By Ralph Darlington

Pluto Press. 326 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-3903-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Just before I sat down to write this review I read an item in the Morning Star which pointed to a decline in union membership: “Despite last year seeing the biggest strike wave to sweep Britain in decades, total union membership – which stood at 13.2 million in 1979 - is estimated to have fallen by 200,000 to 6.7m last year”.

At first glance there appears to be something odd going on. There are fewer trade unionists and yet we are in the throes of a major strike wave. This might suggest that some strikes are spontaneous events involving non-union activists. That isn’t the case. True, there are strikes called by newly-established unions, such as Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) which are attempting to organise workers usually neglected by established unions, but they’re small-scale affairs involving only a limited number of strikers. I’m not being dismissive of these unions. I admire them for what they’re trying to do in terms of organising among groups too often seen as “not worth the trouble” by trade unionists who think in terms of large memberships and mass actions.

The fact is that the current strike wave is largely occurring within areas of public service employment which are still labour-intensive - the NHS, Royal Mail, education, local government, the railways, elements of the civil service. And the nature of the strikers has changed. Gone are the dockers, miners, steel workers , cotton workers, with their traditions of solidarity and industrial struggle. It’s doubtful if many of today’s strikers could hold out over a protracted period of strike action, not because they lack the fighting spirit to do so, but simply because their social and economic circumstances have changed and they have more to lose if they don’t have a regular income.

There are more reasons than that, of course, but just as strikes often revolve around basic issues of lower hours, higher pay, working conditions, so their resolution will often depend on how much participants are prepared to sacrifice in order to  win. I think it’s almost impossible to make other than general comparisons with what happened over a hundred years ago in the industrialised nations of Europe and America. It does interest me that what I read about the situation in India today, for example, might suggest a similarity to pre-1914 Britain.  Poor working conditions in badly-built factories, bullying and vindictive foremen and supervisors, low pay, child workers, hostility towards union organisers, confrontations with police during strikes which lead to deaths. It sounds all too familiar.

Strikers in the period covered by Ralph Darlington’s fascinating and stimulating book rarely had a lot to lose when it came to what they owned. Poverty was widespread, with malnutrition, sub-standard housing, irregular employment, and poor health affecting millions. And there were few welfare provisions available. Let me quote Darlington on the situation: “In 1910 just 10 percent of the population owned 92 percent of total wealth, making Britain perhaps more unequal than ever before (or since) and more unequal than most European countries. The ostentatious display of the wealth and luxury consumptions of the upper and middle classes, such as dining out, motoring, holidays, and other forms of conspicuous expenditure, were widely reported on by the popular press and cinema and exacerbated workers’ resentment”.

It might be relevant to refer to the opening lines of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life”. I have to admit that, each time I pass the Free Trade Hall in Manchester I think of the night in November 1913 when William “Big Bill” Haywood, head of the IWW, addressed an audience of 4,000,”with upwards of 20,000 thronging the streets outside”, along with Jim Larkin, James Connolly, both from the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and Ben Tillett, all of them with leanings towards the syndicalist or “one big union” approach to union activity. They were there as part of the so-called “Fiery Cross” campaign to raise support for Dublin workers who had been locked out by their employers.  Read James Plunkett’s fine, panoramic novel, Strumpet City, for a vivid portrait of the period.  

In addition, the British economy was slowing down in comparison with Germany and the United States. There was “a huge reduction in Britain’s share of the world’s industrial market”. Profit margins were squeezed and “spurred numerous employers to attempt to reduce labour costs”. A glance at the reasons for many of the strikes that took place between 1910 and 1914 will, I think, show that they frequently started because workers fought back against wage cuts and/or the imposition of longer hours. Some strikes occurred because poorly-paid workers were struggling to cope with a broad “cost of living crisis”. They simply couldn’t live on what they were paid. Among the numerous examples of strikes that Darlington examines, the West Midlands Metal Workers strike between April and July 1913 has several intriguing aspects that deserve attention. The industry employed significant numbers of women, none of whom were union members when the strike began.

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) which spoke for skilled male workers, denied membership to women. There was the small Workers’ Union (WU), which had been founded “for the express purpose of organising traditionally neglected groups of unskilled, semi-skilled and women workers”. Julia Varley was a leading light in the WU and active in the strike which soon spread across a variety of factories and workshops in the Midlands. There is a photo of Varley with the strike committee from two establishments and it’s noticeable that both men and women are equally represented. The strike was eventually settled through the system of arbitration and conciliation boards set up by the Liberal Government, and which was generally approved of by traditional union chiefs. Some activists opposed referral to the boards and advocated direct action as the best way to win strikes. Darlington mentions “attacks on factories worked by ‘blackleg’ labour and upon mass police concentrations brought in to defend them”. And he adds: “Widespread sabotage took place in the factories with ‘shaft-belts cut’ and ‘machinery damaged’”.

It has to be said that the strike wave in the period concerned did involve a fair amount of violence, not all of it instigated by strikers. The police appear to have been particularly prone to wading in heavily and using their batons. And troops were called out on more than one occasion. Two railwaymen were shot and killed in Llanelli, two rioters shot dead in Liverpool when they tried to rescue men on their way to prison. They had been convicted after being arrested at a demonstration in August 1911. A caption beneath a photo in the book says; “The 80,000 strong demonstration at St George’s Plateau in Liverpool on Sunday 13 August 1911 which was attacked by Police, and followed by a city wide general transport strike”. It’s sometimes hard, when reading other accounts of police actions, not to think that they, and the authorities generally, were nervous when they saw a large crowd assembling and took the view that aggressive action was almost immediately necessary to force people to disperse.

Were there specific reasons for the widespread resort to violence in many of the strikes that  Darlington looks at? There hadn’t been excessive levels of it in earlier strikes. In the period of the “New Unionism” around 1889/90, famous in labour history for the Great Dock Strike and the Match Girls’ Strike, there had been mass meetings and marches but mostly without major incidents. Was it true, as some believed, that syndicalists were spreading the gospel of direct action and encouraging strikers to be aggressive?   Is it likely that more than a handful of strikers would be interested in syndicalist theories about the purpose of unions to eventually combine into one big union which would then take over the means of production? There may well have been doubts about full-time union officials and their alleged comfortable relations with employers. And established politics may have been looked on with suspicion.

According to Darlington, in 1911 four out of 10 men were debarred from the electoral register.  And all women were denied the vote, and many of them resorted to direct action to draw attention to their cause. Did all this add fuel to the fire and incline the strikers to believe that Parliament could never truly represent their interests, and mass action, including violence if necessary, was acceptable in the circumstances? Ben Tillett said: “Parliament is a farce and a sham, the rich man’s Duma, the employer’s Tammany, the Thieves’ Kitchen and the working man’s despot….in the 1912 strikes we had to fight Parliament, the forces of the Crown, the judges of the law”. There may be some irony in the fact that Tillett later became a Labour MP.

But let me point out that not every strike involved street fights between strikers and police, or the presence of troops with fixed bayonets to keep unruly crowds under control. In August 1911 “some 15,000 unskilled women and girls in different local food processing, glue and box making factories in Bermondsey, London, walked out”. They weren’t organised and no syndicalist agitators had been among them. They were just tired of being underpaid and badly treated. It started “when a group of women from a large confectionary factory suddenly left work and marched down the street”.  As they passed other factories they called on the women to join them. They contacted the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) for assistance and eventually won improvements in their pay and conditions. Many of them joined the NFWW. A newspaper report about a demonstration by the women referred to them having “put on their ‘Sunday best’. In spite of the great heat, hundreds of them wore their boas and tippets – the sign of self-respect”. I’m reminded of the mill girls of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912 during the IWW-led strike there, carrying a banner with the wonderful slogan that read, “We want bread and roses too”.

Darlington seems to have a liking for the syndicalists, and that’s not necessarily bad, though I doubt that they ever made much headway in the British labour movement. He refers at one point to a lack of interest in theory among British activists, and it’s true. And that’s not necessarily bad, either.  There was an American poet who, during a discussion, remarked that the Anglo-Saxon ignorance of theory had its good side in that, unlike other nations, we don’t get bogged down in all those “isms” – communism, fascism, surrealism, syndicalism. I think he was perhaps exaggerating a little to make a point, but there is truth in his suggestion. In any case, the debate went on between advocates of parliamentary involvement and those who inclined towards non-parliamentary actions.

But I wonder if the mass of people, union members or not, didn’t favour the idea that, to quote a later commentator, the American entertainer, Richard “Lord” Buckley: “It makes no difference who is in the driving seat, since whoever it is they’re bound to square up, square being the shape of all driving seats”. Better to stick to something tangible, such as a wage increase or a cut in hours, or as was resolved by a short-lived downing of tools at a factory where I once worked, an improvement in the ventilating system. Direct action for a practical purpose. To be fair, I should point out that Darlington quotes from a key syndicalist text, The Miners, Next Step (Noah Ablett was its main author): “The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions”. Which raises the question of what would have happened if the syndicalists had gained power?

The great strike upheaval continued into the early months of 1914, but when war with Germany was declared in August it seemed as if a wave of patriotism swept over almost everyone. Thousands of people rushed to volunteer to fight for their country and against fellow-workers in other countries. Those who spoke against the war were vilified and sometimes physically attacked. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that all militant union activity stopped until after 1918. There were problems in 1917 and 1918 in Scotland, especially around so-called “Red Clydeside”, and the post-war years brought a resurgence of agitation, especially in the mines, which culminated in the 1926 General Strike and its failure. Syndicalism had largely disappeared from the agenda by then, apart from in the minds of a few individuals. The collapse of the Triple Alliance (railwaymen, transport workers, miners) in 1921 probably demonstrated the difficulties that arose when union solidarity came under pressure. I suspect syndicalism may not have much relevance now, other than as theory. And we all know what most people think about theories.   

Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 is a much-needed book for those with an interest in what happened in the years it refers to. Written in good, clear prose, it raises many interesting questions regarding unions and their place in society. It is impressively researched and has a substantial bibliography.