Who would choose to trek to a public meeting on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year? A few hardened militants perhaps. Or maybe a few meeting junkies who turn up to everything and have no social life. On this day, 28th December, in 1889, the Eastern Post reported that “Some 2,800 were present” at a meeting held at the Great Assembly Hall on the Mile End Road in London’s East End. They were there to try to cement the dramatic workplace victories that occurred in the summer and autumn of that year, by creating a “Federation of East London Unions”.
The poster advertising the event is a fascinating document in itself, and touches on very current arguments about labour issues that have embroiled figures such as Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott and Len McCluskey among others.
The three rows of speaker names beneath the Chair – Charles V Adams – include the legendary union leaders and activists, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, who had led the successful strike that year for the “dockers’ tanner”, and popularised the “new unionism”. Also listed is the anarchist-communist Charles Mowbray – who railed against slum landlords as well as factory bosses, – and other trade unionists sporting English, Scottish and Welsh names. The four rows of speakers advertised immediately below them sound more “foreign”: Weinberg, Feigenbaum, Goldstone, Goldstein, Sebersky, Rosenberg… (as a Rosenberg myself, I’m pleased to see one among them.)
These were Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant activists, part of the wave of migration by pauperised Jews leaving the Tsarist Russian Empire, mainly after 1881, fleeing from persecution and discrimination but also seeking better economic opportunities. Today’s right wing press draws a simple line separating refugees from economic migrants (though it rails against both), but in the face of pogroms as well as economic discrimination, no such simple line could be drawn then. The Eastern Post report of the meeting added that “speeches were made in different languages and translated.”
The well-known phrase, “Workers of the World Unite” that regularly adorned leaflets and banners of this period, appears below the list of speakers. In this case though it expressed the very essence of the venture being undertaken. Workers – migrants, children of migrants and those who could trace their families several generations back to the local area, (“indigenous”) – were uniting across barriers of ethnicity, language, culture and country of origin, for mutual benefit.
The bottom section of the poster reiterated the main details of when and where the meeting would take place in Yiddish, the mame loshn (mother tongue) of many who were invited to atttend. This initiative was driven by a militantYiddish-speaking immigrant called William (Woolf) Wess. A shoemaker at twelve, he worked as a machinist in Dvinsk (Latvia) before arriving in London aged 20 in 1881. He came with some already formed socialist ideas, which matured through involvement with the likes of William Morris and Eleanor Marx in the Socialist League, and Freedom, “a journal of anarchist-socialism”.
Wess and his comrades laid the foundations for activism among sweated immigrant workers by forming unions and establishing an International Workers’ Education Club in Berner Street (later renamed Henriques Street), committed to the “social and political enlightenment of its members”. It provided a venue for shnayders (tailors), shusters (shoemakers) and stolyers (cabinet makers) – the main jobs the immigrant workers did – to eat, drink, read newspapers, play chess and share workplace experiences after long days in the sweatshops and factories.
The club also had a printing press, churning out leaflets, manifestos and a 12-page weekly newspaper, the Arbayter Fraynd (Workers’ friend), which reduced to four pages and came out daily as a bulletin during significant strikes. It was the wave of strikes and militancy in East London from the summer of 1888 through 1889 that this meeting was building on. Karl Marx’s collaborator and sponsor, Friedrich Engels, had been much more pessimistic in a letter of April 1888 to the writer Margaret Harkness, in which he stated: “Nowhere else in the civilized world are the people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to their fate than in the East End of London.” But by the time this meeting took place, women of the Bryant and May match factory had defiantly stood up for their rights winning better conditions and an end to a petty system of fines that regularly stole money from already thin wage packets; gasworkers at Beckton, near West Ham had become the first workers in and around London to achieve the 8-hour day; The dockers had won their tanner and the longer call-on shifts they were demanding and, with the help of a very timely donation from the strike committee of the very same dockers, when their strike fund almost reached rock bottom, more than 7,000 immigrant Jewish tailors had won a 12-hour day instead of a 14-18 hour day.
If Engels was wrong in his forecast, it was George Lansbury who later wrote about the key role that migrant labour, especially from Jewish and Irish communities, had played in awakening inspiring and mobilising successful workers struggles in the East End. The federation formed in the East End that night helped institutionalise the solidarity that improved conditions for all. These strikes and campaigns were also marked by community support beyond the workplace, public meetings in indoor and outdoor venues, petitions and marches, donations of food for striking workers and their families, and rent strikes, in the dockers’ case mainly led by women, who hung notices around their estates saying “As we are on strike landlords need not call”. But the key feature was a sentiment expressed by Charles Adams, the chair of the meeting on 28 December 1889, who had been tasked by his union, the Alliance Cabinet Makers’ Association, with organising Jewish immigrant carpenters. He told the meeting that, “…if ever labour is to rise successfully… it must rise as a whole… This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations”, and never let employers “exploit one against the other”.
The dockers leader, Ben Tillett, had a well-documented reputation as a xenophobe, and once told a gathering of Jewish migrant workers: “You are our brothers and we will do our duty by you, but we wish you had not come.” He and some of his colleagues expressed concerns that a constant flow of new migrants willing to work long hours for low pay would undermine the conditions won through struggle by trade unions. In the 1890s the TUC called for immigration control. But in practice Tillett saw the solutions in unionising migrant workers and forming joint struggles. Many of the dockers were in fact of Irish heritage, as was Tillett himself.
In 2009, under economic pressures Gordon Brown mouthed the longstanding call of narrow nationalists, usually associated with the Far Right when he advocated “British jobs for British workers”. While Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn have continued to defend freedom of movement for all workers, in the wake of the EU referendum, Andy Burnham signalled his retreat from this, saying: “There is a feeling the political class hasn’t taken concerns about… immigration seriously and acted on them”, adding more recently, “We need a system that affords greater control. That allows us to bring people to work here and contribute to our economy and society, but also deals with the negative effects of full free movement.”
Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey, who has long been active in the fight against racism and fascism, and has spoken up for refugee rights, was criticised by some on the left recently when he appeared at first to be conceding on the freedom of movement argument. But he later revealed his more nuanced position when pressed, that was about trade unions, not border officers, exercising control, or as he prefers to put it, placing “safeguards”. While reiterating his full commitment to refugee rights, he proposes that “any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.” He argues that this would provide “every worker, wherever they are from, with a decent job and every family with a decent home.” He added that “unions here need to unite with trade unions in other countries to put an end to the playing off of workers in one part of the world against each other, to oppose the power of global capital with the power of a renewed international labour movement… The problem is not cheap labour in Britain – it’s cheap labour anywhere.”
As we move closer to Brexit, and the struggles by the Labour Party and labour movement intensify to defend all workers rights in whatever settlement is achieved, it is important that we recognise the gains made recently through struggle by impoverished migrant workers, such as cleaning workers, and that we remember the gains that were made in the late 19th century for all, when workers already here and migrant workers who had recently arrived were part of one common struggle. We need to draw on the internationalist spirit that typified that public meeting on this day in 1889 if we are to successfully combine workers’ struggles and anti-racist struggles in 2017.