The Gas Workers Union has been described as one of the 'new' unions of 1889 which enshrined principles distinct from those in more traditional organisations. Pelling says they 'catered very largely for unskilled and poorly paid workers - new unions tended to have a low entrance fee and subscriptions and depended not on benefits but on aggressive strike tactics to win concessions .. they were willing to recruit workers without distinction of type of employment' . The Union has been described as having socialist connections and much made of Will Thorne's relationship with Eleanor Marx.
The union was initially based around works to the east of London and particular the Gas Light and Coke Company's works at Beckton. The addresses of the first Executive are in east London and Essex. Although Will Thorne is not in the list the foundation of the Union is described in his biography, which was published many years later and closely follows the minute books.
The first records of the Union described activities in London and the immediate surrounding suburbs with delegates attending meetings from works in this area. Activity quickly spread to other parts of the country and major disputes took place in provincial cities. This has all been widely documented and was widely reported at the time in the national press. Organisation was based mainly round the call for the eight hour shift system - although locally there were variations.
Hobsbawm said that many gas managements were taken by surprise and that the eight hour day was unknown to than. It would indeed seem that gas managements were unprepared for industrial action although it is hard to believe that they did not know about the eight hour day - which had been widely discussed in the trade press for many years.
Managements all over Britain conceded the eight hour system to their workers. The union had grown extremely quickly and gas workers throughout the country had been recruited and organised. Strike action continued throughout the summer and autumn of 1889 in several provincial works. Once the eight hour day had been established the Union began to organise around the equally old and tangled question of Sunday working. Requests for double pay on Sundays began to be put to managements. Union leadership began to ask for the right to organise in works and for the right to restrict entry to the trade by refusing to work with those who were not union members.
The issue of public control in the gas industry was a very real one. Managements were aware that muncipalisation was an idea put forward by local authorities throughout the country. In London the newly elected London County Council had already commissioned reports on the public ownership of gas and water. Such moves were supported by politicians who often had the generalised support of union leaders. Local politicians sometimes spoke on the platforms of striking gas workers.
George Livesey was concerned with 'partnership' and had already linked ownership to this through the sales of shares to 'consumers' and he said that control of the industry should be by those involved in it. He described the Union as an 'outside' body which wanted to get illegitimate control of the industry and that the Union was making a demand for a right which it should not have had. Livesey saw the union subverting his workforce, not as a legitimate grouping of South Met. workers seeking to control their own working conditions. In Livesey's eyes the legitimate workers organisation was one set up by management.
It was however Livesey who made the argument on control of the industry while union activists merely referred to control through the London County Council.
In June 1889 managers at individual London has works were approached on the subject of the eight hour day by Union representatives. Delegates from the Old Kent Road and Rotherhithe works reported to Gas Workers Union delegate meetings on their approaches to South Met. At Rotherhithe they had been received favourably by management but they were told that it was not thought eight hours would be possible at the moment - because 'men were scarce'. At Old Kent Road things were had been encouraging - they were received favourably and told they must act in a straightforward manner. Delegates from other companies had sometimes done less well - at Poplar works they had been 'talked to like a lot of babies in long clothes'.
On 19th June the South Met. Board minuted that a deputation of men had attended the old offices to discuss petitions concerning the eight hour day and on 26th June a notice went up at the various works of the company announcing possible changes in the shift system and asking men at each works to decide among themselves which system - eight or twelve hours - would be preferred by a majority of men there. The Company said that working practices would be made as universal as possible throughout the company although this might mean lost privileges at some works (the company was still rationalising working practices between the three amalgamated companies). It was also made a condition that regular men would be required to give a month's notice.
The socialist paper Justice reported on this discussion at South Met. as 'crowned with success'- and noted that men working the eight hour day would also receive an unasked for pay rise.
Throughout the rest of the summer and early autumn of 1889 the union continued its programme of local meetings - including some within South Met.'s area. Attention was however focussed on the concurrent dock strike. In gas works the Union concentrated on recruitment - Livesey later reported to his Proprietors that during this time 'a determination was shown to persuade, and if that failed to compel, every man in the Company's service to join the Union;
On 5th September Livesey said that the Union had written to the Company saying that 'in effect' only Union members would be allowed to work. Following this some stokers were sacked at Vauxhall and a mass meeting of retort house workers was held there and, before a meeting could be arranged ,Livesey said, strike notices were handed in at most of the works. However, - "Mr. Livesey stated his willingness to recognise the Union and apologised for some remarks made in a speech of his."
Labour Elector published an agreement signed by both management and Union at South Met. It stated that the Company would not interfere with Union men by consequence of their membership and that in the same way the Gas Workers Union would not interfere with non-Union men. This agreement was hailed as a victory but in its very next issue Labour Elector had to admit that 'in the excitement of the moment' an important clause had been omitted from the agreement - this being the clause giving the Union rights of recruitment and rights to refuse to work with non-union labour. Without it the agreement was toothless and it is incredible that any negotiating body did not notice that they had signed an agreement which did not include it.
Livesey had appeared to agree to recognise the Union but in future he would have no more dealings with them and made preparations to confront them. Despite this hollow victory Will Thorne hailed 'the re-instatement of the men at Vauxhall as a demonstration of the strength of the union. On 11 the September the Directors minuted that: 'the above named Union or its members cannot be recognised and that it will not be allowed to interfere with the conduct of the company's business also that non-union men will be preferred and will be protected against intimidation'. They then began to make preparations for a seige in anticipation of a future strike.
Livesey later reported to the Proprietors "at every station, buildings available for sleeping accommodation were inspected and arrangements were made to supplement any deficiency with Humphery's iron buildings and in addition six steamers were provisionally chartered - a contract was made with Messrs. McWhirter to provide bedsteads and bedding - advertisements were printed and the Chairman called upon the Chief Comissioner of Police". Labour Elector noted carpenters and joiners fitting up beds and a dining room, and agents being despatched to different parts of the country to procure men.
The Union continued to hold mass meetings and demonstrations. South London Press reported, among others, a meeting on Peckham Rye with banners from Rotherhithe and Bankside in support of the dock strike. Meetings in the South Met.'s area were mostly held on Peckham Rye or in Deptford Broadway - there is little about meetings in Greenwich or near the giant East Greenwich works. Some meetings were held in Woolwich but these were to attract workers from the gas works in the Government owned works in the Arsenal - the two private Woolwich gas works acquired by South Met. had long since been closed down.
In early October the Union began to press for double time on Sundays and on 4th November representatives of gas company managements from all over London met Union members for discussions at the Cannon Street Hotel. George Livesey did not attend but his brother Frank - who was Manager at the Old Kent Road works - went, but is not reported as having spoken. The meeting proceeded to some measure of agreement - both sides saw the need for recreation for the workforce and agreed that technical problems caused difficulties in maintaining a reduced workforce on a day when demand was peaking. The Union representatives agreed to ask their membership to consider a compromise for some reduced hours and double pay in return for a shorter working day and the meeting broke up to re-convene a week later.
Meanwhile - and the exact date is a matter for discussion - Livesey introduced his profit sharing scheme.
He gave, in later years, various dramatic accounts of this. He had been in Eastbourne, with his wife, and thought to walk the last stretch back to the works through New Cross. Walking on Pepys Hill, and thinking what a fine public park it would make, he reached the works and was told that the union had given them until 4 p.m. for an answer. 'I had not thought out anything and I cannot explain how or why this thing came to be but in a quarter of an home on half a sheet of paper the scheme was set out in writing and when the Board met was submitted to them.
The first time the scheme is mentioned in the Company Minutes is on 6th November and Will Thorne knew all about it at the re-called Cannon Street Conference on 11th November. Three years later Livesey told the Royal Commission of Labour that it was introduced on 30th October - although a Board meeting that day did not minutes anything about it. This discrepancy over the date of the announcement of the scheme is crucial if we are to determine whether or not Livesey introduced his scheme with or without the Board's knowledge.
As we have seen Livesey had nourished such plans for many years and had always been thwarted by the Board. Did he use the impending strike to get his pet scheme through in a time of crisis? If it is to be argued that the scheme was introduced only to strike break why should he have brought it in behind the backs of his Board?
R.A. Church puts forward the standard argument in Profit Sharing and Labour Relations in England in the Nineteenth Century . He claimed that the scheme was set up -to forestall a strike for higher wages. This theory is echoed by Perks in Real Profit Sharing. Higher wages were not an issue in the strike so this is not an explaination.
Outbidding the Union is a dangerous game and Livesey was a skilled negotiator who would be aware of the dangers of escalation - he wanted to be rid of the union, not to bargain with them. It was already being said of him 'we only had to ask for gold watches and he would have given them'.
Clegg, Fox and Thompson are more explicit in a History of British Trade Unions since 1889 . They describe the strike in their chapter called "The Counter-Attack Begins". This is about employers who answered tough strike action with tough retaliation. The plans which Livesey made for strikebreaking are outlined and it is said "Livesey brushed aside attempts at mediation". Although they imply that the Company was determined to fight the Union whatever the circumstances or results. The profit sharing scheme is said to be a potential strike breaker - but not why this was.
Bristow's article on Profit Sharing, Socialism and Labour Unrest enlarges on this argument but again does not attempt to attempt to analyse the situation any further. He quotes Livesey's statement to the Royal Commission of Labour; 'it was to retain or to obtain the allegiance of the working man which was fast passing away ... under the influence of the Gas Workers Union" . Each historian puts forward a fairly simple view of the profit sharing scheme - they do not explain why Livesey should have wanted to introduce it - and the all important question - why this scheme now?
Joseph Melling wrote a very detailed account of South Met. and welfare benefits but without reference to Livesey's previous interest in profit sharing schemes. He thought that the strike was provoked deliberately by Livesey - "Livesey and his fellow directors intended to press the profit sharing scheme as only one of the whole range of carefully planned strategies ..... .......... the immediate effect of the proposals as the Board had foreseen, was to divide the workforce and isolate the solid body of activists '. He also makes another point; that strike breaking arrangements were well in hand before the scheme was announced. He says that once these were completed ''Livesey proposed to use the scheme to 'conciliate' the men'. This puts both strike and scheme in a different perspective - the scheme used as a mechanism to divide the workers and against which some elements must react. "The Gas Workers Union would have no official status (on the Co-partnership Committee) and when the Company refused to withdraw the scheme the Union was forced to declare a strike".
This theory of carefully orchestrated plotting does at least try to answer the central question. However, it still ignores Livesey's many years of pushing profit sharing schemes. Would somebody who had spent the past twenty years in advocating a system use it in order to strike break?
The Board had always been against these ideas of Livesey's. Years later Co-partnership Journal reported on how he had put a scheme forward at some time in the past and been told by a Director 'that he had been in favour of the co-operative principle in his younger days but had altered his opinion' and by another 'that it would make the Board the fifth wheel of the coach and this would not do". However that the composition of the Board had changed since then - Livesey himself was a member. Gradually the older directors were being changed and replaced with Livesey's chosen supporters.
What did Livesey hope would come out of the scheme? He could not have thought that it would immediately stop all strike action. He would have known that any such scheme would only be successful on the long term. Only the agreements could have acted in the short term. These agreements had to be signed by those workers who were participating in the profit sharing scheme and men had to sign to say they would give a month's notice - preventing mass handings in of notices. Livesey himself said in later years that even this would not stop a determined body of men from going ahead and leaving work.
On 18th November a meeting was held with delegates from all South Met's works to explain the profit sharing scheme to those men who had already signed the agreements. At it Livesey said 'to speak quite plainly the Company intends to have some protection out of it.' This statement is the most explicit one making it clear to the men that the signing of the agreements was built into the scheme in order to persuade men not to strike. The profit sharing bonus conditional on this.
'To quote Melling Livesey had switched the argument with 'brilliant strategy' from one about pay and hours to one about profit sharing and bonuses" . In fact the argument had switched to one about individual liberty, control in the workplace and ultimately about control of the industry. It was on these lines that the discussion continued on into the dispute and it was on these issues that the strike was called. Does this mean that Livesey deliberately provoked the strike?
Livesey told the 'loyal' workers at the 'interview' - 'the public will think that it is better for us to have to put up with some inconvemence or a short supply of gas for a few days than to have the price permanently raised'. So far as the Union had asked only for what the Company had been prepared to give - eight hours and Sunday overtime - but they were now trying to control recruitment in the workplace and this Livesey was not prepared to allow. By bringing up the old issue of price Livesey was also touching on the question of control.
A week after the scheme had been announced the union said that they would 'enforce Rule XVI' which concerned union recognition. The company replied that the Union could not be recognised and their 'own men' would be preferred. The press began to report increased protest meetings.
Gas Workers Union, Minutes 1889 - 1913H.Pelling. A History of British Trade Unionism.
Will Thome. My Lifes Battles
E.J.Hobsbawm. Labouring Men.
South Met. Director's MinutesJustice
South Met. Directors Report and Accounts December
South London Press
Gas Workers Union papers
R. Perks. Real Profit Sharing.Hugh Clegg, Fox & Thompson. History of British Trade Unions Since 1889.
E. Bristow. Profit Sharing, Socialism and Labour UnrestJ. Melling. Industrial Strife and Business Welfare Philosophy.
TimesJ. Saville. Trade Unions and Free Labour
Free Labour GazetteGas World
Daily NewsDaily Chronicle