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The Great Dock Strike of 1889

Introduction
The situation on the eve of the strike
The spark
The strike spreads
Mobilizing support
Hardship
Australia to the rescue
The Mansion House Committee
Effects of the strike
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Effects of the strike

A new union

Coat of arms of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union
View full size imageCoat of arms of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union. © NMM

After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, nearly 20,000 men joined this new union.

The success of the Dockers' Strike was a turning point in the history of trade unionism. Workers throughout the country, particularly the unskilled, gained a new confidence to organize themselves and carry out collective action. From 750,000 in 1888, trade union membership grew to 1.5 million by 1892 and to over 2 million by 1899.

Burns's view

John Burns
View full size imageJohn Burns, one of the leaders of the 1889 strike. © NMM

John Burns explained the importance of the strike:

Quotation marks left
Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organize itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything.

He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain.

Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors.

Quotation marks right

Audio File 'Still more important perhaps'.
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John Burns – 'The Great Strike', New Review, Vol. 1, No. 5, October 1889.

 

 

The Red Flag

National Amalgamated Sailor's and Fireman's Union of Great Britain and Ireland.
View full size imageThe Sailors' and Firemens' Union was one of the many 'New Unions' established in the aftermath of the dockers victory. © NMM
The dockers' victory proved inspirational to socialists and trade unionists throughout the world. Jim Connell (1852-1929) wrote The Red Flag during the strike.

As a consequence of his union activities in Dublin Connell had earlier been blacklisted from the Irish docks. So he went to London in 1875, where he worked as a navvy and dock labourer.

He wrote The Red Flag in 1889 on the train from Charing Cross to New Cross after hearing a lecture on socialism at a meeting of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).

Connell's song quickly became an anthem of the international labour movement. Although he wrote it to the tune of The White Cockade, it is better known when sung to the tune of the German hymn Die Tannenbaum. This latter version is still the official anthem of the British Labour Party.

Audio File The Red Flag by Jim Connell.
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