The London Strike

Peter Kropotkin

“La grève de Londres”, La Révolte : Organe Communiste-Anarchiste, 27 September 1889[1]

The big strike of the dock workers has just ended. On Monday, work was resumed. The wages demanded by the workers – that is to say, 60 centimes an hour, and 80 centimes an hour for work after six in the evening and before eight in the morning – will be paid on 4 November.

Before then, it will be 50 centimes per hour. No worker hired occasionally to help out may be paid less than 2 fr 50. Hourly work must be converted by 4 November into piece work, calculated to guarantee a minimum of 60 and 80 centimes an hour; the surplus will be distributed equally amongst the workers.

The strikers on the other waterfront (the south side) who had walked out to make common cause with the workers of the East End but who had later raised some special demands (to regain possession of what the bosses had stolen from them) also ended up getting pretty much what they had demanded and they return to work Monday.

The East-End is completely joyful. They are just rejoicing. These “idlers” welcome with applause the announcement that within a month there will be work for all, night and day!

Fireworks were set-off, they shake hands with joy when meeting, and the great demonstration on Sunday was a true festival.

Looking forward, the dock workers are forming a trade union.

* * *

All the same, the result obtained is meagre. The docks companies had at first obstinately refused the demanded wages. They declared that since they only issue small dividends to their shareholders, the increase in wages would swallow all the dividends. They were proven to be lying. The reason for the small dividends is that the companies had bought 10,000 hectares of wasteland on the banks of the Thames in anticipation of the immense profits this land would shortly yield.

The companies denied the fact. So they were asked to submit their accounts books to third parties and they refused, confident that the strikers would not be able to resist one week more.

Australia saved the situation. The Australian trade unions sent by telegraph 27,500 francs. The next day they sent another 37,000 francs. They continued sending money of 10,000 and 15,000 francs over the following days.

For their part, all the workers’ associations of England came to the aid of the strike.

On the other hand, the bourgeoisie, grateful to the strikers for the “perfect order” which reigned amongst them, grateful for having seen them withdraw their call for the general strike, and especially frightened by the excitement of the minds in the East-End, hastened to subscribe considerable sums.

The mayor of London left his hunting in Scotland and offered to mediate. He loudly expressed his sympathy for the strikers and in a conversation with the Archbishop of London said to him: “It is a scandal, this rebuff of the companies; it would be your duty to organise the general strike.”

Cardinal Manning hastened to seize this opportunity to remake the reputation of the clergy and took an active part in the negotiations to induce the companies to yield. All the Baptist chapels declared themselves in favour of the strike.

The companies finally decided to accept the terms of the strikers, but from 1 January 1890. A time when shipping slows down, when unemployment begins. The strikers refused to accept these conditions.

The companies who said they would accept the strikers’ rate after the expiry of contracts in progress, and especially the owners of the ships, were still trying to resist. And it was not until after fifteen or so new talks and new miseries for the workers that the companies proposed 4 November as the date of the new rate.

This date was accepted by the vast majority of the strikers.

Here in a few words is the history of this strike which will have an immense part in the history of the labour movement in England.

* * *

A significant fact emerges from this strike. It was the solidarity of the destitute who were all ready, a month ago, to leave work to support the worst-paid of them.

They let that moment slip, will it repeat itself? What is certain is that in order that it may be repeated it will already need a concurrence of very special circumstances. It will certainly not repeat itself with the same ease. The moment that allowed the workers to make, at the very least, an imposing demonstration was lost, and the whole future movement will suffer.

Furthermore, the English spirit, its inclination to accept compromises – this spirit which has prevented any revolution for two centuries – has shown itself in all its strength. Never has the bourgeoisie, or at least the most intelligent part of the bourgeoisie, been so interested in a strike, never have such a mass of bourgeoisie been on the side of the strikers – Why? Because these strikers were docile, ready to accept a compromise; because these strikers and their leaders committed themselves not to make socialism: not to touch the foundations of bourgeois property, to mitigate exploitation whilst maintaining it. All that it would have taken for all the bourgeoisie to turn their back on the strikers, assemble the police against them, arrest the most energetic men was only a single speaker to have talked about expropriation during this strike.

It was the fear of socialism which produced the sympathy of the bourgeoisie. And if Burns now receives the compliments of the bourgeoisie and offers of seats in Parliament, it is because the bourgeoisie knows that Burns will come to Parliament no longer a socialist, no longer a champion of expropriation, but a champion of the preservation of property, while seeking to mitigate the evils that result.

* * *

So much for the surface details, which we relate as faithful chroniclers. Let us move on to the deeper aspects, which interests us much more.

The mass felt its strength. And this result alone takes precedence over all others. The workers felt that they held the “buffet of heaven,” that on them depends the wealth and the misery of the country.

And during the long negotiations with the companies, the comment most often said in worker-London was this: “Well, if the companies are no longer interested in the docks as soon as it is necessary to pay the workers enough to live on – let them go to the devil! We won’t delay them.”

Millions of workers have understood the uselessness of the employers, whose harmfulness they have known about for a long time.

* * *

They also understood their strength in another way.

There were 200,000 workers, almost a million human beings, left without food. They had to be fed. And, after the trial and error of the first days, they were fed.

It was not enough to collect the 50 to 75 thousand francs which arrived every day at the [strike] committee, sitting in the room of a darkened pub. They had to be shared, transformed into soup, into bread, into meat.

This has been done, and done in a way that proves the organising talents of the masses, talents that statist fools believe to be their privilege.

Without decrees, without farcical suffrage, without [army] stripes and without hierarchy, by itself, anarchically, only with volunteers, an immense organisation was created to satisfy the needs of a million men, women and children. An immense organisation of restaurants, improvised buffets, in which mountains of breads and preserves (corned beef) arrived every morning at a fixed time to 200,000 families covering a whole territory.

All in all, fewer children and women had no food during the second half of the month of the strike than under the bourgeois organisation of every man for himself.

Everything was done spontaneously, without election, by volunteers. “The anarchists are not so stupid when speaking of spontaneous organisation after all!” was said by thousands of workers.

* * *

The advantages of federation have been demonstrated by the two strikes – that of the East-End and that of the other water front – marching together without merging.

It was enough for a few complaints from the “southerners” for the “northerners” to do right by their just claims, and complete cordiality was soon restored between the two, precisely because the men of the spontaneous committee did not seek to command both sides of the Thames at the same time.

* * *

A system of “vouchers” was established spontaneously.

Finding inconveniences in distributing actual money to each of the strikers, the idea of issuing vouchers was quickly reached, which were immediately accepted by the shopkeepers and greasy-spoons of Whitechapel. And when a shopkeeper had received several pounds sterling worth of them (pound sterling, 25 francs), he tied them into bundles of one pound each and had them reimbursed in money at the pub where the subsistence volunteers sat

* * *

And, finally, the strike demonstrated that with our current machinery there is no unpleasant work. There should be none and all work can be made pleasant, provided that it does not become overwork and provided we have enough to eat while we work.

So, several companies have appealed to their administrative workers, the sons of directors and other young people to unload and even to load (which is more difficult) some ships.

The young men cheerily set to work. Some experienced men showed them how not to be crushed by a crane or to ensure that the ship’s load is not buffeted by the winds against the sides of the ship, and they worked tremendously, these lads exerted by cricket and other games of strength. Muscular work was a holiday for them after days spent at a desk. They lived on board the ship, sleeping in the first-class cabins, eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, singing in the evening around the ship’s piano.

That is how we will work in the future. And, yet again, it was proved that Fourier was a thousand times right to speak of attractive work. This varied work, this happy labour in companionship was predicting the work of the future. It is only right to hate work which will be the same throughout life, which every day lasts until exhaustion, which will be rewarded only with a pallet [to sleep on] after a supper of dry bread, which will be a stamp of inferiority for the worker. It is cursed work. But there is varied work, work to the extent of strength, work aided with every modern machine – and this will be the work of the society that has achieved Expropriation, followed by Anarchist-Communism.

The dock companies have given us a free example.

Ah, if we had it repeated more often!

End Notes

[1] Included in the pamphlet La Grande Grève des Docks (Paris: Bibliothèque des Temps nouveaux, 1897) along with an article by strike leader John Burns. (Translator)