London Great Dockers Strike 1889 - Rise of UK Labor Unions

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 It was August of 1889 in the East End of London at the docks when the Great Dockers Strike began. Potential workers started gathering for a chance to work that day. They knew at the call on they would have to fight in an iron cage with every person who showed up that morning for work, possibly three or four hundred tough, determined men.[23] A few of them, most likely would not survive the day. Ears would be torn off, flesh ripped, men crushed to death as they dropped but hunger was their main driving force. Their families were on the brink of starvation. [24] Most often the cage match was held for the prize of three or so jobs. However, today something was different. There were two men talking about the inhumanity of the call on and the other terrible conditions the Dock workers were forced to endure, urging the workers to join the union. These two men were Tom Mann and William Thorne who belonged to the Socialist party. (Thorne had been successful in organizing theGas Workers Strike (1889)) They appealed to the workers to join the union and then refuse to go to work. The workers stopped and listened, then signed up. Soon, the men started leading the workers in a march to other docks throughout London, gathering more supporters as they went.[25] This day marked the beginning of the Great Dockers Strike of 1889.

On the day the Great Dockers Strike began, Will Thorne helped Ben Tillet and Tom Mann organize. It was a big project. Over thirty to forty thousand dock workers joined in the strike. There were problems with the strike from the start. The biggest problem was that there were no funds. Next, the men joining the union did not stick together, case in point, the cage match. Then, too, the men had no discipline. Initially, the press and the middle class of London supported the strike. They saw it as a humanitarian thing to do. This was partly due to Tillet who had organized massive and orderly demonstrations protesting the inhumane treatment of the dock workers for the purpose of gaining support. Funding for the strike began to run out in August. Moreover, the dock companies did not show any sign of yielding to the strikers demands. A crisis was about to unfold. In desperation, the leaders called for a general strike of all London workers. This caused protests from the Newspapers and the middle class who had responded earlier favorably because they saw the strike as a consequence of the extreme poverty of the slums. However, the threat was effective enough to make the Mayor of London put pressure on both sides to end the strike. [26]

Engels, a German philosopher who lived in England, followed the Dockers Strike very closely. He had worked with Karl Marx on the Communist Manifesto and wrote the book, The Condition of the English Working Class. He was active in the English Socialist movement and long for when the proletariat would rise up against their oppression. In his letters to a colleague, Engels praised the Great Dockers Strike of 1889 and commented, How glad I am to have lived to see this day. He then described the strike as a class struggle, this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock laborers this motley crowd changing daily managed to unite ... He also added that if this section of the proletariat, can unite, it will serve well as an example to all workers.[27] It is probably best that most of the Dockers did not read, because they would have been insulted by Engels description of them. In another letter, Engels confides that he wished Marx had lived to see the Great Strike. He added, If the Dockers get organized, all other sections will follow And all this strike is worked and led by our people (Socialists), by Burns and Mann. [28] This strike received more publicity than any other strike in the world at that time. [29]

In a turn about, an unlikely supporter of the strike, the Reverend William Morris who was the vicar of Saint Anne's Church in London often spoke to the striking men and their families giving his support. Supporting the strike was a daring thing for the Reverend Morris to do. Due to his sympathetic feelings towards the strikers so prominent in his writings and sermons, Morris was unfrocked from the English Church. However, his inspiration to the strikers earned him enough votes to be elected as a trustee of the union. [30]

Ben Tillet was credited for the organization of the Great Dockers Strike. Like Thorne, he had worked in factories and elsewhere as an unskilled laborer. Both Tillet and Thorne knew and felt the struggle of the working people to feed their families; the physical hard work and the long hours that drained their health. Therefore, the two could relate to the worker and knew how to rally them. In addition, they had leadership qualities. Moreover, they were not afraid to speak out, nor take chances and fight for injustice. As with Thorne, Tillet made union organizing a holy mission. He, too, grew up in poverty and knew what it was like to be hungry. Tillet knew the weaknesses of the workers and their employers which gave him the insight into when to strike and when to negotiate. [31]