SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Unions and Labour: forged in struggle

Silvertown: the lost history of a strike that shook London and helped launch the modern labour movement

By John Tully

Published by Lawrence & Wishart, 2014, £17.99

Reviewed by Rob Williams

This is a long overdue account of an important struggle in London’s East End in 1889 with many parallels and lessons for workers today. It was part of a wider upsurge of workers’ struggles that led to a rebirth of the trade union movement, and to the creation of independent working-class political representation in the form of the Labour Party.

John Tully explains why this strike has largely been lost in the annals of the labour movement – unlike the famous Bryant & May matchgirls’ strike of 1888 and the London dock strike which was still on as the Silvertown strike started. The difference is that, while the other two were successful, the workers at the Silver’s factory were defeated. Workers, however, learn through defeats as well as victories. Tully shows that the lessons had to be learned in an extremely harsh manner as 3,000 strikers were starved back to work after three months.

His book graphically describes how the development of the working class and its organisations was inextricably connected with the rise of capitalism in its strongest link in the 19th century: Victorian Britain. The industrial revolution set in motion an explosive development of the productive forces, requiring ever bigger factories and more complex industrial processes. This forged a mighty industrial working class who were swept into the rapidly expanding towns and cities.

The biggest metropolis of them all, London, was totally transformed during these decades, with many industries being thrown up on the wharves and docks along the Thames. Silvertown is now in the shadow of the icon of Thatcherism, Canary Wharf, although it is still largely a working-class area. It derived its name from the rubber and electrical factory owned by Samuel Winkworth Silver. By 1889, it was heavily involved in the manufacture of telegraph cable in the burgeoning communications industry.

Silver’s may have been at the cutting edge of Victorian technology but its workforce was in the swamp of low wage, long working hours, and terrible social conditions familiar to workers and their families throughout the country. In fact, the ‘new’ East End of ‘London Over the Border’ seemed cut off from the rest of the city by the River Lea and, because of its untrammelled development, a heavy downpour often reduced it to swamp-like conditions.

The lack of sanitation in overcrowded, badly built but high rent accommodation led to horrendous mortality rates. Even nearly two decades later, Silvertown had an infant mortality rate of 181 deaths per 1,000 live births – compared to the UK rate of 4.91 per 1,000 now. Perhaps a better but tragic comparison is that today’s war-ravaged Afghanistan and Somalia are 135.95 and 106.67 respectively.

Workers in Silver’s and other factories did not meekly accept their plight. But they were blocked both on the political and industrial fronts. The trade unions, like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), were exclusive craft organisations which saw their priority as protecting skilled tradesmen. They looked down on the mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. In reality, some of them were just as skilled but could not join the union because they had not served a recognised apprenticeship. This craft exclusivity proved disastrous to the strike that broke out on 11 September 1889. It was also the basis for the support of these craft unions for the Liberal Party.

It was a spur for the development of the ‘New Unionism’ of mass unions that broke with the craft mentality. Led by the likes of Will Thorne, the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (NUG&GL) was formed in March 1889, built out of the struggle of the nearby Beckton gas workers. It was followed by the successful 100,000-strong dock strike, led by Ben Tillett, which led to the formation of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union.

This movement inspired the workers at Silver’s. Initially, 280 yard labourers put in a wage claim to take their hourly pay from 4¾d to 6d (at the time, 240d made up £1). The owners’ representative, Matthew Gray, agreed the claim, hoping that it would defuse any mood that was building up. It actually enthused the whole workforce. Over the weekend of 14/15 September, a ‘round robin’ of wage claims were put forward by different sections of the plant. This time the response of the bosses was brutal. They immediately withdrew the offer to the yardmen, informing the workers that only those accepting the existing terms and conditions could continuing working. The lock-out was on. The battle-lines were drawn.

Silver’s was well connected, with many establishment figures owning shares, including the prime minister, Lord Salisbury. While the dock strike had won support for New Unionism from the middle class, this was on the wane by the time of the Silvertown strike. The full force of the capitalist press was used to spread lies and misinformation as unease grew in ‘polite society’ about the new power of the working masses. The resources of the state were marshalled against the 3,000 strikers: the press, police and professional strike-breakers who recruited rural workers from Colchester. Some production was shipped to Silver’s factory in France.

The strikers were supported by the best in the socialist and trade union movement, including the leaders of the dock strike and other local struggles. Alongside the likes of Tillett and Thorne came militant trade unionists such as Tom Mann, who was a leading left in the ASE, campaigning valiantly against the leaders of his union to try to pull out its skilled members in the Silvertown works. The turners and smiths did strike, but the failure to bring the majority of the skilled workers out was the main reason for the protracted defeat of the workers.

It was anything but inevitable. There had been huge support for the strikers with big public demonstrations, and thousands of pounds raised for the strike fund from the working-class. Eleanor Marx played a crucial role in the struggle. Although coming from a middle-class background, she became a beacon for the many women workers in the factory who were especially exploited. As a result, the first women’s branch of the NUG&GL was founded during the dispute.

It was no accident that many of the leaders of the Silvertown struggle and New Unionism were also members of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Although the SDF had significant weaknesses, it proved to be a real school for these activists, with some becoming prominent in the development of the Labour Party at the turn of the century and others playing a role in the formation of the Communist Party after the Russian revolution.

This book is well worth reading for the specific struggle in Silvertown but also because it shows how the British trade union movement was formed through bitter struggle. Both industrially and politically, workers had to forge mass organisations in the heat of the class struggle as the ferocity of the bosses’ regime and their political representatives forced the working class to draw the necessary organisational conclusions.

It is also a timely answer to those on the left and in the labour and trade union movement who attempt to argue pessimistically and fatally that the unions are too weak and that it is impossible to build a new political voice for the working class. John Tully finishes the book with a quote from the great American socialist and trade unionist, Eugene V Debs, as valuable now as when it was written in 1904: "Ten thousand times has the labour movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself and risen again… it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known".

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