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The Great Dock Strike of 1889

The Great Dock Strike of 1889 in London is remembered as the foundation of the modern trade union movement. It was led by social democrats like Ben Tillett and future member of the Liberal cabinet John Burns, and by the future syndicalist and Communist Tom Mann. Its centenary in 1989 was celebrated by the Transport and General Workers’ Union, now part of Unite!, which traced its origins back to the strike. How-ever, for the nascent anarchist movement in Britain it was also a significant event which turned abstract talk of revolution and a simple advocacy of expropriation and rioting into what ultimately became anarcho-syndicalism.

Beginning with a small strike in the South West India Dock on 13th August, it spread spontaneously across the whole of London’s docks. It also provided the inspiration for other groups of workers to organise and strike for increased wages or reduced hours. A near general strike prevailed in London’s East End and anarchists thought the area on the verge of revolution. Every day, dockers and other workers marched through the streets and held vast public meetings. Commonweal, the Socialist League paper, wrote in September “The East End is like Paris in the first Revolution”. Effective picketing was organised and Kropotkin wrote of the strike “showing the powers of the working men for organizing the supply and distribution of food for a large population of strikers”. Here was a concrete example of solidarity and mutual aid organised by the workers themselves, not by the state.

A de facto rent strike prevailed and as the strike dragged on, citing the fact that “our studied moderation has been mistaken … for lack of courage or want of resources”, the Strike Committee called for a general strike across London from Monday 2nd September. But the social democratic leaders of the strike swiftly withdrew the “No work manifesto”, ensuring that the character of the strike and of its legacy would ultimately be reformist. Ben Tillett stressed the need to keep “public opinion” on side. In the best traditions of social democracy, Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was sent by Engels to tell the committee to call off the general strike.

The financial hardship which had led the Strike Committee to call for a general strike was relieved by substantial funds sent to support the strikers from Australia, news of which reached Lon-don on 29th August. At the same time, Cardinal Manning and the Lord Mayor of London intervened to broker a settlement and a couple of weeks later the dockers went back to work having won their “tanner” (sixpence per hour). Once back at work, however, the bosses chipped away at what they had won and reversed it all. A similar fate befell the other groups of workers who had been inspired by the dock strike to win their own disputes, including Jewish tailors in the East End who would only finally win their demands in 1912 in a strike led by anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker.

Anarchists were not directly involved in the dock strike, but were active in propaganda work around it. They aimed “to teach the people self-reliance, to urge them to take part in non-political [i.e. extra-parliamentary] movements directly started by themselves for themselves”. Cit-ing the example of the dock strike they argued “that as soon as the people learn to rely upon themselves they will act for themselves without waiting for parliament, it has been disregarded”. They deplored the fact that “the strike has gone upon the old Trade Union lines but had it started on the lines of expropriation, who knows how rapidly it might have spread”; and “suggested to the men on strike that the trade unions should take over the work rather than the contractors. They might follow this up until they gradually get control of the whole concern, and they would find the capitalists as unnecessary as monarchs have been found to be”.

Anarchists were also di-rectly involv-ed in organising drives and disputes in-spired by the great strike. Many carmen, who drove the carts carrying goods un-loaded at the docks to their destinations, had struck in sympathy with the dockers, without assistance from the strike fund, and been sacked for their trouble. A Carman’s Union was formed, in which Ted Leggatt was an active mem-ber, later becoming the union’s full time organiser. Leggatt was prominent in the Syndicalist Revolt of 1910-1914. Charles Mowbray was a lay official of the West End tailors’ union and active both in their struggles and in helping those of the mostly Jewish East End tailors. John Turner also formed a Shop Assistants Union. However, anarchists were ambivalent about the trade unions which they saw as insufficient-ly revolutionary and failing to harness the potential seen in the 1889 strikes.

From 1890 a critique of the leaderships of the new unions developed. Union of-ficials seemed to think that they knew best and seemed to be more interested in electoral activity than the concerns of their members. As social democrats they did indeed see trades unions as inadequate for bringing social change, and tended to see them as mere platforms of support for electoral activity. In December 1890 Commonweal de-nounced Tom Mann and other dockers’ union officials as “bureaucrats” and reported on a meeting at which complaints were made by rank and file members that he and the other officials were aloof and difficult to contact. These criticisms were made against a background of defeats for the new unions and the beginnings of an economic depression.

By contrast, the anarchists criticised what they called “officialism” and ad-vocated solidarity between skilled and unskilled workers given spontaneously without official approval, and unity be-tween employed and unemployed wor-kers. They also argued that workers should apply the tactics of industrial struggle to wider struggles, and saw struggles as having the potential to become revolutionary. They vigorously opposed nationalisation, pointing out that the social democrats were “urging us not to wait for the repair of the ancient political machine, i.e. not to concern ourselves with mere politics but to joyfully confide railways or land or what not to the control of Salisbury and Balfour or Gladstone and Morley or Roseberry and Co. [Conservative and Liberal politicians of the day], tomorrow if only those chosen of the people can be persuaded to undertake the task.”

These differences were thrown into sharp focus by the question of May Day, which had been declared Interna-tional Workers’ Day by the international socialist congresses in Paris late in 1889. The call for a 1 day general strike on May 1st 1890 to demand the 8 hour day and commemorate the Hay-market Martyrs of 1886 was answered by the anti-parliamentary Socialist League and the small Federation of Trades and Industries. The socialists and larger unions held a march on Sunday May 4th, when 100,000 march-ers were assisted by the police; on May 1st 10,000 marchers had been harassed and attacked repeatedly by them. “Legitimate protest” has always served to legitimise repression of protest which might prove effective.

In 1893, Mowbray was among the delegates at the Zürich Anarchist Congress held during and after the International Socialist Congress from which the anarchists had been expelled for not supporting “political action”, i.e. electoral activity. Propaganda for the general strike, as a prelude to revolution, was combined with demands for the 8 hour day and other practical demands to be won through direct action rather than legislation passed in parliament. Solidarity between strongly organised workers and the unemployed was also advocated. Back in Britain, Mowbray argued unions should fight unemployment by imposing the 8 hour day and abolishing overtime and piecework.

Later in the decade, anarchists were concerned that unions were either too small to be effective, or too big and consequently dominated by officials leading to branch apathy and lack of control over those officials. They also linked the social democratic strategy of seeking positions in the unions as a base for electoral activity to the inabil-ity of those unions to effectively fight over economic issues. In September 1903 and March 1904 Sam Mainwaring, an anarchist active in the Socialist League during the dock strike, published 2 issues of The General Strike, a revolutionary syndicalist paper that made detailed criticisms of “officialism” and publicised strikes in Europe which used syndicalist methods.

The legacy of the 1889 dock strike was the Syndicalist Revolt twenty years later, not just the reformist general unions of today.

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