Paul Salveson discusses the political background to the 1911 strike

Resource Type: Audio | Posted on 22nd July 2011 by Liam Physick

Paul Salveson explains how the railway unions played a big role in building up the Labour Party, in part because the refusal of the employers to recognise them made them think that they could only achieve the changes they wanted through Parliament. In addition, the ideas of socialism, anarchism and syndicalism (the belief espoused by Tom Mann) were growing, while Liverpool’s status as a port exposed it to the ideas of foreign socialists like the American Wobblies

Interviewee: Paul Salveson

Interviewee Gender: Male

Interview Transcript

Once the trade unions have been established on the, sort of, footplate grades and general grades for the ASRS, unskilled workers also became unionised in the 1890s. The companies still refused to recognise them. By that time, the 1890s, a lot of trade unions, in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, other big cities, were recognised in textiles, in engineering, and so on, so the railways was really the last major industry that refused to recognise trade unions at all, so, what the unions tended to do, was to, sort of, go and find a more political role, and by the 1890s, a lot of the railway trade union activists, both in the ASRS and ASLEF were members of the, the new Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893, and their saw their salvation partly being through parliamentary redress, getting hours of railway labour reduced by Parliament, getting the, sort of, problem of safety addressed through continuous breaks, automatic couples, and so on, and also increasingly through nationalisation, you know, the ILP came out very early for nationalisation of the railways, and that was a result of ILP members in the railway pushing that very strongly. So, there was the beginnings of quite an interesting political and industrial cocktail by the end of the nineteenth century, and I think where Liverpool is particularly interesting was that, you had a very, very strong militant trade union group both within the ASRS, ASLEF and General Railway Workers’ Union, but also, a very, very strong interest in socialism, and that was both the ILP was which, broadly parliamentary, increasingly looking at, if you like, anarchist, sort, syndicalist approaches, and typified by Tom Mann, probably the most well know British syndicalist during this period, and what syndicalism was about, basically seeing socialism, or the revolution, being achieved through trade union action, trade unions themselves, the workers organised through the trade unions, will take over the running of their own industries, and the way to achieve the revolution, or revolutionary change, would be through strike action, general strikes, not just in one industry but across industries. Now, why in Liverpool? I think there’s a very interesting article by Bob Holman in a book called Building the Union, published back in 1970s, in Liverpool, it has quite a lot of detail about the absolutely fascinating political culture that was emerging on Merseyside in the early 1900s. There was all sorts of different revolutionary influences coming into Liverpool, you had the Industrial Workers of the World, in America – the Wobblies – who, sort of, sailors frequently came into Liverpool with IWW propaganda, there was a lot of Spanish seamen who came into the port of Liverpool who were strongly influenced by anarchist ideas, Francisco Ferrer, the, the anarchist educationalist, was a revered figure in Liverpool, and all these people met in the International Currrent, and you may well have heard of it, it was run by a Spanish anarchist called Lorenzo Porte, and it was really a home for all different socialist groups – socialists, anarchists, Independent Labour Party, syndicalists – who, sort of, came together, no doubt over a pint, to discuss political ideas and revolutionary change. Now, what’s interesting in 1911, how far was it the result of this syndicalist influence, how far was it just the result of all that, sort of, pent up discontent that had developed throughout the nineteenth century, and I would say there was an element of both in it.

Tagged under: railway workers, 1911 strike, aslef, trade unions, amalgamated society of railway servants, tom mann, syndicalism, socialism, labour party, general railway workers' union

Categorised under: Work & Industry

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