Coal strikes, docks lying idle, garment workers walking out in their thousands … why was 1912 such a particularly bitter year for labour disputes?
In truth, the battles between labour and capital of a century ago had been coming for decades. In 1870, Britain had been the industrial powerhouse of the world, making some 32 per cent of the goods manufactured on the planet. Having your industrial revolution before everyone else and a worldwide empire to plunder for raw materials (and to export to) does confer certain economic advantages. But by Edwardian times, this small collection of islands was being dwarfed by the new industrialised nations. Now the USA was making 36 per cent of world goods, Germany 16 per cent. Britain, meanwhile had slumped to just 14 per cent.
And it was worse than it looked. The figures betrayed a major decline in Britain’s industrial base. While the US and Germany were investing heavily in their industry, British firms failed to invest, squeezing the last drops from antique machinery and buildings. Meanwhile, bosses were struggling to keep ageing factories and pits in some sort of profit by holding down wages; for years, working people had seen their real wage steadily decrease. And what bright spots there were in the Balance of Payment figures came from the UK’s increased reliance on banking and financial services. Although the clothes and customs may have changed, much about 1912 London seems strangely familiar to a viewer from 2012.
And though we can pin many of the disputes down to 1912, in truth this was an entire age of confrontation – the years described by historians today as ‘The Great Unrest’. Britons had been battling for years for social and economic reform. That would come, but only in the wake of the mass bloodletting of World War I. For now, many of the reforms anticipated after another wave of strikes in the late 19th century (including the Bryant and May matchgirls’ strike of 1888, and the Great Dock Strike a year later) simply hadn’t come.
The Fabians and the emerging Labour movement may have pushed hard, but trade unions were still piecemeal, craft societies. They might have power in their own factory or warehouse, but concerted national action was something else. The union movement had suffered a body blow with the Taff Vale judgement in 1901, which ruled that unions were legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.
In June 1911, National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, pushing for a wage rise, called on the transport workers for help. That summer, Britain’s major ports and railways were brought to a halt. In South Wales, even the schoolkids came out on strike and, remarkably, some policemen. Liverpool had its own general strike, as companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. But across the UK, the strikes were quickly over, settled locally as ever. German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, who had settled in Whitechapel, became convinced that what was needed was concerted national action.
In 1912 the opportunity came. The miners struck for four weeks, and the East End docks were brought to a halt for two months. And as summer approached, a strike started among West End tailors for better piece rates. On 2 May, the Times reported 7000-8000 workers at one strike meeting. Enter Rocker, who had spent years trying to entice the Jewish garment workers of Whitechapel to properly unionise. The East Enders had long been seen as scabs – indeed they were already taking up the work not being done by the striking West End tailors. But on 8 May, Rocker spoke before 8000 at a hall in Whitechapel, with 3000 in the street outside. A vote was taken, and two days later 13,000 workers walked out – it was the biggest East End strike since 1889.
Rocker, the arch organiser, was already seeing the bigger picture. He moved to organise joint meetings and demonstrations between dockers and tailors. The aim was not simply to scare the bosses and the government, but to build solidarity between the two communities. Three weeks later the tailors (both West End and East) had won shorter hours, no piecework and better sanitary conditions – and the factories became closed shops. The strike was won.
Now attention turned to the dockers, many of them now starving. Whitechapel tailoring families took in some 300 dockers’ children – mistrust between trades, or between Jews and Gentiles was put aside. The dispute had echoes of the 1889 London Dock Strike. During that conflict, the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union had been swiftly formed to coordinate the previously wildcat strike action, with Ben Tillett as its general secretary. Then, in 1912, Tillett folded his union, along with the National Union of Dock Labourers and the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, into the National Transport Workers’ Federation. And with dockers and tailors working together, it seemed the age of big union organisation was upon the East End. But again the dispute simply petered out.
Seeds had been sown though. Mass unionisation would come, and so would the great labour disputes of the 1920s – most notably the General Strike of 1926. And a relationship between the dockers and garment workers had also been formed. For historian Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years later, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.