The summer of strikes
At Liverpool on the morning of 14 June 1911, the crews of two North American Liners refused to sign on for work. Later that day their stance was mirrored by the crews of several liners at Southampton. Tom Mann, co-founder of the Transport Workers Federation (TWF), was due to announce a general strike among seamen later that day, but the crewmen at Liverpool and Southampton, being eager for action, had decided not to wait.
Mann had started the TWF alongside his friend Ben Tillett the previous year – their aim was to unite every transport worker in the country under a single auspice. Since then the TWF had grown rapidly; numerous transport unions were now affiliates and had brought thousands of workers with them. A huge TWF demonstration, held at Liverpool on 31 May in support of two seamen’s unions that were on strike, had foreshadowed the June general strike. Two TWF affiliates, the National Sailors and Fireman’s Union (NSFU) and the National Union of Ships’ Stewards, Cooks, Buthchers and Bakers, were behind this first strike. Their initial purpose was to protest against degrading medical inspections, but they soon added further demands, including wage increases, improved accommodation, union recognition, and an end to the medical inspections.
On the evening of 14 June Tom Mann addressed a meeting of the first strikers with the mantra: ‘War declared. Strike for liberty’, and boldly predicted that the fight would be ‘short, sharp and decisive’ [The Guardian]. The next day seamen at most major UK ports, and some from as far afield as Belgium and Holland, began a general strike. Later that month the shipping companies acceded to the strikers’ demands, handing them victory. Inspired by the sailors’ success, on 28 June 4,000 dockers went on strike, demanding improvements in pay and conditions. They were quickly followed by scalers and coal heavers, which meant no fewer than 10,000 men had gone on strike by the end of the day. The seamen then went back on strike in support of the dockers, and within a week the Shipping Federation (an employers’ organisation) gave in, with most companies agreeing to improve workers’ hours and pay, and to end discrimination against union members.
Liverpool crippled by strikesThe success of the strikes against the shipping companies inspired a wave of strikes across other industries in Liverpool throughout the summer. Workers from warehouses, breweries, rubber plants, oil mills and wool houses went on strike, and on 5 August railwaymen from several depots joined them, demanding reduced hours and increased pay. Within two days 15,000 railwaymen were on strike and picketing stations throughout the city. Fighting erupted between strikers and police and thousands of extra policemen and soldiers were brought to the city and given live ammunition. Dockers and other transport workers struck in sympathy for the railwaymen, and goods transportation in Liverpool ground to a halt.
On 13 August a mass demonstration at St Georges Plateau, Liverpool saw 100,000 workers turn out to hear speeches from workers and union leaders, including Tom Mann. The event began peacefully, but some time after 4:15pm a scuffle began between police and demonstrators, which led to a full-scale riot. The event, which became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, left scores of people injured, and in the days that followed continued fighting across the city resulted in two workers (a docker and a carter) being shot dead by troops.
The next day Liverpool’s ship owners carried out a threat to ‘lock out’ 20,000 dock workers unless they returned to work. When a number of dockers, against the strike leaders’ advice, failed to return to work, the ship owners shut down the docks. To support the dockers, the Joint Strike Committee, headed by Tom Mann, declared a general strike across all areas of shipping. The general strike lasted until 24 August, when a deal was struck ensuring all strikers would be allowed back to work. After a unanimous vote amongst the unions, Mann told all workers to return to work but added:
‘...neither shipowners nor reactionary committees nor councils, railway magnates, nor any other section shall be able to demoralise us again or drive us into poverty... We have done splendidly, and in a few weeks have brought 50,000 men into our unions.’