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Gas workers meeting, 1889
Gas workers meeting, 1889

The years up to and including the First World War witnessed the rise of a mass labour movement. Trade Unionism spread to previously unorganised workers and its initial militancy rocked the complacency of the old leadership. The new mood was inspired by a revival in socialist activity. Britain's industrial lead and trading dominance was now challenged by the growing economic might of Germany and the USA. The profits from Britain's massive colonial empire concealed the impact of the decline in the staple industries. The empire expanded massively during the last quarter of the 19th century, as Britain, in common with other European 'Great Powers' participated in the race to divide Asia and Africa between them.

New unionism

Between 1888 and 1918 trade unions grew at a faster rate than at any other time in their history. Membership figure stood at roughly 750,000 at the beginning of the period, rising to six and a half million in 1918. Inspired by the successes of the women match workers' strike at the Bryant and May factory in 1888 and subsequently by the Gasworkers' and Dockers' strikes of 1889, trade unionism among unskilled, semi-skilled, white collar and professional workers spread rapidly. Led by socialists like John Burns and Tom Mann (with Eleanor Marx as secretary to the strike committee), the dockers' struggle captured the public imagination. Their strike, which lasted 5 weeks, was over the issue of casual working (they demanded a minimum of 4 hours per day) and for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour (the 'dockers' tanner). They won their latter demand. Their vistory was ultimately ensured by the financial support received from other trade unionsts, including a £30,000 donation from Australia.

The central slogan of this forward movement was that of the demand for an 8-hour day - a demand of the international labour movement, popularised by the newly formed Second International (1889-1914) (an alliance of European socialists and trade unionists which attempted to give practical expression to Marx's famous slogan 'workers of all countries unite'). The huge May Day 1890 demonstration in favour of the 8-hour day took even its organisers by surprise. Many of the gains of 'new unionism' were reversed by 1891 owing to a counter offensive by employers. This was supported by two infamous legal decisions. The case of Lyons vs Wilkins in 1896 set a precedent for outlawing even peaceful picketing. In 1901, the Taff Vale judgment, enabled the employer (the Taff Vale Railway Company) to sue the union (the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants) for losses sustained during a strike. This action, inspired as it was by the Employers' Parliamentary Council, was intended to prevent strike action altogether, thus reversing the legal gains made by trade unions in the 1870's. This had the desired defect of curtailing (albeit temporarily) the mood of trade union militancy which had infected even the older more 'conservative' unions like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). (In 1891, the socialist, Tom Mann came within 1,000 votes of winning the general secretaryship of the ASE). The trade union 'old guard' used this calmer period to consolidate their position. A change in the TUC standing orders in 1895 introduced the block vote, and trades councils (regarded as hotbeds of militancy) were banned from sending delegates to the annual congress of the TUC.


Trade Union membership grew rapidly between 1910 and 1914. This growth - a product of the extraordinary militancy of the pre-war years - exploded in a huge wave of strike action, dubbed 'the great unrest'. The printers' strike of 1911 was the occasion for the establishment of a new workers' daily newspaper in April 1912 - the Daily Herald edited by George Lansbury.

The organisers of these pre-war strikes were hostile to the leadership of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement, which they condemned as class collaborationist. Instead they were inspired by syndicalism. Syndicalists were a minority current in the labour movement, but nonetheless they offered a simple alternative to the continued employers' offensive - that of direct action in order to regain some form of workers' control over workplace pay and conditions by utilising the strategy of the mass strike and rapid trade union recruitment.

Women workers

Although the number of women in trade unions had increased by 1914, 90% of all trade unionists were men and over 90% of women workers remained unorganised. Of the 10% of organised women, almost half were members of unions in the textile industry (the only industry in which they had maintained continuous organisation), and a high proportion of the remainder were members of teaching, clerical and shop workers unions.

Although the periods of growth in women's trade union membership usually coincided with overall union expansion, the unions themselves cannot claim the sole credit for organising women workers. As in the previous period, that task fell to women themselves. The Women's Trade Union League (formerly the Women's Protective and Provident League founded in 1874) became more militant and abandoned some of the policies of its predecessors. The secretary of the League, Clementina Black, moved the first successful equal pay resolution at the 1888 Trades Union Congress (TUC). The League supported strikes and encouraged women to join existing trade unions. It reversed the WPPL policy of opposing protective legislation for women and instead campaigned for its extension. The League became an unofficial Women's TUC and was dissolved in 1921 when the TUC agreed to take on its functions by forming the Women Workers' Group.

In membership terms, the two most important women's organisations were the Co-operative Women's Guild formed in 1883 (by 1931 it had 67,000 members organised in 1,400 branches) and the National Federation of Women Workers, founded in 1906.

Women's Suffrage

The fight for the vote was the single demand around which the disparate strands of the women's movement could rally in the late nineteenth century. By the end of the 19th century the women's suffrage campaign had a mass following among working class women. Many of its leaders were well known as socialists and worked through various labour movement organisations as well as establishing their own organisation - the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers' Representation Committee. In 1903 the Pankhursts (Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia) formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). In its early years the WSPU had strong labour movement connections but apart from the Independent Labour Party, the labour movement was slow to support women's suffrage and the link was severed. The WSPU concentrated its efforts on influential and 'well placed' women in a less democratic pressure group style of campaigning differing only from the salon style of the older middle class suffrage societies in its less orthodox tactics. Individual acts of arson and terrorism captured the headlines, as did the strong-arm response of the Liberal government. The mass campaigns of working class women with which Sylvia Pankhurst was identified attracted less media attention. Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU in 1914 because of her support for labour movement causes and for her activities among working class women in the East End of London.


Unlike reformist social democracy in Continental Europe, the British strain emerged without the theoretical underpinnings which characterised the sharp ideological battles of the Second International in general and of the largest of the European workers' parties, the German Social Democratic Party (SDP), in particular. The Fabian Society, formed in 1884 was the most 'theoretical' of the non-marxist organisations and distanced itself initially from labour politics. Although there was a representative of the Fabian Society, Edward Pease, on the Labour Representation Committee, the Fabians played very little part in the fight for independent labour representation, preferring instead their policy of permeating the Liberal Party. Once the Labour Party was up and running, the Fabians saw its possibilities and switched their intellectual efforts in its direction. The Fabian track record was fairly impressive. As a predominantly middle class organisation, much of its effort was devoted to scholarly research into all manner of social and political questions, with leading members like Sidney and Beatrice Webb becoming acknowledged 'experts' in their fields. On a practical level, it was the proud Fabian boast that they had defeated marxism in London through their assiduous work in nurturing the liberal-labour alliance which had captured control of the newly (1889) formed London County Council. Their 'gas and water' municipal socialism established a tradition of attention to detail at local government level which, its supporters argued, brought more tangible benefit to the working class than all the marxist polemic put together.

Fabianism itself, however, was not immune from intellectual challenges from within. During the 'great unrest' (1910-14), opposition to its non-revolutionary gradualist philosophy emerged. The main rebel was G.D.H.Cole, whose breakaway group of Guild Socialists (a strand of democratic socialism which advocated the control of production by workers through self-governing guilds based on industrial labour unions) took with them the Fabian Research Department, renamed the Labour Research Department in 1918. (The latter still survives to fulfil its original purpose to provide a service for trade unionists.)

Professor Mary Davis, Centre for Trade Union Studies, London Metropolitan University

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Match Workers, Bryant and May, 1888 Ben Tillett
  Gas Workers' rally at Peckham Rye, 1889   East End kids imitating their Dads, (Dock Strike 1911)  
  Clarion Van, 1914   Tom Mann  
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