Tom Mann – Britain’s greatest trade unionist?

 

Tom Mann, who was one of the three main union leaders of the 1889 London Dock Strike, is one of Britain’s greatest trade unionists.

After a year working as a miner, ten year-old Mann began a seven-year engineering apprenticeship and after which he moved from Coventry to London to find work. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and published his pamphlet on the eight-hour day. In 1887 Mann moved to Newcastle where as the Social Democratic Foundation’s organiser he helped form the North of England Socialist Federation. Having read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Mann became a communist who aimed to overthrow the capitalist system.

Back in London, Mann helped Ben Tillett, John Burns and Cardinal Manning to organise dockers when they struck in 1889 for 6d (2.5p) an hour and a minimum of four continuous hours of work. With the employers aiming to starve the 10,000 plus men out on strike the arrival of £30,000 from trade unions in Australia helped maintain the struggle and after five weeks the employers conceded defeat by granting all the dockers’ main demands.

Mann became President for the new General Labourers’ Union but in 1897 he helped form the Workers Union, which after a slow start blossomed in the decade prior to World War One. The WU eventually merged with the Transport and General Workers Union in 1929.  In December 1901, Mann emigrated to Australia and where he was active in trade unionism and politics and suffered imprisonment for sedition. On his return to England in 1910, Tillett as an organiser for the Dockers Union employed Mann. He played a crucial role in the successful 1911 transport workers strike in Liverpool and was also heavily involved in the unsuccessful Dublin ‘right to unionise’ strike of 1914.

MaTom Mann portraitnn, a religious person throughout his life, was strongly opposed to workers slaughtering each other during the First World War. He was a firm supporter of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 when for a brief period the working class took control of its own destiny. He retired from full-time employment in 1921, but remained actively involved for many years afterwards and he was sent to prison in 1932 after he criticised cuts in poor relief during a speech he made in Belfast.

When it was decided in 1936 to develop a volunteer international legion to fight on the side of the Spanish Republican government the Tom Mann Centuria became one of the first International Brigades formed. Tom Mann died in Leeds on 13 March 1941. He is buried in Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds, where Leeds Trades Council has placed a plaque in his honour.

Many thanks to Alan Mann (no relation), the secretary of Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery, for this photograph of the Tom Mann plaque  www.friendsoflawnswoodcemetery.co.uk

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