stanton’s Wharf, conceded to the pay increase demanded and also agreed to pay the lunch break. Another firm, Mark Brown’s Wharf, agreed to the increased hourly rate but refused to pay the lunch break. The men at Stanton’s Wharf refused to return to work until the other striking dockers’ claims were met. Strike action spread rapidly. The coal porters were joined by other porters, dockers, lightermen and watermen. While some were striking for the extra penny per hour, others were striking for union recognition by private firms or a 10-hour day. On Thursday, 3 August 1000 men employed in the grain and Canadian produce departments at Surrey Docks came out in support of the payment for the dinner…” (Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

The Women Take a Stand

Local Independent Labour Party activist Dr Alfred Salter had Salter had been busy organising relief for the transport workers’ families; when the employers gave way, he returned home assuming that the struggle was over.

“The next morning he had a shock. Without any organisation, without any lead, thousands of workers employed in Bermondsey, men women and girls, came out on strike. They had tabled no demands, they could not even voice their grievances, few of them belonged to a trade union, they knew nothing of how to run a strike; they just knew that the conditions of their existence were intolerable, and they would no longer put up with them without protest.” (Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story)

Though there was no formal organisational link between the striking transport workers and the women factory workers who now took inspiration from their victory, family and community connections were strong. The connection between the dockers and women employed in the preserves and jam manufacturing industries was identified by Charles Booth. The work was seasonal and employers took advantage of a large pool of unskilled women workers, often the wives of casual labourers, who were willing to accept low wages for part-time work to help family finances during times of a husband’s unemployment.

As a consequence of these low wages and poor conditions, Pink’s jam factory, which was nick-named, because of its working conditions, “The Bastille”, became a target of the Labour Protection League which had attempted to unionise it in 1897 with the aim of increasing the minimum wage from four and a half pence to sixpence per hour for a 56-hour week. The employers were hostile to such moves and sacked employees who were union activists. As a consequence, the trade union were unable to get a foothold in such firms.

But a failure of trade unionism to take hold had never meant a lack of solidarity. In 1889, during the huge London dock strike, the South London dockers had received support from workers employed in industries totally unconnected with their own, and particularly from women employed in firms like Peak Freans and Spratts, both biscuit manufacturers. A large number of the women workers joined the striking dockers march through local streets. The similarities in the support given by this element of the South London workforce to the striking dockers in 1889 and 1911 is such that it must be considered to be rooted in links of kinship or neighbourhood.

In August 1911, the food processing industry of South London was virtually devoid of any trades union membership, despite having the nation’s largest concentration of manufacturers. Eight thousand workers, mainly women, were employed in jam manufacture and the turnover of its factories represented 40 per cent of the national production. It enjoyed a similar market share of biscuit production and was also the main centre of he manufacture of sugar confectionary, chocolate, soups and pickles.

In the summer of 1911, there was a handful of union activists in a few factories and some intimidation of workers through demonstration outside factory gates, but their influence was very limited, and the scale of the spontaneous protest which began on 12 August 1911 far eclipsed any trade union activity. There was no union call for action, indeed few of the workers were unionised at all, but on Monday, 14 August, 14,000 women suddenly came out on strike and nearly all the large factories were obliged to close. According to Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers, the cause of the revolt was low pay. The average weekly wage for grown girls and women in South London was 7 to 9 shillings, while thousands of girls under 16 earned only 3 shillings per week.

The Daily Chronicle reported ‘strike fever’ spreading through the Bermondsey factories. Mary Agnes Hamilton, in the more literary style of her biography of Mary Macarthur, notes the oppressive heat, then describes how the ‘brittle nerves’ of the factory women, who had been supporting their striking menfolk, ‘suddenly gave way’ and they burst into action, suggesting the unrestrained nature of the women’s protest.

In a press report on the beginning of the strikes, the women were described as being ‘in the highest spirits’: They went laughing and singing through Bermondsey, shouting ‘Are we downhearted?’ and answering the question by a shrill chorus of ‘No!’. It was noticeable that many of them had put on their ‘Sunday best’. In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore fur boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect.

Women working at Benjamin Edgington, tentmakers, joined by some female employees from Pearce Duff, custard makers, marched down Tooley Street ‘singing the strike marseillaise, ‘‘Fall in and follow me!’’ ’ Women from Pink’s jam factory were in the forefront of the strikes, parading the streets of Bermondsey with a banner inscribed, ‘We are not white slaves, but Pink’s slaves’.

Besides the women from the three firms mentioned above, employees of over fifteen other firms came out on strike, including from Peek Frean biscuits and Hartley’s jam factories. A striker at Shuttleworth’s chocolate factory told a Southwark and Bermondsey Recorder journalist, ‘We are striking for more pay, mister, and we won’t go in till we get it’.

On such low wages as they had been earning, there was no chance of workers having savings to help them through the strike. Having no union, there was no strike pay. For those on strike, outdoor relief (the dole) was routinely refused, and pawn shops shut their doors. Some local charities supplied aid, such as Christ Church, Bermondsey, which provided breakfasts for strikers. But local support networks helped sustain the strikers when the first flush of enthusiasm had passed…

The I.L.P

The striking women turned for help to the newly formed Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, headed by three doctors who ran a local medical practice, and their wives. “The Bermondsey ILP had been formed in May 1908 by disenchanted Progressives like Alfred Salter, a local GP, and his wife, Ada, both of whom had been active in local politics. There were fifteen other founding members including both the other doctors at Salter’s practice, and their wives, one of whom was Eveline Lowe, who would later become the first woman chair of the London County Council. Other members were Joe Craigie of the railwaymen’s trade union, Arthur Gillian, who later founded the chemical workers union, and Charlie Ammon (later Lord Ammon) of the postal workers’ union. Most of the early members were drawn from the chapels and missions of Bermondsey, and they penetrated into every local organisation which allowed opportunities for discussion – brotherhoods, young men’s classes, adult education classes, and debating societies. The branch’s membership came to include a Church of England clergyman, a Congregationalist minister, a Baptist pastor and five Methodist local preachers. By early 1911, the Bermondsey ILP had purchased the former working men’s institute in Fort Road as its headquarters and the foundation stone was barely unveiled when the transport strike broke out.

… The ILP became the organisational centre for many of the wide range of industrial disputes which took place between July and September 1911. It also organised food relief on a large scale, distributing 8000 loaves of bread in two days and ensuring that single male strikers received a loaf of bread and families received groceries to the value of 5 shillings per week.” (Brockway)

The strikers at one factory after another sent deputations to the ILP headquarters to ask for leadership and help. Alfred Salter spent every moment he could among them. Meeting a deputation of railwaymen from the Bricklayers Arms and Willow Walk depots, he found that the maximum wage of the goodsmen was 20 shillings a week and of the yardsmen 18 shillings. “They were not members of the Associated Society of Railway Servants, which tended to cold-shoulder the lowest-paid workers, and they asked Salter to lead them. He agreed to do so, but insisted that their first step should be to enroll in the union, and within a few hours practically every worker at the two depots was in the ASRS with headquarters at the Fort Road Institute to accommodate them.

The railway dispute was a mere fragment of the strikes which swept over Bermondsey. The Institute was besieged by men and women who had left their jobs. Salter, Charlie Ammon and other members of the ILP worked late into the night, advising, organising, negotiating, but the task proved too much for them. Fortunately, as news of the Bermondsey revolt reached the headquarters of the unions, national leaders descended on the Institute and established offices there. The majority of the strikers were women and girls, and Mary MacArthur and Marion Phillips, of the National Federation of Women Workers, (NFWW) were quickly on the scene.”

The NFWW had come to international attention by leading the 1910 women chain makers’ strike, raising £4,000 from supporters. Their policy when approaching the Bermondsey strikes was that all strikers, union members or not, would receive support. Lack of funds never deterred the Federation. An appeal for the Bermondsey strikers raised £500 in one week and a donation of six barrels of herrings!

Victory

“From early morning till late at night meetings were continually in progress,” one report records. “In the grounds at the back of the Institute huge gatherings of railwaymen and other workers were held daily. Inside, one room would be occupied by a committee preparing a new wages list to submit to an employer; in another room workers were busy tabulating grievances so that they could the better present their case to the masters; whilst elsewhere girls were being shown how they could organise into local branches of the Womens’ Trade Union League.” Salter got the minister of a neighbouring chapel, the Rev. Kaye Dunne, to place his premises at the disposal of the strikers as a bread-distributing centre.” (Brockway)

At nearly every workplace important concessions were won. Wages were increased by amounts varying between 3 shillings to 9 shillings a week, in many factories piecework was abolished, and everywhere the strikers were enrolled in the trade unions. Reading today a summary of the concessions gained, one gets some idea of the wretched conditions which existed. The list of victories included a cocoa firm where a wage of 4 shillings 7 pence a week was won for girls of 14, increasing to 12 shillings 4 pence a week at 18. At a tin box works a minimum wage of 10 shillings a week was secured for women workers. At a metallic capsule manufacturers, piece workers obtained halfpence per 1000 more on ‘coloured work’.

Apart from three firms, the remainder of the factories which largely employed women conceded pay increases within a week. Deadlock continued at Peak Frean, biscuit manufacturers of Drummond Road, Bermondsey, who employed 3000 women. The firm, hit by a strike of over two thirds of its workforce, was also picketed by the carmen and unable to receive or make deliveries of its products. In the event, the firm closed down, locking out its workforce, and acrimonious threats were made both by employees and the Labour Federation League, the latter threatening to stage a national boycott of Peak Frean biscuits. The manager at Peak Frean declared: “I don’t know of a single business that is working in the district… It is what one might call a reign of terror”.

Meetings, reinforced with picket lines, were then called by the union organisers, and the workforce urged not to return to work unless wage increases were agreed. Peek Frean employees assembled daily at Rotherhithe Town Hall.

The boss at Pinks blamed the strikes on intimidation because his “workers were well contented” but had been “called out by the mob”.

“Further concessions were announced on Thursday, 17 August at Steel’s hammer and nail manufacturers, the wages of girls under 16 were increased from 7 shillings 8 pence to 9 shillings per week and a minimum wage for older girls of 12 shillings. At Cavendish, bottle washers, the rates increased from 9 shillings and sixpence to a minimum of 12 shillings. By the end of that week, Mary MacArthur had secured concessions from eighteen of the twenty firms whose workers she represented. The rise if the women’s wages amounted to between a shilling and 4 shillings per week. What made these strikes different, according to Mary MacArthur’s biographer, Mary Agnes Hamilton, was that

“the story of the Bermondsey women seems almost to have been isolated – with its mingling elements of unreason and necessity and gaiety and rage – the various spirits of the whole unrest… very soon the streets were filled with women… It was then, when they were all out that they discovered what they had come out for… they wanted an increase.” (Brockway)

Higher wages were also won for the staff at the local Lipton’s jam factory.

“As well as the women workers employed in the food manufacturing trades, men and women strikers employed in packing case manufacture who had been on strike for three weeks received increases ranging from 2 shillings to 4 shillings per week for unskilled and 4 shillings eightpence to six shillings for skilled workmen such as sawyers and boxmakers. Similar across-the-board increases were awarded by other trades like bottle washers and tin box makers. In the latter, where the industry was also consolidated in Southwark and Bermondsey, the strikers achieved a valuable concession that the tin box industry would be considered for inclusion under the terms of the Trades Board Act. The smaller firms welcomed the prospect of regularising wage levels which prevented competition by the undercutting of prices through lowered wages. The strikers were represented in their demands by C.J. Hammond, the president of the Bermondsey ILP, from the Fort Road strike HQ. From the same key area of operation… Eveline Lowe championed the cause of workers at the Idris soft drinks factory.

The widening militancy of the inhabitants of South London spread to Wolseley Street, Bermondsey and Leroy Street, Southwark, where the residents announced a rent strike until the transport strike was over. On 12 August, dissatisfaction among tramway men at New Cross with their conditions of labour culminated in a well-attended meeting that proposed increases in pay and improved conditions such as increased holidays and overtime rates.” (Brockway)

The government was worried enough about public order in the area to order the army station soldiers in a camp in Southwark Park. Its worth remembering in these same weeks, a much more scary situation was developing in Liverpool, with striking transport workers paralysing the city, and something like the beginnings of a revolutionary commune almost coming together, with navy gunboats sent to restore control. The working class was getting way too uppity generally, and the ruling elite were becoming very nervous.

“Publicity for the women’s strikes was also gained through the NFWW’s organisation of public meetings and marches, building on the impetus of the strikers’ own early demonstrations. Marion Phillipps, working out of the Fort Road Institute, planned daily processions, the strikers armed with collecting boxes. A strike rally held on 14 August, at which the speakers included Ben Tillett and Mary Macarthur, was reported to have attracted an audience of 10,000, the women marching (‘most of them hatless’) with banners flying, although another newspaper report spoke of weary-looking women, many carrying babies. The women were quoted as being determined ‘to have a bit of their own back’. A further meeting on 19 August marked the strikers’ victory. The cumulative effect of the press campaigns, relief work at the Institute, and open-air demonstrations had aroused support for the strikers from areas outside the borough, ‘infected by the Bermondsey spirit’.

The NFWW’s mobilisation of support for unionism as part of their campaign was more problematic, although this was a primary aim. Affiliation to a union was seen by Mary Macarthur as a powerful negotiating tool with employers; she considered that union membership strengthened strikers’ bargaining power. At the 19 August victory rally, she announced the establishment of twenty unions in Bermondsey, converting the borough, she said, from Charles Booth’s ‘black patch of London’ to a centre for women’s trade unionism. But it was only a partial conversion. Peek Frean granted wage rises, but refused to recognise the union.

Similarly, Southwell’s, a large-scale jam maker at Dockhead, agreed after face-to-face meetings with the strikers to increase pay for their female employees, but declined to give union recognition. This refusal was, however, not contested by the NFWW officials involved. Perhaps there was an unspoken awareness on their part of the paramount importance of material benefits, rather than union solidarity, for the strikers.” (de la Mare)

Virtually all the strikes in Bermondsey and across neighbouring parts of South London were over by 8 September 1911. The eventual outcome of the Bermondsey women’s strikes was success in obtaining wage rises from most of the employers involved. Dr Salter said that women in nineteen factories had returned to work with increased wages and better conditions, with no improvement in only three cases.

The NFWW, in its annual report for 1911, gave a detailed account of the wage rises ‘obtained by the Federation’ in Bermondsey. They presented standardised rates for all the trades involved, apart from those for jam factory workers, where they reported the figure for Pink’s, presumably because it denoted a benchmark amount for jam factory employees in general.

The following pay scale for workers in jam, biscuit and confectionery factories are listed in the NFWW report:

Pink’s jam factory: wage increase from 9/- to 11/- a week. [Other jam factories included Hartley’s, Lipton and Southwell.]

‘Biscuit-makers: 1/- rise all round for time workers’ [including Peek Frean].

‘Cocoa-makers’ [e.g. Shuttleworth’s]: improved wages for all workers.

A graded scale to be introduced, with a minimum wage for girls aged 14 of 4s 7d, rising annually to 12s 4d. at age eighteen; pieceworkers on day work to receive a rise of 3d. an hour; piece rates to be increased.

The most extraordinary feature of the industrial unrest in South London was its widespread character and the extent it permeated factories and workshops quite untouched by any previous industrial action. The unrest also spread to groups of workers as diverse as post office employees, dock policemen and even to public house barmen. All were clamouring for an improvement in their wages and conditions of labour. A report of the end of the strike in a local newspaper noted, “the barmen, realising the advantages of co-operation and combination as a means of compelling a recognition of their labour decided to form a union.”

While union leaders, churchmen and journalists were conscious of a peculiar feature of the strikes, describing the participants as being “infected with what may be called the ‘strike spirit’, and out for reasons they cannot define,” the Revd. J. Ewing, the pastor of Rye Lane Baptist Chapel, was clear in his mind that the strikers’ determination to improve their pay and conditions sprang from a realisation of a socialist solidarity among them. Dr Salter took the view that the strikers would have been crushed but for the spirit of solidarity, mutual help and sacrifice. “What was remarkable,” he said, “was that the strikes were without organisation or funds and that it was the employers who sought a settlement.”

The winning of victory after victory brought jubilation at the Fort Road Institute, the Independent Labour Party’s base locally, and HQ of so many of the strikes. Mary MacArthur, addressing a triumphant crowd, suggested that the biggest lesson of the strikes was not the small concessions gained on pay and other issues, but the larger picture of the nature of the society the workers of Bermondsey lived under : that they “were beginning to ask themselves why they should accept their conditions of living when before it seemed quite natural to them to lead unhealthy, stunted lives.”

The NFWW distributed 4,000 cards in one week, when the strike ended 8,000 women had joined the union. A general union, open to unskilled women workers, it had a low subscription rate and no strike fund. As the employers would not take the women’s union or its women members seriously, its only weapon was to strike.

However, though the TUC made much of the women’s action, and subsequent historians have placed the Bermondsey events squarely either within the context of the militancy of 1910-14 or the rise of women’s trade unionism, it could equally be pointed out that it was immediate need that led the women to strike, and they accepted the help of the National Federation of Women workers through expediency. Although local membership of unions among women workers increased dramatically in the wake of the strike, much of the organising was short-lived. It was the winning of immediate aims that was crucial, and large-scale membership of unions gradually dropped off again.

Ursula de la Mare comments on the specific female element on the struggle, which marked it out from usual methods of organising during strikes: “The boisterousness and disorganisation of the initial Bermondsey demonstrations correspond to Eleanor Gordon’s identification of specific female characteristics in workplace resistance at the time – spontaneity, lack of restraint, an element of street theatre – which, she argues, differentiated women’s militancy from more formal male trade unionism.”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s radical history: Italian restaurant workers union hold first meeting of London Italian restaurant workers union launched, 1901.

Ironically as it may seem in these times, in the nineteenth century, Britain was a popular and open destination for political exiles and others forced from their countries for their beliefs, or because of their race or creed…

This was due to a relatively liberal asylum policy, unique then among European countries. A tradition of free access to the country had long roots, linked as it was with the idea of free trade and based on the knowledge of the advantage of learning skills from foreigners. Work that one out Theresa.

Of course this isn’t to say that there had never been discrimination, distrust of and attacks on ‘foreigners’ – there had been and would be again.

But 19th century British government’s largely did not pass any legislation in order to regulate immigration, except under very particular circumstances, so that from 1826 to 1905, apart from a gap due to the revolutions of 1848-50, all migrants, either refugees or not, enjoyed complete free access to the United Kingdom.

British legislation on extradition also made England safer than other countries for political refugees. Indeed, British law did not authorise extradition for discussing political ideas or holding unorthodox opinions. (British policy toward immigration would change completely with the introduction of an Aliens Act in 1905.)

Substantial communities of migrants grew up in London, notable among them political refugees, fleeing from persecution, arrest, imprisonment and sometimes torture and execution in their home countries. Exiles from European countries formed the vast majority – Germans, Italians, French, Russians, Poles often forming the largest groups, and all shades of political opinion among them. Nationalists working against the large empires which then ruled much of Europe (or to unite countries then divided), republicans, liberals and later socialists, communists and anarchists… These colonies often settled in London, for many the first port of call, and having access to work, intellectual life, and usually having groups/communities of their compatriots already established…

The first significant groups of Italian refugees moved to London during the 1820s, as government repression followed the failure of the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1820-21. At this time, Italian refugees together with the Poles were the largest community of exiles in London.

Successive governments, from before Italian unification (when Italy was split into a number of rival states), and after it, put into practice repression in order to repress the activities of various political movements. As Italy became unified, focus shifted from the nationalists and republicans who had plotted unification for years, to the more radical social and political groupings…

By the 1830s, this community of Italian refugees became one of the most active and influential in Europe. Some of these Italians eventually integrated themselves into English life, and obtained important positions within society.

In January 1837, leading Italian nationalist republican, Giuseppe Mazzini, a central figure in 19th century Europe, arrived in London. For thirty years he played a crucial role in Italian refugee and migrant community during the first half of the nineteenth century. These activities were only briefly interrupted when Mazzini left for Italy in order to take his part in the revolutions of 1848, but he was forced to return to his refuge in London after the fall of the Roman Republic, of which he was president, in 1849. The number of political refugees who escaped to the United Kingdom from the European reaction reached probably its height in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolts.

From the 1870s, socialists and anarchists became the most marked out groupings for repression in Italy, the latter especially. This strategy of repression was based on several special measures taken by the different governments in power, both of the Right and of the Left, and carried out by the police and security forces. The most effective measures were preventive detention, which compelled some anarchists to spend many months in jail before trial, laws against the press, and finally, the most threatening among them, the domicilio coatto (forced domicile) and the ammonizione (admonishment). 

During these recurrent periods of severe repression, for the Italian anarchists “the only way to escape […] was to go underground or flee into exile”.

The countries where most anarchists found refuge were France, Switzerland and Belgium, but some of them emigrated to the United States while others established small communities in the Balkans, in the Levant and in South America.

Originally, the laws concerning forced domicile and admonishment were promulgated against common criminals, in particular to fight brigantaggio (banditry), but, after the Left gained power in 1876, they were directed especially against the anarchists. Indeed, the government did not grant the status of political activist to the Internationalists; instead, it regarded them as an ‘association of malefactors’.

Substantial numbers of Italian political exiles grew up in Holborn, Soho and Clerkenwell, the areas where the Italian community traditionally settled. The Italian colony in those years was generally very poor, although their poverty was alleviated by mutual aid due to the existence of a long standing and supportive community. The first Italian immigrants who moved to London for economic reasons, particularly during the period 1840 -1870, were mostly unskilled workers and their activities were mainly itinerant: most of them were organ-grinders, street peddlers, figure makers or ice-cream sellers. At the end of the century, catering became the main sector in which Italian people were employed, particularly in the Soho area. Tito Zanardelli, one of the first Italian anarchists who arrived in London, addressed his propaganda to these categories of workers in 1878.

A significant section of the anarchist community was itself active in the catering trades (a record of anarchists by trade in the late Victorian period lists 4 working as dishwashers, 14 waiters, and 5 cooks). Some of them opened their own restaurants.

The anarchists tried numerous times to organise the workers of the community. During the 1890s a large number of Italians were employed in the catering trade, especially as cooks and waiters who worked in the restaurants in Soho. At the turn of the century, with the expansion of catering services in London, the number of Italian cooks and waiters increased steadily. They lived mainly around Soho and Holborn. The employees in restaurants and hotels were unorganised; they often had to take work under any conditions and were subject to a harsh sweating system. “The German, Swiss, of Italian waiter usually did not receive any wages, but, on the contrary, he had to pay his employer a percentage of 6d. or more in the pound of his gross takings in tips.”

The catering sector became the one of the centres for organised Italian exile politics. However, unions often didn’t last long, and the campaigns were said alter to have “had few tangible results”. The hotel trades and catering were ‘so much fragmented in small units and so often temporary and seasonal’ represented a major obstacle. As with other ‘casual’ or seasonal work, the nature of the job made it hard to maintain consistent organisation (for instance, the tailoring and building trades also found it hard to keep networks alive). On top of this, much of the Italian anarchist migrant community was constantly caught between their lives in London and their orientation towards their homeland, and activists were liable to return to Italy when they could…

In July 1893, leading Italian anarchist exiles Malatesta, Gori, Merlino, and Agresti, referred to the establishment of a new workers’ association in opposition to the Circolo Mazzini-Garibaldi in a letter to the director of the newspaper Londra-Roma, Pietro Rava, and raised the issue of poor working conditions in the restaurants. In 1901, the Italian anarchists announced in their newspaper, L’Internazionale, the first meeting of the Lega di Resistenza fra i lavoratori in cucina in Londra. The meeting was to be held at the headquarters of the Circolo Filodrammatico, at 38-40 Hanway Street. This meeting took place on 20 January, according to the L’Internazionale; several orators spoke in front of a large audience, and a British worker urged the waiters to join the Amalgamated Waiters Society. The meeting ended with the endorsement of a resolution urging the waiters to fight for ‘l’abolizione delle mance e un adeguato salario’. This was “not intended to be another friendly society but focused on economic struggles: reducing working hours, for increasing wages, especially focusing on Italian bosses who “took advantage of the miserable conditions and adaptability of their exploits them.”

L’Internazionale dedicated many articles to the anarchists’ attempt to organise the waiters and dishwashers employed in the restaurants of the capital. The newspaper also published the correspondence of a waiter, Vincenzo Mayolio, who described the harshness of working conditions in restaurants.

I am not sure what happened to this union, but a few years later in 1905, an Italian anarchist, named Bergia, launched a campaign against employment agencies. These agencies were the main way Italian workers in the West End restaurant trade got work (not much has changed in many so-called casual trades, in 100 years, it seems). Bergia opened a rival ‘free employment agency’ based in his own restaurant in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and called a meeting on December 2nd 1905 for Italian cooks to discuss the formation and structure of a ‘Lega di resistenzia’. The restaurant’s address was also used for the correspondence of the secretary of the Caterers’ Employees Union. Indeed, in order to reach the catering workers, Bergia founded, with the English activist, M. Clark, the newspaper, the Revue. International Organ for the interests of all Employees in Hotels, Restaurants, Boarding-Houses, etc. The articles in the newspaper were written in English, German, and French. The campaign among the Italian waiters gave rise to some results. Inspector Frosali reported that, at a meeting organised at the German Club where the French anarchist, Gustave Lance, spoke about the trade union movement. Another Italian anarchist involved in the organisation of waiters was Giacinto Ferrarone, who, like Bergia, came from the north Italian town of Biella (and signed his articles in anarchist newspapers as Giacomino Giacomini). Ferrarone exercised some influence among Italians employed in hotels and restaurants, most of whom were from Piedmont too. For this reason, in April 1905, he was chosen as a speaker at meetings to campaign for the abolition of the employment agencies. Ferrarone later joined the socialists but continued his organisational work. He promoted the creation of sindacati di resistenza (trade unions) that, in his view, represented the workers’ real interests.

He was also the tenant of the headquarters of the Lega di Resistenza dei lavoratori della mensa, constituted as the Sezione Italian adella Caterer’s Employees Union, at 55 Frith Street, Soho. But his career as a labour organiser for the anarchists or socialists ended abruptly when he left London at the beginning of August 1907, after stealing the funds of the club, Nuovo Sempione, of which he was the secretary.

However agitation among the catering workers continued and in 1909, the mobilisation of workers in restaurants and hotels, led especially by the socialists, resulted in demonstrations against the ‘Truck system’, the system used by employers for sharing tips among their employees. Abolition of all Registry offices and Employment Agencies and a weekly day of rest were the main aims of the protest. In February 1909, the French group and the editors of the newspaper the Revue met at the International Club to maintain the campaign and plan a demonstration in April. The demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square on 18 April.

The anarchists’ involvement in the catering workers’ struggles drew worker into their orbit politically. In the wake of the repression of a popular uprising in Barcelona in 1909, the Spanish authorities executed libertarian educationalist Francisco Ferrer. This led to widespread protests across Europe. In the months following the rising in Barcelona and after Ferrer’s arrest many meetings and rallies were organised in London. They were all well attended. Many Italian waiters and scullery-boys were present.

This post owes pretty much everything to Pietro Di Paola ‘s excellent thesis

later published as The Knights Errant of Anarchy

Another (first-hand) account of organising West End restaurant workers in a slightly later period can be found here.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Times compositors jailed for ‘conspiring’, 1810.

On December 11th 1810 nineteen journeymen compositors (typesetters) who worked on the Times newspaper were sentenced to imprisonment for conspiracy, in fact organizing themselves to stick together in their own interests – asking for a rise in wages. The 1799 and 1800 Combination Acts made all trade unions illegal, but in fact prosecution of workers for getting together to campaign for higher wages, better conditions was a long tradition, going back as far as the medieval guilds.

The prosecuting counsel said of the organisation involved:

“It was called a friendly society, but by means of some wicked men among them this society degenerated into a most abominable meeting for the purpose of a conspiracy; those of the trade who did not join their society were summoned, and even the apprentices, and were told, unless they conformed to the practices of these journeymen, when they came out of their times [finished their apprenticeships] they should not be employed.”

The judge who tried and sentenced some of them was the Common Sergeant of London, Sir John Sylvester, commonly known as ‘ Bloody Black Jack.’ … “No judge took more pains than did this judge on the unfortunate printers, to make it appear that their offence was one of great enormity, to beat down and alarm the really respectable men who had fallen into his clutches, and on whom he inflicted scandalously severe sentences.” 

Sentences for the men were heavy: Robert Howlett and John Gee were imprisoned in Newgate for two years (and fined one shilling), William Clifton, Stephen Beckett, George Westray were jailed for 18 months (also fined one shilling), Stephen Burley, Henry Byrne, Thomas Wooley jailed for a year; Roderic Paskin, Edward Kidd, William Williams, Corbet Latham, William Coy, James McCartney, John McIntosh, Nathaniel Collins, Malcolm Craig, John Chapman and John Simpson all got 9 months. Malcolm Craig died in prison.

The prosecution of the compositors impressed Francis Place with the necessity of an alteration in the laws on combination, which 15 years later, he was to manage to push through Parliament.

Combinations like the Times compositors’ friendly society were designed to maintain wages and conditions at a rate agreed by the workers; forced underground by acts of parliament, they resorted to persuasion of other workers and apprentices to stick by what was agreed and not work for less or under worse terms, which would undermine the general rate for all. Employers and the courts, parliament, press and church who supported them, all denounced attempts to make agreements among themselves as coercion, both of the bosses by the workers, and of some workers by others, portrayed as agitators. This depiction of how workers attempt to achieve and maintain reasonable conditions and prevent wage reductions is still very much alive in the 21st century, as anti-union laws continue to divide and obstruct us.

In reality there is nothing wrong at all with uniting to coerce the bosses – they coerce us every day into working for them, use force and threat of starvation against us when we object or try to better our lot. To a certain extent also a kind of coercion of opinion against fellow workers who scab, side with the boss against us, is understandable, especially when up against it. When the laws are against you anyway you need to think about how much of the law you obey.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: More than 300,000 London workers are on strike, 1889.

“The proverbial small spark has kindled a great fire which threatens to envelop the whole metropolis.” (The Evening News, 27th August 1889)

The seminal strike of the London dockers in 1889 began on 14th August, as thousands slaving in one of the hardest, most insecure and worst paid job in London refused to work until wages were raised, minimum hours guaranteed, and other conditions improved. Within a few days the port of London was a standstill. There was widespread sympathy for the dockers, but money for strike pay was scarce. But a strong campaign of processions into the City, calls for support going out nationally and internationally, and effective picketing and blocking of scabbing, kept the struggle powerful.

The dockers’ strike may itself have been partly inspired by the 1888 matchgirls’ strike and the agitation of the East End gas stokers for better wages and conditions… But the outbreak of the strike itself lit a fuse among London workers, especially the low paid and casually employed.

A rash of strikes and disputes broke out in the second half of August and early September 1889; concentrated in (though not limited to) East London. In a rough triangle between the City, Kings Cross and Blackwall, there were at least 50 strikes outside of the docks. In South and west London there were at least another 16.

A newspaper report listed some of the trades that had come out: “…coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, carmen [cartdrivers], rag, bone and paper porters and pickers and the employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railways works…” Not included here is the large-scale strike of Jewish tailors in the East End in August-September. It has been suggested that 300,000 workers in London were out on strike on September 1st 1889, a huge number, which may even be an under-estimate.

There was also a rent strike in Commercial Road in Stepney: a banner in Hungerford Street announced “As We are on strike landlords need not call”, following it with a rhyme:
Our husbands on strike: for the wives it is not funny
And we all think it is not right to pay the landlord money
Everyone is on strike; so landlords do not be offended
The rent that’s due we’ll pay when the strike is ended.

The spreading of the strike into social struggle in this way was hardly surprising in East London, where workers often lived close to their work, in close proximity to others who worked with them, and in dire poverty. Solidarity was a necessity. Many of the workers erupting were largely unskilled or semi-skilled, like the matchgirls and dockers, traditionally ignored by the craft unions of the skilled workers who had achieved relatively good wages and conditions and a position in society. This wave of ‘new unionism’ as it became known was spreading practical and committed trade union organization among those who the ‘aristocracy of labour’ had long considered feckless and not capable of collective bargaining. But is was also confrontational, where many of the craft unions had long settled into a collaborative relationship with employers. The status quo was threatened in more ways than one.

The whole of working class London was in ferment. The spreading of the strike to other trades began to worry the establishment – how many other industries would follow suit? A committee of the great and the good was formed to try to get the dock strike settled before things got too out of hand. The intransigent employers were to some extent leant upon to give concessions in order to lessen the pressure on London’s economy being jacked up as strike after strike broke out.

The bourgeois press of course was largely scathing of the strikes; the language used is interesting, as in several reports the spreading of strike action is likened to disease. “Strike Fever”… “the infectious example of coming out on strike”… “the infection has spread to other classes of laboring men…” Workers attempting to collectively push for a rise on wages to levels they can survive on and conditions bearable to work under are basically a plague, a pox, a sickness. It’s obvious really.

But if the employers were nervous and the press jumpy, the leaders of the dockers’ strike were also unnerved by the strike wave that their dispute had to some extent unleashed.

The Strike Committee’s response to the wildfire of class struggle had not been exactly joy… Far from it. To some extent they saw it as a distraction, likely to reduce donations for their own struggle, and as threatening the public sympathy the dock strike had garnered; they also disapproved of strikers simply walking out without organising in a union first. This they justified by suggesting that unionisation was essential for winning any dispute.

They issued a statement in late August: “We, the undersigned, strongly deprecate the rash action taken by unorganised workmen not directly connected with dock work of coming out on strike without reflecting that by doing so they are increasing the strain upon the upon the strike committee’s resources. Organisation must precede strikes, or defeat is certain.”

To some extent the committee’s view reflected a rigid approach that wasn’t taking account of the strength of enthusiasm spreading through the city. Rather than struggle growing from organisation, organisation was growing from struggle, all around them.

The statement seems to have created an intense debate, among the strike organisers and leaders, because on two days later, they took a step that directly contradicted the spirit of it. On 28th August the dock strike committee voted to issue a call for a general strike in London – not only recognising the strength of the widening strike wave, but arguing by implication that its extension would achieve a victory for the dockers.

It can only be imagined what might have then developed. Perhaps the wave had already reached its peak; but perhaps it might have lit a fuse that could not be put out.

In the end it is speculation, as less than a day later, before the call had in fact really been made, the committee reversed the general strike call. Some socialists and anarchists later denounced the decision as betraying a potential revolutionary situation… It has also been suggested that the call for a general strike was itself a last desperate throw, with the strike committee afraid that the dock strike was on the verge of collapsing; that it was calling for something that could not happen, a bluff that could only be called.

Whatever the truth of it, withdrawing the call did not abate the spread of organization through the unskilled workers of London, though it may have signaled to the dock owners and employers in general that the committee were willing to deal with disputes on an individual level, rather than escalate to an all-out class war. In this sense it may have hastened the settlement of the dock strike a few days later, with the wining of a wage rise. Unionisation continued to spread among the unskilled, though there were many battles to come, and victories were often followed by the clawing back of concessions.

The last few days of August and early September 1889 though, remain a time evocative and compelling, when both spontaneous activity and organization were growing, when possibilities seemed open…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

This month in London history: London Master builders try to destroy unions, by issuing ‘The Document’, 1859.

In 1859-60, London’s builders fought a prolonged struggle to try and reduce the number of hours they had to work to 9 a day. In response to this campaign, the employers in the building trade attempted to stamp out trade unionism in the industry.

“1860 saw a “rebirth of the trade union movement in the building industry. During that year, or shortly before or shortly after, all the trades which had been without effective organisation – which after all included every building trade except masonry – saw the growth of a fairly effective organisation of one kind or another. Organisations which had for a long time been dead‑alive and feeble, sprang into renewed strength, and in trades where all organisation had disappeared, new unions were formed. A series of fairly prosperous years had prepared the ground, and the success of a union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (formed 1852), upon the new “amalgamated ” principles had set the example of a new form of organisation. The great spread of Unionism in the building trades does not, however, come until the need of unionism had been startlingly and strikingly advertised by the great lock-out of 1859 and 1860, which arose from the ‘nine-hour day’ movement.”

(The Builders History, RW Postgate. most of the following post has been taken from this account of the Lockout)

The ten-hour working day had been secured in London since 1834, but no further advance had been made. From time to time the Stonemasons, the only strong building union, had made attempts to reduce the length of working hours. In 1846 stonemasons unions in Liverpool and Lancashire had been defeated in a campaign on the nine‑hours day issue. In 1847 the London lodges petitioned their masters to shorten their hours to 58½ a week (ie to grant a “short Saturday.”) without result. The next two years witnessed several small strikes by the London masons for the short Saturday. In one case (Grimsdale and Trego’s, September, 1848) the employer prosecuted 21 strikers for conspiracy, but dropped the case. Most of these strikes were successful; and by 1855 masons generally in London knocked of at four o’clock on Saturdays. Other building trades generally did not. The north of England followed at the end off 1856. In October of that year a Committee was formed in Manchester of Masons, Bricklayers, joiners, Plasterers, Painters, Paperhangers, and Masons’ Labourers – thus showing a revival of a sentiment of unity which had been lost for years – to demand the short Saturday, and, after prolonged negotiations, arrangements were made by which they knocked off next summer at one o’clock on Saturdays. This victory stirred the emulation of the London masons. who petitioned for Saturday’s work to end at twelve.

In London, an agitation for “nine hours” arose from the trade clubs of the London carpenters and joiners – described as “feeble and scattered” in the 1850s, but linked together by a shadowy Central Board, which presented in the summer of 1858 a formal demand to the employers for a nine-hours day. This the masters emphatically refused. Faced with this refusal, they turned to the other building trades, and a permanent Conference was called together, consisting at first only of delegates of the various carpenters’ societies, the small London Operative Bricklayers’ Society, and the London lodges of the Masons.

The Conference secretary, and the man most responsible for its creation, was George Potter, a well-known trade unionist of this period. Potter was born in 1832, at Kenilworth. He was the son of a carpenter, and, unlike many trade unionists, had received some elementary education. He was apprenticed regularly to his trade, and worked at it during all this period. Going to London in 1853, he became secretary of a small local carpenters’ club, called the “Progressive Society of Carpenters and Joiners,” and in that capacity took over the leadership of the nine-hours day movement in 1857, and remained in general direction of the London Building Trades until 1862.

The first meeting of the Conference was held in September, 1858. It was intended to exist as a permanent body until the nine-hours had been won. Originally it contained carpenters, masons and bricklayers only; gradually unions representing plasterers’, painters and builders’ labourers` delegates were invited. The masons were more interested in the short Saturday than the nine hours. They withdrew for a while, but soon returned. The main aim of the Conference was to awaken the building workers themselves to their own interests. Tactically, at first, Potter chose to not press for strikes or threats of strikes, but to the presentation of memorials to the employers, hoping by this means to get discussion and the revival of interests. Two or three of these were presented, without, of course, any tangible success. Following on this, regular public meetings were organised over the winter and considerable attention, both within and without the trade, was drawn to the new proposals.

In March 1859, Potter arranged large meetings of building trade workers at all points of London, which were to be held simultaneously, and at each the same resolution would be moved by special delegates.

The results of these meetings, and the general effect of this publicity campaign encouraged Potter to refer the question of further action to the rank and file. The Conference balloted its constituents on the further methods to be pursued: more agitation, arbitration, or a strike. For the first voted 1,395, for the second 1,157, for the third only 772. The process of agitation was resumed over the summer, until in June and July a firmer spirit showed itself, both bricklayers and carpenters voting for a strike. The minor trades, however, were still opposed, and so were the masons, and Potter still played for safety: presenting another petition and prepared to wait developments. However pre-emptive action by the masters would overtake his cautious strategy…

The increasing agitation by the various workers’ organisations had put the master builders of London, “a body of men traditionally tyrannous and autocratic, into a fretful and irritated temper; the propaganda by public meetings had made the employing classes at large alarmed and annoyed.”

“How on earth, asked one of the London journals, can a body of uneducated labourers add to the truth on any subject by gathering together into a mob?” [Illustrated Times, August 6, 1859.]

The employers were, in fact, anxious to provoke a struggle which could act as a pretext for reshaping working conditions in their own interests – mainly to get rid of any unionisation and force out any ‘agitators’. The excuse came in July 1859, when a petition for a nine-hour day was presented to a number of London master builders; one of the largest firms, Trollope in Pimlico, sacked the mason who had headed the deputation presenting it. The masons were the most organised body of unionists in London, and their London lodges acted immediately to withdraw all their members from Trollope’s job in Knightsbridge. The nine-hours Conference endorsed this, and brought out all the rest of Trollope’s employees on strike on July 21. The Conference further decided that the strike would last until Trollope’s had granted the nine hours as well as reinstated the discharged unionist. The masters immediately replied by a general lock-out. Every large builder in London closed his shop within the fortnight, and 24,000 men were put on the streets.

The masters put it abroad that no worker would be re-hired who would not sign the Document, an anti-union pledge. Drafted by the Central Master Builders Association, the new form of the “Document”, had been prepared and printed in the form of a cheque book, with counterfoils which could he filed. It read as follows: “I declare that I AM NOT now, nor will I during the continuance of my engagement with you, become a MEMBER OF OR SUPPORT ANY SOCIETY which directly or indirectly interferes with the arrangements of this or any other Establishment OR the HOURS OR TERMS OF LABOUR, and that I recognize the right of Employers and Employed individually TO MAKE ANY TRADE ENGAGEMENTS ON WHICH THEY MAY CHOOSE TO AGREE.”

The masters were surprised by the reception of this precious piece of paper. They had expected that their yards would be quickly refilled by men who had signed it; instead, they could hardly secure even any general labourers. “Nine-hour missionaries” were sent out by the Conference into the provinces to block the arrival of worked or raw materials for the building trade. The masons were naturally supported steadily and regularly now that they were locked out.

However, press support and public opinion was divided, and the masters found their position under attack from a number of newspapers. Some papers of course wholeheartedly supported the employers, others the workers. On the whole, the master builders found themselves lacking support they had expected for their position.

“They therefore took the step of withdrawing the written Document and substituting a verbal declaration in the same terms. This was a false move. It did them no good, and got them no workers, while it looked like a half-hearted confession of error….”

The workers resolve to continue the dispute wavered as the stalemate dragged. “It was doubtful whether a third of the strikers, even including the masons, were in unions of any kind, and finances were most insecure.”

But divisions among the workers’ leaders threatened to derail the struggle…

The Stonemasons society judged the strain on their finances of strike pay sufficiently serious that they attempted to abandon the nine-hours claim and make a separate deal with the masters. Masons leader Richard Harnott spent the last half of September trying to persuade the master-builders to withdraw the “declaration” in return for the abandonment of the nine-hours claim. The obdurate masters, however, considered and mostly rejected his attempts to make a separate peace. One firm alone agreed to them, and there the masons went back to work.

Harnott had attempted to sell the other trades out for a deal for his own workers; George Potter, while holding to a united line, agreed that Harnott was to some extent right, in that the best thing was to drop the “nine-hours” and concentrate on fighting the document. The Conference, therefore, on November 9, formally called off the strike at Trollope’s, and abandoned the nine-hours. The employers, however, remained obstinate and held to the document, and the struggle was prolonged over the winter and into the new year.

“The Conference was in a grave financial situation. The masons alone punctually supported their members. The other trades were in a very bad position. Most of the locked-out men were not in a union at all, and had to be supported somehow. The painters and carpenters had no national unions at all ‑ the General Union did not touch London – and their funds disappeared almost at once. The Operative Bricklayers’ Society (London Order) was small and poor: it had to pay over £3,000 in all to its own members, and could only raise £580 for non-union men. Plumbers’ organisations hardly existed, and though a Builders’ Labourers’ Union was formed, with thirteen London Lodges and nearly 4,000 members, its funds were negligible. All told, one week’s payment of the 24,000 on the pay-roll would have eaten up most of the funds of all the unions.”

But solidarity from other unions and workers’ societies, beginning to organise as proto-Trades Councils, raised hundreds of pounds in collections and sent it to the London strike funds. A Glasgow Committee raised £257, Blackburn £271, and Manchester as much as £545. (Remembering that this money was worth much more at the time, and also that workers were relatively poorer). Numbers of London Societies sent in very heavy sums. The London Society of Compositors put up £620 by itself, and the Pianoforte Makers and Shipwrights sent £300 each. “The greatest sensation, however, was caused by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which astounded the Conference and the employers by presenting the lock-out funds with a thousand pounds every week for three weeks. Such a subscription had never been heard of before, and its moral effect in encouraging the men and flabbergasting the employers helped very greatly in defeating the attack.”

“The result was that only one section of the strikers gave way. The labourers, for reasons that are unrecorded, broke away in the beginning of December, and Potter struck them off the pay roll on December 3. Their union was already falling to pieces. Funds were just at that time fairly low, and, as they heralded their breakaway by beating the delegates sent to pay them, it is probable that some question of money was behind it…

It was generally now recognised that the struggle would not end soon, unless the masters gave way. Lord St. Leonards, therefore intervened with a proposal that the master‑builders should substitute for the document a long summary of the law on combinations, to be hung in all workshops – that is to say, that they should admit defeat. Harnott immediately instructed the masons that they were to agree to this, and the Conference did so also. The master-builders, however, living up to their general reputation for unusual obstinacy and autocracy, refused it, and held out for two months more, until on February 7 they unconditionally withdrew the document. On February 27 Potter paid the 27th and last instalment of lock-out pay.”

“The impression which the struggle had made on the mind of every worker was deep. It was only a half-victory, but it had shown to the non-unionists how a very powerful, wealthy and obstinate association of employers could be defied. It had also shown to the unionists how ineffective their own organisations were. They had, in fact, been nearly helpless in the earlier stages of the movement. The direction of the movement fell into the hands of the delegates of mass meetings, and the majority of those attending were non-unionists. Their own resources (and their votes showed they knew it) were not sufficient to support a strike for the nine-hours. When they were finally locked-out they were only saved from disaster because they were able to bring into the fight the whole trade union resources of England and Scotland. Thus we find, as a result of the lock-out, both a great influx of members into existing unions, and a movement towards the reconstruction of existing societies upon a new basis.”

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Cleaners’ strike, Eurostar & St Pancras stations, 2014.

Contract Cleaners on Eurostar and at London’s St Pancras station went on strike for two days on 15th August 2014 – one of a series of strikes that month over jobs and conditions.

The cleaners at St Pancras station in London downed tools as part of their action against facilities company Interserve, which imposed massive 30 per cent cuts to the workforce after it won the St Pancras-Eurostar cleaning contract from Network Rail.

The dispute had been rumbling for several months, with an initial 24 hour strike on August 1st.

Like many contract cleaners, the Eurostar contract is subject to regular tender with cut-throat cleaning contractors competing to win the work.  Workers get transferred from one contractor to another like pieces of meat, but the business model of the companies is all the same – hacking back on pay and conditions to maximise profit while offering the workforce as little as possible.

Interserve won the St Pancras/Eurostar contract from Network Rail in exactly this fashion – through a massive cut in the price for the work.  In order to protect the company profits and hand-outs to shareholders Interserve imposed 30% job cuts on the cleaning workers: leading to massive pressure on remaining staff.

The cleaners complained of a workplace culture based on continual aggression and bullying from their employers: “They call it efficiency – we call it harassment.”

A workforce already suffering from low pay, no sick pay, receiving only the statutory minimum in benefits, were not prepared to be intimidated anymore.

Through their union the RMT, the Eurostar cleaners were demanding an agreement on staffing levels at St Pancras, a fair and reasonable workload and for the workforce to be treated with dignity and respect.

Much more on cleaners’ struggles in tomorrow’s blog entry.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Troops sent in (again) to break London dock strike, 1948.

For centuries, London’s status as a powerful centre of trade and then as capital of empire made the river Thames one of the busiest waterways in the world; and the many docks that grew up along its banks teemed with ships, loading, being unloaded…

London’s dockworkers gradually became one of the capital’s most powerful workforces; their solidarity and resolution forged in the back-breaking work, low pay and the casual nature of employment on the job. Pre-World War 2, you’d have no definite job, just line up every morning and try to get hired. Wages were low and many families lived in desperate conditions, impressing on the dockers the need for organisation.

In 1889, inspired by the Matchgirls Strike, a Dockers union was set up and in August of that year, a huge strike broke out in the South West India Dock which spread to both sides of the river; the demands were a 2p rise to 6 pence an hour, plus overtime rates, an end to subcontracting middlemen and guaranteed hours of work… The strike was massive, and inspired numerous other East End workers to stop work. Vast daily procession of  strikers wound though the East End, to  huge ralliers held in Mile End Fileds and on Tower Hill. In the end the crisis passed & the bosses settled – only to chip away at the concessions over the next few months. But dockers would strike repeatedly over the next few decades, struggling for higher wages and better employment conditions, developing strong & vital bonds of solidarity & methods of fighting, as well as powerful links to docks in other ports in Britain & abroad.

After World War 2 a long struggle took place in the Docks… Even as the war ended dockers were on a go-slow protest against for a minimum wage and changes in piece-rates. The new Labour government sent troops into break the strike – as they were to do several times against dockers & others in the next 6 years – causing a mass strike, broken by the alliance of government, troops and unions.

The Transport & General Workers Union co-operated with bosses and state in administering the new National Dock Labour Scheme, an attempt to curtail the worst excesses of casualisation, which guaranteed registered dockers a wage, but under stringent controls and conditions like compulsory overtime. Many strikes in the next 3 decades were unofficial, with dockers bitterly resenting the T&GWU’s tie-up with management. Union leaders often made deals their members rejected, or tried to end action taken independent of them. Wildcat and unofficial committees grew up, like the National Portworkers Defence Committee. Unofficial leaders were often victimised, (or expelled from the T&G!) but support from dockers usually forced the bosses to back down

In JUNE 1948 London portworkers went on strike, after a number of them were suspended from work for claiming the usual special payment for handling zinc oxide.
 Particularly hard or unpleasant jobs were often paid at a special higher rate

As Conn Clancey, one of the 11 suspended dockers explained, his gang had been loading a ship with zinc oxide from canal barges. ‘There were 3,000 hessian sacks of the stuff, weighing 50 tons. We had done about 700 sacks and were getting very dusty and dirty. Down the hatch it was impossible to see. The stuff penetrates everything. It gets in your nose, mouth, eyes and hair and turns one blue’.

‘Eventually’, said Clancey, ‘we asked if there was a rate laid for the job. While enquiries were made we went back to general cargo work. It was a job for the View Committee. They said 3/4d. a ton was a proper rate. We were suggesting 5 bob although we expected to come down a bit, Another View Committee came next morning and we went on loading the zinc oxide. They still made it 3/4d. so we said there was no alternative but to talk it over with ‘the men on the stones’ – the other dockers. They voted we should finish the consignment and then have the matter looked into.

‘We went back and finished the job that afternoon. Everyone thought the affair was finished but in the morning I had a letter saying I was suspended. The penalty was like a smack on the ear when the fight was over. We finished all the zinc oxide. There was no time lost. While there was work to do we worked.’

Eleven dockers were then suspended for a week, without pay, by the National Dock Labour Board and their guaranteed week suspended for 13 weeks. On June 14 a spontaneous strike broke out against these vicious sentences. The strike later spread to Merseyside. It lasted 16 days and at one stage involved nearly 32,000 dockers.

The Manchester Guardian Weekly (June 24, 1948) commented: ‘It is plain from the way the strike has spread – within a week, in the face of every discouragement from officials of their trade union, the numbers out have grown from 1,500 to 15,000 – that there is fairly widespread discontent with the way some parts of the scheme are working. So broad a movement would hardly have sprung from so small an occasion if there had not been already a big head of pent-up emotion looking for an outlet before the incident of the zinc oxide cargo gave it one’.

The Times (June 29, 1948) with their usual gift of right-wing melodrama, proclaimed that the dock strike was ‘a challenge to be resisted as resolutely as the threat of attack by a foreign power’.

This is exactly what the Labour Government did. It drafted freshly conscripted troops into the docks. On June 29th, it proclaimed a State of Emergency. The ‘party of the working class’ used the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. This was a vicious piece of class legislation (for the other side) which had been introduced at the end of World War 1 by the Tory-dominated ‘hard-faced Parliament’.

The intimidation worked. The solidarity strike ended before His Majesty’s ‘socialist’ ministers really got down to churning out further ’emergency’ legislation.

The Emergency Powers Act, incidentally, has been superseded by the Civil Contingencies Act, but is effectively still on the statute book. It provides handy dictatorial powers to any government seeking to cope with any kind of mass working class activity, particularly any kind that might challenge established society.

Much more on dockers’ struggles and how the sainted Labour government of 1945-51 used soldiers to break their (and other workers’) strikes, can be read here

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Expulsions of strike leaders from TGWU sparks dock strike, 1950.

‘The principles of our policy are based on the brotherhood of man.’ said Labour leader Clem Atlee on July 26th 1945, the day before Labour took office after its historic landslide in the khaki election. The received wisdom runs thus: the generation that had been through World War II, following on from the desperate times of the 1930s, elects a radical Labour majority which resolves to act on behalf of the working class and transform society in the interests of the producers of the wealth… Among the gains that follow, the NHS is born, the skeleton of the welfare state is built into protection for all, from cradle to grave, crucial industries are nationalized.

Of course there is a kernel of truth here. But as much as some of what was created then has become a vital part of our lives, the radicalism of the ’45 Labour government very much had its limits. They were determined that the reforms they were set on implementing would go only so far; and that they would set the pace, change would be undertaken FOR the workers, not BY them. Those groups who pushed for things to be taken too far would be reined in. Many of the Labour leadership had been part of the wartime coalition government, and were well accustomed to using the apparatus of state repression when necessary. It didn’t take them very long to begin using it against the workers they claimed to be acting on behalf of, when demands for a tiny bit more of the pie didn’t fit their plans.

Not long at all – less than a week, in fact. Within a few days of being elected the Labour government sent troops in to the Surrey Docks, London, to help break a dockers’ ‘go-slow’ which had been going
 on for ten weeks. In the following six years the army was to be used to break strikes tens of times – often in the docks, a major venue of struggle in the late ‘40s.

At the same time, the hierarchy of the Transport & General Workers Union were attempting to keep down militancy, keep men at work, and control activists and unofficial leaders it considered as too radical. Often an alliance of union leadership, employers and government representatives would be mustered against the dockers. But when the T&G leaders proved incapable of controlling the workers and keeping their demands to a ‘reasonable’ level, the soldiers would be wheeled in. This hardened the union leadership’s resolve to expel ‘troublemakers’, as a union that can’t guarantee control over its membership starts to become redundant in the eyes of capital and the state.

MAY 1949 saw the most vicious piece of strike breaking in the whole history of the Labour Government. The Canadian Seamen’s Union was involved in a strike against wage cuts. On May 14. the ‘Montreal City’, which had been worked across the Atlantic by a blackleg crew provided by the International Seafarers’ Union, (an organization affiliated to the American Federation of Labour and having very few members on Canada’s Eastern seaboard.)arrived at Avonmouth. Dockers refused to unload the ‘black’ ship. On May 16 the employers threatened to penalise the dockers for this refusal. This brought out all Avonmouth dockers, in a lightning strike. The employers then said they would hire no labour for other ships until the dockers hand-led the ‘black’ ship. The strike had become a lock-out.

On May 22, 600 Bristol dockers came out in solidarity with the Avonmouth men. Three days later lockgate men and tugmen in Avonmouth also came out in support, refusing to handle ships until the Avonmouth dockers were allowed to work again. They were promptly suspended. On May 27, the Labour Government sent troops to unload a banana ship in Avonmouth. Crane drivers promptly refused to work alongside the troops.

The same day a ‘black’ ship was diverted from Avonmouth to Liver-pool. Merseyside dockers refused to handle her and 45 of them were suspended. One thousand Liverpool dockers then joined the strike. On May 30, 1,400 more dockers in Liverpool came out. The Avonmouth men instructed their ‘lock-out Committee’ to seek support from other ports.

On June 2, troops began unloading all the ships lying in Avonmouth dock. About 11,000 dockers had by now joined the strike. On June 6, merchant seamen manning the ‘Trojan Star’ refused to sail her out of Avonmouth because the lockgates were manned by troops. Other seamen also joined in. On June 14, the Avonmouth dockers returned to work. But the struggle had meanwhile flared up in London where employers refused to hire labour for newly arrived ships unless the ‘black’ Canadian ships ‘Argomont’ and ‘Beaverbrae’ were unloaded. By July 5, over 8,000 London dockers were on strike.

On July 7, troops were moved into various London docks to unload ships. Drivers of meat haulage firms and fruit and vegetable firms said they would not carry goods unloaded by troops.

On July 8, the Labour Government announced it would proclaim a State of Emergency on July 11. The only effect was to ensure that Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen also joined in. Over 10,000 dockers were now on strike. On July 12 the Government started pouring blackleg troops into the docks. Another 3,000 dockers came out. The Executive of the Lightermen’s Union told their members not work alongside the troops.

The Labour Government had got itself into a thorough mess. It now started issuing Emergency Regulations. It set up an Emergency Committee, headed by a former Permanent Under-secretary at the Home Office, Sir Arthur Maxwell, to run the docks. It is not known if Sir Arthur was later issued with an honorary membership card from Transport House … for services rendered.

By July 20, over 15,000 men were on strike. They only returned to work on July 22 when the Canadian Seamen’s Union, having obtained certain concessions, withdrew their pickets from certain ships and announced that they were terminating their dispute, so far as Britain was concerned.

When the strike was over, the T&G hierarchy determined to discipline some of the unofficial leaders of the strike.

In MARCH 1950, the Transport & General Workers Union bureaucrats expelled three dockers from the union because of the active part they had played in the Canadian Seamen’s strike a few months earlier. A mass meeting of dockers was called by the Portworkers Defence Committee, an ‘unofficial’ rank-and-file body. On March 26, a ban on overtime was decided. The ban was temporarily withdrawn on April 3, but when, on April 18, the appeals of the three expelled men were rejected a protest strike started in the Royal Group. By April 21, 9,000 dockers were out. Mass meetings called for a ballot of portworkers to decide whether the action of the union leaders should be upheld. On April 24, the Labour Government moved troops into the docks. This worked like a charm: a further 4,500 dockers joined the strike.

The London Dock Labour Board then made threatening noises. All those who didn’t report for work by May 1st would ‘have their registrations cancelled’ (i.e. would be expelled from the industry). On April 29, a mass meeting decided to return to work and to fight the expulsions through the branches.

Well worth a read: The Labour Government vs. The Dockers 1945-1951.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online