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Sunday, 28 April 2013

South Met. Gas. The Co-partnership Scheme Part 1

'We humbly submit that if no idea was entertained by you. of 'breaking our union a more successful
scheme was never promulgated to accomplish such an unintentional result'.

So said Mark Hutchins,  Chairman of the Gas Workers Union, about the profit sharing scheme set up by Livesey.  At this stage perhaps, the scheme itself should be explained and the objections to it examined.  Why did George Livesey think that it would both answer his aspirations for the South Met. and at the same time destroy the Gas Workers Union?

The 1894 Report to the Board of Trade on  Profit Sharing gives a detailed description of the scheme as it was originally proposed - a few amendments were made during the period between the announcement of the scheme and its implementation these will be discussed later.

The bonus  was paid in exactly the same way as the shareholders' dividend under the sliding scale.  It gas based on a relationship to the price of gas.  When the price of gas was not above a base price (in 1889 3/6 per 1,000 cubic feet) the shareholders received a dividend of 10 and this dividend was lower if the price of gas 'rose.  In the same way the employees received a dividend of on a year's wages for every 1d. the price of gas fell below a base price of 2/8d. (the actual price of gas charged by South Met. in 1889 was 2/3d. per 1,000).

All those who had signed the agreement within the first three months were  given a 'nest egg' - that is a sum of money equal to the amount that they would have had had the scheme been running for the past three years, plus 4% interest.  In order to get both bonus and nest egg, workers had to sign an agreement to work for the Company for twelve months at the current rate of wages' the Company guaranteeing that these wages would not be altered in that time to the disadvantage of the men. 

The nest-egg and half of the bonus was not to be withdrawn and spent by the men for a period.  This period of time was to be the subject of subsequent discussions between the Company and the newly formed Profit Sharing Committee. Exceptions would be made in the case of death or retirement but it was to be totally forfeit in the case of strike or 'wilful injury'.

In this way the workforce was linked into the sliding scale in the way that Livesey had suggested fifteen years earlier. It immediately gave an incentive to workers to lower the price of gas.  Livesey had said in 1882 that 'if they were to get the men to work heartily and thoroughly the men must have the motive of self interest'. He felt that if this motive could be brought to bear on all who had any influence on the prosperity of the Company 'it would be a good thing'.

In his address to the professional gas institute in 1882 Thomas Travers had suggested two ways in which workmen could influence the Company so that the price of gas might be lowered - they could watch every outlet of waste and 'constant effort would be made by all to popularise and extend the
consumption of gas'.   Indeed the most immediate impact of the scheme, according to pronouncements made by Livesey, were the instances of workmen adapting existing practices  in order to save the Company money.  Prizes and awards were instituted whereby members of the workforce were encouraged to act as salesmen for the Company not only for gas but also for appliances - a sales effort directed at the growing working class custom in South London.

It is very difficult to discover how far this scheme is a replica of the one set up in 1886 for the Officers of  the Company.  The Minute Books merely say: ' that in the event of the profit on the years'
working being sufficient after paying interest on the debentures and bonds to pay a dividend of not less than 14% on capital for the year ... a bonus on the following scale will be paid'. Although alterations were made to the scheme in successive years, it is not clear if it was overtly tied to the sliding scale.  It is most probable that Livesey had not managed to get the Board to completely agree to the whole workings of the scheme.
As indicated earlier, Livesey claimed to have thought up the whole scheme in a quarter of an hour - but the scheme is so intricate that it rather bears the imprint of years of gestation.

The scheme was announced to the men in late October or November and as many as possible were encouraged to sign agreements.  On 21st November a meeting was held in the Board Room at Old Kent Road of delegates of those workmen who had signed the agreements.    Representatives of the 
Union had been invited to attend as observers, but none came. The proceedings of the meeting were taken down verbatim and circulated later to the men.

The meeting began with Livesey explaining some current difficulties in working - of a practical nature concerning the price of coal.  He talked about the threat from electricity and eventually came to the stokers' demands.  They were now asking for double time on Sundays, but 'the orange has been
squeezed dry'.  He went on.. 'now the time has come when it is necessary to have something more than the mere labour of the worknen - we want his interest and we want  to give him a share of the profits earned by the Company in order to purchase that interest as well as his labour'.

He dealt with objections already raised and pointed out areas in which the Company was still undecided.  Some of the delegates raised points themselves and entered into the discussions.   Most
 of them were on items which worried the men; was there any way by which they could be deprived of the bonus....were they doing the right thing in trusting the Company in this way?

Men were afraid that small misdemeanours might deprive them of  the bonus and had been mandated by those unable to attend to ask various questions about this.  They were also concerned to make suggestions about the future of the scheme and point out other ways in which the workforce might be benefitted.  Henry Austin, who later became an employee director, was moved to recite poetry - but also to ask the Company to consider a share purchase scheme for employees.

The major part of the discussion concerned the agreements.  Men had to sign to work for twelve months and to remain sober, industrious and able to do their work.  They must serve in whatever capacity the Company wanted, and obey the orders of the foreman.
Obviously the sting was that strike action would become impossible because of the staggered dates of notice - hence the Union's objections that 'there would be at no time more than a few men able to take any combined action of any kind'.
Workers were, however, given job security through these agreements - they worked both ways.  One of the men at the "Interview", Skinner, said: 'it appears to be a good guarantee to me, by signing the agreement the Company guarantee to find me employment for the next twelve months'. Such a  guarantee was a valuable thing to a weekly paid labourer.

Many other detailed points worried these 'loyal' workmen. Objections were raised to the clause about obeying the orders of the foreman  - suppose the foreman was acting unfairly?  Livesey answered 'it is not our policy to support any foreman if they practise hardship or injustice'. No doubt Livesey meant this - but he had never worked under a foreman to know the pressures involved.

The men persisted: 'there may be a certain class of man who cannot satisfy the foreman and if a man who does not like to go tittle tattling thinks to himself that he would like to leave ... ' If he then left in this way, would he lose all his bonus?  They were assured that all the bonus would not be lost - a man would leave with all that was owed to him.

Another point which worried the men was the clause saying that they had to agree to perform in 'whatever capacity'.  That meant they could be shifted from job to job.  Suppose it was work that a man could not do by reason of his strength or skills - would he then be sacked.  Livesey answered: 'what we would expect in an emergency is what any of us would do ourselves - we would lend a hand to do anything. If a man was not suitable for one sort of work and said 'I cannot do this or that but I can do this and I will do it with all my heart' - that is all we want... '.

In other words what he wanted was 'loyalty'. This clause was objected to by the Union. They wrote to the Company pointing out that the clause would:  'damage the Union and be against its rules.   Compelling coal porters in time of dispute to do gas stokers work and vice versa would break the rules of the Unions'.   Which was, of course, from Livesey's point of view, exactly the point.
The Union continued to point out that the Company could discharge all labourers except the gas stokers through the slack season and 'reduce the latter to the vacancies at reduced wages'. This point about wage reductions should jobs be changed was brought up at the Interview. Livesey answered: 'if a man's regular wage is 10/- a day and he is asked to do work which is usually paid at the rate of 5/- a day then he would have his regular wage of 10/- and we should give him something more. '

The Union then pointed out another possibility: 'the agreement does not bind the Company a rate of wages as a class - at the date of the signing of the agreement'.  Thus, they thought, the Company could reduce all wages at the time agreements were re-signed.

Further discussion at the "Interview' was focussed on the clause in the agreements which read  "the money will be the absolute property of the men except in the case of a strike or wilful injury to the Company in which case it will be forfeit' . Men asked, what did 'wilful injury' mean?  Did it mean 
someone who 'should fall asleep at their post as they call it in the army?'.  One man, a lamplighter, quoted how he had accidentally damaged some equipment in the course of his work - would this mean he would lose his bonus?  Livesey agreed to remove the phrase 'wilful injury ' - the phrase meant, he explained, incidents which could be prosecuted through the courts, they were very rare.  Should a man have to prosecuted in this way they would dismiss him, and he could keep his bonus.

Livesey was, however, not so accommodating in the part of the phrase concerning strike action.  Men who struck would lose both bonus and nest egg. He was adamant in the face of protests:  'we mean that he would forfeit the whole of the money in that case standing in his name ... we want some protection'.

Objections were raised: one man, Jessie Day, said "I think it would be very hard. .. if he should lose the whole of it'. Another said: 'If a strike turns up ... is he to lose the whole of it because that would not encourage the men to leave it in.  Other men explained that the men they represented had specifically asked that the point be raised and made clear; others that it was a clause which was stopping many men from signing the agreements.

Livesey had asked a lawyer. Mark Knowles, to attend and it was he who suggested eventually: 'if it was understood that a man on joining a strike should forfeit what was owing to him for the last year'. Livesey then agreed that the whole bonus need not be forfeit in a strike - but two years back would go.

Some changes to the original scheme were therefore made in the face of opposition from potential participants but money was to be kept in hand by the Company to dissuade its owners from strike action.  The nest egg was to be kept by the Company,  and the exact amount  to be kept in hand was to be decided later.  Livesey had put it to the meeting; how long did the men want it to stay in? For five years, or for three?  Many of the men said they would want their money at once, and others that three years would be better - no one supported five.  The matter was left for the profit-sharing committee to decide.

Men put up pleas of urgent need for the money - for when the children were small or in the case of long term sickness.  Livesey countered all these arguments   the Company had always covered extra sick payments to men whose illness went beyond the sick pay period? they would always lend money to men to cover unforseen emergencies; there was no need for the accumulating bonus to be touched.  Only one exception would be made 'there might be cases where a man would like to pay a deposit on a house'. The extension of the scheme into property investment was to become a major feature of it in the succeeding years, as we shall see.
The Union pointed out 'it binds the labourer to work for five years and added, more sinisterly, that it was possible that after four and a half years of the agreements a new and different Board might be appointed after a Board Room coup and provoke a strike among men in order to cheat them of their bonuses.

There were two further points of interest in the initial draft of the scheme.  One of these was the setting up of a profit sharing committee to manage it.  This was to include an equal number of appointed management representatives and also elected delegates from the works based on the number of workmen participating in each workplace.  The Chairman of the Company - Livesey - was to be the Committee Chairman and to have a casting vote.  This Committee became increasingly important, as we shall see.

Another pointer for the future came from Henry Austin's speech requesting share purchase facilities for workmen.  It is very probable that workmen were already buying some shares, if we are to believe the Chairman's accusation that Livesey was promoting this in 1875 .  Livesey himself had raised this question and it is not impossible that Austin knew Livesey's views and was putting them forward.  Livesey promised, publicly, to investigate the matter.

This then was the package of incentives and deterrents which Livesey embodied in the first draft of the scheme.   It was a means by which, eventually, the workforce could be precisely controlled. The Union saw it as a device to put them out of business -  which it was.  Livesey protested that he did not intend to interfere with the Union and indeed some men at the 'Interview' expressed their support for the principles of 'combination'.  As Livesey saw it workers were perfectly free to give in their notices and leave South Met.'s employment.  If they did he would replace them, individually.

The scheme was complex and changes over the next ten years added to that complexity.   Was the manipulative element consciously part of it in its setting up?   Did management take advantage of the possibilities given to them as time went on?  The scheme was amended and added to between 1889 and the First World War - how did these changes affect the workforce's relations with management?

In 1889 it was argued by the Union and by the press that the scheme had been instituted for strike breaking purposes - and this has been the popular view since.  Livesey denied it.  Despite sharp comments at the 'Interview'  - 'we intend to have some protection out of it'-  nowhere else does he refer to an immediate strike breaking purpose.  He continued to tell the men that the purpose of the scheme was to purchase their interest.  The preamble to the rules say: 'to induce all employees to take a real interest in the work and to give a new motive for endeavouring to promote the prosperity of the Company'. 

A more detailed analysis of his motives was given by Livesey in 1899 in a paper given to the Newcastle-on-Tyne Industrial Remuneration Conference.  Having talked about the sliding scale
and elements of partnership to be achieved through it with customers and shareholders, he continued ... 'two objects of equal importance have always been kept in view, to attach the workmen to the Company by giving them a direct interest in its prosperity beyond their salaries and wages, and to give them an opportunity to practise thrift and thus improve their position in life, to make provision for misfortune and old age. In short to enable them to lift themselves from poverty to independence. '

Thus the aspirations of the scheme can be first of all seen clearly in terms of Livesey's general thesis of partnership of the various elements necessary in the gas industry - capital, labour and customers.  This is carried on to the idea that workers should be involved in the industry in which they work and that this could only be achieved through incentives making them not only partners, but willing ones.  Because of their debased positions they must be helped, to achieve that respectability which has given the middle classes a commitment  to both the economic status quo and a more generalised patriotic ideal.  If this could be achieved not only did the Company gain in having the loyal workforce but the general political ideals of capital could be assisted in a group of workers    interested in what is 'good for England'  - and could only re-bound to re-inforce the position of independent gas companies.

The key phrase is 'attaching men to the Company".  The idea that they were to be merely prevented from striking is too limited. It has more to do with Livesey's interpretation of the changes which had come about in society and his methods of reconciliation.  Livesey talked about 'the old friendly relations' when business relations between master and man were based on personal relations rather than mutuality of interest'.   Coupled with this analysis of changes in industry were his own memories of how South Met. had seemed in his boyhood - the small works on the edge of the city, the banks of the Surrey Canal overgrown with flowers and full of fish.  To attach the men to the Company' meant to some extent a re-creation of the relationships which he thought had existed in that smaller industrial world.  But the initiative must come from the employers. 'It seems to be that the employers have to choose between the division of the industrial host into two hostile camps ..... and partnership'.

This attachment which the workers should feel for the Company, said Livesey, must spring from a feeling of ownership - of investment in and partnership in - both the Company and the nation. 'the great weakness of this Country is that our great working population have no share in its vast accumulated property, discontent will grow until it becomes a real danger to the state'.

As London grew with its industries, gas companies were employing a larger and more diversified body of labour - rather than the small localised workforce of the 1840s.  Many workers were seasonal with the uncertainties that that brought.  George Livesey not only wanted to save the industry from strikes but hoped to make the workforce that God-fearing property owning elite which would have enough commitment to the industry to back it politically against muncipalisers and be  worthy participants in a community in which the gas industry was able to serve and to prosper.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

South Met. gas the exciting bit of the strike

The press began to report increased protest meetings among gas workers.  At one of these, for  example: Will Thorne said 'those who signed the agreements were cowards, tyrants and curs'.
On 2nd December the Union asked for the removal of three retort house workers at Vauxhall who had signed the agreements and on 4th December the Board received a resolution which the Union had sent to the daily papers. It read: -  That in the opinion of this meeing who have signed the bonus scheme brought out by Mr. Livesey whom we look upon as blacklegs to our Society, is condemned by us as unjust, unfair and must be resisted and that all the men in the South Metropolitan Gas Works are justified in giving in their notices forthwith, until the same be abolished and the said men removed from the works and that a copy be sent to the Directors'
The next day a correction to the resolution was sent out by the union, it should have read "or the said men".
By noon on 5th December 2,000 notices had been handed in. It must be made  clear - and indeed was vital to Livesey's arguments - that this was not actually a strike, although it is always described as such. 'Strike' is a convenient shorthand term to described what happened. Under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act it was, of course, illegal for gasworkers to strike and so it was necessary for them to give a week's notice to terminate their employment and so the employers had a week's notice of cessation of work. The employers could further argue - and did - that there was no need for them to negotiate with the union as men had legitimately and legally left their jobs and  they had legally and legitimately filled .hem with new workers. The fact that the men had all left together was unfortunate but irrelevant.
The  men leaving the works were paid the lump sum due to them on their superannuation payments and it was on this that most of them lived in the coming weeks.
As they left the works a force of replacement labour was marched in under heavy police escort and with some drama.
The Union believed that the strike had been forced on them and published their manifesto which explicitly stated that the bonus scheme was designed to curtail the liberty of their members.
As the new men marched in the works were picketed. To some extent the old men had sabotaged what they had left behind. Four days earlier it had been reported that "unionists' had broken into a store at Greenwich and thrown blankets into the Creek. It was remembered later that a lobby had been set on fire at East Greenwich and equipment left set to give the maximum amount of leakage. An effigy of Livesey was burnt outside the Pilot - a pub just outside the East Greenwich gates.
Substitute labour had been recruited over previous weeks. Some of the new men had come from areas like Cambridge and Sittingbourne where gas workers traditionally spent the summer and were areas of recruitment in normal times. Indeed the Company claimed that it was to some extent recruiting normally to cover a winter shortfall of labour. South Met. had sent out recruiting agents to many other areas and men came to London looking for work having either heard of the vacancies themselves or having been sent by relieving officers. Agents held meetings of unemployed men to recruit them as workers. For instance at Ramsgate where the meeting was followed by a letter of complaint from the local gasworks manager - his stokers had all been signed up by South Met.
The use of  'free labour' in this dispute has been widely described. It is important to note that these replacement men who marched into the South Met. works in December 1889 were not necessarily adherants to the 'free labour' movement as described by its' activists like Collison. John Saville in Trade Unions and Free Labour emphasises that free labourers were 'all those who wished to make their own independent contract with their employers regardless of the trade-union position' Many of these men (like those at Ramsgate) probably knew nothing about the issues in the South Met. dispute and only hoped to better their own positions.
Some accounts of the strike refer to labour being recruited by - "labour agents'. Some of these were just South Met. officers who had been seconded to find substitute labour in various parts of the country. Others were independent contractors. The most prominent Free Labour activist in South Met., C.Z.Burrows, who was Vice President of the Free Labour Association in 1896 had worked for South Met. as a blacksmith since 1883.
It is not necessarily true that because new men were recruited to strike break that they were conscious  strike breakers - or that they understood the issues involved in the strike, which were not straightforward. Some years later, John Burns talking to a mass meeting about free labour, said that Livesey 'dropped them like a hot potato and it seems that some men recruited through "labour agents' were sometimes those classified by some as 'undesirables'. Speakers from Union platforms complained, among others, about a contingent from Birmingham who had come for work, not been taken on and then proceeded to cause trouble. Police court reports list a number of convictions on drunk and disorderly charges among sixteen-year-olds with Birmingham addresses. These convictions were all in the Rotherhithe area and the Union claimed this as the 'undesirable element'. The Company would not have taken on sixteen-year-olds for retort house work and it is difficult to know what these young men could done which would have shocked Rotherhithe.
Union pickets had some success in persuading some of this replacement labour to go home by offering to pay fares but the press carried other stories of men who had come enormous distances to South Met. and not been taken on. Some of these men were taken to the local poor law institutions and to police cells.
Will Thorne and other Union leaders were not in London at the start of the South Met. dispute. Industrial action in Mancester required their presence and at the same time provided a background to press stories which gave a picture of escalating industrial action throughout the country. Such stories could only lead to increased  pressure from managements like South Met. determined to stay in 'control' in the workplace.
Seige conditions prevailed in South Met. works. Replacement labour learnt the work, were fed and bedded by management and were paid a bonus for it. Rumours soon began to spread that they were mutinous, starving, and infested with lice and disease. Some men were injured through inexperience. Heavy fog and freezing conditions meant demand for gas was high. Pressure and quality fell and stories of how 'Jumbo' the giant gas holder at East Greenwich was pumped full of air to reassure the public, spread. 'Public concern' was expressed by the press concentrating on the supply of gas.
The Times felt that "a majority of people regard this strike as unreasonable and tyrannical". and they pointed out difficulties which, they said, the public had in sympathising with a striking workforce which were well paid and had downed tools to inconvenience the public on a point of principle. Other press comments reflect a mix of views about both strike and scheme The Standard had little difficulty in putting forwal a conventional view which agreed with the Times' 'The Directors of the South Metropolitan Gas Company are doing their duty in determining to resist this demand" and the Daily News was equally quick to condemn the Union; "the unions will do themselves more harm than the employers' . But the Daily Chronicle was also quick to condemn the 'leftward' ideas in the profit sharing scheme; 'Mr. Livesey should leave well alone and keep his profit sharing scheme for consumption at a Toynbee Hall meeting'. The Star however offered a more detailed critique of the scheme - in an Editorial of 5th December they pointed out that the cost of gas is mainly based on wage and coal costs. Coal prices were out of the control of gas company workers, and therefore could not be influenced by them to bring gas prices down and raise their bonus. On the other hand if their wages rose, gas prices would rise and their bonus would be affected. They saw the whole scheme as an attack on the union and 'wish the gasmen every success in defeating an impudent attempt to impose upon them' . Predictably more press outlets shared the views of the Times rather than that of the Star - as in St. James' Gazette 'we hope that the general public will support the gas company '.
The trade press was able to offer more detailed criticism of Livesey and the scheme. Gas World - ever against Livesey - was now quick to condemn the profit sharing scheme describing it as 'specious' and Livesey's behaviour as 'machiavelism'. They said that the officers in the besieged works were being fed on lobsters. Other critics, however, had also pointed out the supply of beer going into the works for thirsty men - despite Livesey's well known temperance advocacy.
Local papers were less eager to criticise gas workers who could well be purchasers of their papers and local authority voters. South London Press described the strike committee as 'a fine intelligent body of men' and ran a flattering profile of Will Thorne together with a picture. South London Press also reported a request of Livesey's for help with board and lodgings for replacement workers to a local workhouse. The reply was 'do you think that this is a common lodging house' and indeed the Vice-chairman of the Lambeth Board of Guardians was currently speaking on gas worker platforms.
Activists in local political parties gave some verbal support. Kennington Liberals had, in June, passed a resolution of support for the gas workers and thi,s was followed by Dulwich and Penge Liberals who passed a resolution against police brutality towards strikers.
In order to support the strikers The Star was urging working class consumers to burn large amounts of gas in order to help deplete supplies. They also suggested that ratepayers be encouraged to summon the Company for an inadequate gas supply. This move was attempted in Bermondsey where a deputation to the local vestry was led by Harry Quelch, the SDF activist. He urged that body to sue the Gas Company for breach of contract by reason of the poor quality of the gas. He was backed by a Vestryman, Dr.Esmonde, who said that the poor light was seriously affecting the eyesight of his patients (laughter). It was decided that the Vestry should write to the Company concerning this breach of contract. It was however, then pointed out by officers that they had no formal contract with the Company - only an 'understanding' and that any sueing would have to be done by the County Council.
It is, therefore, probable that the gas workers enjoyed considerable support in South London and where local authorities needed to look to their support as local residents. Gas Companies need the support of their shareholders. Local authorities need their voters.
The 'other' London Gas Companies (including some more readily described as suburban) met again at the Cannon Street Hotel on 17th November with the Union leadership.  This meeting concluded with a large measure of agreement - so much so in fact that the Gas Workers' manifesto published on 7th December was able to say ' they would always be indebted to the kind  consideration shown in every possible shape by the 'other companies' and in particular by H.E.Jones, Chairman of the Commercial Company, who they quoted as having said to them; 'your interests are our interests; we cannot do without you.' While the Union 'devoutly wished for the peaceful working of the men so admirably put by the Chairman at the Cannon Street Hotel'.
Jones himself wrote to the Times on 9th December " to point out the benefits that Livesey had brought to gas workers in the past and regretting what was obviously a misunderstanding on all sides. What the Union should have, he said, was 'attention and respect' and he pressed the right of the men to combine. This was followed on 31st December by another letter from Jones who was now 'overwhelmed by the virtues of the strike committee' . Obviously both the 'other companies' and the Union were anxious that the dispute should not spread beyond South Met. Commercial Company had never been at loggerheads with South Met. in the way that Gas Light and Coke had been and it may well have been that H.E.Jones hoped to effect some sort of reconciliation between both parties. In any case he was concerned that his own company, which did not have the sort of reserves that South Met. did to spend on strike breaking, did not involve itself in an expensive dispute. The Union must have been concerned that places in other works were kept open to provide alternative employment for its men. In the depth of winter other London companies could well be in need of experienced stokers.
Nonetheless the amount of goodwill between these 'other companies' and the Union is surprising considering the strike was taking place only a few miles away on the other side of the river. As the gas supply produced by South Met. began to improve the Union began to flounder and in its published statements began to modify the terms on which men would return to the works. The Company continued to ignore them - nointing out that the men had left legally and that there was no dispute. Men could return if they wished; when vacancies arose.
Throughout the dispute a series of would-be mediators emerged, all dismissed as meddlers by Robert Morton some months later. Two local Members of Parliament, Causton and Beaufoy, put themselves forward and at the same time a group of non-conformist ministers approached the Company, followed by a local Church of England vicar. Towards the end of December a rather more persistent approach was made by two members of the Labour Association - the organisation concerned to promote the cause of profit sharing. Anxious that their cause might be thrown into disrepute by too close a proximity to strike breaking they hoped to find a solution. However, Ivimey and Greening were no more successful than the churchmen.
It must be kept in mind that although the Gas Workers' dispute was given most space in press headlines at the time, they were supported by a concurrent strike of the Coal Porters Union under the leadership of Michael Henry. This was a potentially bigger affair because the Coal Porters covered much more industry than the Gas Workers and could paralyse more generally. Through them the dispute spread to the Tyne where Henry went to persuade colliers to black ships bound for South Met. works in the Thames and through this the Sailors and Firemen's Unions were involved. Ships on the river were picketed and some crews taken off. This part of the dispute involved a Conference at the Mansion House with Cardinal Manning and other 'self appointed meditators".  Livesey dismissed this Conference, saying that such people had no understanding of the dispute nor of the conditions prevailing in industry.'
Another concurrent strike took place at the Government owned Arsenal gas works. The men came out on the eight hours issue and led to questions about their conditions being asked in Parliament.
The Gas Workers Union were aware that they could win with the help of other unions and as early as 1st. December speakers on their platforms asked 'whether the trade unions of England would allow them to be defeated?' ' By 21st December they had put out a statement saying that while they could not accept the agreements 'we cannot forget the attachment that we feel to our old employers ... and. nothing would give us greater satisfaction than a return to our previous relations '. While the leadership made statements like this to management the kind of rhetoric emanating from mass demonstrations was beginning to sound increasingly' hollow. One such speaker threatened Livesey's life, to be condemned by all sides.
By 25th December speakers were threatening to bring out the men at the Beckton works. They did not do so and once other branches of the Union did not come out in sympathy there was no hope that South Met. men could win the dispute. South Met. was making gas for their customers; the Union members were all out of work - all they could do was to try and persuade Livesey to take them back. 'Mr. Livesey had said if the strikers went ' back to work they have to go back for twelve hours - they had come out for eight hours and would go back for eight hours and the dignity of Englishmen would not let them do anything else. They were not going to creep and crawl to Livesey for work... ' This is all fine and stirring stuff. Even Will Thorne must have known that they had not come out for eight hours but for the right to organise - and that they were in fact already creeping and crawling to Livesey for work.
Other trade unions had not really rallied round. A meeting of unions at Mile End advised the Gas Workers to go to the London Trades Council and get them to sort out some kind of settlement. The Hatters (800 in number) agreed to a weekly levy of 1/- per man and the Glass Blowers pledged £5 a week. This help was intended to keep the families of 3,000 gas workers. Hugh Brown said that; 'he could not blind himself to the fact that trade unionists throughout England had not rallied to give them aid' and Harry Quelch said he knew why.. 'the trade unions had too long been the aristocracy of Labour and cared no more for the Gas Workers in their struggle.... than if they had been the red Indians. '
Nevertheless the rhetoric continued 'The public does not seem to grasp the meaning of the strike ... they did not want more money ... the fight was for liberty to combine and freedom'.
Losing sympathy on all sides, the Gas Workers went to the London Trades Council who co-ordinated a meeting between them, the Coal Porters, and the Sailors and Firemen. Some sort of agreement was drawn up. The strike was called off. They said that the Company had agreed to return to an eight hour system and to take men back if and when vacancies occured. The Union added that they hoped the Company would take back men with families first. The effect of this was lost with Livesey's letter to The Times explaining that a ballot had been held at the various works on the subject of the shift system and that men at most works had voted to go back onto the eight hour day. If the twelve hour system was to remain it was because the workers had voted for it themselves. He was quite happy, he added, to take back old workers - he had indeed already taken many back. Unfortunatly spring was coming and vacancies would be few.
If this was an agreement it was of the most humiliating sort. Livesey did not have to agree to anything - he had already implemented most of its clauses, or said he had. The strike had gained nothing but a lot of destitute ex-gas workers. The strike headquarters now became a welfare agency distributing charity to those without work. It was soon to be visited by Livesey with a donation. The Union had instigated the strike with more rhetoric than finance. The 'big names', men who had led successful strikes and becoming known as Labour leaders - Burns, Tillett, even Thorne had kept well away. The strike had been entirely run by local branch members. They had come out on an issue not readily understood by the general public and not easily sympathised with even by people who were committed trade unionists. They had engaged in strike action involving thousands of workers needing strike pay with virtually no reserves and dependent on other gas workers and street collections. Because they depended on other members of the union remaining in work they were not able to call them out and cripple the entire industry in London. They had intitially prevaricated, not come out while the Company was unprepared. They had given the Company time to prepare for a lengthy strike and then given a week's notice. They had also taken on the only gas company with any reserves - and those reserves were very considerable. They had continued to persuade striking workers that they might win, even though the situation was hopeless, with a degree of drama and rhetoric that had no relation to reality.
Their optimism and naivety was astounding and a contributory reason to the decline of the union within the next few years must be the disillusionment of ordinary workers with them.