A Century Since Liverpool’s Momentous General Transport Strike

Strikers at the ‘monster demonstration’ of 13th August 1911, before the police attack

A century ago today, the great general transport strike began in Liverpool. It was a dispute that would define industrial struggles in the city for the next eight-five years, particularly in the centre of its industrial battleground – the docks. But it was also a conflict with global dimensions, as international seafaring nurtured the beginnings of international working class solidarity.

In part, the strike came as a response to a decade where the average worker’s wage had been literally decimated – slashed by 10%. As the British Empire faced competition from American and German up-and-comers, the British ruling class had intensified the class war at home and abroad, and workers’ living conditions had suffered. This was a period in which labour unions – and indeed the Labour Party – were gradually becoming more prominent. In 1910, the syndicalist Tom Mann had formed the Transport Workers Federation (TWF), in an attempt to organise all transport workers into one union. Mann and the TWF would play a large role in the Liverpool strike.

On the evening of 13th June, an East London mass meeting of three thousand sailors, firemen, and ship kitchen staff from two TWF affiliates announced that “war is declared”, and started their strike. The news spread fast, and on the morning of the 14th, the Liverpool crews of two North American liners refused to sign up for work. That night, Tom Mann officially launched the nationwide strike in the city. By the next day, the strike had spread to all major British ports, and within days, crew in Belgium, Holland and the US had joined with their class brothers.

In the face of such solidarity, and frightened by talk of a general strike, the Shipping Federation gave in to many of the sailors’ demands by the end of the month. Encouraged by this, four thousand Liverpool dockers walked off the job, seeking better pay and conditions. They were followed by scalers and coal heavers, and even the sailors themselves, who came out again in support of the dockers. The Shipping Federation made more concessions.

Having had a taste of success, the Liverpool working class was becoming more and more confident. In July, the industrial unrest spread far beyond the docks, including tug boat workers, tobacco workers, brewers, and staff from the rubber plants, oil mills and wool warehouses. August 5th brought out the railywaymen, who had been unsuccessfully petitioning their bosses for reduced hours and increased pay for weeks. By this stage, the government was afraid that the situation was spiralling out of their control, and could even end in revolution. Violent police attacks were ordered, in a desperate attempt to cow workers into submission. On 10th August, four hundred soldiers were dispatched to Seaforth barracks, whilst police from Birmingham and Leeds were also brought in to suppress the revolt. Nevertheless, more Liverpool workers came out, and the railway strike spread nationwide.

Strikers take a break from the class war for a spot of cricket

On 13th August – initially christened ‘Red Sunday’ and then ‘Bloody Sunday’ after the event – Mann and other speakers addressed an estimated one hundred thousand at St George’s Plateau, Lime Street. Just after 4pm, police charged the enormous crowd, causing panic and many injuries. A full-scale battle ensued in the Lime Street area, and violent class war raged throughout the city for several days. A docker and a carter were murdered by the state troops as they tried to rescue arrested comrades, and many more workers suffered serious woundings.

As warships were deployed in the Mersey, the various bosses struck by their workforces agreed separate concessions with each union. In the end, they were enough to persuade workers back to the grindstone, and revolution was averted. But make no mistake, the landscape of industrial relations had been changed forever, in Liverpool and around the country.

Workers had made very definite advances, including union recognition, improved pay, and improved working conditions. Mann proclaimed that: “…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.”

Yet a century on, the ruling class is trying to do precisely that, even as it transfers untold billions into the vaults of people who have never done a day’s productive work in their life. As Tom Wailey and Steve Higginson pointed out in their recent article on 1911 and all that:

“There is a huge disparity in wealth; more and more employment is service/servile based within an accompanying low wage economy. Wage growth has stagnated over the decades, and this has led low-income workers to take on more and more private debt to fill the gap that an organised living wage used to fill. The TUC has recently published figures showing that levels of unpaid overtime/work have a monetary value of £38 billion per year. And like 1911, we are asked to believe that out of private greed comes public good.”

Labour historian Eric Taplin has described how, in the Liverpool of 1911: “…the enthusiasm of the rank and file for their unions, their determination and militancy was often greater than those that led them.” Fast forward a century and the union bosses even more separated from the material conditions of their membership, and are working even more intimately with those who want to force our living standards back.

Now as then, true power lies in the hands and brains of the working class, not their fake ‘representatives’. We can possibly imagine how – in far this hyper-linked age, news of some apparently minor working class victory would instantly ‘go viral’, and inspire toilers all around the world to test their strength. It is more than possible; it must happen. The questions are when and where, not if.

Click here for a calendar of events in the strike.