1889: The Glasgow dockers' go-slow

London dockers demonstrate, 1889
London dockers demonstrate, 1889

A brief history of the strike of Glasgow dockers in 1889 which was proving fruitless, until they returned to work and began a go-slow or "working ca'canny".

Submitted by Steven. on January 26, 2010

In June 1889, Havelock Wilson's young but rapidly growing National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union was organising strikes in various ports throughout Britain. In many places the dock labourers came out too. This is what happened in Glasgow. On June 11th Edward McHugh, a former commercial traveller and friend of Henry George, brought the union he had formed in February 1889, the National Union of Dock Labourers, out on strike in Glasgow. The strike met with a quick response from the port employers in Glasgow. Very quickly blacklegs were brought into Glasgow in considerable numbers from Dundee. The men from Dundee got the police protection they had been promised, and quickly set to work. But they soon left work in a body after the strikers managed to make contact with them and to explain their case. Sixty labourers from Tilbury, brought in by the employers to replace the strikers, turned back for London once they found that the labour shortage they had been going to fill had arisen because of the strike.

Similarly, men from Leeds turned back when they discovered the real reason for their being needed. But these small victories for the strikers were not enough. Blacklegs were coming in from all over Britain, and the promise on the company posters that police protection would be guaranteed was being honoured. Edward McHugh and Richard McGhee could do little more than to call for increased picketing.

There were a number of serious scuffles between strikers and blacklegs. At one point McHugh told some blacklegs that he feared for their lives, since some of his men had revolvers. But all this was to no avail. The employers were clearly determined to break the strike. They had imported hundreds of blacklegs from Scotland, and especially from England. In this way they were more or less able to keep up the regular hours of sailing, and to deal with the cargoes. They told the press that they were 'not unwilling to fairly remunerate their employees; but they have resolved at all costs to reduce the influence of the union, observing that the shipowners ali over the country are determined to be the masters, and not a few strangers, who, as a committee, . . . interfere with the shipping commerce of the country.'

On June 23rd the strikers held a meeting at which the whole situation was considered. At this meeting such points as 'their severance from the union, the rate at which the Englishmen can work, the rates of wages, and so on . .' were discussed. The North British Daily MaiI reported that:

'None favour the idea of renouncing their combination as a union; indeed that seems to be the last right they would forego, maintaining they have equal rights with tradesmen in having a society of their own. Trades, they say, have less need of unions than bodies of men numbering thousands, and whose work is more irregular. Again, they flatter themselves of being able not only to discharge or load a ship in less than quarter the time taken by inexperienced hands, but they rejoice in being able to deal with cargo with far more caution.'

It is highly likely that amongst the points raised in this discussion between the strikers about the inefficiency of the blacklegs is the fact that one of the 'scabs' was drowned after falling into the river while wheeling a truck along a plank.This dramatic illustration that dock labour was not an 'unskilled' occupation, was constantly borne out by the performance of the 'scabs'. Their speed of work was much slower than that of regular dock labourers; it took more of them to load and unload cargoes than it did the dockers. Although this fact was not openly admitted by the shipping companies there is some evidence that they would very much like to have seen the dockers return to work. A small incident bears this out. As the strike continued into July, a rumour arose that the Allan Line offices were so dissatisfied with the work of the blacklegs that they wanted to re-employ the dockers. Although this had been denied officially by the Allan Line, one of the foremen at the Allan Line sheds had pleaded with the strikers to go to the boss, 'as they were sick of the men they had at present, and could not get on with their vessels at all.'

Shortly after this the National union of Dock Labourers made a final effort to settle the strike. Deputations were sent to the various firms asking if they were willing to grant the union' s demands. When this last-ditch attempt failed, the Union decided to call the strike off in order not to exhaust all its funds. At a meeting of the dock labourers on Friday, July 5th it was resolved to return to work at the old rate on the following Monday. On Monday morning before the dock labourers went back to work they rvere addressed by Edward McHugh. He told them:

'You are going to return to work today at the old rate. The employers have repeatedly said that they were delighted with the services of the farm workers who have replaced us over the past few weeks. We have seen them; we have seen that they don't know to walk on a boat, that they have dropped half the stuff they carried; in short that two of them can't do the work of one of us. However the employers have said that they are delighted with the services of these people; let us therefore do the same and practice ca'canny. Work like the farm workers worked. Only it happened that several times they fell into the water. It is useless for you to do the same.'

The Glasgow dockers returned to work, and for two or three days went 'canny', and worked as slowly and inefficiently as the blacklegs had worked. It was not long before the employers called for McHugh and pleaded with him to ask his members to work how they used to work. If they did the dockers would get the 1/2d an hour rise they had failed to get by striking. The success of the ca'canny tactic at Glasgow led McHugh and McGhee to make it the distinctive policy of the union. Reviewing the first full year of the N.U.D.L's activities and looking back to the Glasgow strike, they wrote :

'The distinctive policy of the Union was inaugurated in Glasgow during the great strike of June, 1889, and was the logical outcome of the publicly proclaimed satisfaction on the part of the employers with the work-small in quantity and wretchedly bad in quality-done by scabs. Then as now we were advised in the organs of the shipowners "to take a few lessons in political economy"...'

The N.U.D.L. took its lessons, and reported that:

'Having mastered all the mysteries of the doctrine of value and the distinction between "value" and "price", we were made familiar with the multitudinous forms of orthodox adulteration from jerry buildings and cofin ships to watered milk and shoddy clothes. With only one exception we found the all-prevailing practice to be this, that the "QUALITY" of each commodity, whether it be a dwelling-house, a suit of clothes, or a Sunday's dinner, is regulated according to the price which the purchaser is willing to pay-the one exception being labour.

'We began to ask ourselves and our fellow-members why the "quality" and "quantity" of labour should not be subject to the same law as other marketable commodities. We were witnesses of the fact that a trifling increase in wages was scornfully and insultingly refused to Union men, whilst at the same time inexperienced and consequently inefficient scab labour was imported at enormous cost and trouble, and paid at higher rates than were asked by Union men, and, in addition to higher wages, we saw the scabs delicately entertained and provided with free food and lodging, tobacco, and beer,-the ability to do these things demonstrating beyond the possibility of doubt that the demand made by Union men was a very modest one indeed, and one which the employers could easily have afforded to grant.

'We had the most convincing proof of the lirnited quantity of work done by scabs in the detention of vessels, and of the int'erior quality in the fact that the ships when stowed were pronounced unseaworthy. For these unsatisfactory results the employers paid generously.

'There is no ground for doubting that the real relation of the employer to the workman is simply this-to secure the largest amount of work for the smallest wages; and, undesirable as this relationship may be to the workman, there is no escape from it except to adopt the situation and apply to it the commonsense commercial rule which prouides a commodity in accordance with the price.'

All this could be supported by chapter and verse from the economists. W. S. Jevons was singled out, having stated that:

'If those who want,goods at a certain price cannot get them, they will have to offer a higher price, so that they may induce other people to sell. The higher the price the greater the supply.'

The N.U.D.L. commented

: 'This is precisely what we affirm with regards to labour. If those who want dock labourers at a certain- amount of u.ases cannot get them, they will have to offer higher wages. T:he higher the wages the greater the quantity and the better the quality of work, and vice-verse. . . . The employer insists upon fixing the amount he will give for an hour's labour without the slightest consideration for the labour; there is surely, therefore, nothing wrong in the labourer on the other hand, fixing the amount and the quality of the labour he will give in and hour for,the price fixed by the employer. If employer of labour or purchasers of goods refuse to pay for the genuine article they must be content with veneer and shoddy.'

The N.U.D.L., whose claim to be 'the pioneer organisation of what is called the ' New Unionism' is well founded, made a "special effort to inculcate its members r,vith the theory and practice of the tactic which had worked so well in Glasgow in 1889. The tactic seems to have spread to the London dockers not long after their success in the famous strike of the summer of 1889. The consequent increase in the dockers' bargaining power led to widespread rank and file sentiment for the manning ratio on gangs to be increased. This aspiration led to a serious slowing down in the tempo of work. Since, as the historian of trade unionism in the Port of London records 'Such "ca'canny" practices were bound to generate among the workers a most determined resistance to union monopoly', the London based Dockers' union officials found themselves encountering difficulties in dealing with the port employers. Tom Mann, the union president, signed several appeals intended to get the men to work more energetically, and he even went so far as to suggest in 1892 in evidence to the Royal Commission on Labour (of which he was a member) a new system of ' cooperative' working, 'by which the minimum time rates would be abolished and the men left to stand or fall by their earnings on a piece-work basis. A similar appeal had, indeed, been issued by the Executive of the union immediately after the conclusion of the strike. In a 'Manifesto Urging Members of the Union to Work Energetically it was stated that

'Complaints have been made by the Dock Directors that the men are not working as energetically and heartily as in times past, and in consequence they are not only put to a very considerable expense, but very serious delays are brought about in the departure of vessels.

'The Union will, of course, at all times and places protect its members against anything in the nature of nigger-driving, but we regret to know that at some of the docks the men are not working with that hearty goodwill and efficiency that is necessary to make our position strong. . . . We therefore most earnestly appeal to all our members, now that they are secure from many of the former indignities they formerly had to battle against, to work in a smart and workman-like manner.'

Although the London dockers' leaders clearly disapproved of the 'ca'canny' policy, the Glasgow dockers' leaders made extravagant claims for its efficacy. 'A strike of workmen may be defeated,' wrote McGhee and McHugh, 'but this strictly economic and commercial policy is invincible.' Sidney and Beatrice Webb read the report in which those words appeared. They were neither amused nor impressed. In 1897 they recorded that the N.U.D.L.'s advocacy of 'ca'canny' earlier in the same decade was the only case they knew of where a trade union had advocated what they called 'an insidious diminution of their energy without notice to the employer.' they were worried, it seems, not only for the employer, but also for the workmen who practised such a policy. They commented:

'To the unskilled labourers of a great city, already demoralised by irregularity of employment and reduced below the average in capacity for persistent work, the doctrine of "go'canny" may easily bring about the final ruin of personal character.'

This article is excerpted from the book Sabotage by Geoff Brown. The original text contains extensive footnotes not available in this online version. Scanned and OCRed by libcom.org