100 years since the 1911 railway strikeBy Alex Gordon, RMT. Reprinted with author's permission from RMT News August 2011
August this year sees the centenary of Britain’s first national railway strike. August 1911 was a turning point in trade union organisation, which created the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), Britain’s first industrial union in February 1913 and hastened the Labour Movement's awakening everywhere.
The causes of the 1911 strike are familiar today. Wage levels fell 10 per cent between 1900-1910, while prices rose and bosses used anti-union laws to stop workers taking strike action.
The August 1911 rail strike was one element in a huge upsurge of worker militancy between 1910-14 known as ‘The Great Unrest’. Overall union membership doubled to 4.1 million. Numbers of strike days rocketed from 2 million in 1907, 10 million in 1911 and 41 million by 1912. The ‘Triple Alliance’ of miners, dockers and railworkers forged through industrial solidarity in 1913 became for a while the most powerful organisation ever created by British workers to fight for their interests.
The frustration and anger of railway workers built up from 1907 when the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants’ (ASRS) ‘All Grades Movement’ to cut working hours, raise wages and secure union recognition was diverted into a ‘Conciliation Scheme’ that left pay and conditions unchanged.
Tom Lowth, of the General Railway Workers’ Union (GRWU) said: “It does not look to me like a very satisfactory settlement” and he was right. By August 1910 Lord Claud Hamilton, Chairman of the Railway Companies Association boasted: “The union of course is not recognised in any way. Not a loophole as far as I can see has been left open for them.”
The following month in September 1910 a full-scale, workers’ revolt broke out led by the South Wales Miners’ Federation against the Cambrian Coal Combine.
On 9 January, 1911 Liverpool ship-repairers struck for better pay and the National Sailors’ and Firemens’ Union held mass meetings in London, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Hull, Glasgow, Grimsby, Dublin and Manchester under the slogan “War Is Now Declared: Seamen Strike Hard and Strike For Liberty on 14 June 1911”.
A 72-day national seamen’s strike began in Southampton on 9 June 1911 and spread like wildfire around British ports. In Liverpool, Tom Mann the charismatic leader of the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF) was invited to chair the strike committee. Mann arrived at Liverpool docks on 14 June 1911, while the government sent 3,000 troops to occupy the city and anchored a Royal Navy gunboat in the Mersey.
The ASRS leadership tried to negotiate a return to work by rail workers. However, the rail companies were intransigent against demands for a 2-shillings per week wage increase and a reduction from 60 to 54 hours per week. Unofficial railway strikes continued to spread from Hull, Bristol, Swansea and Manchester through June and July.
On “Bloody Sunday” 13 August 1911 a mass strike meeting at St George’s Plateau outside Liverpool’s Lime Street station was attacked by police from Birmingham. The Liverpool strike committee declared a general strike from midnight 14 August.
Tom Mann announced: “A strike of all transport men of all classes; of railway workers, passenger as well as goods men, drivers, stokers. It will mean all connected with the ferry boats, tug boats, river tender men, Dock Board men, Overhead and underground railways, flatmen, bargemen, dockers, coal heavers, crane men, elevator men, warehouse workers, carters, and in fact every conceivable section and branch of the great transport industry in Liverpool will down tools until this business is settled.” The strike initiated by seamen drew in 66,000 transport workers of all sectors who brought the Port of Liverpool to a standstill.
The following day 15 August a joint meeting of the Executive Committees of four rail unions (ASRS, GRWU, UPSS and ASLEF) made a joint call for a national rail strike unless the railway companies agreed to immediate negotiations.
The government offered rail bosses “every available soldier in the country” and on 17 August unions declared a national rail strike in the famous ‘liberty telegram’, which proclaimed: “Your liberty is at stake. All railwaymen must strike at once. The loyalty of each means liberty for all.”
Around 200,000 rail workers took strike action. Organised attacks on parts of the rail system included 1,000 workers besieging a working signal box at Portishead, Bristol. Tracks were ripped up and telegraph systems damaged. In Derby troops ordered to defend the railway station fixed bayonets and charged unarmed rail workers leading to pitched battles. In Long Eaton strikers impounded trains and it took 100 troops to release them. Chesterfield station burnt to the ground.
The most violent scenes took place in Llanelli, South Wales. Strikers blocked the South Wales mainline stopping the Irish Mail. Magistrates read the Riot Act as strikers and their supporters sang “Sospan Fach” ("Little Saucepan") the song of Llanelli Rugby Club. Troops then opened fire on the crowd killing two workers who supported the striking railwaymen.
On 18 August the government offered a Royal Commission to discuss industrial relations and union leaders immediately called the strike off, although it took days for workers to return to work in Manchester, Newcastle and other centres.
The Royal Commission reported in November and failed to meet any of the strikers’ demands. However, the significance of the strike lay in its demonstration of the industrial power of transport workers acting together across shipping, docks, railways and road transport sectors. The events of 1911 also demonstrated the willingness of railway workers of all grades to act together in solidarity to achieve their aims and undermined the grip of craft sectarianism, which the railway companies relied on to divide and rule their workforce.
Most importantly the 1911 strike pushed leaders of three railway unions (the ASRS, GRWU and UPSS) to put aside their differences and to have the courage to start merger talks, which led in just over 12 months to the National Union of Railwaymen, one of the largest and most important trade unions in 20th century British labour history.
11 July 2011
‘Pulling Together: A Popular History of RMT’ (available free to RMT members from firstname.lastname@example.org );
Philip Bagwell, ‘The Railwaymen: The History of the National Union of Railwaymen’ (London: Allen & Unwin, 1963);
Bob Holton, ‘British Syndicalism 1900-1914: Myths and Realities’ (London: Pluto Press, 1976)