John Burns

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Burns, John E. (1858–1943). Trade union organizer and exponent of ‘Lib-Labism’. Burns was born in south London. Despite little formal education he became an engineer, and involved himself in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and more generally in working-class politics in London's dockland. An accomplished orator, he was one of the organizers of the great London dock strike of 1889, which marked a watershed in the development of trade unionism among unskilled manual workers. In 1884 Burns had joined the Social Democratic Federation, and acquired a reputation as a socialist militant. But by the 1890s he had broken both with Marxism and with trade unionism, supporting instead the furtherance of working-class interests within the Liberal Party. Elected as an independent Labour MP for Battersea in 1892, in 1905 he accepted office as president of the Local Government Board in the newly formed Liberal administration. Burns resigned from the government in 1914, apparently in protest against the declaration of war with Germany. He retired from Parliament in 1918.

Geoffrey Alderman

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John Burns, 1858–1943, British union leader and politician. A factory worker as a child, he was largely self-educated and was led by his reading to radical socialism. Burns became an outstanding orator, and in 1889 he was one of the leaders of the London dock strike, an attempt to organize the ill-paid unskilled laborers. Burns was elected (1892) to Parliament among the first labor representatives, but he quarreled with James Keir Hardie and soon abandoned both socialism and the trade union movement. Henceforth associated with the Liberals, he was president of the local government board (1905–14), but resigned from the cabinet in protest against Britain's entry into World War I. He retired from Parliament in 1918.

See biography by K. Brown (1977).