Tom Mann (1856-1941)

Tom Mann was born in Coventry in 1856. He left school at the age of nine to begin work as a quarry worker, later taking up an engineering apprenticeship. His views were not determined simply by political theory – it was from practical experience gained over many years while working on every continent. Mann’s religious belief was as strong as his politics, and he supported non-conformist organisations like the Salvation Army. Mann soon turned to socialism.

He moved to London in 1877 and by 1881 was a member of the Engineers Union ASE. His first involvement in a strike came in 1884. Mann then published his pamphlet on the eight-hour day. Mann helped organise the Match Workers’ strike of 1888 and he began producing a Socialist journal, the ‘Labour Elector’. The Gas Workers’ successful strike in 1889 for the eight-hour day was possibly the most political of all of the new union strikes that year. The Gas Workers’ leader Will Thorne was ably assisted by Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, John Burns, Harry Hobbit, Harry Quelch and Herbert Burrows: a formidable team.

The skilled workers unions had been asking for the eight-hour day for decades, in fact, one of the first aims of the Trades Union Congress, formed in 1868, was to campaign for the eight-hour day; the difference being that once the so-called unskilled unions were formed, as in the case of the gas workers, they demanded the eight-hour day which they achieved through industrial action. This demonstrated the difference between the liberal TUC and the Socialist inspired New Union movement. Mann not only articulated the logic of the eight-hour day through his great oratory delivered throughout length and breadth of Britain, he wrote ‘What a compulsory 8 hour working day means to the Workers’ in 1886. The pamphlet was written three years before the successful strike for the eight hour day by gas workers in Beckton, East London.

Mann was one of the leaders of the 1889 Dock Strike and was elected President of the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Labourers Union. Along with Quelch and Tom McCarthy he acted as mediator with the all-important South London Dockers who were often alienated by Tillet’s dictatorial style. Mann tried unsuccessfully to form a Super Union from the legions of unions that were formed in 1889 -1890 as a way to combat the coming power of the Multinationals. Unfortunately sectarian interests prevailed, weakening the Labour movement in the process.

In 1892, three years after the winning of the eight-hour day by the gas workers, and the formation of the New Union movement, Mann wrote ‘The Workers’ Demand The Eight Hour Day’. The sceptics within the TUC and skilled workers unions were now silent: the dream of the eight-hour day now seemed realisable.

In 1895, Tom Mann, by now national figure, became a founder-member of the Independent Labour Party. Not everybody agreed with Tom Mann’s views. He had many enemies on the right of the Labour movement and was defeated in the ASE election where he stood for the post of Secretary. However, in 1896 he did become President of the International Transport Workers’ Federation which he had helped to create. In 1898, along with Tom Chambers, he helped launch the Workers’ Union, a small but militant organisation.

Mann now started his International campaign, forming unions and preaching international solidarity and unity. This did not go down well with the authorities and he was deported from a number of European countries on the grounds of sedition. He first began agitating in New Zealand before moving onto Australia and organising for the Australian Labour Party. He had his first taste of imprisonment in Australia, in 1906, the charge: again, sedition. This did little to dampen Mann’s spirit – he moved to South Africa, where continued his activities organising and agitating.

Returning to the UK in 1910, Mann noted that many of the firebrands of the 1880’s had become reformist. He argued that socialism could not be achieved without the trade unions playing a major role. It was during this period that Tom Mann was reunited with his old comrade from America ‘Big’ Bill Haywood (Mann had assisted Haywood’s IWW movement whilst in America). They had long discussions on the way forward for the international labour movement.

Mann then founded the syndicalist education league. It’s a misassumption to conclude that the English syndicalist movement was on a par with that in France in terms of ideology. Mann fully understood the loathing of political theory and ideology amongst organised labour: his was a very British syndicalism.

Despite their political and personal differences, Ben Tillett invited Mann to become an organiser in the 1911 Liverpool transport strike. Tom Mann raced to the assistance of James Larkin, James Connolly and the Dublin strikers in 1913 -14, and again during this dispute linked up with comrade Bill Haywood. The TUC was totally opposed to Larkin and the strike and withdrew its support leading to the defeat of the strike.

Mann was totally opposed to the First World War and was prosecuted for sedition. In 1917 he joined the British Socialist Party, and in that same year, was a firm supporter of the Bolshevik revolution. In 1919, despite his earlier defeat over 20 years previously, he became the secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, retiring in 1921. He was chairman of the rank and file National Minority movement which built a strong base in all sections of the trade union movement much to the annoyance of the TUC, and he was a founder member of the Communist Party in 1920.

He tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the International Brigade but was denied because of his age, although he raised funds and spoke on many occasions both in the UK and in Spain. He also worked with Wal Hannington and the unemployed workers movement.

At the age of 75 he was indicted for sedition in Belfast after making inflammatory speeches. Famously, the judge said to him before sentencing: “someone your age should know better.” To which Tom Mann replied: “Sir, the longer I live and the more I see here and around the world I know my course is right.”

He died a poor man, at least in financial terms, in Leeds in 1941, but rich in terms of his legacy to the Labour and Trade Union movement.

Terry McCarthy