"There is a world of freedom, beauty and equality to gain, where everyone will have an opportunity to express the best that is in them for the benefit of all, making the world a place more to our heart's desire and the better to dwell in."
Will Thorne, GMB founder, when asked why he dedicated his life to the Labour movement.
When the workers from the Beckton Gas Works were laid off in March 1889, gas workers in London held a political meeting and decided to form a union to protect themselves. Despite little discernible union organising prior to this, a wave of unexpected solidarity swept the country. In days when communication was slow, this was extraordinary. Despite The Journal of Gaslighting claiming that the country was at the mercy of the gas workers, their demands were actually very modest: mainly an eight hour working day and Sundays as time off.
Gas was so indispensable to the rapidly growing urban population that they easily won their demands. In Bristol the gas supply became so low, so quickly, that concessions to workers were made within a day after a special board meeting at the company chairman’s house.
Image: an 1820s drawing of the gasworkers at Brick Lane shovelling coal into the horizontal retorts.
Eric Hobsbawm said that working-class labour often meant ‘working to rhythms, and in patterns…tested and evolved over long periods.’ He felt these rhythms turned the workers themselves into a ‘specialised machine,’ to keep up with growing demand for the goods they are producing and providing. 1 I recognise this. For the first twenty years of my working life I was a cleaner, then a factory line worker, then a healthcare worker. All roles that involved teams, developing their own rhythms, to make the work safer, more pleasant and creative when possible.
The gas worker of the 1800s was an amazing example of a worker evolving into a ‘specialised machine,’ providing an essential ‘good’ - in this case coal gas - to the growing urban populations. The stokers, firemen, builders and other gas workers shovelled coal into the sweltering retorts and separated the gas from the toxic substances that gasification created, enabling the street lighting of the expanding towns and cities.
Workers are nearly always providing goods and services that keep the rhythm of society moving and functioning, in energy, food, care work, cleaning, transport. They truly are in a position to bring society to a standstill, but very rarely do. One thing that always strikes me when workers down tools is that, a) they have usually been pushed to the edge in terms of economic pressure, and b) their demands are always moderate and reasonable. One thing labour history tells us is that workers aren’t greedy. Their demands are mostly about safety, about decent working conditions and pay to support them and their families. We should remember this when the inevitable media demonisation begins in the face of the current transport strikes. The real picture of workers’ struggle for rights is always eminently reasonable.
"Let me tell you that you will never get any alteration in Sunday work, no alteration in any of your conditions or wages, unless you join together and form a strong trade union. Then you will be able to have a voice and say how long you will work, and how much you will do for a day's work.”
Will Thorne, 1889.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Labouring Men, Studies in the History of Labour. 1964. (Weidenfeld Goldbacks) P164.