| The first major battle, in March 1889, was on behalf of gas workers. who formed Britain’s ﬁrst union of unskilled labourers. Tussy [Eleanor Marx] and Aveling helped write its rules and constitution. Within months membership in the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland numbered in the tens of thousands. Within a year it had reached one hundred thousand, and members struck for and won an eight-hour day. The leaders of that battle — Will Thorne, Tom Mann, and John Burns — were all workers (all would later be members of Parliament, and one a cabinet minister). Thorne could not read or write, and Tussy about teaching him.
| The East End was electriﬁed by the gas workers’ victory. And when, in the intense heath of summer, on August 13, a group of dockworkers decided they would continue their drudgery no longer, Thorne, Mann, Burns, and Ben Tillett, a twenty-seven-year-old self-described fanatic, were called in to lead a strike. They formed a dockworkers’ union on August 19, and by August 20 the Port of London was closed for the first time in a century, its workers having walked off the job.
The Thames formed one boundary of the East End, and from a distance the colourful flags fluttering high above the ships moored on the great river were signs of hope, hazy beckonings of new lands and bold opportunities. But the activity on the docks below was such as made men animals. Thorne said quite simply, “I believe that nowhere in the world have white men had to endure such terrible conditions as those under which the dockers worked.”
Most were employed not by the day but for an hour or two, and forced to wait all day for what was known as a “call on,” a chance to work. Explained Ben Tillett:
“Struggling, shouting, cursing, with a grinning brute selecting the chosen of the poor wretches. At the cage, so termed because of the stout iron bars made to protect the caller on, men ravenous for food fought like madmen for the ticket, a veritable talisman of life. Coats, ﬂesh, even ears were torn off, men were crushed to death in the struggle… the strong literally threw themselves over the heads of their fellows and battled with kick and curse to the rails of the cage, which held them like mad human rats. Calls at any point of the day or night kept men for a week at a time hungry and expectant for the food and the work which never came.”
Sixty thousand dockers rejected that system and joined the strike. Their demands were modest: a minimum wage of sixpence an hour — a penny increase — topped the list. But the shipping companies laughed at such nonsense. How could the most degraded workingmen in London hope to defeat a force as powerful as the men who controlled the trade of the seas? The companies did not reckon, however, on the strength of combined despair; the strikers were willing to die rather than return to work. They also arrogantly underestimated the new union leaders.
The strike was organized at the Wade’s Arms pub on Ryden Street, just north of the docks. Tussy [Eleanor Marx] and John Burns’s wife solicited funds, publicized the walkout, and organized the distribution of relief gathered from sympathetic citizens, philanthropic and political groups, and other unions. Engels said Tussy was “head over ears in the strike” and working “like a Trojan.” In early September she addressed a Hyde Park rally on behalf of the strikers. A correspondent for London’s Labour Elector newspaper noted, “Curious to see Mrs. Aveling [Eleanor Marx] addressing the enormous crowds, curious to see the eyes of the women fixed upon her as she spoke of the miseries of the dockers’ homes, pleasant to see her point the black-gloved ﬁnger at the oppressor, and pleasant to hear the hearty cheers with which her eloquent speech was greeted.”
The dockworkers had had nothing to begin with, and after two weeks without pay they were nearly starving. There were reports about the walkout in the press, and some university students had adopted the cause, but strike organizers believed they had to move their protest into the heart of London — they had to force the city to look at the men it so easily ignored — in order to pressure the shipping companies, win support, and attract the money needed to keep the dockers alive. The strikers’ protest march through London was a procession of the nearly defeated. In their sorry state they lacked the energy for a rowdy demonstration, and for that reason Londoners looked on them with sympathy. “As soon as it became known that thousands of the strikers had marched through the city without a pocket being picked or a window being broken,” one observer said, “the British citizen felt he could go back to his suburban villa and that he could afford to follow his natural inclinations and back the poor devils who were ﬁghting… against overwhelming odds.” But even that support was inadequate. Soon the strike relief fund was dry.
Just when it seemed the men would have to choose between death and surrender, help came in the form of an impossibly large sum — thirty thousand pounds — all the way from Australia. Dockers there had taken up a collection that was supplemented by local philanthropic groups, and sent the proceeds to their colleagues in London. The shipping ﬁrms viewed this show of solidarity as an ominous sign. Launched during their busiest season, the walkout was costing the companies dearly, and if strikers continued to receive aid they could keep the docks idle for months. There was also the possibility that the strike might not be confined to London. The balance in the dispute had tilted. By September 16 the dockworkers had won nearly all their demands, returning to their jobs as victorious and full of pride as a triumphant army. Their victory was cheered in factories and farms around the globe. The most demeaned and powerless class of workers had succeeded because they were organized locally and supported internationally.
Their victory was also a victory for socialists. Thorne said that after the strike, workers no longer saw socialism as utopian but as a system able to produce something tangible — a path out of poverty.