1911 special: Working-class struggles in Britain

When remembering these important events in British working-class history, we must also draw the necessary lessons for our movement today.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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In August this year CPGB-ML members rallied to the call of the 1911 Llanelli Strike Commemoration Committee and participated in a demonstration through Llanelli town centre to the graves of two workers killed by British troops in 1911. The comrades in Llanelli deserve credit for bringing back to the attention of the labour movement the heroic actions of the workers throughout Britain in 1911 – actions which point the way forward for us today in our struggle against the cuts and to establish a revolutionary line for the labour movement.

Radicalisation of transport workers

The years leading up to 1911 were for ordinary people years of dire conditions: of rising prices and falling wages. A L Morton remarked in his wonderful book A People’s History of England that “Between 1893 and 1908 … profits increased by 29.5 percent but nominal wages only by 12 percent. Thus while profits were rising faster than prices, real wages were decreasing by roughly the same proportion and it was slow perception of this fact, the realisation of the workers that they were growing poorer just at the time their employers were growing richer, which accounts for the bitterness of the great strike struggles of the early years of the present [20th] century.”

In 1910 Tom Mann and Ben Tillett (veterans of the New Unionism movement of the 1880s) formed the National Federation of Transport Workers Union, and at around the same time Mann involved himself with the Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, whose workers also endured horrendous conditions. Mann had not long returned from abroad, where he had toured extensively and, most importantly, had come to realise the futility of the social-democratic path.

He was now a committed revolutionary, albeit a syndicalist. It is no accident that the working class embarked on an unprecedented offensive during these years under the leadership and influence of a radical, if not revolutionary, leadership, rather than the pernicious domination of the Labour Party and reformists. In The British Labour Movement, Morton concisely recounted the principal skirmishes and battles of 1910-11 thus:

In June 1911 … when the SS Olympic, the world’s largest liner, called at Southampton for coaling, the coalies struck for better conditions and a seamen’s strike was declared in all ports. Within a few days the men gained all their demands, thus inflicting a severe defeat on the Federation, which had dictated conditions for 20 years.

This prompt and decisive action opened a period of determined strikes by dockers and transport workers, notably in London and Liverpool.

In Liverpool, where Mann was chairman of the transport workers’ Joint Strike Committee, the movement continued without interval after the seamen’s victory. Thousands of low-paid railwaymen came out with such determination that their union executives were constrained to support what had started as an unofficial movement. A general lock-out by the port authorities was followed by the declaration of a general transport strike now involving 80,000 men, who, acting in discipline and unity under Mann’s leadership, completely controlled the city’s transport.”

At a meeting of the workers in the centre of Liverpool, Tom Mann made the following remarks:

“A hundred thousand people have come to the centre of Liverpool this afternoon. The authorities have allowed us to ‘police’ this hundred thousand ourselves. Why? Because they enjoy surrendering their power? Or because they’re afraid of being trampled underfoot?! There’s a thin line between order and chaos. The police force of Liverpool may tread it this afternoon. A step wrong and the Mersey will rise a foot by nightfall, with largely innocent blood.

“We’re gathered here today, peacefully, to demonstrate our determination to win this long and terrible battle against the employing classes and the state. What does that mean? Only this. All the transport workers of Liverpool are arm-in-arm against the enemy class.

“We have sent a letter to the employers asking for an early settlement and a speedy return to work. If that brings no reply, if they ignore us, the strike committee advises a general strike.

“In the face of the military and the police drafted into this city – and of the threat to bring gunboats into the Mersey – we can see nothing except a challenge. A challenge to every worker who values his job. A challenge to every claim each worker makes of his employer. A challenge to every right a worker should expect under common decency. Brothers, we rise to this challenge. And we meet it, head on!” (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk)

It will not come as a surprise to readers of Proletarian to hear that the murderous villain and imperialist henchman Winston Churchill (then the Home Secretary) refused to act decently. This ‘great’ Briton sent 7,000 British troops and special police to Liverpool – and for good measure ordered two gunboats up the Mersey.

A brutal police charge was delivered on a demonstration on St Georges Hall plateau … Two workers were killed when troops opened fire … But violence was in vain: the workers were inspired by the confidence and blazing defiance which marked Mann’s leadership.

‘Let Churchill do his utmost,’ he declared. ‘Let him order ten times more military to Liverpool and let every street be paraded by them; not all the king’s forces with all the king’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea.’ In the end the employers and the authorities had to face this fact and to negotiate settlements favourable to the men.” (A L Morton, op cit)

1911 railway strike: the ‘Llanelli riots’

As a direct consequence of this upsurge in militancy and heroism other workers were inspired to action. The national railway strike of 1911 saw unofficial stoppages grip the network across the country.

In Llanelli, south Wales, railwaymen came out against a 70-hour working week and compulsory overtime amongst other issues. Llanelli was a vital centre of the tin trade and the town had many wealthy capitalists. Moreover, the railway line that passed through the town was an important link between London and her nearest colony, Ireland, a point that would not have been lost on imperialist marauders like Churchill.

The Llanelli workers formed huge pickets east and west of the railway station and all traffic was halted. Showing his utter contempt for working-class people and his penchant for bloodshed and hysteria Winston Churchill again hurried troops to the scene – where a force of 700 gathered and began to organise bayonet charges against unarmed workers and their families.

The Llanelli workers were brave and tough; despite overwhelming force and brutality the soldiers couldn’t break the pickets or the strike. Although they fought tirelessly throughout the night, a train did eventually reach the station driven by a blackleg.

This drunken scoundrel proceeded to attempt to pass through Llanelli but was stopped by the strikers, who formed a human barricade across the western side of the station. Driven mad with rage and class hatred, a detachment of soldiers led by Major Stuart marched up the line. As men, women and children stood on the banks of the railway line, the Riot Act was read and British troops proceeded to shoot dead two local men before retreating back up the track to their encampment.

In the days that followed the people of Llanelli fought running battles with state forces, during which a truck carrying explosives was set alight, resulting in another four deaths. The newspapers cried and howled at the ‘looting’ and ‘rioting’ that then took place. Shops were broken into, property was destroyed and these events came to be known as the ‘Llanelli riots’.

Just as today, the state took the opportunity when the dust had settled to punish in the most draconian and unreasonable manner the local population. They were vilified as ‘looters’ and soldiers scoured the town digging up gardens and ransacking homes to find ‘stolen’ items.

And what were the precious things which these despised people had taken? They were items such as shoes; shoes to put on the feet of Llanelli children who had always walked barefoot about the streets.

Lessons for today

The events of 1911 were widespread and encompassed many more industries, towns and cities than we can possibly deal with in this article. What is most instructive for our movement is to draw lessons and parallels to help us in our work today, and in this regard we applaud Llanelli Trades Council and local progressives for bringing to the attention of the wider labour movement such glorious chapters from our shared history.

The fight-back by the working class at that time draws a stark contrast to the methods and tactics employed by ‘left-wingers’ and radicals in 21st-century Britain. We desperately need to build up a thoroughly anti-social-democratic consciousness within the National Shop Stewards Network, which alone at the present moment shows any sign of trying to oppose the cuts and lay-offs.

We should recognise the broad shared interests between large sections of the British working classes, and not be drawn into condemnation of acts of resistance – be they undertaken by students, city youths, striking workers or any other section of our society.

And all these struggles need to be linked up with the struggles to defend the NHS and welfare state, to protect jobs and services, and ultimately used to educate the masses in revolutionary Marxism.

The nature of the British state has not changed. It cares not a jot for the interests of the British working class, or for the human rights of foreign citizens – be they Iraqi, Afghan, Libyan or Syrian. Our impoverishment and their suffering are connected, for we share a common enemy: British imperialism. An imperialism that is just as ready to shoot a striking Llanelli railwayman as it is a Libyan or Iraqi oil worker – or, indeed, a Brazilian electrician, a London newspaperman, a ‘rioter’ … or anyone else who stands in the way of continued domination by the tiny clique of exploiters who benefit from the capitalist system.

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