The Great Dock Strike of 1889
The 'Lady Armstrong'
The dock strike began over a dispute about 'plus' money during the unloading of the Lady Armstrong in the West India Docks. 'Plus' money was a bonus paid for completing work quickly. The East and West India Dock Company had cut their 'plus' rates to attract ships into their own docks rather than others.
|The Lady Armstrong. © NMM|
A trade depression and an oversupply of docks and warehousing led to fierce competition between the rival companies. The cut in payments provided the opportunity for long-held grievances among the workforce to surface.
|Unloading a sugar cargo at the West India Docks, September 1889. © NMM|
The dockers walk out
|A meeting outside the West India Dock gates. © NMM|
Led by Ben Tillet, the men in the West India Dock struck on 14 August and immediately started persuading other dockers to join them. The Dockers' Union had no funds and needed help.
The support they needed came when the Amalgamated Stevedores Union, under Tom McCarthy, joined the strike. Not only did they carry high status in the port but their work was essential to the running of the docks.
Support from the stevedores
The stevedores' union issued a manifesto, entitled To the Trade Unionists and People of London. This called on other workers to support the dockers:
Friends and Fellow Workmen. The dock labourers are on strike and asking for an advance in wages ... 6d. per hour daytime and 8d. per hour overtime. The work is of the most precarious nature, three hours being the average amount per day obtained by the docker.
|The stevedores' float, part of a procession assembled in the East India Dock Road. © NMM|
We, the Union of the Stevedores of London, knowing the condition of the dock labourers, have determined to support their movement by every lawful means in our power...
We now appeal to members of all trade unions for joint action with us, and especially those whose work is in connection with shipping - engineers and fitters, boiler makers, ships' carpenters, etc. and also the coal heavers, ballast men and lightermen. We
also appeal to the public at large for contributions and support on behalf of the dock labourers.
|Leader of the procession and the coalies' car. © NMM|
Ben Tillett, Memories and Reflections, (London, 1931).