Between 1911 and 1914, Britain and Ireland were rocked by a series of mass strikes of miners, railway, dock, and tramway workers, as well as those from other industries that went on solidarity strikes. Cut across by Britain entering into World War One, these strikes, taking place alongside the struggle for women’s suffrage and the fight for Home Rule in Ireland, had the potential to develop into a mass revolutionary movement.
The conditions that gave rise to such action have some similarities to the situation facing the working class today. As part of our occasional working-class struggle series, Amy Sage examines this period known as the ‘Great Unrest’ and draws lessons for building the workers’ movement today.
The British working class in 1911, much like today, was facing stagnant, if not falling, wages and rising costs in consumer goods. British capitalism had lost its dominant global manufacturing position to its rivals, the USA and Germany. It meant that the era of ‘social peace’ – when the British ruling class conceded limited economic reforms to the craft unions – was coming to an end.
But while workers were seeing a steady drop in their standard of living, those at the top of society were living in luxury, enjoying their ‘Edwardian Summer’ full of garden parties, summer houses and seaside holidays.
While the period had seen some progressive reforms brought in by the 1906 Liberal government, most notably the 1908 pensions act and the National Insurance Act 1911, which many see as precursors to the welfare state, these reforms were very limited and did not prevent class antagonisms continuing to rise.
Alongside these economic conditions was a growing discontent among some workers with both the leadership of the newly established Labour Party, which was seen as hanging too much onto the coat-tails of the Liberals in parliament, and a conservative leadership within the trade unions, whose ‘conciliation strategy’ with employers cut across their members’ desire to take decisive industrial action.
But most significantly was the reluctance of the Labour and trade union leaders to challenge the system of capitalism itself.
As a consequence, many industrial militants were attracted to syndicalist ideas, which thought that workers’ struggles alone, without the need for a workers’ party, could fundamentally change society.
‘The Great Unrest’
It was against this backdrop that the period between 1911 and 1914, known as the ‘Great Unrest’, saw more than 3,000, mostly unofficial, strikes. 1,200 of these happened in 1913 alone. When the union leaders supported strikes it was mostly under pressure from rank-and-file workers’ action.
The better known of these strikes include the Llanelli Railway strike of 1911, part of the first ever national railway strike against low pay, which was met with brutal oppression by the police, resulting in the deaths of two workers.
The 1913 Dublin Lockout saw approximately 20,000 workers go out on strike in response to, among other issues, attacks by their employers upon their right to unionise. Striking workers in Dublin were dealt with harshly by the Royal Irish Constabulary, culminating in the death of two strikers in an event now known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Perhaps less well-known, but by no means any less significant, is the role played in this period by female workers. Tens of thousands of working-class women, many of whom were also in the midst of the fight for women’s suffrage, demanded better pay and working conditions in the workplaces.
Many of the strikes were successful, such as the Cradley Heath Women Chainmakers strike of 1910, in the West Midlands, which helped to establish an industry minimum wage; and the 15,000 female factory workers who went out on strike in Bermondsey, south London, and who, after ten days of action, won better pay, better working conditions, and a new realisation of their collective power.
While the outbreak of World War One, with its wave of national unity, cut across the potential for these strikes to develop into a mass revolutionary movement, industrial action was still relatively common during the war.
Emergency anti-trade union laws, such as the Munitions Act 1915, banned strikes and made it a penal offence to leave your workplace without the consent of the employer. But such measures didn’t entirely cow the trade union movement. An engineers’ strike in Glasgow against this act led to the establishment of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, which itself led to the foundation of the first national shop stewards’ movement in Britain.
And with the influence of Marxists like John Maclean, working-class struggle led to a semi-insurrectionary movement in the city – known as ‘Red Clydeside’.
The working class during the period of the Great Unrest, determined to fight back against the terrible conditions that were being imposed on them, showed tremendous courage in the face of brutal oppression by the state.
The right-wing leaders of the trade unions and the reformist leadership of the Labour Party, on the other hand, exhibited great cowardice. Much like today, despite the working class facing the biggest cuts to our standard of living in decades, most Starmerite New Labour MPs and right-wing trade union leaders were all too happy to kowtow to big business.
It is clear that, learning the lessons of the Great Unrest, we must organise today in the trade unions and the workplaces to put maximum pressure on existing trade union leaders to lead and coordinate mass industrial action, and for the election of leaders who are prepared to fight.
We must rebuild the trade union movement, and the strength of the working class, from the bottom-up, by linking up the most militant in our movement. The National Shop Stewards Network, which brings together rank-and-file trade unionists, can play an important role in that process, as a supplement to the official structures of the trade union movement.
Like the tens of thousands of workers who, between 1911 and 1914, went on strike in support of other workers, we must also be prepared to organise mutual solidarity action to support any trade union dispute.
And finally, the working class also needs a mass political voice. The syndicalist influence during the Great Unrest, which rejected the need for a mass workers’ party, prevented the movement from realising its full potential and taking the struggle beyond the workplace to challenge the capitalist system itself. Although, under the influence of the 1917 Russian revolution, many did go on to form the Communist Party in 1921.
Today, promoting the need for a new mass workers’ party in the trade unions is one of the key tasks of Socialist Party members. Fielding election candidates under the banner of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is one step in this process.