Dockers' Strike

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Dockers' Strike

Great Britain 1889


The London dock strike during the summer of 1889 was a crucial victory for British trade unionism in two main ways.First, the strike secured the "dockers' tanner," increasing pay to six pence per hour, and altered the arbitrary system of hiring ("contracting") men at the dock gates. Second, the strike marked the advance of "new unionism" or organizing among less skilled workers and deploying more militant tactics, often with socialist leaders. Although the advances of new unionism were soon contested by employers, the breakthrough could not be reversed. Public support and effective leadership were at the heart of the strike's success. Moreover, the events of 1889 were a noteworthy representation of the power and imagery of a burgeoning labor movement and of international solidarity marked by the dockers marching and demonstrating through the city of London. Australian dockers lent international support by boosting the strike fund with substantial donations.


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Event and Its Context

1880s London

London's social and political atmosphere in the second half of the 1880s was quite as hot as the weather in August 1889. Radical social campaigners and journalists such as Andrew Mearns and W. T. Stead and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 had focused attention on the social conditions of the East End. Charles Booth published his survey, The Life and Labour of the People of London, in 1889. There had been demonstrations organized and led by socialists and riots against unemployment during 1886 and 1887. This culminated in "Bloody Sunday" in November 1887, after which socialist orator John Burns was among those imprisoned. Two strikes also boosted the confidence of the dockers. In London's East End, the previously un-unionized matchgirls of Bryant and May, organized by Annie Besant, a member of the socialist Fabian Society, struck successfully in the summer of 1888. The gas workers, organized by Will Thorne, a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), also struck in August 1889.

As the British economy faced greater international competition, the economic uncertainty of the docks themselves contributed to conditions that led up to the strike. The West and East India Company, which had built Tilbury dock some 20 miles downstream of the established East End docks in 1886, went bankrupt two years later. Tilbury functioned well below capacity. That London was "overdocked" further reduced the stability of dock employment, but also meant the employers' position was weakened.

The "Dockers' Tanner"

The five-week strike started on 10 August 1889 during a period of high employment. The array of different unions on the docks, including Ben Tillett's tea porters, joined together. At the dock gates, strikers urged the unorganized "casuals" not to sign on for work. The unifying aim was the "dockers' tanner," a rate of six pence an hour. Since an 1872 strike, pay had been at best five pence an hour (for the likes of ship loaders, the stevedores, whose union was formed from the strike), so securing six pence an hour meant an increase of at least 20 percent.

The "contract" system also was a cause of grievances that fueled pressure for reform. Except for more skilled sectors such as stevedores or tugmen, dock work was casual. Employment depended upon ships docking and on workers being awarded a "contract." The laborers would assemble daily at the dock gates, hopeful of work, but dependent upon being selected by contractors and even then guaranteed no more than a few hours' labor and pay.

The hot weather aided the daily mass meetings near the Tower of London. Burns addressed the gatherings in his distinctive white straw hat and led regular marches through the city of London. Contrary to recent unemployed demonstrations and Burns's reputation for ready fists, these marches were notable for their order and discipline, evincing "the dignity of labour." This demeanor proved effective in terms of swinging popular opinion and donations behind the strike as did the exposure of the dockers' cause and their plight. Emblems such as the "dockers' dinner" and "dockers' baby" emphasized the hardship these workers faced with the morality of their cause.

The employers, however, were successful at bringing in nonunion or "blackleg" labor, and after two weeks of striking and rallies the dockers were no nearer to a resolution. Funds were sparse. At the peak of the strike, the strike office was issuing as many as 25,000 food tickets (worth £1250) daily. An unexpected donation from Australian dockers, better organized than their British counterparts, helped to rescue the financial situation. By the end of the strike the Australian contribution amounted to more than £30,000, two-thirds of the total strike funds raised. The new banner of the Stevedores' Union, which pictured Australian and British dockers hand in hand, commemorated this generosity. The contributions meant that Tom Mann's proposal to end the deadlock and the general strike across London was not necessary.

The End of the Strike

The Lord Mayor of London and Cardinal Manning, from a shipping family and concerned at the fate of Catholic strikers, initiated conciliation. The employers conceded the "dockers' tanner" and an increased rate for overtime. Four-hour shifts reduced the impermanence of the contract system. One concession on the part of the union was that blackleg labor might remain employed, but Tillett was effective at convincing the majority to leave.

Clearly decisive in the victory—as much as the unity and fortitude of the dockers, the popular support for their cause, and the radical mood of London—was the leadership of the likes of Tillett, Thorne, Burns, and Mann. All were socialists, connected to the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, and effective organizers. They comprised an eccentric, sectarian group. Much of the influence of these leaders was despite rather than because of the SDF. For them socialism was practical as well as rhetorical; for Mann and Thorne, socialism meant the municipalization of the docks or gasworks under local control. Above all, these leaders epitomized the spirit of new unionism.

The Impact

A dockers' union (the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers' Union) formed with Tillett as secretary. The new organization had some 30,000 members by November 1889. Other general unions (such as the General Railway Workers' Union) emerged to cater to the needs of unskilled workers. This group also had an effect on other unions, such as the national Miners' Federation of Great Britain, which formed in 1889. The dockers' strike marked the advance of new unionism against the older, exclusive craft unions. Yet there were limits to the change. The dockers' union for instance, though flourishing in Tillett's hometown of Bristol, faced competition elsewhere. Many new unions such as the gasworkers lost members through the 1890s. The older unions, such as the engineers, picked up members in the late 1880s and retained them as well as their influence over the wider movement and Trades Union Congress (TUC). Mann was narrowly defeated in the leadership election for the engineers in 1891. The new, general unions numbered around 200,000, around 12 percent of total union membership. If the new unionism was not all that new, the response to it suggested otherwise. Various legal decisions made in the courts (but not in Parliament) and an employers' counteroffensive, notably the 1897-1898 engineering lockout, indicated that unions still faced an uncertain prospect. With the Liberals heavily defeated in the 1895 general election, traditional sources of political and parliamentary support could no longer be relied upon.

Workers marching in the dockers' victory parade sang "Rule Britannia" and "La Marseillaise" and inspired James Connell to pen the words to "The Red Flag," which was to become in a few years the theme tune of the newly formed Labour Party. The leadership of socialists in the strike, together with the fragility of the trade union advance that it marked, both contributed to the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900.

Key Players

Burns, John (1858-1943): Born in South London, Burns was by trade a skilled engineer. A radical and socialist, keen cricketer and teetotaler, Burns was notorious for powerful oratory and striking appearance at demonstrations. He earned the title "the man with the red flag" after a disturbance in 1886 and during the dock strike was known as "the man in the white straw hat." He represented Battersea on the new London County Council from 1889 to 1907 and was Member of Parliament (MP) for Battersea from 1892 to 1918. As the president of the local government board under the Liberal government (1905-1914) and briefly president of the board of trade (1914), Burns lost much of his earlier support among socialists.

Mann, Tom (1856-1941): Born near Coventry, Mann was, like Will Thorne, close to Engels and Eleanor Marx in the 1880s and, like Burns, a skilled craftsman and Social Democratic Federation (SDF) member. An advocate of the eight-hour workweek and for reform of London government, Mann was also president of the dockers' union until 1893, secretary of the Independent Labour Party (1894-1897), and chief founder of the Workers' Union in 1898. Between 1901 and 1910 he was active among trade unionists and socialists in New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. He returned to Britain a syndicalist and was chair of the Communist Party (which he joined from the outset in 1920) National Minority Movement, 1924-1932.

Tillett, Ben (1860-1943): Born in Bristol, Tillett joined the circus, then the navy, and was by the 1880s a tea porter in London. The small Tea Operatives Union that Tillett founded in 1887 was at the heart of the dock strike, and Tillett was leader of the dockers' union that emerged after 1889 until its amalgamation into the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1922. Tillett firmly believed that transport workers, particularly dockerworkers, should organize nationally and internationally in the International Federation of Ship Dock and River Workers (which he helped found in 1896) rather than by region or trade. An SDF member in the 1880s, Tillett was Labour MP for North Salford, 1917-1924 and 1929-1931.

See also: Maritime Strike.



Brown, Kenneth Douglas. John Burns. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Fishman, W. J. East End 1888: A Year in a London Borough Among the Laboring Poor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979.

Lovell, John Christopher. Stevedores and Dockers: A Study of Trade Unionism in the Port of London, 1870-1914.London: Macmillan 1969.

McCarthy, Terry, ed. The Great Dock Strike, 1889. London:Weidenfeld and Nicolson in association with the Transport and General Workers' Union, 1988.

Pelling, Henry. A History of British Trade Unionism.London: Macmillan, 1963.

Schneer, Jonathan. Ben Tillett: Portrait of a Labour Leader.London: Croom Helm, 1982.

—Lawrence Black