“The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything” (John Burns). Sadly, 1889 was a false dawn for unionism.

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Resting stevedores on the London Docks, c.1890

1889 has gone down in Trade Union history as one of the most significant. This was the year of the Great Dock Strike in London where dock labourers led by Ben Tillet, Tom Mann and Will Thorne; with support from prominent socialists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, and the Catholic archbishop of London, Cardinal Manning, emerged victorious.

The strike secured an extra penny an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’), along with the recognition of their newly formed union and most of their other demands. For the Labour movement the Dock Strike (and the Match girls strike which inspired it) was huge; recruitment soared and by 1899 over 2,000,000 Britons had joined a trade unions.

However, it didn’t take the employers long to regroup and fight back. Further disputes occurred and companies were now more aware of strikers’ tactics and the methods required to confront them. In addition, infighting and jealousies emerged within unions and between competing workers to undermine the collectivity that had been so vital to success in 1889.

In 1891 a dispute broke out between seaman on ships and the unionised stevedores who controlled the unloading of goods. This allowed the owners of the shipping companies to drive a wedge between two sets of working men and prosecute the fightback against organised union labour. A strike in the Cardiff docks by seamen was defeated and they were forced to accept the terms of the employers. This was between January and March 1891 and affected the London docks as well.

In February 1891 Edward Polton, a 29 year-old stevedore working at Silvertown in docklands, appeared before Mr Kennedy at Woolwich Police Magistrate Court.

Bolton was charged with: ‘throwing missiles from the steam ship Egyptian Monarch, in the Royal Albert Docks, at the Shipping Federation men’.

The missiles in question were nuts and bolts but the case didn’t turn on the danger caused to the Federation’s men (non-union labour employed by the Dock Company) but on whether the large had been accurately laid or not. The original charge was that Polton had been throwing missiles into a public space and therefore endangering ‘the common public’.

The court learned that the docks were closed off by gates and a sign declared that no one was to be admitted ‘except on business’. Dock constables guarded the docks to prevent non-authorised persons from entering (a result it seems of the experiences of the port authorities in the 1889 dispute), and the docks were staffed by non-union men.

That Polton was lobbing missiles at the Fed’s men was not in doubt but he wasn’t guilty of doing so ‘in public’ but instead in private. Mr Kennedy therefore ordered that the stevedore be discharged but recommend to the Dock Company that they bring a new prosecution for assault. If convicted (and the suggestion must have been that Polton would have been convicted) he would face two months in prison, taking an active union man out of action for a considerable period of time and potentially deterring others from following his example. His decision was met with cheers in court, whether from Bolton’s supporters or the Federation men is not made clear.

This little incident from the Police Courts gives us a brief window into the ongoing struggle between workers and employers in the late nineteenth century. Each side learned lessons from the disputes they entered into but the ‘bosses’ had the distinct advantage of being supported by the law. That law, of course, was not written by (or even for) the vast majority of the population but instead was created to protect wealth and privilege from the very people that wanted to see it distributed more evenly.

The battles between unions and owners continued into the next century but ultimately it was always the unions that lose. There have been high points and moral victories, but today the union movement is largely powerless to prevent the continued exploitation of working men and women by rapacious capitalism and a government which listens first to company executives and last to the people on the ‘shop floor’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 18, 1891]

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