130 years

14 th of August 1889


Docker Strike in London


1889 - the year of the founding of the Second International







Ben Tillet of the Dockers' Union

Ben Tillett (1859-1943), General Secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers' Association.

"We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattlemarket, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day's work."









John Burns addressing a meeting during the strike of 1889.

"Labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organize itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything.

He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain.

Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors."







Solidarity with the dockers:

"We, the Union of the Stevedores of London, knowing the condition of the dock labourers, have determined to support their movement by every lawful means in our power. We now appeal to members of all trade unions for joint action with us, and especially those whose work is in connection with shipping - engineers and fitters, boiler makers, ships' carpenters, etc. and also the coal heavers, ballast men and lightermen.




Boys from Snowfields School in Bermondsey.





















The Great Dock Strike of 1889.

The port was paralyzed by what was in effect a general strike. It was estimated that by 27 August 130,000 men were on strike.


It took place against the background of growing trade unionism among unskilled workers and discontent at the wretched living conditions of dockers and their families. At the root of this was the casual nature of dock labour, organised via the 'call-on' and the contract system.

Until the late 19th century, much of the trade of the port was seasonal. Sugar came from the West Indies, timber from the north, tea and spices from the Far East. It was difficult to predict when ships would arrive since bad weather could delay a fleet.

There was very little mechanisation - the loading and discharging of ships was highly labour-intensive. Demand for men varied from day to day because there was very little advance notice that a ship was arriving. The dock companies only took on labourers when trade picked up and they needed them.

Most workers in the docks were casual labourers taken on for the day. Sometimes they would be taken on only for a few hours. Twice a day there was a 'call-on' at each of the docks when labour was hired for short periods.

Only the lucky few would be selected, the rest would be sent home without payment. The employers wanted to have a large number of men available for work but they did not want to pay them when there was no work. The dockers and their families therefore existed in a state of acute poverty.

The poverty in which the dockers and their families lived caused great resentment and helped cause the great strike of 1889. 

In the port of London only skilled men like engineers, shipwrights, carpenters and riggers were unionised. 

The dock strike began over a dispute about 'plus' money during the unloading of the Lady Armstrong in the West India Docks. 'Plus' money was a bonus paid for completing work quickly. The East and West India Dock Company had cut their 'plus' rates to attract ships into their own docks rather than others.

A trade depression and an oversupply of docks and warehousing led to fierce competition between the rival companies. The cut in payments provided the opportunity for long-held grievances among the workforce to surface.

The Strike Committee organised mass meetings and established pickets outside the dock gates. They persuaded men still at work and 'blacklegs' to come out on strike.

As Tillett recalled, 'We had 16,000 pickets on at one time under their Captains, Lieutenants, and Sergeants, divided and sub-divided with military precision'.

The strike leaders, aware of the need for public support, organized a series of well-disciplined marches. Daily processions of strikers made their way from the East End into the City and to Tower Hill, where they listened to speeches by the strike leaders.

Money was collected from onlookers and used to feed the strikers and their families. Through collections and letters £11,700 was raised.

Ben Tillett was active in the socialist movement and was able to persuade other activists, including Mann, Burns, Will Thorne (1857-1946), Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) and James Keir Hardie (1856-1915), to help the 20,000 men on strike.

Tom Mann took on the enormous task of organizing relief, aided by John Burn's wife and Eleanor Marx. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and John Trevor's Labour Church also raised money for the strikers and their families.

At their hall at 272 Whitechapel Road, the Salvation Army supplied nearly 10,000 loaves in a day. Church missions opened soup kitchens to supply free meals. Even the shopkeepers were supporting the strike by giving relief to those in need.

While the men were on strike money was not coming into the house for food. Women therefore wandered the streets for hours searching for something to eat.

Everything that could be of any value was pawned. Suits, boots, handkerchiefs, jackets, work tools, dress material, dresses, shawls, underclothes, shirts, trousers, waistcoats, and even the bedding on which the families slept.

As the strike progressed into its second and third weeks, there was great hardship in East London. By the end of August many dockers and their families were starving.

From the beginning of September however money poured in from Australia. The first instalment of £150 was sent by the Brisbane Wharf Labourers' Union. Meetings at which resolutions of sympathy with the strikers are passed are being held nightly throughout Victoria, and a similar movement is on foot in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart…

A large and important meeting of citizens was held here yesterday at which resolutions were adopted expressing sympathy with the London dock workers on strike, and promising to support them to obtain their demands. The Chairmen announced that over £500 had been collected from all classes of the inhabitants, including Cabinet Ministers, and nearly all the members of the Queensland Parliament. In all over £30,000 was raised by the Australian dockers and their allies. It arrived at just the right time and meant the end of worries about feeding the strikers and their families.

The dockers could now face a longer strike and the leaders knew they could now concentrate on the picket lines. Defeat through hunger now seemed very unlikely and the dockers scented victory.

Cardinal Manning, who acted as church meditator [!] between the striking workers and the dock owners. Cardinal Manning showed himself to be the "dockers' friend", though he had family connections in the shipping interests, represented on the other side.

("Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labour, nor labour without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity".)

This was said by the church (!) at that time. And the reformists and revisionists follow this capitalist slogan of class reconcilation until today for the purpose to maintain wage slavery. We communists fight, however, for the revolutionary abolition of wage slavery by means of the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie and removal of private ownership at the means of production.

The dockers' strike became symbol for the reformists, namely to propagate the peaceful means of Unionism instead of revolutionary violence of class struggle. And the capitalist created this labour aristocracy by means of the money that they squeezed out of their wage slaves.

The Mansion House Committee persuaded the employers to meet practically all the dockers' demands. After five weeks the Dock Strike was over. It was agreed that the men would go back to work on 16 September.

After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands.

After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, nearly 20,000 men joined this new union.

The success of the Dockers' Strike was a turning point in the history of trade unionism. Workers throughout the country, particularly the unskilled, gained a new confidence to organize themselves and carry out collective action. From 750,000 in 1888, trade union membership grew to 1.5 million by 1892 and to over 2 million by 1899.

The Sailors' and Firemens' Union was one of the many 'New Unions' established in the aftermath of the dockers victory.

The dockers' victory proved inspirational to socialists and trade unionists throughout the world. Jim Connell (1852-1929) wrote The Red Flag during the strike.

As a consequence of his union activities in Dublin Connell had earlier been blacklisted from the Irish docks. So he went to London in 1875, where he worked as a navvy and dock labourer.

He wrote The Red Flag in 1889 on the train from Charing Cross to New Cross after hearing a lecture on socialism at a meeting of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

Connell's song quickly became an anthem of the international labour movement. Although he wrote it to the tune of The White Cockade, it is better known when sung to the tune of the German hymn Die Tannenbaum. This latter version is still the official anthem of the British Labour Party.



We can conclude:

It is an historical fact that world capitalism survived until today only by means of the labour aristocracy, by means of the reformists and revisionists, these lackeys of the capitalists and traitors at the workers.

Therefore, it is necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie together with the labour aristocracy by means of the world socialist revolution.

Abolish the wage slavery of all the dockers of the world !

Abolish wage slavery all over the world !

This is the most important lesson of the great dockers' strike in London, 1889.


Wolfgang Eggers

Dock worker of the port of Hamburg during the 1970'ies.

Organizer of the solidarity strike for the British dock workers' strike, in 1972.




Engels To Eduard Bernstein

Eastbourne, August 22, 1889

In your next issue you ought to take up the dock labourers’ strike.

It is a matter of paramount importance to us here. Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty. Lack of resistance on the part of those broken by starvation, of those who had given up all hope was its salient feature. Anyone who got into it was physically and morally lost. Then last year came the successful strike of the match girls. And now this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers — not of the steady, strong, experienced, comparatively well-paid and regularly employed ones, but of those whom chance has dumped on the docks, those who are always down on their luck, who have not managed to get along in any other trade, people who have become professional starvelings, a mass of broken-down humanity who are drifting toward total ruination, for whom one might inscribe on the gates of the docks the words of Dante: Lasciate ogni speranza voi che entrate! [1] And this host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get the closest to the fellow who does the hiring, literally a battle waged in the competitive struggle among the much too numerous workers — this motley crowd thrown together by chance and changing daily in composition has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day! If this stratum can be organised, that is a fact of great import. However the strike may end — I am never sanguine beforehand in this regard — with the dock labourers the lowest stratum of East End workers enters the movement and then the upper strata must follow their example. The East End contains the greatest number of common labourers in England, of people whose work requires no skill or almost none. If these sections of the proletariat, which until now have been treated with contempt by the Trade Unions of the skilled workers, organise in London, this will serve as an example for the provinces.

Furthermore, for lack of organisation and because of the passive vegetative existence of the real workers in the East End, the gutter proletariat has had the main say there so far. It has behaved like and has been considered the typical representative of the million of starving East Enders. That will now cease. The huckster and those like him will be forced into the background, the East End worker will be able to develop his own type and make it count by means of organisation. This is of enormous value for the movement. Scenes like those which occurred during Hyndman’s procession through Pall Mall and Piccadilly will then become impossible and the rowdy who will want to provoke a riot will simply be knocked dead.

In brief, it is an event. You can tell the stunning effect this thing has had by the way even the dastardly Daily News handles it. It’s the same as the miners’ strike was for us: a new section enters the movement, a new corps of workers. And the bourgeois who only five years ago would have cursed and sworn must now applaud, albeit dejectedly, while and because his heart is palpitating with fear and trepidation. Hurrah!



1. Dante: “Leave, ye that enter in, all hope behind!”






Engels, in The Labour Elector, August 26, 1889;

If They Can Combine...

I envy you your work in the Dock Strike. It is the movement of the greatest promise we have had for years, and I am proud and glad to have lived to see it. If Marx had lived to witness this! If these poor downtrodden men, the dregs of the proletariat, these odds and ends of all trades, fighting every morning at the dock gates for an engagement, if they can combine, and terrify by their resolution the mighty Dock Companies, truly then we need not despair of any section of the working class. This is the beginning of real life in the East End, and if successful will transform the whole character of the East End. There — for want of self-confidence, and of organisation among the poor devils grovelling in stagnant misery — lasciate ogni speranza. ... If the dockers get organised, all other sections will follow. ... It is a glorious movement and again I envy those that can share in the work.



Engels to Laura Lafargue

August 27, 1889

Another great fact is the Dock Labourers’ strike. They are, as you know, the most miserable of all the miserable of the East End, the broken down ones of all trades, the lowest stratum above the Lumpenproletariat. That these poor famished broken down creatures who bodily fight amongst each other every morning for admission to work, should organise for resistance, turn out 40-50,000 strong, draw after them into the strike all and every trade of the East End in any way connected with shipping, hold out above a week, and terrify the wealthy and powerful dock companies — that is a revival I am proud erlebt zu haben. And they have even bourgeois opinion on their side: the merchants, who suffer severely from this interruption of traffic, do not blame the workmen, but the obstinate Dock companies. So that if they hold out another week they are almost sure of victory.

And all this strike is worked and led by our people, by Burns and Mann, and the Hyndmanites are nowhere in it.



Engels to Laura Lafargue

September 1, 1889

Cannot write much being Sunday and our people always in and out; moreover have to write to Tussy about the strike which was in an important crisis yesterday. As the dock directors kept stubborn, our people were led to a very foolish resolution. They had outstripped their means of relief and had to announce that on Saturday no relief could be dealt out to strikers. In order to make this go down — that is the way at least I take it — they declared that if the dock directors had not caved in by Saturday noon, on Monday there would be a general strike — reckoning chiefly on the supposition that the Gas works for want of coal or of workmen or both would come to a stand and London be in darkness — and this threat was to terrify all into submission to the demands of the men.

Now this was playing va banque, staking £1,000 — to win, possibly, £10—; it was threatening more than they could carry out; it was creating millions of hungry mouths for no reason but because they had some tens of thousands on hand which they could not feed; it was casting away willfully all the sympathies of the shopkeepers and even of the great mass of the bourgeoisie who all hated the dock monopolists, but who now would at once turn against the workmen. In fact it was such a declaration of despair and such a desperate game that I wrote to Tussy at once; if this is persisted in, the Dock Co.’s have only to hold out till Wednesday and they will be victorious.

Fortunately they have thought better of it. Not only has the threat been “provisionally” withdrawn but they have even acceded to the demands of the wharfingers (in some respect competitors of the docks), have reduced their demands for an increase of wages, and this has again been rejected by the Dock Companies. This I think will secure them the victory. The threat with the general strike will now have a salutary effect, and the generosity of the workmen, both in withdrawing it and in acceding to a compromise, will secure them fresh sympathy and help.



Engels to Laura Lafargue

October 17, 1889

Since the Dock Strike Tussy has become quite an East Ender, organising Trades Unions and supporting strikes — last Sunday we did not see her at all, as she had to speechify both morning and night. These new Trades Unions of unskilled men and women are totally different from the old organisations of the working-class aristocracy and cannot fall into the same conservative ways; they are too poor, too shaky and too much composed of unstable elements, for anyone of these unskilled people may change his trade any day. And they are organised under quite different circumstances — all the leading men and women are Socialists, and socialist agitators too. In them I see the real beginning of the movement here.


Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge
In Hoboken


London, December 7, 1889

Dear Sorge

Letters of 8 and 29 October received. Thanks.

Things won’t turn out so well that the Socialist Labor Party [1] will go into liquidation. Rosenberg [2] has a lot of heirs besides Schewitsch, [3] and the conceited doctrinaire Germans over there certainly have no desire to give up the position they have arrogated to themselves to teach the ‘immature’ Americans. Otherwise they would be nobodies.


Here in England one can see that it is impossible simply to drill a theory in an abstract dogmatic way into a great nation, even if one has the best of theories, developed out of their own conditions of life, and even if the tutors are relatively better than the S.L.P. [Socialist Labour Party of North America.] The movement has now got going at last and I believe for good. But it is not directly Socialist, and those English who have understood our theory best remain outside it: Hyndman because he is incurably jealous and intriguing, Bax because he is only a bookworm. Formally the movement is at the moment a trade union movement, but utterly different from that of the old trade unions, the skilled labourers, the aristocracy of labour.

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society much more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight-hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to Tussy [Eleanor Marx Aveling] women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union. Moreover, the people only regard their immediate demands themselves as provisional, although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for. But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their own experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlike the old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between capital and labour with scorn and ridicule this will not take very long.

I hope the next general election will be deferred for another three years — 1. So that during the period of the greatest war danger Gladstone, the lackey of the Russians, should not be at the head of affairs; this might already be a sufficient reason for the Tsar [Alexander III] to provoke a war. 2. So that the anti-Conservative majority becomes so large that real Home Rule for Ireland becomes a necessity, otherwise Gladstone will cheat the Irish again, and this obstacle — the Irish question — will not be cleared away. 3. However, so that the labour movement may develop further and perhaps mature more rapidly as a result of the set-back caused by the business recession which will certainly follow the present period of prosperity. The next parliament may then comprise 20 to 40 labour deputies, and moreover of a very different kind from the Potters, Cremers and Co.

The most repulsive thing here is the bourgeois “respectability” which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. The division of society into a scale of innumerable degrees, each recognised without question, each with its own pride but also its native respect for its “betters” and “superiors,” is so old and firmly established that the bourgeois still find it pretty easy to get their bait accepted. I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class. And Champion — an ex-lieutenant — has intrigued for years with bourgeois and especially with conservative elements, preached Socialism at the parsons’ Church Congress, etc. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the finest of them, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with the French, one can see what a revolution is good for after all. However, it will not help the bourgeoisie much if they do succeed in enticing some of the leaders into their toils. The movement has been far enough strengthened for this sort of thing to be overcome.


Notes provided by the Moscow Editor.

1. The Socialist Labour Party of North America came into being at the Unity Congress at Philadelphia in 1876, as a result of the merging of the American Sections of the First International, the Social-Democratic Workers Party and other socialist organisations in the USA. Most of the members of the party had emigrated to the United States comparatively recently, chiefly from Germany, and had little contact with the native American workers. The party declared that its aim was the fight for socialism, it did not however become a truly revolutionary Marxist mass party, because its sectarian leadership failed to realise the necessity of working in the mass organisations of the American proletariat.

2. Wilhelm Ludwig Rosenberg (1850-?) — German journalist, until 1889 Secretary of National Committee of Socialist Labor Party in the USA.

3. Sergei Schewitsch — editor of New-Yorker Volkszeitung.




Engels to H Schlüter
In New York


London, January 11, 1890

The stormy tide of the movement last summer has somewhat abated. And the best of it is that the unthinking sympathy of the bourgeois gang for the workers' movement, which broke out in the dock strike, has also abated, and is beginning to make way for the far more natural feeling of suspicion and nervousness. In the South London gas strike, which was forcibly imposed on the workers by the gas company, the workers are once more standing entirely deserted by all the philistines. This is very good and I only hope Burns will some time go through this experience himself, in a strike led by himself – he cherishes all sorts of illusions in that respect.

Meanwhile there is all kinds of friction, as was only to be expected, between the gas workers and the dockers, for instance. But despite it all the masses are on the move and there is no holding them any more. The longer the stream is dammed up the more powerfully will it break through when the moment comes. And these unskilled are very different chaps from the fossilised brothers of the old trade unions; not a trace of the old formalist spirit, of the craft exclusiveness of the engineers, for instance; on the contrary, a general cry for the organisation of all trade unions in one fraternity and for a direct struggle against capital. In the dock strike, for instance, there were three engineers at the Commercial Dock who kept the steam engine going. Burns and Mann, both engineers themselves and Burns a member of the Amalgamated Eng. Trade Union Executive, were summoned to persuade these men to go away, as then none of the cranes would have worked and the dock company would have had to climb down. The three engineers refused, the Engineers' Executive did not intervene and hence the length of the strike! At the Silvertown Rubber Works, moreover, where there was a twelve-weeks' strike, the strike was broken by the engineers, who did not join in and even did labourers' work against their own union rules! And why? These fools, in order to keep the supply of workers low, have a rule that nobody who has not been through the correct period of apprenticeship may be admitted to their union. By this means they have created an army of rivals, so-called blacklegs, who are just as skilled as they are themselves and who would gladly come into the union, but who are forced to remain blacklegs because they are kept outside by this pedantry which has no sense at all nowadays. And because they knew that both in the Commercial Dock and in Silvertown these blacklegs would immediately have stepped into their place, they stayed in and so became blacklegs themselves against the strikers. There you see the difference: the new unions hold together; in the present gas strike, sailors (steamer) and firemen, lightermen and coal carters are all together, but of course not the engineers again, they are still working!

However, these arrogant old great trade unions will soon be made to look small; their chief support, the London Trades Council, is being more and more subjugated by the new ones, and in two or three years at most the Trade Union Congress will also be revolutionised. Even at the next Congress the Broadhursts will get the shock of their lives.

The fact that you have got rid of Rosenberg and Co. is the main point about the revolution in your American socialist teacup. The German party over there must be smashed up as such, it is the worst obstacle. The American workers are coming along already, but just like the English they go their own way. One cannot drum the theory into them beforehand, but their own experience and their own blunders and the evil consequences of them will soon bump their noses up against theory – and then all right. Independent nations go their own way, and of them all the English and their offspring are surely the most independent. Their insular stiff-necked obstinacy annoys one often enough, but it also guarantees that once a thing gets started what is begun will be carried out.


Engels to Laura Lafargue

May 10, 1890

The progress made in England these last 10-15 months is immense. Last May the 8 hours working day would not have brought as many thousands into Hyde Park as we had hundreds of thousands. And the best of it is that the struggle preceding the demonstration has brought to life a representative body which will serve as the nucleus for the movement, regardless of sect; the Central Committee consisting of delegates of the Gas Workers and numerous other Unions — mostly small, unskilled Unions and therefore despised by the haughty Trades Council of the aristocracy of labour — and of the Radical clubs worked for the last two years by Tussy. Edward is chairman of this Committee. This Committee will continue to act and invite all other trade, political and Socialist societies to send delegates, and gradually expand into a central body not only for the 8 hours Bill but for all other demands — say, to begin with, the rest of the Paris resolutions and so on. The Committee is strong enough numerically not to be swamped by any fresh accessions, and thus the sects will soon be put before the dilemma either to merge in it and in the general movement or to die out. It is the East End which now commands the movement and these fresh elements, unspoiled by the “Great Liberal Party,” show an intelligence such as — well, I cannot say better than such as we find in the equally unspoiled German workman. They will not have any but Socialist leaders.




Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the 1889 dock strike.


The dockers formed a strike committee to organize the dispute and decide on its aims. As well as Tillett, Tom Man (1856-1941) and John Burns (1858-1943) were important members of the committee.

The main strike demand was 'the dockers' tanner' - a wage of 6d. an hour (instead of their previous 5d. an hour) and an overtime rate of 8d. per hour.

They also wanted the contract and 'plus' systems to be abolished and 'call-ons' to be reduced to two a day. They also demanded that they be taken on for minimum periods of four hours and that their union be recognized throughout the port.

The London Dock Strike of 1889 involved a much wider issue than that of a large number of port workers fighting for better conditions. There had long been no more than a dogged acquiescence in the conditions insisted upon by the employers, more particularly on the part of those classed as unskilled labourers. Skilled and unskilled alike were dominated over by their employers; and at the same time the unskilled, not being yet organised, were in many instances subject to further dictation and domination by the organised skilled men. The industrial system was (as it still is, with some modification), creating an army of surplus workers, who, never having been decently paid for their work, had never been decently fed; every occupation had its proportion of this surplus. Irregularity of work, coupled with liability to arduous and dangerous toil when employed, characterised the dock workers in an exceptional degree; and although dock labour was classed as unskilled, in grim reality it often required a considerable amount of skill; moreover, accidents were frequent. Nevertheless, in the struggle against death by starvation, a larger percentage of worn-out men (cast-offs from other occupations) made their way to compete for casual labour at the docks and wharves of London, than to any other place or to any similar occupation.

This does not mean that all the dock workers were weaklings. Far from it. Some of the finest built men in the country would always be found amongst the dockers; but the above generalisation was true. Again, whilst dockers were in a very large number of cases badly paid per hour, and could only get a few hours’ work per week, in the work of a large port there is always a number who get regular work, and some, of course, who get relatively good wages.

Many circumstances seem to have conspired to make the upheaval of 1889 the assertion of the rights of a large class in the community — the rights of those who had never before been recognised as possessing the rights and the title to respect of civilised humans. It was nothing less than a challenge to all hostile forces, and an assertion of a claim for proper treatment. The challenge was successful; the claim was enforced.

I was at the office of the Labour Electorin Paternoster Row, on August 14 in that year, when, about midday, I received a wire from Ben Tillett asking me to make my way to the South West India Dock. I went at once. There was no difficulty in finding the men, for Ben was with them, and they were about to hold a meeting.

I was soon put in possession of the main facts. The men had been discharging a sailing ship named The Lady Armstrong. They were working for fivepence an hour “plus”, this meaning that, in a vague fashion, very ill-defined, there was a recognised time for discharging certain goods, and if the men did the work in less time they received a surplus of a halfpenny or penny per hour. The men argued they had kept correct tally, but the dock superintendent refused to admit the claim. The dockers were told that their demand for more pay would have to be dealt with by the chief authority, the London and India Docks Joint Committee. The men refused to return to work.

Serious discussion must have taken place prior to the Lady Armstrong difficulty, because almost immediately it was proposed that now they were out, they should insist in the future upon an established minimum of sixpence per hour for ordinary time, and eightpence per hour for overtime. When I arrived, they had already decided to claim at least as much as this, and to call upon their fellow dockers to help them. No need here to go into detail beyond that of giving a correct idea of the definiteness of aim, and the effect of the achievement. For myself, I kept at that strike until it was over; and for long after I remained in touch with the dockers, and with the movement of which they were a part.

Burns, as all know, was, like Tillett, in the thick of the struggle, being active in every phase of it, except when absolutely compelled to take rest. The strike committee at the start made its headquarters at Wroots Coffee House, Poplar, and the first day that relief tickets were given out I had a very difficult duty. There was a crowd of several thousand men to deal with, and each had to be given one ticket, and only one. As yet there had been no time to organise the distribution systematically. The men were in urgent need; they had been told a few hours before that tickets would be issued that day. Now they had assembled, and the committee had just received the tickets from the printer.

Wroots Coffee House door opened out on to a main thoroughfare. If only we could admit the men at a quiet walking pace they could go out at a side door; but naturally they were eager; they were fearful there might not be enough tickets to go round; they would hardly listen to instructions that order must be preserved. I, therefore, stood on the doorstep and briefly addressed the crowd, telling them that every one would get a ticket, but that we must keep control of the position, and I asked them to pass me quietly. To their great credit, they entirely agreed. Almost immediately a thousand men were right close to me, but endeavouring to be perfectly orderly. I put my back against one of the doorposts, and stretched out my leg with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men, and passed each man in under my leg, by this means steadying the rush. The fact that they did not make it impossible for me to remain at the task was exceedingly creditable, for, to prevent a stampede, many had to keep their mates back, and it was all done in good humour. At the close I was so stiff and bruised, I could scarcely walk for a while, I pulled my shirt off and wrung it out. It was soaked with perspiration, and my back had a good deal of skin off; but the job was completed satisfactorily.

The stevedores, the men who load the long- distance boats, and therefore stow the cargo, had organised in 1872, and had established a rate of eightpence an hour ordinary time and one shilling an hour overtime, thus giving evidence of the disciplinary effects of organisation. Their meeting place was at the Wades Arms, Jeremiah Street, Poplar; and as the accommodation was more suitable there than at Wroots, the strike committee moved to the stevedores’ headquarters.

Tom McCarthy (dead now this twenty-two years) was a prominent and active member. Another stevedore, James Twomey, was chairman of the strike committee — for these and all other waterside workers were out in sympathy, if not directly affected.

The strike committee sat every day and evening, usually till midnight. The questions to be dealt with were multitudinous; occasionally there would be warmth of temper shown, but generally speaking the proceedings were conducted in a most orderly fashion. I was told off to give special attention to picketing, and to the organisation of forces on the south side of the river. This left others available for public speaking, attempts at negotiations, etc. I usually turned up at committee about 11pm, unless special questions demanded consideration.

What stress and strain and responsibility! What opportunities for demonstrating capacity, a knowledge of what was necessary, readiness to do it. And, speaking generally wonderfully the work was done. Apart from public speaking, picketing, and negotiating, a thousand things every day required attention, and as a rule they were well attended to. Besides the thirty thousand dock and wharf workers, there were sailors and firemen, carmen, lightermen and drydock workers, making another thirty thousand. These, with their dependents, all had to be provided for.

Four hundred and forty thousand food tickets were distributed during the five weeks the dispute lasted, and many thousands of meals were organised and provided by friendly agencies. Pubic sympathy was entirely with the men, and practically the whole press was kindly disposed. Large sums were collected, but in spite of this help the time came when finances were at a very low ebb and the prospects of a settlement seemed remote. Next day, however, came a cable from Australia sending two thousand pounds, with promise of more; a few day’s later, the Australians cabled fifteen hundred pounds more. All told, they sent no less than thirty thousand pounds. What a godsend! How it delighted the men; how it encouraged the leaders; and how it must have told the other way on the dock directors!

The dockers’ fight in London fired the imagination of all classes in Australia; and employers, as readily and as heartily as workers, contributed to the London Dockers’ Fund. I have had opportunities of thanking the people of Australia by addressing them in person at public meetings in nearly every city and township. What of it that many Australians who subscribed to the London Dockers’ Fund in 1889, fought determinedly against the transport workers in Australasia in 1890? These are the vagaries of human nature. As Yorkshire people say: “There’s nowt so queer as folk.”

John Burns and Ben Tillett were two very different men in temperament and style, but each of them possessed exactly the right qualities to fire audiences and keep up the struggle to a successful finish. John Burns — with his assertiveness, his businesslike readiness to deal with emergencies, his power and disposition to keep at arm’s length those who would have foisted themselves on the movement to its disadvantage, his cheery jocularity and homely remarks to the men on the march or on Tower Hill, his scathing criticism of hostile comments in the press or on the part of the dock directors — vitally contributed to the continuous encouragement of the mass of the strikers.

Ben Tillett, who had a close relationship to the men as general secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, would pour forth invective upon all opponents, would reach the heart’s core of the dockers by his description of the way in which they had to beg for work and the paltry pittance they received, and by his homely illustrations of their life as it was and as it ought to be. He was short in stature, but tough; pallid but dauntless; affected with a stammer at this time, but the real orator of the group. Ben was a force to be reckoned with all through the fight.

H.H. Champion, cooler than a cucumber, would make statements of a revolutionary character, would deal with the weak points in the men’s position, and would encourage them to rectify the same. Occasionally R.B. Cunninghame Graham would appear, as neat as a West End dude, with an eye keener than a hawk’s, and a voice and manner that riveted attention as he drove home his satirical points, but always leaving a nice impression.

Tom McCarthy was a keen-witted, eloquent, versatile Irishman, full of personal knowledge of the actual life and work of a waterside man. Harry Orbell was a simple-spoken, frank, honest fellow, familiar with all the difficulties of the unskilled labourer, but was himself a highly skilled man in the furnishing business. He had been squeezed out of this employment by the exigencies of trade depression. On the south side, Harry Quelch took a keen interest in the organisation of the men, and built up the Labour Protection League.

When at length the dock directors agreed to the demands, with certain reservations as to the date when they should become operative, the position became critical. At the Mansion House many conferences had been held. The Lord Mayor, the dock directors, the men’s representatives, and with general acquiescence a few prominent persons not identified directly with the business side of life, including the Bishop of London and Cardinal Manning, participated.

I had never seen the cardinal before, and it was a matter of no small interest to me to find myself closely identified with such a man for a colleague. A large percentage of the men at the docks were (and are) Roman Catholics. Now that a stage had been reached when the men’s representatives were of opinion that the offers of the company merited serious consideration, the cardinal, on the suggestion of the strike committee chairman, agreed to go to Poplar and put the case to the men, who held him in the greatest respect and reverence.

The meeting was held in the Kirby Street Catholic Schools at Poplar. The cardinal was a very slender man; his face was most arresting, so thin, so refined, so kindly. In the whole of my life I have never seen another like unto it. He spoke to the dockers in such a quiet, firm and advising fatherly manner, that minute by minute as he was speaking one could feel the mental atmosphere changing. The result was an agreement that the conditions should be accepted, to become operative in November.

The chief gains were: a minimum of sixpence an hour instead of fivepence (only fourpence formerly at Tilbury); eightpence an hour for overtime; none to be paid off with less than two shillings, or four hours’ work. This seems a trifling gain now, but it was an important matter then, to have regular taking-on times instead of taking-on at any hour of the day, and to have gangs properly made up. The last point was not included in the original settlement, but it became a current practice at the docks and wharves, to the great advantage of the men. The change for the better was very real; and although subsequently difficulties arose, when many of the men became careless, and when petty bosses sought to score over the dockers, still, all who knew and know the facts will admit that the struggle of 1889 was a real landmark.

Ben Tillett, who had been general secretary all the time, writing of what happened in 1889 and its effects, when reviewing the position twenty-one years later, in A Brief History of the Dockers’ Unions wrote:

We had established a new spirit; the bully and the thief, for a time at least, were squelched; no more would the old man be driven and cursed to death by the younger man, threatened and egged on to murder by an overmastering bully. The whole tone and conduct of work, of management of the men, was altered, and for the best.

The goad of the sack was not so fearful; the filthiness and foulness of language was altered for an attempt at courtesy, which, if not refined, was at least a recognition of the manhood of our brothers.

From a condition of the foulest blackguardism in directing the work, the men found a greater respect shown them; they, too, grew in self-respect, and the men we saw after the strike were comparable to the most self-respecting of the other grades of labour.

The “calls“ worked out satisfactorily; organisation took the place of the haphazard; the bosses who lazed and loafed on their subordinates were perforce obliged to earn instead of thieving their money; the work was better done; the men’s lives were more regular, as their work was — the docker had, in fact, become a man!

The man became greater in the happiness of a better supplied larder and home; and the womenfolk, with the children, shared the sense of security and peace the victory at the docks had wrought.

I must give myself the satisfaction here of putting on record the great kindness and forbearance shown to the Strike Committee, and to the stream of deputations they had to deal with, by Mrs Hickey of the Wades Arm. The hostess, her son, and her daughters had, indeed, a heavy task. We practically took possession of the house, not for an hour or two, but for all day and every day during the five weeks the strike lasted. But Mrs Hickey treated these fellows — ourselves of the committee included — as though she had been mother to the lot. She literally kept a shillelagh handy, with which she frequently, in a half-serious way, would threaten any young fellow who was too noisy; but it was fine that these rough chaps respected her so thoroughly, and that she had the splendid tact to make it easy for them to keep good order all through the trying time.

I was generally one of the last members of the committee to get away. Often enough I left the premises nearer one o’clock than midnight — not to go home, for there was little chance of doing that, but to get to the house of Brother Jem Twomey, the chairman of the Strike Committee, with whom I used to stay.

I can honestly say, for my own part, that I cared nothing at all for the public meetings, whether on Tower Hill or elsewhere, or for what was thought of the fight by the public. I concentrated on the work of organisation, and was indifferent to outside opinion. I had been at it about three weeks, and was now dealing specially with the South Side of the Thames. One day I realised that my boots had become so worn out that I must get others, or go barefoot (we always had long marches, and I invariably marched with the crowd). I slipped away from the marching column as soon as I noticed a boot shop. Hastily buying a pair of boots, I put them on and hurried to catch up with the crowd. When we reached Sayes Court, Deptford, I spoke as usual upon the general situation. A few days later, we were marching again along the thoroughfare where I had bought the boots. My eye lighted on the shop window, and to my amazement I noticed my name on a card.

I approached the window, and to my still greater astonishment I saw that the card bearing my name was on the pair of old boots I had shed a few days before. The writing on the card ran: “The boots worn by Tom Mann during the long marches in the Dock Strike.” I was positively flabbergasted to think that importance of any kind could attach to such articles, or to me.

I had become so inextricably involved in the dispute, and felt so completely a part of everything that was taking place, that I had left work, home, and all else, and paid no regard to anything other than the fight I was in. I scarcely noticed the papers, and had it not been for the subscriptions from Australia I doubt if I should have known that the activities in which I was swallowed up had arrested attention outside this country. But, as events proved, the dock strike started a wave which spread over a great part of the world, and the working conditions of many millions were affected by it.

Offers of clerical help were numerous during the strike. One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a most capable woman. Possessing a complete mastery of economics, she was able, alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by so doing she could help the movement. I am the proud possessor of a very fine photograph of her father, given me by Eleanor.

Those who desire a consecutive history of the dockers’ strike, will find the best account in The Story of the Dockers’ Strike, by H. Llewellyn Smith (now Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith) and Vaughan Nash, published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1889.

The revolutionary song, The Red Flag, was written at the end of 1889 by Jim Connell.

He was a socialist then, and remains a socialist yet. He is still very vigorous, and carries on a legal aid business in Chancery Lane. I have known Jim for five-and-thirty years, and he has ever been the proud revolutionary Irishman, proud of his nationality and proud of his socialism, but terribly disappointed with the tune to which all socialist societies, audiences, and individuals, sing The Red Flag.

Jim has explained how he wrote the song, as follows:

I was inspired to write The Red Flag by the Paris Commune, the heroism of the Russian nihilists, the firmness and self-sacrifice of the Irish Land Leaguers, the devotion unto death of the Chicago Anarchists, and other similar events. I felt my mind exalted by all these. On the night I wrote the song I was returning home from hearing a lecture by Herbert Burrows.

He spoke in a semi-devout manner, as if he wished to convey that socialism was his religion. This inspired me to write something in the train. The only tune that ever has or ever will suit The Red Flag is the one I hummed as I wrote it. I mean The White Cockade (Irish version). This was given as the tune when the song first appeared, in the Christmas number of Justice, 1889. A.S. Headingly took on himself to change the tune. May God forgive him, for I never shall! He linked the words to Maryland, the correct name of which is Tannenbaum, an old German Roman Catholic hymn. I never intended that The Red Flag should be sung to church music to remind people of their sins!

The song has been subjected to considerable criticism, words and music both, but no other song is half so popular in the socialist movement in this country. During recent years the International “ is increasingly used, and will, perhaps, ultimately take the first place ; but the “ Red Flag “ has had a magnificent popularity, and at the present time, of those socialist bodies that close their meetings with singing, in the majority of cases it is the first and last stanzas of The Red Flag that are used:

The people’s flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their heart’s blood dyed its every fold.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall,
Come dungeon dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Within its shade we’ll live and die.
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer.
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.






Tussy was a hero of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. Hundreds of dockers would turn up at the dock gates each morning competing for a day’s work — some of the worst treated workers in the country. Given confidence by the East End strikes of the Match Girls and Gas Workers, Ben Tillet led the fight to unionise the docks. Eleanor Marx was the key figure in organising the support for the strike.





Tom Mann


Mit dem grossen Streik von 1889/90 wurde ein grosser Anstoss gegeben nicht nur für die gewerkschaftliche Entwickelung, sondern auch für die Annahme sozialistischer Prinzipien durch die Gewerkschafter. Wie schon erwähnt, war es der Neu-Trades-Unionismus, der zuerst für den ungelernten Arbeiter die Anerkennung als vollwerthige Persönlichkeit und für ihn die gleiche Behandlung forderte, wie sie der höchst ausgebildete und relativ gut organisirte Arbeiter erfuhr. Wenn dies meinen Lesern als eine lächerlich kleine Angelegenheit erscheinen sollte, so muss daran erinnert werden, dass vor der erwähnten Periode es allgemeiner Brauch der gelernten Arbeiter in den vereinigten Königreichen war, auf die ungelernten als untergeordnetere Wesen herabzusehen, welche alles empfingen, wozu sie berechtigt waren, wenn sie genau nach dem Maassstab behandelt wurden, nach dem die Unternehmer und Werkführer in den städtischen Fabriken die gelernten Arbeiter behandelten. Der zweite Hauptpunkt in der Neu-Trade-Unionistischen Bewegung war das Bestreben, die Arbeiterbewegung als ein Ganzes zu betrachten, indem sie den Zusammenhang zwischen den verschiedenen Berufen und Nationen anerkannte, indem sie den Lohn den Arbeitern zur Hauptsache an der Industrie machten, aber immer betonten, dass die wahren Ursachen der industriellen Veränderungen, der Arbeitslosigkeit und darum der niedrigen Lohnsätze in der Thatsache zu finden seien, dass das Material und Maschinen Monopolbesitz von bestimmten Klassen seien, und dass Handel und Gewerbe der Nation nicht im Interesse des gesammten Volkes, sondern ausschliesslich im Interesse der Gewinn machenden und ausbeutenden Klassen betrieben würden. Kurz, die Verkünder des Sozialismus drangen in die Berufsvereine ein und wurden tonangebend, sowohl was die aktuelle Organtsationsarbeit anbetraf, als den Gebrauch, den man von der Organisation machen konnte.




What is the definition of Stalinism-Hoxhaism in the trade union question?

Stalinism-Hoxhaism in the trade union question
is the theory and tactics of the organized connection between the avant-garde and the broad masses of the world proletariat for the revolutionary elimination of the fundamental contradiction between world capital and world labor in general, and it is especially the theory and tactics of the trade union as the decisive transmission belt within the dictatorship of the world proletariat.

* * *

Generally speaking, Stalinism-Hoxhaism is the world-proletarian ideology for the creation of a communist working world.

The revolutionary trade unions of the countries are indivisible part of the internationalist world movement of the Trade Unions. This relationship is equal to the togetherness of the proletariat of different countries ( as parts), and the world proletariat (as a whole). The strengthening of the revolutionary Trade Unions in the countries and their integration into the whole revolutionary world movement is a task which can only be solved by mutual efforts of the red trade union of a country and the Red International of the Labour Unions. This way it is possible and necessary to destroy the global system of the Yellow Tradeunionism.

That - and only that - is the only guarantee of victory over the yellow union in one's own country under the present conditions of the globalized wage slavery!