Tom Mann, 1897

The position of dockers and sailors in 1897
and the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers

Source: Published by the Clarion Newspaper Company Limited, 72 Fleet Street, London, 1897
First published: 1897
Transcription and markup: Steve Painter

Of all the bitter cries of East London, none were more bitter than those of the dockers in 1887-89. Low wages and long hours were and are known in every county of England and in every industrial district of Great Britain; but the especial characteristics of the dock and wharf labourers were beyond all adequate description.

The oldest established of the docks in London are little more than a century old. Prior to that time it was the custom for the vessels to lie in the stream and discharge leisurely and load the same, and no work in the whole of London was more interesting in the old times than that of the London port worker. But with the enclosed docks came a great change, and with the great increase in tonnage and the introduction of mechanical appliances for loading and discharging came a greater change; and with the factory system extending in all directions, dislodging handicraftsmen from their skilled trades and oftentimes suddenly throwing thousands out of employment, these conditions supplied the men that fed the increasing trade at the wharves and the docks, and made it possible for dock superintendents, prior to 1872, to get labour at almost any price. For a very long time, the daily rate for the average docker was two shillings and sixpence for a day of eight hours work; but certain sections always received considerably more than this. The chief feature, however, that inflicted on the wharf labourers worse conditions than in any other industrial sphere where large numbers are employed was the casual labour system, ie the plan of engaging men for a few hours only for a particular job and paying off when the job was done or when it had reached a stage where fewer hands could manage it. This casual labour system became so general that only a small section of port workers had anything like regular employment and the rest had to take their chance of getting a few days or a few hours work as circumstances might call for. And owing to the varied interests of the numerous employers at the docks, wharves, warehouses and aboard ship, it might happen, and often did, that in the beginning of a week 10,000 would be required, and later the same week 20,000 would be wanted. As may easily be imagined in this gladiatorial struggle for existence, the relatively old and weak would be pushed on one side and the sights that were to be seen at calling-on time (time for engaging men) at the dock and wharf gates were of so brutal and revolting a character as to positively turn an onlooker sick or goad one to angry madness.

At taking on time at certain wharves, where the foreman would come and stand at the iron gates of the wharf entrance, there would usually be a crowd of from two hundred to three hundred men. Probably seventy or eighty would be required, and those at the back of the crowd would climb on the heads of their fellows and roll over and over their heads to reach the foreman to get from his hand the metal ticket admitting them to work. The scrambles were frightful.

The elderly would be knocked back and come out of it utterly exhausted, and no chance at all of work. The foreman would enjoy it; he had his pick; yet after all this battling, many would be paid off in an hour or two. The rates of pay for regular men were very low, and the working hours very irregular. At some of the wharves it was the custom to employ young men from 18 to 26 and upwards for sixteen shillings or eighteen shillings a week, classing them as boys, and they would often work 80 hours for this sum. At Tilbury Dock, prior to the strike of 1889, the hourly rate was fourpence; and at several of the docks in London fivepence per hour was paid, and at others sixpence, a “plus”, or piecework, system obtaining in some districts whereby the men would occasionally draw a little more than the minimum rate.

It was one of the chief aims of the men at the strike that took place in 1889 to fix a minimum of sixpence per hour, below which none should work, and to get a minimum of four hours pay when taken on — ie not to be paid off with less than two shillings after starting work.

As a result of the strike of 1889, and numerous smaller ones that took place at the wharves and warehouses, considerable advances were obtained and the minimum rate of sixpence per hour established.

The Glasgow dockers started their organisation in 1888 and conducted it with considerable success, extending to Liverpool and elsewhere in 1889 and 1890; and wages were raised as a consequence, and many improvements were made in the conditions of labour.

The sailors and firemen were also very busy organising in this same period, and many thousands were added to the union, and wages were improved; but seagoing men are very difficult to organise and to keep organised. They require excitement to attract and if this is not found in connection with the union, “Jack” seeks it elsewhere; but assuredly none stand in greater need of organisation than seagoing men.

In the mercantile marine, for 1895, there were belonging to the British Isles and engaged in the home and foreign trade, no less than 16,105 vessels (sail and steam), on which were employed 240,486 persons including foreigners and Lascars. To deal with the merchandise carried by their vessels we have engaged in port work in the British Isles another 150,000 persons; and anything in the nature of a general stoppage of work in either of the ports in a couple of weeks throws a number of others our of work that usually find employment there because of the dependence of section upon section. In London, in 1889, when the great dock strike was in full swing, roundly speaking 70,000 men were idle, although not more than 50,000 of these could be directly classed as port workers.

In what follows I propose to show:

1. The conditions under which these men work.

2. To what extent they are organised in trade unions.

3. The work of the international federation.

As regards the condition of the sailors and firemen, the merchant navy of Britain consists of 9482 sailing vessels employing 71,606 persons and 6623 steam vessels employing 168,880 persons. The tonnage belonging to Britain is 10,000,000 in steamers and 3,000,000 in sailing ships, representing a capital value of £125,000,000. To start with, it must be borne in mind that a sailor is under the control of the captain of the vessel and liable for service at all times while on board the ship. The recognised working hours are 12 hours a day of seven days a week, or 84 hours work every week, apart from special calls, which frequently run to another 24 hours in the course of a week. The sailor works in four-hour shifts, save at dog watch, which is only two hours to throw the sets of men on different hours alternate days.

The firemen work four hours and off six, or 69 hours per week. The work of a fireman is excessively hot and heavy. The gigantic boilers in a modern ocean liner are stupendous to behold, the coal consumed is enormous and the heat in the stokehold is sufficient to frizzle an ordinary man without working, and when in hot climates the exhaustion following upon the heavy work of a fireman is so intense as to deprive the man for a time of the power to do anything save lie down and gasp.

Indeed, quite recently a case occurred where a fireman employed on a ship in the Red Sea came up on deck and jumped overboard, deliberately committing suicide in consequence of the depression and anguish following upon the excessive work he was compelled to do.

The wages of firemen vary from £3/10s to £4/10s per month.

A sailor gets as low as £2/10s per month in some sailing ships and as high as £4 to £4/5s in the best liners.

But £4 per month is less than threepence per hour for 12 hours a day, and the average sailor gets only twopence halfpenny for an average day of 12 working hours. Of course, rations are given in addition, and on some lines the food is quite satisfactory; but in a very large number of cases the food is very inferior stuff and altogether unfit for human food. On coasting boats and short sea runs the men are usually paid weekly at a daily rate of four shillings and sixpence, although 28 shillings a week is common. In these cases the men find their own food.

The accommodation provided for the crew in a large number of cases is utterly and shockingly inadequate. The number of cubic feet provided for paupers is 400, but the number of cubic feet provided for the crews who man the merchant navy is only 72.

And in addition to thus being penned up like rabbits, it is generally the case that in a cupboard adjoining the forecastle the paints, oils, turps, tallow, etc, are kept, so that there is never any escape from these smells either to have food or sleep.

The demand now made is that recommended by the majority report of the Manning Committee, which calls for a minimum of 120 cubic feet of space for each seaman.

Let the reader picture for himself what it means for a seaman to be under imperative orders continuously on a vessel without decent accommodation, most unsanitary, insufficient and unsound food and food, and undermanned into the bargain. No chance of giving up the job if it’s distasteful, once signed on the man is fixed absolutely till the voyage is completed. Can anything be more terrible than to be fixed in such conditions as these? Workmen on shore, who have an average nine-hour day for six days a week, and who, being in a job where they find conditions unduly irksome, are at liberty any day to turn it up and seek another, will surely sympathise with every seagoing population who have such a rough time of it, and who are at present unfairly handicapped by intensity of toil, by working too many hours per week, by getting far too little space for health and decency, and too often get far too little food, and even that of an unsound quality.

The dockers in London number about 25,000; stevedores 4000; carmen (directly connected with the port) 6000; watermen and lightermen 6000; tugboatmen 2000; sailors and firemen and general labourers 5000, total, 50,000. Some of the dockers have good jobs and earn fair wages without excessive work; the best-paid sections are the corn porters, who get good pay while the work is on; the next best paid are the timbermen or deal carriers. Then the stevedores, who have been organised since 1872, and who then established for themselves a wages rate of eightpence an hour for ordinary time and one shilling an hour overtime, have maintained it ever since, but so far have not improved upon it. Some of the dockers do loading as well as discharging, and on several lines they get the stevedores’ rate of eightpence ordinary and one shilling overtime. In the Victoria Dock, discharging is done by the shipowners and not by the dock company, and the dockers get sevenpence an hour ordinary time and one shilling an hour overtime, and pay for dinner hour. Up-river a considerable amount of loading and discharging is done while the vessels lie in mid-stream, and the shipworkers and dockers at such work get sevenpence ordinary time and ninepence overtime; but all casual labour made use of by the dock companies and wharfingers under ordinary conditions is paid for at the rate of sixpence per hour ordinary and eightpence overtime, as fixed after the dock strike of 1889.

Many random statements have been made as to the total number of dockers and port workers in London; the number here given (50,000) may be relied upon as correct. As to the alleged great improvement in the regularity of employment, this idea has arisen because of the more regular employment of a larger proportion than formerly of those in the employ of the London and India Joint Committee. But when it is remembered that this joint committee of the two companies employs only 7000 workmen all told, and that the increased steadiness applies to a portion of these only, it will be seen that this does not very materially affect the mass of waterside and dock workers.

Even the Labour Department returns in the January number of Labour Gazette, give the following: “The daily fluctuation in the number of dock labourers employed by the London and India Docks Joint Committee during November and December … ranged from 6245 on the first to 4455 on the twelfth,” or a fall of nearly one-third in 12 days in this reputed steady employment. The following is also from Labour Gazette, and has reference to the docks of the joint committee:

During December 1895, the total number of dock labourers employed varied from 6170 on the fifth to 3915 on the 27th. Taking the London and St Katherine’s docks only, the number employed in December 1896 varied from 3088 on the fourth to 1185 on the 24th.

Thus, allowing for some change for the better, the burden of all the sectional and general industrial fluctuations falls on the shoulders of the poorest persons in the community. The average man settles the question for himself by saying: “Oh, well, if there isn’t work for the men it’s no use blaming the dock companies; they can’t be expected to keep people on out of charity.” Well, I’m not one of those who would be silly enough to expect it, or wish for it; but I should like that same average man to realise that the volume of trade brought into and taken out from the various ports is as steady over the various seasons of the year as is the volume of trade controlled and manipulated by the railway companies of the country; the one is, of course, very largely the other, but what would be thought of the railway companies if they resorted to a system of casual labour, with a taking-on fore­man at every goods yard, coal depot and siding, to engage for a few hours only at various times of the day a number of men to load, unload or shunt a few trucks, vans, wagons, carts, or trolleys, as the case might be. An immediate result of such a plan would be to cause men to hang about all these yards and depots in the hope of getting taken on.

Whether from the fact that exceptional steadiness is required from railway employes, or because it has proved to be best and cheapest, in any case, railway companies with a varying amount of traffic to manage as to utilise the labour of their employes on a permanent and not on a casual basis, and there is no moral or justifiable reason why the dock workers should not do the same; or should this prove to be beyond them, then an excellent case is made out in favour of communal or municipal control and management.

No really good change for the better can take place with respect to the conditions here dealt with until the men who experience the evil effects of the present system determine to alter them, and this can best be done by the trade unions. Already, nearly every section of seagoing men and port workers are more or less organised, and at the present time (March 1897) the proportion of port workers organised is just about one-half of the whole number employed. Six years ago fully two-thirds were organised, but during 1893-95 a very considerable number fell out, and many of the unions lost a half of their previous membership. “When things get to the worst they mend,” says the proverb; the word “sometimes” ought perhaps to be inserted to make it safe; but, anyhow, the port workers’ unions have been mending considerably during the last eight or nine months. During that time between five and six thousand members have been added to the unions in London, and a distinctly healthy and vigorous organising campaign is going on in London and the provinces. Hull, with its 12,000 port workers, which fell so flat after the strike with the Wilson firm, has shared in the increased membership, and is exhibiting all the signs of healthy growth again.

Liverpool, with 35,000 port workers, is also materially adding to union membership, and the National Dock Labourers Union, whose headquarters are at Liverpool, are actively engaged in reorganising a number of the smaller ports in various parts of the British Isles. Glasgow, with 6000 port workers, has not made progress to the same extent, but the organisers are busy there and at other Scottish ports. Leith, on the other hand, has made great progress in organisation, having a very large proportion of the total. Bristol, Gloucester and Sharpness are all adding to numbers, and obtaining some concessions as a consequence. Cardiff, with 6000 port workers, has been in a very backward state for the past three years, scarcely any organisation existing among the port workers except the coal trimmers, who have 1300 organised out of 1600 following the occupation; but following upon a reduction of one shilling and sixpence per day just enforced by the dock company there, the timbermen are now reorganising, and the pit fuel, iron ore, and general cargo men are showing signs of resuscitation.

This revivification amongst the port workers and seagoing men is mainly consequent upon the formation of the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers in June of last year. The objects aimed at by the federation are the complete organisation of all the men engaged in the occupations named in order to raise wages, reduce working hours, get gangs properly constituted, check overtime, insist upon adequate inspection of gear and secure for sailors and firemen proper rations, ample accommodation, and satisfactory manning scale. Further, the federation, recognising the considerable differences in wages paid in different ports for the same work at home and abroad, seeks to establish, as far as may be possible, a uniform rate of pay for the same class of work in all ports, and to establish a recognised working day and other regulations in the ports of the world.

Sectional strikes and lockouts, either to obtain advances or resist reductions, are not sufficiently successful to warrant a repetition if a better plan can be devised. Even an unlimited amount of financial backing will not secure victory to the men, if in other ports the dockers are not prepared to block any and all vessels that might leave the port where a strike is on; and to do this, of course, means running a risk of a general strike in all ports. As soon as a refusal to handle cargo is declared by the dockers, the employers will, if they think they can safely do it, discharge all such, and get fresh workers who are willing to work any cargo.

Thus, in the case of the great dock strike at Hamburg, which ended on Saturday, February 6, 1897, by the men voting by a majority to return to work, after an 11-week strike, we have a set of circumstances highly instructive to those who desire to learn.

Those who helped to initiate the International Federation of Ship, Dock, and River Workers did so, first, because, while we undoubtedly do believe in strikes, yet we do not believe in sectional strikes unless backed by the kindred trades; and second, because we hold that the workers in one port ought not to decide to strike without first consulting corresponding workers in other ports, and getting their co-operation. In the case of the Hamburg strike neither of these two conditions was realised as being essential by the general body of men who came out. Hence the first big fight that has taken place in connection with port workers since the formation of the federation was entered upon on lines that the federation carne into existence to oppose.

If the question be asked: did not the international federation endorse the strike, the reply is both no and yes, for the following reasons: in all probability there would have been no Hamburg dock strike in 1896-97 if it had not been for the formation of the federation, and the agitation conducted thereby, and to that extent we are and were responsible for what took place. In July 1896, correspondence took place between the then newly formed federation and the port workers of Hamburg. This led to an earnest invitation being sent to myself by the Hamburg men, who undertook to organise meetings. Police authorisation for the holding of such meetings was asked for and granted; but prior to the date of the first meeting, interested capitalists requested the police authorities to withdraw their permission for me to address meetings on trade unionism, and to issue a decree of expulsion instead; and, not at all wonderful to relate, this was done, so that on my arrival at Hamburg I was arrested and expelled. But instead of saving themselves trouble by the prompt expulsion of so wicked a fellow as myself, the expulsion put the fat in the fire, and stirred up the enthusiasm of the Hamburg men generally, and gave a great stimulus to organisation which we in London tried to feed by all means in our power. After a couple of months of organisation many of the recruits began to feel their feet and were ready for action, not at all an uncommon experience in this country.

The officials of the Hamburg union, and we of the federation, discouraged any determination to fight at such a time; but the temper of the men was up when the employers threatened to lock them all out if they dared to persist in formulating demands; the rest followed as a matter of course. If any should say, then: why did not the federation stop the Hamburg men from striking, the simple reply is that at that time, although the Hamburg men were in constant communication with us, they were not bound to be governed by us: and when the fight was entered upon it became our duty to help them by such means as we could command. Had the federation been in existence long enough to have admitted of a clearly defined constitution being accepted by the various unions in different countries, and one of these had broken away, then, in the interests of the movement, discipline would have been rigidly insisted upon; but no such control could be exercised as would have enabled the federation council to stop the strike, or prevent it from occurring, and after it was in swing the various committees in Hamburg met and discussed the whole situation, and unanimously agreed that considering the great provocation to which the men had been subjected, they were bound to endorse the strike and help the men to fight, and the federation council took the same view: but had we had the handling of it, we should have done everything possible to have prevented the rupture. The lesson of the Hamburg strike is easily to be read, if less easily to be learned. It is that, as regards port workers and seagoing men, the absolutely essential condition for success is that if it be not a general strike in all ports, at least there must be the blocking of any and all vessels that may arrive in other ports from the one where the dispute is pending; and to ensure this it is not enough to send an intimation to them in various ports after the dispute has commence, but it must be carefully planned beforehand, and deliberate authorisation must be carefully obtained from those who can speak in the name and on behalf of the port workers generally. This, in plain terms, means the organisation in trade unions of all sections of port workers, and the federation of each sectional union: the council of such federation to exercise supervision and control on the best scientific lines.

In connection with the federation, we are now in possession of much valuable information concerning the port workers of this and other countries, and of the direction in which they, like ourselves, are anxious for reforms to be made.

In London there is the desire on the part of the dockers for a recognised minimum rate of pay for ordinary day work of eightpence per hour and one shilling an hour overtime; at present the pay averages sevenpence per hour for day work, so that the demand is roundly for a penny per hour advance.

At the Victoria Docks the present rate dinner of pay is sevenpence for day work and one shilling overtime, and payment for dinner hour. Thus, starting at seven in the morning and working till five in the evening with one hour off for dinner, a man is paid at the rate of sevenpence an hour for 10 hours, or five shillings and tenpence per day. What is asked for by them is eightpence per hour for nine hours, not counting the dinner hour, or a sum of six shillings, ie twopence per day increase only, or one shilling per week; in some districts the demands as at present made are for eightpence per hour and pay for meal times.

The stevedores’ rate is, as per union rule, nine hours for a day’s work (between 7am and 5pm) for six shillings, no dinnertime payment. Any member working meal times to be paid double time by day or night rate, as the time may be worked. No member is allowed to work more than 24 hours at a stretch, when he must have at least 12 hours off.

Dockers on some of the weekly boats work 36 hours at a stretch. The conditions so long successfully upheld by the stevedores could be applied also to the dockers, and thus establish a recognised minimum port rate. The work is heavy and very intermittent, and some districts are seriously affected by the seasons. Thus Hull, at the present time (February 15, 1897), is suffering seriously. Here is a statement just to hand, prepared for me by the secretary of the local organising committee of the international federation, who is also district secretary for the Dockers Union in Hull, and therefore in a good position to know the facts. He says:

It can be taken as a fairly correct estimate that there are 10,600[1] men available for dock work in Hull, made up as follows:

(1) Labourers employed by shipowners direct       4500

(2) Dock companies’ labourers                              1500

(3) Merchants’ grain porters                                   500

(4) Deal carriers                                                      600

(5) Coal heavers and tippers                                   600

(6) Lightermen and flyboardmen                            900

(7) Lumpers (contractors’ men)                              1500

(8) Pier and promenade workers and fruit porters  500

Of this number, for the last fortnight, certainly not more than 2000 have been employed on any one day.

This shows how very seriously the lives of the men and their families are affected by fluctuations, and yet very much might be done to rectify this by a system of common control of the whole of the work in the port, so that when work fell off in one direction much could be done to balance matters in another by giving attention to work that could be left over for a time in sheds and warehouses. It cannot be so worked now because of the sectional interests involved, and when the special fall-off of work takes place in consequence of seasonal changes, as at Hull, then the proper course would be to share the work with all those who had a reasonable claim to share in it, instead of certain sections getting full employment and others getting none.

At the recent international conference of ship, dock and river workers, held in London, French and Spanish delegates were present, as well as the British.

The German delegates spoke on behalf of the port workers of 20 German towns, including some inland ones where there is a large river trade. The delegates spoke in the most encouraging terms as to the prospects of organisation in the future, and the Hamburg men were not in the least cast down by the result of their recent strenuous fight, but were busy perfecting the organisations.

In France the prospect is equally hopeful. Each port is now being effectively organised, and a national federation is being formed; but here, as in Germany, international federation is forbidden. But this presents no insuperable difficulty; it is easy to avoid the legal technicalities, and yet have all that is essential, and no power on earth can at this time of day prevent the workers of the various nations taking simultaneous action if they are so disposed. To attempt to forcibly prevent it would be the signal for such a rising as the world never before saw. It was specially interesting to observe the different characteristics of the delegates from the various nations, and their attitude as regards striking. Germany declared strongly in favour of complete organisation, but was by no means enthusiastically in favour of striking. The French were very pronounced in favour of a general strike as soon as the organisations were sufficiently perfect in the respective countries.

The Belgians and Dutch declared themselves ready for action immediately the signal should be given. The British wanted to definitely fix upon the date when demands should be sent in to employers, and another date when the demands should, if need be, be enforced; but it was resolved that the whole of the decisions arrived at ought to go back to the respective unions and ports, so that the rank and file could themselves have the whole set of questions properly placed before them, and give decisions thereon, and then another international conference be convened.

The Scandinavians wrote declaring strongly in favour of definite action in the spring of this year, as their demands had been in the hands of their employers a whole year already. From Italy, America and Canada lengthy statements were sent as to the conditions prevailing, and expressing opinions as to the best action. It will help to make the situation better understood if we get a grasp of the number of men engaged in the industry, and where. The following estimates are based upon a detailed knowledge of the conditions prevalent in most of the ports named, and allowance is made for such sailors and firemen as would necessarily be in each port at any one time, and therefore likely to be directly affected by any action that may be taken.

Number of port workers in British ports
London 50,000
Liverpool 35,000
Hull 12,000
Glasgow 6000
Tyne 6000
Cardiff 6000
Bristol 5000
Southampton 5000
Belfast 3500
Dublin 3000
Leith 3000
Smaller ports 15,000
Total 150,000


Number of port workers in European ports
Hamburg 20,000
Antwerp 20,000
Marseilles 15,000
Rotterdam 6000
Le Havre 6000
Scandinavia 10,000

The above ports would be immediately affected by any general action in this country; and besides those named the following ports have from 1000 to 4000 port workers in each port and each are effectively organising: In France, Bordeaux, Nantes, St Nazaire and Dunkerque; in Germany, Bremen, Bremerhaven, Danzig, Kiel and Stettin; in Italy, Genoa; in Spain, Barcelona and Bilbao; in Russia, St Petersburg, Odessa, Rostov, Riga, Kiev, and Archangel. Across the Atlantic, there would be at New York, Brooklyn, and Jersey City not less than 70,000 men ; then come Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and round the coast to San Francisco. Canadian ports and ports on the Lakes are also receiving attention, as are the Australasian ports of Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Wellington, etc. All told, seagoing men and port workers would number about one million and a quarter, and nearly two-thirds of these are in English-speaking countries. Sections of them are brought into constant contact with each other, and it is now the work of the international federation to see that each nation is brought into line. In no other industry are working hours so irregular, and the absence of regulation so deplorable. Scarcely a mechanic or labourer in any other trade in Great Britain but has now a Saturday half-holiday; but as yet there is no such boon for the port worker. We could get this in three months if we agree to force the matter, and no strike would be needed. In many districts, on coasting boats, men work from 30 to 36 hours at a stretch, with a correspondingly high average of accidents. This, too, might be stopped by the power of unionism. The 48-hour working week should be insisted upon at an early date — by parliamentary means if we can get it quickest that way; if not, fight for it through the unions. But get it we must; to continue to demonstrate for so mild a reform is sickening.

Can we not fight for it?

If other trades fail, dockers must set the pace. I am of the opinion that two years of vigorous organising work will enable us to get not only the port workers and sailors and firemen, as named above, but also will make our federation so powerful and valuable an engine of reform that it will be to the great advantage of the railway employees in all the states named to be connected also, and thus shall we get in one powerful federation the whole of the carrying trades of the world. Having this, we shall be able to insist upon any and every reasonable reform necessary to make the conditions of labour tolerable, not to say pleasant. Adequate inspection of gear can be insisted upon; proper provisioning of all vessels for the seagoing lads; reasonable rates of wages and compensation for accidents, all this and much more will follow as the work of an effective federation.

As at present constituted, the international federation officers and council are as follows:

President: Tom Mann (London)

Vice-presidents: J.H. Wilson, MP (London); J. Rathier (Le Havre)

Central council: H.W. Kay, Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union; James Sexton, National Union of Dock Labourers; Edward Catheray, National Sailors and Firemens Union; Harry Brill, National Amalgamated Coal Porters Union; J.N. Bell, National Amalgamated Union of Labour; Arthur Harris, Labour Protection League; D. Donovan, Thames Steamship Workers; C. Fisher, Amalgamated Association of Coal Porters (Winchmen); L.C. Janssens, Port Workers of Antwerp; John De Vries, Port Workers of Rotterdam; L. Neble, Port Workers of Marseilles


International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers central office, extract from Report Sheet No 14, December 1897 The great object lesson we have all had in connection with the engineers’ dispute ought not to pass away without our profiting by it. For twenty-four weeks the struggle has been waged and this powerful union of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers has not only not obtained the one demand they made, viz, the eight-hour day instead of the nine-hour day, but the vote of the members of the ASE and others affected by the dispute is being taken a second time as to whether they will accept the employers’ proposals, the which if agreed to will take from the unions the power to regulate piecework, overtime and apprentices. We may be quite sure the engineers will not authorise their officials to sign any such agreement as that proposed, far better to get back to work as best they can when their financial resources are exhausted. The engine shops all over the country are full of work and in a few weeks practically all the engineers will be employed on the conditions that prevailed before the dispute began, but it they once sign an agreement such as the employers call for there would be such demoralisation in the ranks that for a certainty thousands would leave the union.

Instead of the trade unions having helped the engineers in a loyal and substantial fashion, we are bound to declare that the financial assistance from all sources outside the union itself has been so utterly trifling as to reflect grave discredit upon the trade union movement, less than £5000 per week has come in from all the trade unions in the country outside of the engineers themselves, whose 60,000 members at work have been paying £11,500 per week. More than one and a half millions in all other trades have subscribed less than half that sum, and why? Because of the isolated and exclusive character of the trade unions as at present constituted. Had a national federation of unions existed, or even a federation of the unions connected with the engineering and shipbuilding industries, all necessary finances could have been provided to have supplied the men adequately for a twelve month without anyone being heavily taxed, and that knowledge would have had its influence on the employers.

We urge again the necessity for federation but we do not feel confident that we shall get a complete federation of all trades for a considerable time. Meanwhile, the question arises as to whether the International Federation of Ship, Dock and River Workers could not with advantage broaden its title and embrace other trade organisations that may be willing to federate; this is a matter worthy of the attention of all the unions now federated, and if they will give the subject careful consideration and send on their views to the central office we will see that the same receive all necessary attention in a prompt fashion.

We are glad to learn that considerable discussion is taking place now as to the necessity of a national organisation that shall be both a trade union and a political organisation for advancing the true interests of labour. So far as we have learned what the proposals are they seem to be as follows: that as less than two millions of workers in the British Isles are at present organised out of a total eligible industrial population of ten millions, and as none of the existing unions show any signs of effectual coping with the huge mass of eight millions of unorganised workers, it is urgently necessary that some special effort be made on lines likely to be more successful than those already in vogue, and recognising that the most active and earnest men in the labour movement believe in political action as well as trade union action for solving the labour problem it is suggested that a cosmopolitan union, including skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled of both sexes, should now be formed with a view to organising the vast mass referred to; and seeing that most of the existing unions are far too exclusive in their character, and seriously weighted down with the sick benefits and superannuation scheme; the proposed new organisation should be free from these encumbrances, which can best be provided by other and more effective agencies, and that the only monetary benefits provided for should be out-of-work pay, dispute pay and funeral money, the latter because of the financial strain thrown upon the home at time of death, but also that a percentage of the funds should be available for supporting labour candidates for municipal bodies and parliament, and for systematically carrying on an organising campaign throughout the country.

We learn that a provisional committee is in course of formation for the purpose of popularising the idea and trust the same will get the attention it deserves. Trade unionism cannot be said to have had a real trial until a much larger percentage of the workers are enrolled than we have in Great Britain and to fight capitalism through the unions and not to fight capitalism through and by political action, shows how incapable trade unionists have been to understand the methods of effective warfare. So we say good luck to the new idea, as we see that if it be largely adopted brighter days are in store for the labour movement and the engineers’ experience will not have been in vain.

Again we must call attention to the questions mentioned in last report which call for the careful attention of all the unions and union executives connected with our federation, viz, the discharge of cargo by foreign crews, the obtaining of a Saturday half-holiday, and an eight-hour day. By decision of last annual conference these matters must receive attention.


1. This estimate makes no allowance for sailors and firemen in port.