Labour History

Movement Publications

The importance of the new union movement cannot be underestimated. It wasn't just a reaction to bad employers but also to the conservatism of the skilled workers who had dominated the trade union movement through the ineffective TUC. New unionism gave a voice to those that had no say in society. The so-called unskilled workers had been kept at arm's-length by the TUC, and if ever there was a movement that sprang from the rank-and-file this was it.


There had been talk throughout the decade about organisation both in east and south-east London but it was left to the match workers of Bryant and Mays in 1888 to fire the first shots against unscrupulous employers and the conservatism of the Labour Movement. The match workers were predominantly female and there was a large army of outworkers employed through unscrupulous sub-contractors. It was thought that the workers were impossible to organise, especially the females (although there had been disputes in the past). This was a view shared not only by the employers but the Labour Movement generally so it came as a great surprise when the strike took place.


To work in the match factory was not anyone's first choice. All workers: men, women and boys and girls were aware of Industrial diseases such as fosse jaw and other dangers including explosions and toxic fumes. Indeed, the match girls were considered to be at the bottom of the heap in terms of employment even amongst the unskilled.


The match girls got maximum publicity, enjoying the support of papers like the Times. What counted even more was the fact that most of the strikers were Catholics so when Cardinal Manning gave them his support they considered themselves morally right in their actions. Sadly many could not conceive that a great victory could be won by the match girls and have suggested absurdly that the strike was won by a middle-class supporter:  Fabian, Annie Bassant.

There were other women who were part of the new union movement such as the Scottish Christian Socialist sisters Margaret and Rachel McMillan who ran evening classes to working girls in the Docklands and assisted with welfare during the great unrest of 1888-89  


Following on the heels of the match girls, the gas workers lead by Will Thorne came out on successful strike and in turn all of the new unions were in dispute with their employers.


In 1889 the Dock workers came out. The stevedores union, which was predominantly Catholic and had been formed in 1871 helped by the Irish Land and Labour League movement, Lightermen and other skilled workers on both sides of the river joined forces with the unskilled, unrecognised Dock workers. The dock strike, involving thousands, caught the imagination of the country.


The nation was divided down the middle. The strike leaders used the most modern techniques of public relations and propaganda to win over the public: no violence; rule Britannia not the red flag; used no slogans to overthrow the state. Cardinal Manning acted as arbitrator, and after six weeks of strike the Dockers won recognition and a rise in the hourly rate (the strike was greatly helped by the financial contribution of Australian workers - the small workforce contributed over 2 million pounds in today's currency). The new union movement swept through the whole of Britain. Gas workers, dock workers, match workers, electricians, builders, printers, paper hangs, box makers, carters construction workers, and many more, organised themselves into unions.


The new union movement not only posed a problem for the employers. The make-up of the TUC, which had been predominantly skilled workers, was drastically changed with the rise in unskilled members, as was its policy in relation to industrial action and its relationship with the state (especially the Liberal Party) and for the first time socialism had a national platform. There were now calls for a political party to represent organised labour. This led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 which in turn led to the formation of the Labour Party.


The employers did not take the unionisation of the unskilled lying down. From the 1890’s onwards, with help from the state, their aim was to break the power of organised labour. Many of the gains of 'new unionism' were reversed by 1891, as in the case of Lyons vs. Wilkins in 1896, outlawing even peaceful picketing.

An Abridged History of the Trade Union and Labour Movement from the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day


New Union Movement

© Labour History Movement Publications 2011

This Abridged History ©Terry McCarthy is available to buy as a book, price £7.99 + p&p.