L'organisation ouvrière en Angleterre

We here present the first English translation (by John X.) of young Fr Joseph Cardijn's landmark article, Worker Organisation in England, published in the Revue sociale catholique in November-December 1911. 

The explosion of general strikes which have just dislocated the well-oiled gears of English society initiated a period of indescribable excitement. Never before had there been such friendly agreement between the different trade unions; the strike committees included delegates from the most powerful federations, and at one sign from the organisers more than a million workers had folded their arms, sacrificing around six million days' wages; supplies to London and several towns had been cut, famine was becoming a frightening threat, and thousands of holidaying families were anxiously awaiting, in waiting-rooms and on platforms, on beaches and at the ports, the end of the strike to enable them to return home. British newspapers with their enormous coverage added to their crude reporting and interviews, suggestive illustrations of strike committee meetings, organisers' meetings, bloody uprisings, arrests of guilty parties, troop encampments, and the burials of victims. London's Fleet Street with its innumerable newspaper offices saw the production of uninterrupted series of special editions. The losses to English trade were summarised in sinister and eloquent headlines: the several days of general strike had swallowed up £10,000,000. Lancashire alone, where 35,000,000 spindles had stopped in the mills, had lost £6m., and Manchester was paying a ransom of £1m. for its old fame for economic liberalism. At a rowdy session of the Chamber of Commons, when Mr. Chiozza Money asked "Is there a precedent for the use of troops in similar conditions?", the Prime Minister gave a Caesar-like reply " There is no need of precedent; the situation itself is unprecedented.." (1) 

When order had been re-established and difficulties resolved by official arbitrators (2), a Royal Commission, set up to study the mechanics of the 1907 Conciliation Plan, held an urgent meeting at the Royal Commission House to find a solution which could satisfy both the railway companies and unions. In its daily sessions, very detailed and concrete accusations revealed the bad faith of the companies, and the very pressing claims showed the need to establish new institutions for conciliation and arbitration. It seems that peace could be signed only on one condition: that the companies should recognise the right of the unions to negotiate on all the conditions of work of railway employees (3). 

Today the National Transport Federation, which led the workers to victory, receives the liveliest congratulations from the International Federation expressing the fellow-feeling and solidarity of the world of international labour: tomorrow, the Trade Unions Congress, with its 3 million organised workers represented by more than 500 delegates, will show to the United Kingdom the desires and aspirations of the English working class for greater understanding and harmony, for greater unity in action to redress grievances and to bring about the workers' party's social and economic ideals (4). 

The moment seemed propitious for an enquiry into the organisation of English workers, and the place which that organisation occupies within international worker organisation. All interest seems to lead to the genuinely dominant and motivating new trade unionism. In the Chamber, Mr. Steward made the rather simplistic statement: "The two leaders who led the workers at this grave period were Ben Tillett for the South and Tom Mann for the North"(5). It was therefore quite natural that it was to them that we made our first approaches. 

Ben Tillett and the English Dockers 

Ben Tillett (Wikipedia)

I must confess that it was with some emotion that I called at No.425, Mile End Road, the General Secretariat of the D.W.R. and G.W.U. (6). Mr. Appleton, the Secretary of the General Trades Union Federation, to whom I had spoken about this interview, feared that I might be shown the door: Ben Tillett was no friend of Roman collars. A young lady opened the door. " Is Mr. Tillett in ?. "No, he's away at the moment." And as I stood hesitating at the half-open door a man came down the stairs to us, drawn by the foreign accent. "What can we do for you, sir?". "Mr Appleton sent me here to speak to Mr. Tillett." " Come up, please" he said, leading the way. Could this be him, a well-built man with a working-class accent and a rough small moustache? No, I found out later that it was Mr. Harry Orbell, Ben Tillett's old and loyal companion. He showed me into a small room where a girl was leafing through a big ledger. In the next room, larger and more crowded, several men and women employees were busy with usual secretarial work. The telephone was in continual use bringing news of the world of workers, at that time in real uproar. Mr. Tillett was absent but I just had to return in two hours; this pleasant man would arrange a meeting for me. 

I was on time; he had not yet returned but would not be long; he had promised to see me. I was given the "Morning Post" to pass the time. Suddenly the bell rang, quick steps made the stairs creak, and a shortish man came in and held out both hands. "Hello, sorry to have kept you waiting". He made me resume my chair, exchanged his woollen coat for a light white jacket, sat in front of the typewriter and stared at me.... Was I having an illusion? No, no, it was indeed Napoleon's face, oval, deep, full and severe, the face of a leader of soldiers, the face which at that moment was to be seen in every London street on great coloured placards advertising a popular play " A Royal Divorce". And the longer I watched, the more I observed his attitudes, his gestures, his look, the stronger grew the persistent and indelible comparison. 

He asked me challengingly for my name, my profession, the reason for my stay in London, and ended the examination with the words, "The Catholic Church is a clever church. The Church of England would never send its priests to study worker organisations." The ice was broken, we had become friends. I put question after question, he gave me answer after answer; he looked out for me all the documentation about the movement to which he had dedicated his life and was leading with astonishing mastery. Finally he sent me away ( he had so much work to get through, the story of the strike to finish ) setting another meeting for 11.0 on Friday, then :" You're Belgian, aren't you? I don't like Belgium - I was put in the cells in Antwerp - no, I don't like Belgium!" with a grimace, a gesture of spitting out something distasteful..... and again the picture came to mind of the capricious brutal tyrant. I looked at him..." One last question, sir. Are you English?" "I am Irish and I have French blood in my veins. But I have always lived in England. " I understood then that extraordinary mix of the extravagant enthusiasm of the French with the jovial bonhomie of the Irish and the unconquerable tenacity of the English. I answered, "Just as I thought. You are not at all like an Englishman" (7) He smiled, and I thought I could guess the reason - "Would you allow me to say who I think you resemble ?" "Certainly." "No flattery, but you have Napoleon's face." He smiled, charmed by this remark which must often have flattered him, and shook hands; " Goodbye till Friday". 

I have just finished reading the short history of the Dockers' Union (8), its style so breathless and agitated that Ben Tillett seems to have written it with his body rather than with his hand. The exuberant enthusiast, the impassioned lover who serenades his mistress, the sighted mystic who pushes at the door of his dreams and aspirations for the future, the revolutionary who with a bloody joy throws himself into agitation and, if necessary, into slaughter. In it you hear bursts of joy and sobs of suffering. He speaks of the "Sweet Little Cherub", who inspires him like a poet and delights him like a saint, opening in his heart inexhaustible springs of emotion, idealism and enthusiasm. Hardly has he glimpsed his vocation when it becomes a charm that fascinates, a force that transports him above himself, a sort of religion that sanctifies him. When he appeals to the workers, he prays like the Poverello of Assisi, exhorts like a fiery Savanarola, or issues orders like an Italian condottiere. His enthusiastic words conjure up a delighted throng of speaking images, realistic like those of Meunier (9), far-seeing like those of Laermans (10). He covers the entire gamut of popular tricks - picturesque comparisons, biting mockery, satirical absurdity. But first and foremost he wants to appear as an idealist and is proud to repeat "They call me a dreamer! But people are glad to be around such men to get their ideas; only men and women with imagination know how to live life to the full ".

History of the English Dockers Union 

It was in July 1887 that he began, almost without realising it, to organise the workers in the port of London, dockers, men serving a sentence, more often in the pubs than on the quaysides. " The tombstone which has covered so many beloved faces will not bury the memory of those heroic days when we undertook, with the spirit and courage of a Don Quixote, the organisation of the so-called unskilled who up till then were thought to be unfit to enrol under the trade union banner. A hard task which cost us tears and sweat, but wherever it was possible we achieved results which exceeded those achieved by the skilled trades unions. The results were as great as the gulf was deep. Like the phoenix, we were born from the dust of thousands of efforts, to become one of the pioneers of the movement destined to revolutionise the condition of the workers"(11). 

He was then 27 years of age. After an adventurous youth, he was working in a warehouse near London Bridge when the need for progress and organisation began to stir among his rough workmates. The ad-hoc meetings, the creation of the Tea Coopers' and General Labourers' Association, the nomination of the Committee; the beginnings really were like a novel. " I was appointed secretary, little dreaming that those few moments were to revolutionise my life. I have been secretary ever since, now more than 23 years (12). Everything had to be improvised; the rulebook, branches, employees, manifestoes, 'morning meetings', errand-running, demands, solicitations, black-markings, negotiations, all accompanied by boos and threats from men employed to mock and intimidate me by the more brutish sub-contractors (13). 

"It was a struggle of Titans......I had saved money from my wages as a docker, I had gone without food to buy books; I had learnt to read and was in course of learning Greek; I put my head and sore body to the heavy task following the long days when handling barrels on the long stairs had left its imprint on my back; moreover, I had the idea that I would become a lawyer; but I was to plead a far greater cause, I with others was destined to defend the cause of humanity in a struggle which goes on in every trade and in every country in the world" (14). 

The situation of the 130,000 port workers was truly pitiable; most got only five to seven months' work a year; hiring was done in pubs with a deduction of 35% for the sub-contractors (15). The workers fought in fog and cold to get a work-ticket which the hirer showed in his 'cage', as it is called, where the sub-contractor is protected from the crowd by iron bars (16). 

Ben Tillett multiplies the sorry details, designed to strike the imagination of his worker readers. Oh, if only he could make them understand the difficulties of the beginning, and get them to appreciate the work which has raised them up and must continue in order to free them! 

Among the support and high-level encouragement received in the beginning, Ben Tillett returns again and again with grateful insistence to Cardinal Manning. "Marvel of marvels ! Cardinal Manning soon became, in the best sense of the word, the guide and father of our movement" (17). It is interesting to hear the Cardinal's activity recalled by the leader himself. 

"One of the major forces in my life at that time was Cardinal Manning, although I was far from suspecting the role which he was to play. I had been ill in 1888 and was convalescing at Bournemouth, all due to the docker organisation. I had earlier already made efforts to win the influence of the Cardinal for organisational reasons. The Anglican Bishop of London (Temple) had refused to help me, sending me a nasty letter full of insults to the dockers. I suppose that the violent tone of this letter contrasted so strongly that I became more than ever attached to Cardinal Manning. I was sick to death, despairing of the movement, and I wrote to the Cardinal saying so and trying to justify my state of mind. I received a reply which sympathised with my suffering but which contained such a gentle reproof that it revived my courage and my confidence, a confidence that I have never since lost. In effect, he thanked me for past courage and sacrifice and went on to define the sort of man required to take on the work of a real agitator. A strong man, he said, does not want to be an agitator who avoids risks, nor does he aspire to a crown without first having carried a cross. In his opinion, I was that man ! Oh ! How that letter scorched and ate at my being, and saved me from shipwreck in those first days!" (18) ......With crushed souls and very often black-and-blue bodies we fought ceaselessly against the scoffing and blows of a drunken paid mob. Those two years seemed to last for an eternity; they were longer than the 21 years that have elapsed since. The colossal work was really accomplished during those years! (19) 


And yet it was only the introduction to the famous drama which was soon to be played out. 

It was on Monday 12th August 1889 that he was asked to lead the famous strike, " a strike of men who were shivering with cold and hunger, who used to back away from the damned ferocious stares of the foremen !" He agreed on Wednesday 14th August, helped by Harry Orbell, H. Kay, Tom Mann and several friends since dead. " We had 7s.6d. in the kitty with several pounds outstanding; that was all there was for a fight which directly affected more than 500,000 human beings" (20). 

Ben Tillett sums up the tragic turns taken by the drama with easily understood emotion: mass meetings, huge processions, attempts at corruption and blackmail, the attitude of the police, the indirect support of the shipowners, cash help sent from all corners of the world, demonstrations of sympathy in several English towns, horrifying illustrations detailing the food, the living conditions, and the life of the dockers ... what feelings did he not experience during those grand but sad days? 

Finally there was talk of conciliation, compromise, and peace; good offices were offered on all sides; but despair, passion, personal interests were compromising the matter and threatening disaster. "The Anglican Bishop Temple was jealous of the increasing influence of Cardinal Manning. He would have sacrificed all the dockers in the interests of his Church. But the older man was more humane and gentle; his was the age-old diplomacy of the Church. He condemned the Lord Mayor's pomp, the heartlessness of Bishop Temple, Burns' exaggeration.... I recall with great gratitude the attitude of the Cardinal in my defence .... it was a tedious time; meetings followed meetings until the end came with the visit of the Cardinal in person to give generously of his advice. I protested at the time, but I saw afterwards that his action was disinterested; my years of work and hunger and the misery inflicted by labour without rest had hardened my heart against any kind of compromise." 

" I will always keep the lively memory of the meeting in the Catholic school in Poplar (21). The Old Man was there, stooped by his years, an emaciated true ascetic, his tall figure bent as his hands rested on the school desks; His age seemed to fall away as his eyes looked resolutely upon the crowd of men who had come to hear the "peacemaker". He had achieved that result when the dock employers had agreed to the minimum of 6d. per hour, regulation of hiring, down payments for all overtime, half-hours for meals, etc." (22) 

The Cardinal's work was not forgotten, and the beautiful Flanders lace admired at Westminster will remain an eloquent testimony to the dockers' gratitude and to the great heart of the prelate who spent himself in obtaining the "Cardinal's Peace". 

If the immediate result of the victory was great for the dockers, its effect was worldwide and for international worker organisation, incalculable. Despite the rivalry of the old trade-unions, the Union developed with frightening speed. Its first title was changed to "Docks, Wharves, Riverside and General Workers Union"; it acquired members in almost every port and today has more than 20,000 in more than 125 branches, grouped in some 20 Districts.

Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union (Trade Union Badge Collectors Society)

Internal Organisation 

The Union recruits in some degree from all workers in ports, from street sweepers to stevedores, from porters to lorry-drivers. Refuse collection, transport, loading, stowage and unloading of ships - the most laborious, unhealthy and brutish jobs are represented. It is clear that, in order better to deal with claims and strike management, workers are listed and sectioned off according to their main work. But the jobs are so unstable and changeable that the greater number require only a broad sectioning, especially since the main tactic which seems to predominate is abandoning partial strikes in favour of more general and extended ones. 

Men pay a subscription of 3d. per week, women pay 2d.; there is an additional subscription of 3d. per quarter. The entry fee varies among branches, but is never less than a shilling. 

Members in the same area are grouped in a branch; they meet every week in the branch headquarters. To form a new group in an already organised port, at least 60 members must so wish. In a new locality, 20 members suffice to create a branch. Each Branch must have at least a chairman and a secretary. If the branch has more than 150 members, they elect also a check-secretary who looks after subsciptions, a door-keeper, a delegate to the District Committee, and two auditors to verify the accounts. If there is a Trades Council in the area, the Branch will send a delegate. All these jobs are paid. 

Every port which has at least 5 branches forms a District. London is divided into 4 Districts. The Union has some 20 Districts, with tinsmiths and galvanisers forming special Districts. The District Committee is made up of delegates from the Branches. It has considerable power, for although very centralised, the Union leaves room for much local autonomy. It meets every three months or, in urgent cases, at the demand of the District Secretary. Every District with at least 500 members has a permanent secretary, who may not accept other employment without agreement of the Executive Committee. 

The Executive Committee meets in London on the first Monday of every quarter. It comprises some 20 District delegates. It elects from among its members a Finance Sub-Committee, while the London delegates form a sub-committee to deal with urgent matters. 

A Secretary-General and two Organisers really run the Union. They work, under the control of the Executive Committee, on dissemination and the spread of the Union; they work to see that reforms are carried out and that strikes are successful; they are engaged in unceasing agitation. 

The Central Office is in London, where a staff of workers deal with normal matters. 

A General Assembly is held every three years; all Districts send one delegate for every 500 members. It revises the rules, sets the terms of employment of officers, nominates the Trustees and the Auditors, and decides Union policy. The last Assembly was held at Barry from 10th to 20th May this year; there were 36 people present - 31 District delegates and 5 representatives from Central Office. 

In accordance with law, the Union's Capital Fund is registered in the name of five trustworthy men, the Trustees. On 31 December last it amounted to £13,975 1s. 8d. It comprises three separate and distinct funds; the general fund, the election fund and the death benefit fund. There is no unemployment fund. 

The death benefit fund gives help in the amount of £4 to the family of every member who dies. This benefit amounted to a total of £392. 4. 3d in 1910. Since its start the Union has distributed £6617 in death benefits. 

Since 1st January 1903 a twelfth of annual subscription income has been set aside to form an election fund. This is used to support candidates of the Labour Party in accordance with well-defined rules. For example, when a District Committee decides to present a candidate for Parliament, if the Executive Committee approves it will grant him a subsidy of £300 for his electoral campaign. The Union has so far spent £849 on worker representation. 

The general fund is used to cover the costs of strikes, subscriptions to other associations, and general expenses. No Branch can call a strike without the consent of the Executive Committee. Men on strike receive assistance of 10s. per week, women get 5s.. Costs of strikes in 1910 amounted to £434. Since its beginning the Union has so far paid £42,053 to strikers. Contributions to political organisations and to trade-union federations are fairly high. £1413 has so far been paid to the International Transport Federation, and £4993 to the General Trades-Union Federation. Last year it paid them £428 16s. 2d. for 16,314 affiliated members, while it spent £100 on the Labour Party Parliamentary Fund and paid them a subscription of £9 for 12,000 listed members. Assistance given to other trade unions amounted to £4855. In 1907 general expenses absorbed more than half the annual income; £5720 out of £8589 from subscriptions plus £481 from interest (23). At first sight that sum seems exorbitant, but for proper appreciation it should be remembered that all employees from the lowest to the highest are paid generously. While the Secretary-General gets £186, a branch doorkeeper gets 7s. 6d. a quarter. All travelling expenses incurred by delegates and organisers are reimbursed. Legal actions on wage and work accident cases involve considerable legal costs, £451 17s. in 1910 and £835 13s. in 1908. If one goes through the general expenses of other trades unions, one is met with the same findings (24).

Social Action 

The foregoing is but a brief summary of the Union's framework and results, a lifeless skeleton. No union could live or indeed grow with such speed for a quarter of a century without exercising, not only on its members but also on adjacent groupings, national and international, sometimes on the whole world, its influence on ideas and emotions which may bring about new directions in aspirations and in organisation. The life of the union lies in this exuberant work of propaganda and spread, this incessant agitation for the righting of grievances and attainment of the ideal; the intense work of sowing the seed and cultivation of a huge field to produce the grain which will protect and nourish the members, make them more aware of their ideal and their needs; a labour of education, of demands and struggle, the end of which is far from achievement. 

The soul of this life is surely Ben Tillett and the Organisers, with their staff officers of District Secretaries who, through the Branch Secretaries, make the live-giving sap reach to the smallest twig. 

The psychology of a leader is very complex: an impulsive spirit often moved at first by a vague aspiration for greater well-being, depressed by the misery and injustice around him; only gradually, through meeting with kindred spirits in books, in visits, in conversations, does the means become real and the mind becomes aware of the lessons of experience, of the route to follow and the formula to adopt. 

If we follow Ben Tillett in his 24 years of social life, it seems that two ideas, two feelings, have crystallised his aspirations and, like two stars, have guided his efforts for a better future. Firstly he wants to help to create an organisation as strong, as wide, as unified as possible, in which the workers of the whole world can feel the solidarity of their interests and the invincible might of their union. Then he wants every worker in particular to undertake the education of his own individuality, to raise it morally and intellectually in order to get a feel for the pressing need for greater well-being and justice. 

This twofold action makes a harmonious whole. Ben Tillett has farmed where the field is certainly the most difficult to clear. Among transport workers, he seems to have selected for organisation the surliest: you need only spend a few days near the pools and wharves, rubbing shoulders with the men leaning over bridges, elbows on the railings, spread along the pavements, living in the most disgusting slums if not sleeping in the open, to feel the almost impenetrable barrier that they must needs erect against the recruitment, regulation and discipline of a union. There is no need here for technical knowledge; all you need to be suitable to take the place of a stubborn striker is a pair of arms and the spur of hunger. Here more than anywhere one feels the necessity of numbers, the need for education. To prevent the masters finding replacements for strikers, there are only two ways - enrol all the workers in a union, or close federation with existing unions; develop in workers the idea and feeling of solidarity to enable them to resist the bait of short-term gain in favour of a greater but distant and always uncertain benefit 

a) Industrial Trade-unionism 

Difficulties arise not only from the couldn't-care-less attitude and apathy of the dockers. Men like Ben Tillett and Tom Mann are not stopped by that sort of barrier. The victory of 1889 shows how apathy changes to heroism in the devouring fire of the leaders' enthusiasm. 

There was an obstacle more to be feared - the existing powerful trade-unionism. Tillett's and Mann's tactics were to lead slowly to the abandonment of English trade-union theory in favour of French syndicalist theory. The old trade-unionism was based entirely upon craft; it knew nothing of craftsman aristocracy, and relied upon mutualist ideas in the struggle against risks at work; unemployment, accidents, strikes; its more mediaeval policy was to monopolise the work of each craft and to combat all significant competition. So it viewed with suspicion the advent of these utopians who distrusted traditional tactics, who appealed rather to numbers and to class solidarity, who overturned well-established concepts on strikes and pay. But above all, the newcomers had recourse to an weapon excluded till then; political force, representation of class; they wanted worker representatives in Parliament, entirely separate from the Liberal and Conservative parties (25). 

In 1890, from the moment that the dockers' union got representation at the Liverpool Congress, the question of tactics and policy were hotly debated. The Chairman, in his opening speech this year, recalled the fights and discussions that had taken place in this same city of Newcastle. Two years later, at the Belfort Congress, the motion of the Dockers demanding political action was adopted. The same year saw the formation of the Independent Labour Party, which was to infuse worker representation with socialist ideas and aspirations. Efforts were paralysed for a long time by personal divisions until in 1900 the Labour Party incorporated all the dissidents in a much larger organisation, completely of the workers without necessarily being socialist. This recourse to worker representation was only one stage. Ben Tillett was later often to complain of the lukewarmness of certain worker representatives, and of a policy of compromise with the Whigs or Tories (26). 

This first display of the class solidarity of English workers was to lead to a clearer view of their economic solidarity. Time and time again Ben Tillett predicted that progress in capitalism and the use of machines would reduce differences between "skilled"and "unskilled", that the skills and techniques which appeared to be the strength of artisans and craftsmen would be taken over by the work of the automatic machine, and that, in the end, all that would remain would be a sort of identical interest - the interest of the wage-earner. How he and his friends tried to get English workers to get away from that complex of different groupings and associations in which so much money and effort was wasted, even when they were not in paralysis or had stopped fighting. 

In 1896 he was one of the creators of the International Transport Federation. He admits that at the time Mann and he thought they were attempting the impossible (27). Nevertheless the Federation has, after some years feeling its way, proved to be a force to be reckoned with. The International Committee of Seamen's Unions had hardly been set up when strikes in the larger ports cemented the relationships between the delegates of the national unions. 

Logo of the International Transport Workers Federation (Wikipedia)

In 1899 Ben Tillett was one of the founders of the General Trade Union Federation (28) - its aim is to bring organisations closer together and to unify action. It has a strike fund. Even now it is far from having united all English worker organisations in a tight network, but one needs only to run through the annual reports to see how it is growing and developing, and especially how in the meetings of the different committees the motions for greater unity and cohesion, for greater national and international understanding, become more and more eager, more solid, more detailed, to see the constant and resolute progress of the idea of industrial trade-unionism. With delegates present from America, France and Germany the most solemn commitments are undertaken and repeated. That same year Ben Tillett got the following motion adopted unanimously: "This council considers that the time has come to extend the international relations of trade-unionism; it authorises the organising committee to get in contact with the International Trades Union Bureau (29) in order to exchange information, to establish an international information bureau, and to cooperate in strikes and in worker legislation." He supported the motion with the following considerations: "In our country we have 1200 unions, in France there are 5000, in Germany there are only 53 (30). I think that you will agree with me that the smaller the number of unions, the greater is their effective strength, because unity of movement is more easily obtained with a small number of unions" (31). 

But it seems that it is easier to promote international solidarity than national solidarity; matters of personality take up less room. Talking about cooperation, he said with considerable rancour: "The workers' unions have long been the Cinderellas of the trade union movement. If the movement had taken the right road, the craft unions would have accepted all workers into their movement, and that is bound to happen sooner or later.... If craft workers do not show a little more consideration for the unskilled, the latter will have to fight them" (32). 

The old trade unions seem to have learnt the lesson. During the recent strikes, there was never greater solidarity than during the last months (33). The fact is that since last year a new decisive change of direction in ideas has shown itself, and is about to change trade union tactics entirely. 

It seems that cooperation between Ben Tillett and Tom Mann may have been most close and complete during the more moving phases of their story. Tillett will be able to repeat, in connection with the agitation of recent months, the praise which he lavished on his friend at the time of the 89 strike: "Tom fought like a Trojan...With panther-like agility and strength he was everywhere with no rest or tiredness. His strength engulfed everything like a waterfall, and his heart was intrepid in face of all risks and dangers" (34). All reports and interviews agree in recognising the preponderant role of the two leaders in the preparation and conduct of the strike. 

In May 1910 Mann returned from Australia, where he had led the tough battle for some years. He had hardly set foot on shore when he again took up his role as knight-errant, calling for the spread of his ideas, not with word and action alone but also with his pen. On 1st July there appeared the 1st issue of "The Industrial Syndicalist", a small magazine designed to explain the meaning of industrial trade-unionism (35). "The present situation", he says, "is unique in the world's history. Never before has there existed a movement so broad that, going beyond national barriers, it is fighting quite consciously for a new stage in the evolution of mankind, where competition will give way to cooperation as surely as primitive society gave way to civilisation" (36). Then he repeats the lessons of experience; "Parliamentarianism is useless, craft trade-unionism is old-fashioned. Faced by the international capitalist with his trusts and syndicates, we must hasten to build a worker international." Clearly this is not a new formula; French trade unionists have long advocated it, and applied it in the General Labour Confederation (37). But circumstances in France differ totally from those in England. Here there are powerful and wealthy unions, jealous and proud of their past. There is a single united political party, created and maintained by the pennies of the trade unionists. They cannot be ignored, neither can there be progress without them. So the programme is not anti-political. "No, let us leave the politicians to do what they can, and there is a chance that, once there exists in the country a fighting economic force ready to sustain them, they may bring about something which till now they have not hoped to attempt" (38). There is only one road to take - it is not federation, but the amalgamation of existing unions by industry; no more craft unions, but industry unions: the August issue showed the application of the theory to the "transport industry". 

The aspirations given shape in this formula had been around for quite some time. In 1907 the "unskilled" had already formed a powerful federation, the General Labourers National Council of 15 unions with 140,000 members. In September 1910, Ben Tillett at Sheffield allowed entry to a motion in favour of national solidarity, and the Congress adopted a definite resolution in favour of worker organisation by industry, by means of amalgamation or federation of existing unions (39). On 20th November the Conference of Transport Workers met in London with 17 unions represented by 24 delegates. They all declared in favour of amalgamation, and of preliminary federation. Also in November there took place a first Conference on industrial syndicalism; more than 200 delegates attended and Ben Tillett, unable to be there, sent an enthusiastic letter of support (40). Last February Tom Mann was able to announce the formation of the National Transport Federation (41). Today it has 16 member unions, and the railway union is expected to join at any moment now, bringing in more than 100,000 new members. The fruits of mutual understanding and solidarity were soon to be seen - the first call for a strike sounded in Southampton in the night of 13th June. The seamen and watermen went on strike to obtain Conciliation Offices. The struggle spread like wildfire, gradually bringing in all transport workers (42). The culmination was reached on Thursday, 17th August, when the railwaymen began a general railway strike. Happily the government was able to intervene. There was another moment of great anxiety when on the 23rd following, Tom Mann and two members of the Liverpool strike committee came to London to demand a re-opening of hostilities because the Tramways management was refusing to re-employ 250 drivers who had struck in sympathy with the dockers. There was a meeting of the delegates of the railwaymen and of the Transport Federation, and the national strike would have resumed if the management had not given way. 

The solidarity which has now become evident shows the new direction: it is only an indication of the coming greater unity, greater amalgamation, greater discipline (43). 

Ben Tillett plaque (Easton Trail Sign)

b) Individual Education (44) 

It should not however be imagined that Ben Tillett and his friends consider national and international union and solidarity to be the only lever for regeneration of the world of work. They recognise the need for personal transformation, for deeper inner effort, for individual and personal regeneration. "Society will never attain a state of near-perfection unless the lives of its individual members do so" (45). The leaders, in less troubled times, devote a great part of their efforts to this work of uplift. Often, I would say almost always, before he entered the trade union movement or politics, your English leader was an ardent disciple of the temperance and moral reform movement (46). Several members of non-conformist sects were and still are popular preachers. English workers are moreover so used to hearing sermons and hymns in the evenings or on Sundays, in streets and parks and public halls that the notion of a lay ministry is quite familiar. The meeting hall becomes quite naturally a sanctuary where, like the priest of a new religion, the leader will talk about solidarity, of victory over one's defects and selfishness and, if he is a Christian, about the lessons taught by Christ and the Gospels. The platform often becomes the pulpit whence the preacher inveighs against lack of care, drunkenness, obscenity, vulgarity, ignorance, and laziness. An occupational association is moreover recognised as increasing moral as well as economic strength. "No good can be accomplished by any organisation unless the greatest efforts are made by the individual members... We must recognise our personal responsibility. Nobody may shirk his obligations in the hope that the union will defend him. In this task of regeneration we are greatly helped by our workmates who have the same aspirations. Decency and honesty as members of our society and as individuals give the best guarantee that we will cultivate those qualities which shape the best citizens" (47). 

When he sums up the results of the strike of 89, Tillett joyfully records: "We have established a new spirit... the stimulus of selfishness was no longer so strong, obscenity and vulgarity in language were reduced by efforts at courtesy which, if not refined, were at least a recognition of the fraternal ties which bound us". Men seeing the respect with which they were treated grew in self-respect and the men we saw after the strike were comparable to those workers in other occupations who most respect each other.... The men's live became more regular as did their work... in effect, the dockers became men (48). 

The teaching of charity is brought to mind at every turn by the name of 'Brother' which appears so often in speeches and in reports; the spirit of fraternity is consecrated by the lovely Diploma given to every member with its slogan "Be united and active" and its motto "A nation is set free by love, an association is strengthened by moral mutual help". "He did not demand vulgar class hatred, nor the vulgarity of insult, but that, instead of coarseness and vulgarity, a sense of dignity, of power and strength should infuse the spirit of his class, the creators of wealth" (49). Yes, seen thus, "the real trade-unionist will develop in himself health, manliness, strong personality" (50). So we understand how he was able to say that "The Dockers Union was a part of his life." He made of it an instrument, an educational weapon in order above all to help the men to carry out their obligations to themselves, to their families, and to their comrades (51).


No better description of Ben Tillett and his work could be composed than the moving page which he wrote in memory of a comrade in the struggle - "Courage mixed with ambition and a little selfishness, manly and enthusiastic, with Irish humour and optimism: he appeared in the best light when fighting against strong opposition. Loyalty and discipline are too often abused. Like the Spanish inquisitor abusing the sacred laws of religion, a fighter sacrifices his best efforts for what he takes to be tact and consideration. We must judge Pete as a fighter. Well built, with a square resolute chin, the small alert eyes of a man of action, a lively wit, a ready tongue (with a Glasgow accent), a voice lacking in expression and discipline, but possessing the fibre and timbre to move and convince his listeners. The hard work in the open air, the brawls and factions in the streets when socialism was not respectable - these had developed in him resourcefulness and shrewdness which he put to the service of his class in the blazing controversies with employers and the born enemies of the workers.... Pete was assertive in friendship and in enmity.... It would be hard to find a city, a town or a village in the United Kingdom which he had not visited. He organised, initiated, and helped to control the most important recent movements of the working class. In his Irish soul he was a revolutionary and a rebel, as is every true Celt... It is not for me to judge him; my job is just to present some of the treasures left to us by the memory of his fine work. He was one of those who make history. His education was the gutters and the streets. His great book was human nature. He at least did not linger with the half-measures suggested by some politicians in our ranks. He saw the economic issue; he understood the great human tragedy of wage slavery. He saw that economic emancipation was the basis of a great revolution in physical, intellectual and moral well-being, and that it was the only way. I wish that his now silent voice could still be heard flourishing those intense words of mockery, of attack and of appeal. I first knew him as a fighter. I weep over his grave as for a comrade in the struggle. I shall always remember him and our association in the fiery times; these are glorious memories; with these I want to judge and love him until the day of the great call. The best part of his work will live until the coming of the revolution" (52). 

Young Ben Tillett (Living Easton

That it will come Ben Tillett has no doubts. He already glimpses the future "which will give the children the blessings of social equality, which will grant them liberty which, letting them grow in soul, in spirit, in heart and in body, will make them giants and masters of themselves and of their destiny, setting the seal on the confraternal alliance of all men (53). 

To the famous question: Custos, quid de nocte? he will answer without hesitation with the sentry; Video lucem! (54) 

London, 10th September 

Joseph Cardijn 


(1) Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, Tuesday 22 August 1911. Official Report vol 29, n.130 

(2) The July, August and September issues of the Board of Trade Labour Gazette detail the Agreements on conciliation and arbitration. 

(3) Minutes of evidence taken by the Royal Commission on the Railway Conciliation Scheme of 1907. (London,Wyman and Sons, Fetter Lane.) 

(4) Agenda for the 44th Annual Congress to be held in theTown Hall,Newcastle-on-Tyne. (London,Co-operative Printing Society, Tudor St. contains all the motions for submission to the Congress.) 

(5) The Parliamentary Debates, op. cit. p.230

(6) Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union 

(7) ( B. Tillett, 1860-1943, was born in Bristol.-Trans. ) 

(8) Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers' Union. A brief history of the Dockers' Union commemorating the 1889 strike by Ben Tillett, September 1910. 

(9) ( C. Meunier 1831-1905 - Belgian social-realist sculptor and painter - Trans.) 

(10) ( E. Laermans 1864-1940 - Belgian painter - Trans. )

(11) Ibid. p.8 

(12) Ibid. p.10 

(13) Ibid. p.10 

(14) Ibid. p.12 

(15) Ibid. p.7 

(16) Ibid. p.12 

(17) Ibid. p.6 

(18) Ibid. pp. 15-16 

(19) Ibid. p.17 

(20) Ibid. p.20 

(21) A Port of London district 

(22) Op. cit. pp. 29-30

(23) Information about finances, branches and members, and union activities is to be found in The Dockers Record; a quarterly report, in the Annual Reports, and in the 3-yearly Assembly reports. For relations with other associations and federations, the latters' reports may be consulted. 

(24) Every 3 years the Board of Trade publishes statistics on finances and membership of trade unions. The last report, which appeared on the 16th, is for 1909; Report on Trade Unions in 1905-1907 with comparative statistics for 1898-1907 -London E.C. Wyman and Sons Fetter Lane. Recent and shorter statistics are found in the Board of Trade Labour Gazette. For more detailed information one must consult the publications and reports of each union and federation.

(25) A summary view of this development is given by Frank N. Rose, The Coming Force, the History of the Labour Movement,1909. 

(26) See among others, Ben Tillett, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a failure?, 1909 

(27) A Brief History of the Dockers Union, p.43 

(28) At present the HQ is at Berlin S.O.16, Engel-Ufer, where reports and rules are easily obtainable. The Federation today links 44 unions with 532,616 members in all parts of the world. The last report appeared in 1910. The Secretary of the International Committee of Seamens' Unions is Rev. Fr. Hopkins, The Priory, Hyde Vale, Greenwich S.E. See the issues of "The Seaman" for April, May, and June. 

(29) This Bureau is in Berlin - secretary; C. Logien. See the International Report on the Trade Union Movement, Berlin 1911. 

(30) The German delegate to the meeting had insisted on the fact that they had only 53 unions for their 2,300,000 members. 

(31) The General Federation of Trade-Unions. Report on the 12th Annual General Meeting July 1911, p.48 

(32) Ibid , p.52. 

(33) Reports on the strike are to be found in all the trade union organs e.g. "The Seaman", official organ of the National Sailors and Firemen's Union, issues of "Labour Leader", and the interview with Tom Mann given in Everybody Weekly, Sept. 9 1911: The Revolt of Labour. 

(34) A Brief Story, etc. op. cit.p.31 et passim. 

(35) The Industrial Syndicalist. Monthly. One penny from Guy Boromann, 4, Maude Terrace, Walthamstow, London E. These are more like propaganda leaflets, with flamboyant titles: No. 1; "Prepare for Action" No2; "The Transport Workers" No. 3.; "Forging the Weapon" No. 4 ; "All hail, Solidarity!" etc. Each issue deals with a different subject, almost all written by Tom Mann. 

(36) No.1 p.2 

(37) See among others the articles and speeches collected by Hubert Lagardelle in his book Worker Socialism, Paris 1911, and articles in "Socialist Movement", Paris. 

(38) The Industrial Syndicalist, No 1, p.19 

(39) Ibid., No. 4, p.9 

(40) Ibid. No. 6, pp. 9-10 

(41) Ibid. No. 6, pp. 2-3. The Federation's Headquarters are at Maritime Hall, West India Dock Rd., London E. The secretary is J. Anderson - the statutes and other information is available there. 

(42) See "The Seaman", July, p. 92, The Great Strike. 

(43) The Newcastle Congress will certainly adopt the motion for the amalgamation of existing groupings. 

(44) Paul Bureau in his The Moral Crisis of the Present Day includes an enthusiastic chapter on the moral influence of the English leaders. 

(45) In The Introduction to the Rules of the Dockers' Union, p.7 

(46) See among others: Labour and Religion by Ten Labour Members of Parliament and Other Bodies, Speakers in Browning Hall during Labour Week, 1910, London. 

(47) Rules of the D.W.R. and G.W. Union, p.7 

(48) A Brief Story of the Dockers Union, p. 31 

(49) Minutes of the Triennial Delegate Meeting of the D.W.R. and G.W. Union, 1911, p. 68 

(50) Rules, p. 7 

(51) Minutes, etc. p.68

(52) General Federation of Trade Unions, 43rd Quarterly Balance Sheet, March 1910, pp. 5, 6.

(53) Minutes of the Triennial Delegate Meeting of the D.W.R. and G.W. Union, 1911, p. 68

(54) Watchman, what of the night? I see the light ! (Trans.)