8. United we stand, divided we fall: workers' militancy 1889 -1893

Strikes, lockouts and the organisation of non-craft workers

Mural: Ben Tillett at Stapleton Road railway station, St Mark's Street, Bristol Detail hotspot

The year 1889 in Bristol, as elsewhere in the UK, was a watershed in terms of the character, scale, scope and level of industrial militancy. Strikes were widespread, many spontaneous and often initiated by rank-and-file and unorganised workers, the majority of whom were non-craft workers. Miners, dockers, gas workers, transport workers, cotton operatives, corn porters, boot and shoe workers, hatters, chocolate makers, deal runners, cigar makers, sawyers, brushmakers, tailoresses and many more participated in strikes between September 1889 and the end of January 1990, many of which ended in employers capitulating to workers' demands (British Workman, March 1890, quoted in S. Bryher (1929: Bristol) An account of the labour and socialist movement in Bristol, Part 2, p. 19; Atkinson (1982) p.10; Large and Whitfield (1973) p. 7; J. Latimer (1902: George's sons: Bristol) The annals of Bristol in the nineteenth century 1887-1900, p.14). In essence the initial outburst of strikes in 1889 represented an embryonic form of class-consciousness as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled men and women from a wide range of industries withdrew their labour. This mass action reveals the growing awareness of the opposing interests of capital and labour, making it qualitatively different to previous acts of spontaneity such as the 1831 Bristol riots. In short it was a growing sense of injustice that lay behind labour militancy. But what brought about the mass mobilisation of workers to take their fate into their own hands, vehemently and openly expressing their grievances? And why, between1890-93, did disputes tend to be longer, bitter and more likely to end in failure? To answer these questions it is necessary to briefly examine a few of the larger disputes.

The difficult task of recruiting Bristol gasworkers, many of who were casuals, into trade unions met with some success in the late 1880s. In the summer of 1889 the London and Bristol gasworkers union branches amalgamated. A strong organisation had therefore been built before a pay claim was submitted to the employers. When Bristol gasworkers took strike action on 9 October 1889 to pursue this claim, they did so in the knowledge that a network of support was firmly established. The company hired a one hundred and twenty strong workforce from Exeter but failed, despite a police escort, to get them through the picket line, and within a few days the employers conceded to the union's demands. This gave a great fillip to Bristol workers in struggle reflected by the victory celebration, organised by Bristol Trades Council, attended by ten thousand people (Atkinson (1982) p. 9).

Strikes spread and it is difficult to argue with Bryher's description of Bristol in 1889 as 'a seething centre of revolt' (Bryher (1929) p. 16). Nearly 2000 unorganised dock labourers joined the fray when on 21 October, despite securing an increase in the hourly rate, the famed 'dockers' tanner', they struck for enhanced overtime rates. Uniting with their comrades hundreds of other waterside workers with similar claims also engaged in strike action. A notable aspect of this dispute was that the municipal authority in Bristol was the largest employer on the docks 'and was therefore, indirectly, subject to public opinion through the ballot box' (Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 214). By the end of the week the strikers had attained their demands but within a few weeks they struck again this time in support of a closed shop. However, the extent of their success in this significant switch from economic demands to the pursuance of organisational advances is unclear. It seems that the gasworkers represented the waterside workers at this time, although by 1891 a union existed specifically for dockers and associated trades with a membership of about 2,500 (Atkinson (1982) p. 15;W. G. Neale (1970: Port of Bristol Authority: Bristol) At the port of Bristol, Volume Two, The turn of the tide 1900-1914, pp. 18-22).

Concurrent with the dockers' strike in October 1889 a thousand women cotton operatives from the Barton Hill mill in Bristol, shunned over a decade earlier by Bristol Trades Council, came out on strike for better pay and conditions. Many signed up to the gasworkers' union who were openly inviting unskilled and unorganised male and female workers from Bristol's many industries to join their organisation. This move towards general unionism and the idea of creating one giant union was a critical development, a development to which Jas Vicary, the Bristol gasworkers' leader, subscribed. Other factors, however, proved to be equally important in the course of this dispute. On Saturday 26 October a procession and mass meeting, called to celebrate the dockers' victory, was addressed by Bristol born Ben Tillett, leader of the 1889 London Dock Strike, and attracted 15,000 people. At least 1,500 cotton operatives participated in the procession capturing their mood of defiance, sense of injustice and shift towards a collective consciousness. Solidarity was a feature of this demonstration influencing the decision to form a Strike Organisation Committee to tap into and keep up the momentum of workers' struggles. Helena Born and Miriam Daniell, members of the Marxist Bristol Socialist Society (BSS), founded in 1885, took leading roles in this Committee, which was established by the BSS and the Bristol Trades Council (Bryher (1929) pp. 6-7, 16; Atkinson (1982) pp. 9-10)

According to Bryher, Born and Daniell had a close association with the women cotton operative strikers and were actively involved in establishing the local branch of the gasworkers and general labourer' union. Unequalled for the drive and passion with which they pursued the causes of the Bristol working class, Born and Daniell engaged enthusiastically in the work of the Strike Organising Committee. They were middle class ethical socialists inspired by the American poet Walt Whitman and derived great satisfaction from their involvement with the working class in such tumultuous times, as the following words uttered by Born indicate:

The principles of Socialism, as I understand them, seem to me economically incontrovertible, and to comprise spiritual ideals of unity and brotherhood which alone can transmute the materialism of our time. And I feel that the only effectual way to convince others of the truth of one's principles, and to bring about the new time, is by living them (quoted in Bryher (1929) pp. 6-7).

The cotton strike was to last a month and attracted huge support. Daily the women operatives marched from the Barton Hill factory into the city. Evening meetings were held. Church congregations in middle class areas of the city were petitioned. However, the company chairman threatened to close the cotton works, which seemed to weaken the resolve of the Strike Committee who advised the operatives to call off the strike. Overwhelmingly the women rejected this advice and continued with the dispute, helped by Bristol and Liverpool dockers who refused to handle the company's products. Despite this assistance the operatives failed to win an increase in wages and after squeezing some concessions out of the company concerning working conditions they rather reluctantly ended their strike. But most significantly these cotton operatives secured union recognition from the company. Moreover, this long-running dispute shatters any assumptions that women workers in the nineteenth century lacked the qualities to organise, strike and mount an effective resistance against injustice at work (Bryher (1929) pp. 18, 19).

Between 1888-1890 well over 11,000 new recruits joined the ranks of trade unions in Bristol. It is likely that trade union density was nearing the 10 per cent mark. Clearly, militant strike action was associated with the increase in union membership. How then can it be explained that the new decade seemingly brought with it a marked deterioration in the ability of workers to win disputes?

There are possible explanations although evidence to substantiate them is a little thin. First, employers became better organised, and arbitration and conciliation boards, sponsored by the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and the trade unions, were given an enhanced role in the resolution of disputes (Bryher (1929) p. 34; Atkinson (1982) p. 17), harking back to mid-Victorian compromise, and often succeeded in defusing industrial disputes by channelling them through the institutional process (J.H. Porter (1970) 'Wage bargaining under conciliation agreements, 1860-1914', Economic History Review, 23, pp. 460-475). Even where workers were unorganised arbitration awards were made in an attempt to settle grievances. Second, increasingly trade union demands were channelled, and thereby moderated, through collective bargaining procedures (R. Holton (1976: Pluto: London) British syndicalism 1900-1914, p. 32). Third, the focus of the expression of grievances shifted from direct action to participating in local and national politics to bring about change in the interests of the whole of the working class (Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 215). Fourth, the police and the military took a more proactive role in industrial disputes after 1890, making it easier for employers to bring in scab-labour, as some of the events referred to below reveal.

In the early 1890s there were some bitterly fought disputes. Many of the major altercations between capital and labour in Bristol between 1890-93 were lockouts. Deal-runners were locked out in their fight against a reduction in piece-rates and their refusal to work with men recruited from Cardiff, on lower rates, in order to force Bristol workers to submit to what was in effect a pay cut. The lockout dragged on for 32 weeks before the deal-runners conceded to the employer's demands. Boot and shoe workers in Bristol, as elsewhere, were locked out in 1889, 1890 and 1892, as were the Bristol miners employed at the Bedminster Malago pit, in 1893. The National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO) achieved a short-term victory, after a strike in 1893, when it forced employers to suspend the scientific Taylorist inspired team-working system in some Bristol factories. In 1892, young women and girls employed at the confectionery works of Saunders and Sons struck in protest against the enforced intensification of work and the refusal of the firm to allow its workers to form a trade union. They too were forced to admit defeat after a 23-week bitter struggle but like the cotton operatives displayed the vital characteristics of militancy and organisation (Atkinson (1982) p. 11; Bryher (1929) pp. 33-50; J. Press (1988) 'G.B. Britton and footwear manufacturing in Bristol and Kingswood, 1870-1973' in Harvey and Press (1988b) p. 219; S. Mullen (1986) 'Sweet girls and deal-runners' in I. Bild (ed.) (1986) pp. 112-126).

Typical of these struggles, as in 1889, was the involvement of non-craft workers, including a significant number of young women, and the organisation of marches and mass demonstrations. However, mass gatherings of this kind met with more determined and aggressive tactics by police and soldiers. The demonstration called on the evening of 23 December 1892 in support of the confectionery workers and the deal-runners ended abruptly when the military moved in to break up the proceedings. Arrests followed and charges were made against Ben Tillett, among others, for 'inciting crowds to riot and use violence'. Tillett was brought to trial in Bristol in the following year, which attracted mass demonstrations of up to 30,000 people who paraded through the city in his support. His trial was eventually moved to London where he was acquitted (Atkinson (1982) p. 12; Bryher (1929 pp. 33-50; S. Mullen (1986) pp. 112-126). Coinciding with his acquittal the period of open and intense industrial conflict in Bristol drew to a close, as the conditions and opportunities for workers to pursue their grievances became increasingly adverse.

New paternalism

Notably, however, some firms, rather than employ authoritarian tactics such as lockouts and the hiring of scab labour, adopted more subtle ways akin to paternalism to keep out unions and pacify its workforce. In 1889 the printing and packaging firm, E.S. and A. Robinson (ES and AR), with over 600 employees, introduced a week's paid annual holiday for workers with 12 months service, an unusual occurrence in the nineteenth century. Likewise two years later the tobacco company, W.D and H.O. Wills (Wills), with over 700 employees, granted paid annual leave to its workers. Prior to this, in 1889, Wills, who did not entertain unions, introduced a profit-based bonus scheme with, in the words of the company lawyer, the 'hope that employers and employed will be thus more closely bound together in goodwill and in effects to promote their common interest' (B.W.E. Alford (1973: Methuen: London) W.D. and H.O. Wills and the development of the UK tobacco industry 1786-1965, p. 286). In 1893, ES and AR, at that time an anti-union firm, made available workers' shares for those over twenty-one and with at least two years service (M.J. Richardson (1995: unpublished PhD thesis, University of the West of England, Bristol) 'Industrial relations in the British printing industry between the wars' p. 149). The timing of these financial involvement schemes fits well with Ramsay's view that during periods of intense industrial unrest employers attraction to employee involvement schemes tends to increase in the hope of securing workers' loyalty and commitment (H. Ramsay (1977) 'Cycles of control: worker participation in sociological and historical perspective', Sociology, 11(3), pp. 481-506).