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Monday, 22 April 2013

South Met. Gas. Unionisation

In the 19th century while South Met. set about means of improving conditions for the workforce - either though direct benevolence or by means of incentives designed to 'improve' them - the workers themselves had set up their own organisations to deal with problems of the workplace. As we will see the strike action of 1889 was a pivotal moment in the development of what was to become copartnership at South Met.  Much attention has been given to unionisation in the 19th century gas industry with reference to the events of 1889.
Unionisation in the gas industry, and the attention of historian to it has been focussed on what they describe as the 'new unions' of 1889 and in the Gas Workers Union seen as a 'new' union. They have generally ignored the London-wide strike action and organisation in 1872 and give the impression that the 1889 industrial action was the first attempt to confront management by workers in the industry.
While the 'new unions' may be remarkable for their methods of organisation and nature, nevertheless groups of workers in the gas industry had frequently taken joint action to try and change conditions of employment and pay - and in 1872 an organisation had been built which covered, at least, much of London. South Met. however was remarkable for its ability to avoid confrontation until 1889.
Management at South Met. claimed that a special relationship with their workforce enabled them to avoid direct action in 1872.  Within the context of a small works where the 'old friendly relationships' still existed, the presence of a workers' organisation would be seen by management as antagonistic not only to their power but also to the existing order.
Hosbsbawn in his article on British Gas Workers mentions the 1872 affair in so far as he says that for 17 years before 1889  gas workers 'possessed no-.'traceable unions at all', describing the workers as 'wholly unorganised'. While he discusses the reasons for the rise of the union in 1889 he does not attempt to explain how workers, who were well organised in 1872, were not organised for the successive seventeen years.
'Wholly unorganised' does not cover the many small disputes which would have gone unreported nationally. Many of these took place and they are reported in local papers, company minute books and elsewhere. Hobsbawm also does not derscribe the actions taken by Government to prevent workers in the gas industry from taking joint action.
Henry Pelling mentions the 1872 gas workers agitation in his History of British Trade Unionism linking it with 'the impact of the organising spirit of the time and the extension of the franchise to the urban workers coupled with the comparative prosperity of the period, encouraged them to organise themselves in imitation of the artisans'. He says 'it is doubtful if any of those who began to form a union at the Beckton Gasworks in East Ham in 1872 had ever attempted such a thing before'. In 1872 Beckton works had been opened only four years.
Workers from other London gas works were involved in the 1872 dispute and in them disputes ,had not been unknown in the past.  Im fact Labour disputes in the gas industry had been taking place ever since the invention of gas and gas works. Stirling Everard's History of the Gas Light and Coke Co. instances earlier disputes - the first, he says, took place in 1816 and was resolved by giving extra beer to the stokers. Other disputes followed. through the years in which the existence of a 'union' is often mentioned. In one instance he mentions a strike whose participants claimed to have connections with Chartists and was seen as 'political' by management; in 1834 the existence of a ' Grand National Consolidated London Conjunctive union' is noted.
Throughout the 19th century workers in the gas industry were certainly in touch with each other and with workers in other industries and were organising around issues other than those directly concerned with immediate working conditions. Companies were, however, swift to take punitive action against activists - strikers were sacked and their names circulated to other gas companies and to their parishes, in order to stop them getting parish relief. If work stopped companies could interconnect their mains thus ensuring a supply from other works to their customers until the dispute was over.
In these disputes it was often the stokers who were the activists - and 'stokers' is often shorthand for 'retort.-house worker'.  As Hobsbawm says they were the 'key men in the whole process' and their wage rates a 'reflection of their political bargaining strength'. If this was so then high wage rates had removed taken away the necessity to organise.
In successive disputes the wages of retort house workers were not the major point at issue. But if managements 'were willing to pay stokers high wages without recourse to organisation" we should not be surprised at the lack of a union and when a union is formed it is likely to be around issues other than wage rates.
Other groups of workers in the industry were not so fortunate as retort house workers. There is however evidence of shortlived disputes among other specialist groups. Harris writing about the gas industry in Liverpool mentions lamplighters industrial action there in 1853.
It is also likely that the many specialist tradesmen employed in the works would have been members of their trade assocuations - men who had served an apprenticeship and had a skill to sell to other industries. As Livesey himself argued, disputes were less likely to occur in small works where management and men were personally known to each other - most London works in the years before 1850 would have been of this size.
Everard mentions a strike in 1867 where stokers called 'for an eight-hour day and time-and-a-half on Sundays'. These two issues were recurring themes of union activity - and, of course, major points at dispute in 1889. The 1872 strike among gasworkers covered all London, except South Met., and included calls for reduced Sunday working.  
In the year before the action of 1872 stokers had asked for and received wage rises. National newspapers reported meetings in August 1872 at which calls were made for an end to Sunday working and for union recognition. By early December men in the Imperial Company's works had stopped work because other workers had been sacked because of this action and because they had refused to work with non-union labour. Other workers throughout London struck and the action escalated.
Although strike action was widespread in North London, in South London it was patchy and in South Met, no men came out. Old Kent Road workers would have been approached by other workers to take part in 'sympathetic action'.  It seems that South Met. workers although broadly in sympathy with their aims but decided not to strike - why was this?
George Livesey had been in promoted to manager of the Old Kent Road works only a year before 1872, They had been informed of pay rises awarded by the Imperial and Gas Light and Coke Companies in the previous year and South Met. had given their men rises to match these.
In June 1872 Livesey made a recommendation to his Board that men should be given double pay with their week's holiday 'in order to attach them further to the Company'. By September 1872 South Met. was declining to participate in an all-London Conference of gas managements 'to promote mutual action on the question of stokers wages" because ' they see no necessity to attend the Conference more especially as their own men have taken no part in the agitation". 
In October 1862 South Met. again raised wages to the level paid by the Imperial Company but noting 'the men in this Company's employ have made no complaint nor have they asked for any additional pay but seeing as this Company's practice has always been to act liberally towards its workmen.....'. Clearly South Met. workers would not make demands for privileges they already enjoyed but there was there also a reluctance to 'come out in sympathy' with those pressing for union recognition? There is however evidence that South Met. workers did take such 'sympathetic action'.

In 19th century gas industry labour disputes it was frequently the practice for the gas companies to connect their mains to company's whose men were still working. South Met. Directors' Minutes of 9th December 1872 record  'that they had supplied gas to Surrey Consumers Company but because of South Met.'s men's discontent this was stopped'. In Journal of Gas Lighting eight days later is a further report and Livesey was challenged as to whether pipes had been joined and then later disconnected because of pressure from the men. He denied that such a request has been made 'if such a demand had been made upon me, my duty would have been perfectly clear'.  This statement is pretty ambiguous and Livesey had obviously seen it as 'his duty' to disconnect the pipes but did not want to be seen giving way to pressure from his workforce.

Following the dispute a Royal Commission on the Labour Laws was held in which such gas industry disputes were discussed  As a result in 1875 the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act was passed by Parliament which effectively prevented gas workers from taking strike action. Thus if we are looking for a realistic reason why unionisation in the gas industry died for seventeen years this is it -strikes were made illegal.

What gas workers knew was that legislation actually prevented them from striking and that had they done so they would have felt the full weight of the law.  They were well paid but workplace conditions were often bad and they were forbidden by law from striking. There are always those in the workforce who will take high wages and put up with the conditions. But  by 1889 a generation of activists had passed and the memories of the trials of striking gas workers and their sentences of hard labour had faded .

Within those seventeen years minor disputes of course did take place.- no doubt most of them unrecorded - but not workers were 'wholly unorganised'. For example in 1878 Phoenix Company Directors minuted a strike on the coal wharf among fillers against reductions in pay.

In the years after 1889 Livesey always said that no form of union or strike action had ever occured in South Met. - apart from one incident in the early 1830s when he claimed the workforce struck in support of the management. But those workers of 1872 who approached Livesey and persuaded him to disconnect the mains  - if they were not 'the union'  then they were acting in a way which very much resembled one.

Some months later there is a mysterious reference in Journal of Gas Lighting when 'a manager' was mentioned whose men had not struck because he had 'identified with their interests'. They also said that the Board in  question was so ungrateful for his action that it had 'not thanked him; In 1875 the Chairman had accused Livesey (at that time Company Secretary) of packing meetings with his supporters - the supporters being 'a parcel of our workmen'  with the implication that Livesey was too friendly with them.

In the London gasworks of 1872 the end of the strike was swift and terrible. Striking workers were prosecuted under the Master and Servant legislation and many were sentenced to hard labour. Pelling described the outcry that followed this and the resulting petitions to Parliament - which eventually involved long term changes to the law but the ability for mass action on specific demands was gone

In 1889 William Mathieson, one of the 'loyal' men of 1889 told George Livesey; 'I am a great advocate for combination. I have always stick up for it but never for strikes since 1874 when I went out with the result I lost £3'. This is a reference to an otherwise unrecorded strike at Vauxhall works seems on the issue on the eight hour day.  Mathieson's words are a reminder that men continued to protest, but that if strike action failed, punitive recriminations would persuade them not to strike again. Wages were high, men were not desperate.

Perhaps another reason was apathy. 'even now there is laxity and indifference to the great Labour Movement... the majority of members think a club room and subscriptions is all they need." Will Thorne's reported in 1889 to the Gas Workers Union. 

So what changed and why were gas workers persuaded to take action in 1889? Hobsbawm suggested two reasons which prevented action before then - seasonality which made labour more casual and that stoking was just another labouring job to which workers from other industries could he recruited as replacements. 

Seasonality was less important as a factor than it seemed - as Hobsbawn admitted. Seasonal men returned in successive years and were employued on a more permanent basis than most casual labour. Gas industry stokers were not actually unskilled and South Met. itself learnt in 1889 that labourers still needed to be trained.  Replacement men brought into the works in 1889 suffered burns, and exhaustion. Stoking may have required brute strength but it, like every job, it had its pace and range of skills - and covered a range of specialist jobs - firemen, scoopmen, etc.

Gas Companies did sometimes attempt to cut wages - Phoenix Directors minuted several attempts to do this.  On each occasion management reported to the Board that this was inadvisable. So in these instances gas workers did not need to take action; their wages were not cut because management was obviously frightened of the repercussions should they do so.

The main theme of Hobsbawm's British Gas Workers is the interrelationship between unionisation and mechanisation. Unionisation, he says, forced the introduction of machinery in an industry slow to adopt it. This cannot be denied and there is a wealth of contemporary source material about that in. for instance, submissions to Select Committees. Gas managers were happy to describe the processes which had led them to install machinery in the works - and blame the unions for it.

In his evidence to the 1899 Select Committee George Livesey explained how mechanisation in the industry had been retarded since the 1870s. He explained how many of his efforts were directed to savings in costs and how his giant gasholders were designed to do this. He claimed his reluctance to introduce mechanical working at South Met. was due to his belief that men should not be put out of work through machinery.

Workers in 1889 were told that strike action would make such mechanisation inevitable but a different story was given to the Select Committees.

South Met. was one of the few companies which had expended a considerable amount on mechanisation. East Greenwich works'had been started in 1881 and contained much innovative machinery on which Livesey's contemporaries poured scorn. Part of Livesey's argument against unions was that they engendered the sort of restrictive practices which meant that machines were not used to their fullest extent. Co-partnership meant that there was an incentive for men to use machines to the best advantage.

If Hobsbawm's argument on mechanisation is valid - then it is partly disproved by South Met. If unionisation forced the pace of mechanisation thus giving the industry an impetus to modernise we must also accept that at South Met., before 1889 that modernisation had been moving briskly ahead at East Greenwich. Members of the workforce could therefore already see the impact of machines on day to day working.

In South Met. it is clear that the union, by an attempt to regulate working practices made it easier for management to introduce more machinery. South Met. said that they had introduced machinery because they wanted a workforce which would work with machines in the way that management wanted. Livesey argued these cases as proved by South Met's efficiency.

If in 1889 workers were beginning to see traditional-work patterns changing then there are two further factors which-affect them. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s technical change concentrated on the diversification of products. Gas technologists and managers worked on ways to find methods of using by-products commercially and to find more effective ways of selling gas. Gas is a chemical industry and South Met. was again a pacesetter. From 1870 the production and use of by-products intensified

Amalgamations of gas companues in the late 1870s must also have been a large factor in altering workers perceptions of their roles. Small companies suddenly became part of big ones - small works with management on site found management now several miles away and rarely seen. It would have been remarkable if this had not made workers uneasy. Joseph Melling discusses new management methods calling it a switch to modernisation in business methods. The change in South Met, was in its sheer size and in the fact that this change took place over a period of only five years.

Changes also took place in the way gas was sold - slot meters, etc - meant that the working classes were wooed as customers. The result was that more gas workers were in jobs outside the retort houses. More and more gas workers were not 'stokers'.  A new type of workforce was being recruited - showroom workers, meter readers, etc. Jobs were becoming cleaner and not so physically hard.

It is not surprising that retort house workers should see their positions threatened in the pace of change around them.

J. Melling in Industrial Strife etc. Business History
E.J.Hobshawm. Labouring Men. 1964.
H.M.Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism.
S.Everard. A History of the Gas Light and Coke. Co.
S.Harris. The developmentof gas supply on North Merseyside.
Livesey. Profit Sharing; a Vindication. Economic Review
South Met. Directors Minutes
Journal of Gas Lighting
Royal Commission on the Labour Laws. Report of Evidence
Phoenix Gas Company Directors Minutes
Gas Workers Union. Report
Select Committee on the Metropolitan Gas Companies 1899.
Supplement to Co-partership Journal

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