Thursday, 4 December 2008

Workers' Power, Manx Style

If you were to open a copy of this week's Socialist, you will find this seldom-noted gem of British labour movement history, courtesy of Christian Daugherty.

On 3 July this year it was the 90th anniversary of the little-known Manx general strike, the Isle of Man's first and only general strike. Its immediate cause was the withdrawal of the subsidy to the flour industry, resulting in rising bread prices. This sparked unprecedented mass strike action across the island, bringing it to a complete standstill for the next two days and under effective control of the strike committee. The strike was only called off after it had forced the government to continue the subsidy.

The Manx government and the Lieutenant of the Isle of Man, Lord Raglan, were very unpopular because of their resistance to reform. Manx workers and poor farmers were angered that the government had repeatedly postponed the introduction of direct taxation of wealth (this was seen as more fair than indirect taxation), old age pensions, national insurance and workmen's compensation. All of which had already been introduced in the rest of Britain.

As early during the war as 1916, there was a demonstration against the government at the
Tynwald day ceremony.

Lord Raglan was met with shouts of 'resign'. When the Manx parliament, the House of Keys was mentioned, there were shouts of 'dissolve'. Demonstrators carried signs saying 'no food taxes', 'direct taxation' and calling for old age pensions. Speakers were met with boos and jeers and at one point someone threw a clump of mud and grass which hit Lord Raglan in the face.

On 20 April 1918 the Laxey miners went on strike for better wages, but were ordered back to work by the minister of munitions pending a decision on their case. Manx workers were then further angered by the raising of indirect taxation in April, the raising of the military age to 51 in May and the announcement of a government surplus of over £40,000 in June.

The final straw came with the removal of the nine-penny loaf. At which point the workers vowed to remain on strike until it was restored.

On the evening of Wednesday 3 July 1918 trade union leaders on the island called a general strike. They formed a strike committee composed of trade unionists that sat continuously for the next two days, at the strike headquarters in Salisbury Hall. The strike committee was in effect a soviet and an embryonic form of workers' power on the Isle of Man.

The practical power of the strike committee is demonstrated by the fact that during the strike only one boat sailed to the island from Liverpool. This was with permission of the strike committee and on condition that upon arrival its crew should also stop work and join the strike for its duration. No boats left the island.

On Thursday morning the government was shocked when mail and passenger boats didn't arrive and the cargo workers refused to load the ships. Amongst the sailors, firemen and cargo workers there was full union membership and 100% support for the strike.

The railway management had high hopes of using non-union labour to run services and early on Thursday morning there were some trains to Douglas, but only one from Douglas to the south of the island.

Its passengers brought news of the strike in Douglas, resulting in a crowd gathering at the station and holding a spontaneous demonstration in support of the strike. The crowd then persuaded the non-union train drivers and the train guards to join the strike.

At noon a crowd mainly consisting of women and children marched to the Douglas train station to prevent any more trains running. Having arrived they persuaded the signal operator and the clerical staff to join the strike and no more trains ran during the strike.

There were also a few electric trams from Ramsey to Douglas early on Thursday morning, run by non-union workers and management. The union workforce protested in Ramsey and a meeting in Douglas, called by the strike committee, ended with a half mile procession to the electric tram station. There were no further tram journeys for the remainder of the strike.

After this, the strike remained solid throughout the island for the rest of Thursday and Friday, resulting in the cancelling of the Tynwald day ceremony on Friday. At 3pm on Friday the government announced they would continue the flour subsidy. Having achieved their aim the strike was called off and the workers returned to work triumphant after the two most tumultuous days in the history of the Manx labour movement.

The Manx working class still remained very radicalised after the strike ended. On Armistice Day, trade unionist and general strike leader Hall Caine made a speech. He said of the war that: "Liberty has nearly been wrecked during the last four years. We have seen it as we see a ship sometimes outside - beset with tumultuous seas, with the black cormorants of autocracy screeching and squirming above it. "

The Manx ruling class took fright at the general strike and the show of strength by the Manx working class. It came only seven months after the October revolution in Russia had brought the Russian working class to power. This show of strength frightened them into making concessions.

Firstly the government agreed to continue the flour subsidy. Through continued pressure, within two years of the strike most of the July 1916 demonstrators' demands had been won.

On 27 July 1918 the income tax bill was signed by the Tynwald. On 17 December Lord Raglan, Lieutenant of the Isle of Man resigned after sixteen years. This was followed by the passing of the adult suffrage bill in February 1919 and the workmen's compensation bill in March 1919. The old age pension and national health insurance bill was passed in May 1920.

As the current economic crisis in the financial sector hits the island, the lessons of the general strike will become increasingly important for Manx workers.

The Isle of Man's economy is even more dependent on the financial/service sector than the UK. In 2000 it was estimated to be about 86% of GDP. As the crisis bites, Manx workers will face the biggest attack on jobs, pay and public services for a generation. This is after more than 20 years of economic growth have resulted in a certain stabilisation of living standards.

The general strike has important lessons for UK workers today, who have already faced more than a generation of attacks on their living standards. As the economic crisis grinds on we will face intensified attacks.

The Manx general strike shows that workers, through united strike action, can completely paralyse the power of a government. They can force the ruling class into a retreat and win progressive reforms benefitting all workers.

This would not have been possible without the trade unions having strong membership and the active participation by the workers. A determined, trusted and elected trade union leadership was also essential.

Unfortunately there was no Bolshevik-type party to take the political leadership and push the movement forward towards socialism.

Serious reforms cannot be gained by persuading the capitalists that aspects of their society are unjust. They can only be gained by directly opposing capitalism, with the power of the organised labour movement.


Brother S said...

Very interesting, Phil bc. Where have you found this?

Brother S said...

Sorry, it was in the Socialist. Should have paid more attention. Back from the pub. Well done Christian. What is his source?

Phil BC said...

I couldn't tell you, Brother S. Seems just like the sort of thing the comrades at Revolutionary History would devote a special issue to ;)