David Isserman (Edge Hill) on transnational syndicalism and industrial unionism in Liverpool and Glasgow, 1905-1926

My research focuses on the history of syndicalism and industrial unionism among maritime workers in Liverpool and Glasgow during the early twentieth century. Both cities were centres of labour unrest during the Edwardian and inter-war years, with Liverpool experiencing the 1911 transport strike and Glasgow being the host city to the dual unionist British Seafarers Union (BSU) and Scottish Union of Dock Labourers (SCUDL).

‘One big union for all marine workers’: proposal for an Amalgamated Marine Workers Union. Click for larger image.

Thanks to a Society for the Study of Labour History research bursary I have been able to make research trips to the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and The National Archives in Kew. Through these visits I have developed a clearer idea for the direction of my thesis and have unearthed what I hope will prove to be pathbreaking material on the history of syndicalism and maritime labour in Britain. I can now argue confidently that between 1911 and 1925 there was a great internal revolt among British seamen against both their employers in the Shipping Federation and the trade union leadership of the National Sailors and Firemen’s Union (NSFU). This revolt was influenced by domestic trade union radicalism and the syndicalism of Tom Mann, and influenced on the local level by transnational political institutions and movements such as the Industrial Workers of the World.

On my first research trip to the Modern Records Centre I wanted to see the broadest range of documents possible, including the Sarah Maitland Hamilton collections that related to the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), minutes and files of the NSFU and the publications of the BSU and its successor union the Amalgamated Marine Workers Union (AMWU). These two groups were the largest maritime unions of the early twentieth century and had a bitter and often confrontational rivalry. The BSU had been formed as a breakaway union from the NSFU and later merged with the Ship Stewards Union, another NSFU breakaway based largely in Liverpool, to become the AMWU. They were industrial unionists in outlook, in that they unionized all workers involved with shipping, and generally more closely aligned to the interests of the Labour Party and TUC than the NSFU. The BSU/AMWU saw themselves as an independent-minded union of working-men of the sea who had broken free from the authoritarian leadership of NSFU leader Havelock Wilson. While they were not explicitly syndicalist the union often used syndicalist rhetoric, identifying themselves as ‘One Big Union’ for maritime workers. The political ideology of the union can be characterized as both dual unionist and anti-Havelock Wilson.

The BSU possessed a strong degree of white labourist and anti-Chinese labour sentiment that, while not as prevalent as Wilson’s anti-Chinese views, still animated the union’s politics. I explored the issue of race and maritime workers on this research trip. One of the key BSU leaders was future Labour MP Emmanuel Shinwell. Havelock Wilson personally despised Shinwell and often publicly denounced and berated him in his speeches. On one occasion he made a series of antisemitic statements on Shinwell’s Jewish background, referring to him as ‘a tailor, not a sailor’. Broadly speaking, both unions were white labourist unions which opposed foreign labour. Chinese workers in particular were seen as a threat to the interests of British sailors. While not as vocal as the NSFU, the BSU engaged in white labourist rhetoric and didn’t seem to make any attempts to built a significant counter narrative to the racist politics of Havelock Wilson. It is also evident from my second research trip, while examining the minutes of the Shipping Federation, that the bosses were very much aware of these racial tensions and sought to exploit them.

In my second trip to the archives I focused on the 1920s and internal unrest within the NSFU. I examined the files of the Shipping Federation and NSFU files specifically relating to Liverpool and the 1925 seamen’s strike, the latter being an illegal strike organized in opposition to a cut in seamen’s wages by the Shipping Federation that was supported by Wilson. From re-examining the minutes from the meetings, speeches made specifically in Liverpool by prominent NSFU leader Captain Tupper, and letters written by the strike committee’s leadership to the TUC, it is apparent that there was widespread dissatisfaction among sailors with their union’s leadership and a deeply paranoid culture within the leadership. This is particularly evident in Tupper’s speech, which is largely dedicated to denouncing enemies of the union, including transport workers’ leader Ernest Bevin, and glorifying the career of the aging and sickly Havelock Wilson, painting him as the paternalistic protector of the seamen. There is an overall sense in the speech of a culture of paranoia among the NSFU leaders, and that Liverpool, where men used to ‘spit at the name of Wilson’, was a particularly difficult place for the NSFU to lay down control. It is likely that that the NSFU leadership was referring to the Seamen’s Vigilance Committee, a rank and file reform group within the NSFU that had links with the CPGB and the National Minority Movement, as well as the illegal seamen’s strike of 1925.

Minutes of the meetings of the Shipping Federation during these years show they had a very friendly relationship with Wilson and the NSFU leadership, and were deeply fearful of the syndicalists and maritime trade union Left. One particularly revealing example of this was a meeting held shortly after the creation of the Irish Free State. The Federation wrote about how the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, founded by Liverpool-born Irish Republican syndicalist Jim Larkin, was raiding local NSFU branches and encouraging members to leave the union for the NSFU. This strongly suggests that the Shipping Federation saw the NSFU, or at least its leadership, as a useful tool for social control and were deeply concerned at having to deal with a more militant union.

The National Archives at Kew.

One of the most significant finds of my research at The National Archives was in the Home Office disturbance files on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These files contained reports on the activities of the IWW in Britain and also communication between the British embassy in the United States and the US State Department. It is apparent from these documents that the British state was very much aware of the IWW and feared the possibility of British seamen getting radicalized by American syndicalists. One particularly haunting quote from a memo said that the British should look to the examples set by President Woodrow Wilson in America and Prime Minister Billy Hughes in Australia in dealing with the IWW. Another document from the disturbance records shows that a British sailor named Albert Whitehead was involved in IWW activities on the west coast of the US. Whitehead would later be deported to Britain and, according to the files, was active on the Liverpool docks. The British state, I concluded, was aware of the transnational power of the IWW, and the dangers of American radicalism infecting the British working-class – which turns on its head the conventional notion that radical influences flowed only from Europe to America in those years.

My research has painted a clearer picture of maritime trade union radicalism in the early twentieth century. It is apparent that a bitter internal conflict existed within the NSFU and that an insurgent syndicalist mood was in the air among many of the rank and file. Liverpool was a centre for this radicalism with transnational influences affecting the city’s maritime proletariat. My research also shows that the world of maritime labour in the early twentieth century was heavily globalized. The racial politics of Empire and the radical politics of America would come back to Britain through its sailors, with major port cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow acting as a domestic frontier for the imperial metropole.

David Isserman is a graduate teaching assistant and PhD student at Edge Hill University.

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