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The new unionism is a pivotal period in the history of trade unionism in Britain. A surge of semi-skilled and unskilled workers rose up demanding better pay, shorter working hours and improved working conditions. Initially starting in the East End of London with the matchwomen, gas workers & dockers it spread into a movement across the country which threw up the forerunners of todays GMB and Unite.

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

Whilst 100,000 gathered in London, 40,000 according to the Leeds Mercury, celebrated the first May Day demo in Leeds – there was much to celebrate – building labourers had won increased pay the previous year and even the failed strike of tailoresses had seen the company give concessions a few months after the strike collapsed.

The gas workers on forming a union had also quickly won the eight hour day, as well as increases in pay and holiday time. Yet the council was biding its time, Alderman Gilston, a Liberal councillor had previously stated that their time ‘would be in the summer’ when they could ‘make a permanent arrangement with the men’ as the demand for gas slackened with the longer days and warmer temperatures.

The council unilaterally attempted to impose new working conditions. By June the workers had walked out on strike in protest against these attacks, with a mass rally of over 10,000 to build support for the strike.

The council attempted to import strikebreakers into the city, but this just provoked bigger protests. The extent of which was that the strikebreakers had to be accommodated in the town hall overnight whilst a police and army escort was organised to escort them to the gates of the gas works where tents had been put up inside in the yard. But this was a red rag to a bull – 30,000 turned out to oppose them. Not being able to get to speak to the scabs to convince them to turn around due to the armed escort, strikers and their supporters had to resort to force.

As the Leeds Evening Express correspondent put it “The scene that ensued SIMPLY DEFIES DESCRIPTION, bricks, stones, ‘clinkers’, iron belts, sticks, etc., were hurled into the air to fall with SICKENING THUDS AND CRASHES upon and amongst the blacklegs and their escorts”.

In the end, many of the strikebreakers weren’t aware of what they had signed up for, and the union happily paid their train fare to return home. With the scabbing effort collapsing, the council conceded most of the workers demands.

What was particularly remarkable about the Gas Worker’s strike is that it came during the downswing of the new unionism as an employers offensive to smash this organised threat developed, on the pattern succesfully tested in the dispute at Silvertown in the East End of London late the previous year. That was the mass importation of scabs, use of the police and other forces of the state against pickets and the threat of legal action (only the latter wasn’t used in Leeds). In Leeds workers had been able to beat this strategy, yet this victory wasn’t repeated elsewhere as the defeats began to pile up over the next few years.

Whilst Fredrick Engels famously gave Will Thorne a copy of capital with the words ‘To the victor of the Battle of Leeds’, the real leaders of the struggles were the Leeds Socialist League who’d painstakingly built up the new unions. As EP Thompson comments about their leading figures, ‘Maguire, Paylor, Mattison – all were in their twenties when this sudden elevation from the status of a sect to that of leaders and advisers to the unskilled of half a populous county took place.”

Political Representation

Up to this point, the bulk of the existing trade unionists had political links with the Liberal party, the ‘lesser evil’ of the two main capitalist parties. Yet this dispute revealed how the Liberal councillors would put the interests of their own class before those of workers.

Arthur Shaw, an engineer, was one of those former Liberal supporters won over at the time, a few years later he explained as follows:

“Previous to 1890 I had worked with ardour and perseverance for the success of the Liberal Party in Leeds, believing them to be the friends of the workers. We had just returned, for the South Ward of Leeds, a Liberal Councillor, a professed friend of Labour, when the gas-workers justly demanded an Eight Hours Day.

“To this demand my friends the Liberals opposed a strenuous resistance, as a proof of their friendship, and imported into the town the scum of labour from all parts of England. My particular friend of the South Ward [Cllr J Hunt] entertained them at the Town Hall with “Britons never shall be slaves”.

“Other Liberals provided them with beer and tobacco, while at the same time the Leeds gas-workers were provided with military, as another mark of Liberal friendship. This decided me. I vowed I would never again assist either of the Political Parties, and every day I become more convinced that my course was right.”

For various reasons, Maguire and others were not able to make a breakthrough on the electoral front in Leeds, but their work lay the ground for the emergence of the Independent Labour Party throughout Yorkshire which burst to the fore after the Manningham Mills strike in 1891-2 where the Liberals true colours were revealed once more.