The great railway strike of 1911 saw incredible battles between workers, scabs, bosses and soldiers. It holds many lessons, writes Charlie Kimber
The wave of strikes in Britain between 1910 and 1914 saw millions of workers fight over wages and conditions with the most militant methods. The period became known as the Great Unrest.
Mass working class resistance, driven by the rank and file and heavily influenced by socialist militants, combined across industries.
The strikes took place during a deep crisis for the Liberal government as it reeled from a mass campaign for votes for women, and with the Tory opposition openly calling for violent rebellion in Ireland against parliamentary democracy.
In the course of the struggles the strikers raised questions about the position of the working class under capitalism and the legitimacy of the capitalist state.
So Robert Griffiths’ new book on the great railway strike of 1911 is very welcome. It tells of the first ever national rail strike – and the last time that troops fired on strikers in Britain, killing two workers.
There were plenty of reasons for rail workers to fight. Prices of basic goods were rising sharply and wages were stagnant or falling.
A third of railway workers were paid less than 20 shillings a week. A miner could expect 32 shillings – and they didn’t live in luxury.
Griffiths writes, “Two thirds of rail workers toiled for at least 60 hours a week, with most of the others working 72 hours… overtime was compulsory, sometimes unpaid.”
And the work was dangerous – from 1897 to 1907 more than 5,000 were killed and 146,000 injured in industrial accidents.
There was also increasing pressure on workers across the economy from the introduction of machinery.
And, even a century ago, militants were turning to strikes as an alternative to the weakness of the Labour group in parliament, which saw its main role as maintaining the Liberals in power to keep the Tories out.
The revolt from below was accelerated by the sense that the trade unions were becoming more permanent fixtures. But at the same time, their leaders were becoming incorporated into the rhythms of state-sponsored conciliation. The rail union leaders were particularly conservative.
Yet the strikes gained confidence from each other. The rail strikes followed turmoil in the coalfields, particularly in South Wales, and mass unofficial strikes among seafarers and dockers.
This process was hugely advanced by the involvement of revolutionary militants such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and James Connolly.
They rejected the idea that nationalisation, achieved through gradually securing a workers’ majority in parliament, would be enough to tame capitalism. Instead they preached revolutionary syndicalism and the need for workers to run industries themselves.
Tom Mann, speaking after a shipload of scab labour appeared in the River Mersey, told strikers, “If that boat were sunk he would for his part rejoice. If he were able to sink the ship himself, he would do it... As for the scabs on board, the sooner they went to heaven or hell the better for the world.”
Merseyside rail workers began unofficial strikes in July 1911. In less than a week 15,000 rail workers on Merseyside were out. Eight thousand dockers and cart drivers joined the strike in solidarity.
By mid-August 3,000 troops and several hundred extra police had been sent to the area. Gunboats were moored on the Mersey.
When the strikers held a “family day” protest, police and troops attacked it, sparking several days of street fighting. Residents of working class districts in north Liverpool erected barbed wire barricades.
An army officer shot dead two strikers during attacks on police vans taking convicted rioters to Walton jail. The Liverpool docks dispute was settled soon after, but deep class bitterness remained.
Union leaders had tried to snuff out the unofficial Liverpool rail strike.
But the employers refused to talk, and unofficial strikes spread to Swansea, Hull, Bristol and Manchester and then more widely. Workers demanded a two shilling a day wage rise, and a reduction in the working week from 60 to 54 hours.
Faced with becoming totally irrelevant, the rail union leaders decided to move to the head of the action, declaring a general strike of their members.
On the eve of the walkout the union leaders met the government in an effort to avoid conflict. But ministers treated them with contempt.
The strike went ahead. Rail workers greeted it with wild enthusiasm.
Groups of up to 1,000 strikers attacked signal boxes manned by scabs. They attempted to disrupt services by tearing up track, putting obstacles on the line and damaging telegraph systems.
The government mobilised almost all of the country’s 58,000 troops against the strike. General Nevil McCready, who was in charge of military operations, later recalled, “Nothing could have been more harmonious or easier than my relations with the railway magnates.”
In Chesterfield, strikers set the station ablaze. 50 troops of the West Yorkshire regiment reinforced the police and made repeated bayonet charges into the workers.
Llanelli in south west Wales, which is the focus of Griffiths’ book, saw the most extended battles. Strikers seized railway buildings to halt any movement along the line.
Such militancy won support from wide layers of the working class, including workers in the tinplate factories which dominated the town.
Faced with a united strike, the government panicked. Home secretary Winston Churchill declared, “The men have beaten us. We cannot keep the trains running. There is nothing we can do. We are done!”
But the state also fought back. The government sent troops to “restore order” in Llanelli, where a vast crowd of workers had gathered. The union leaders urged the strikers to disperse and, after a day-long battle, the police and troops regained control. Trains began to pass through again.
The next day strikers and other workers returned to the offensive. They stoned the police and soldiers, and blocked the tracks. Army commanders then ordered soldiers to shoot into the crowd, killing Leonard Worsell and John John.
Revenge was swift. Pickets halted a train which they then discovered was carrying supplies for the Devonshire regiment: “The carriages were wrecked and looted with young lads seen parading around town in military head-dress and tunics.”
The goods yard was smashed while the authorities looked on powerless.
Subsequent assaults on trains saw 97 railway carriages burnt. Attention then turned to the people who had helped set up the shootings. Rioters attacked the grocery shop of chief magistrate Thomas Jones, hurling a block of concrete through the window.
Far from intimidating the strikers, the state violence raised their struggle to a higher level. And the government moved from repression to seeking a compromise settlement.
Chancellor Lloyd George leaned on the railway bosses to agree a commission of inquiry into the industry.
That was enough to satisfy the union leaders, who called off the strike. As the news spread, many workers reacted with fury – but there was not enough organisation to keep the action going.
The commission eventually reported, after the momentum had died down. It recommended only pathetic concessions to workers. Union leaders were forced to reject it and threaten more strikes, but they backed down after a few more minimal changes.
The murders by the military were covered up. This led Labour MP Keir Hardie to write his pamphlet Killing No Murder, which provides the title of Griffiths’ book.
The main impact of the strikes was pressure towards organisational unity.
The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), the forerunner of today’s RMT union, was created in 1913. The three unions it brought together had 186,000 members in total, but within a year the NUR had 273,000.
The strikes of this period demonstrate that workers with no tradition of militancy and with the most cowardly union leaders can explode into action.
History moves through leaps of consciousness. There may be a gradual accumulation of bitterness, but at some point it either dissipates or bursts into much higher forms of struggle.
When that happens socialists must respond industrially and politically. In 1911 workers needed rank and file organisation, and the ability to act independently. The potential was there, but it was not realised. This fed into the discussions that bore fruit during the First World War and in the methods of the early Communist Party.
But there was also a political issue. The strikes were inseparable from the crisis of Liberalism, and issues such as women’s suffrage, an end to British rule in Ireland, and the approach of war with Germany. Workers groped towards a political force that could address all these questions.
The syndicalists were tremendous militants, and understood the violence of the state. But they did not fully grasp the way bureaucratic pressures affect trade union leaders. Neither did they have an answer to how the working class could take power.
The lack of a revolutionary party left the field open for the Labour Party – a step forward compared to a total lack of class political organisation, but far less than could have been built.
The strikes of 1910–4 were the forerunner of an even greater challenge in the period after the war and the inspiration of 1917’s Russian Revolution. They are full of lessons for us today.