The Labour War in Wales [1890]

More depends upon the conflict that is now raging in South Wales than a careless observer might imagine. It is not alone a battle between the South Wales railway men and the rich railway company,[1] it is really a fight between the railway companies and railway workers of Britain. South Wales has been chosen as the battle-field, and that is all. If the railway company is beaten, every one of these rich corporations in England, Wales, and Scotland may look forward to reduced dividends. If the men are defeated it may be the Sedan of the New Unionism, and the Norwoods and Liveseys[2] may rejoice, for Labour will be once more a crushed slave beneath their feet. No wonder, then, that all who love the people are looking with so much interest to South Wales.

But there is another reason why Socialists should be interested in this Great Strike. If capitalists have united against labour, then on the other hand labour stands in serried ranks against capital. Sympathy is universal among the workers with the strikers. The dockers will not take coal from blackleg railway men, and the miners on their side not only will not dig coal, but they threaten that they will prevent by main force the running of trains by blacklegs. What with the men on strike, and the miners and the dockers who are locked out, the strike is practically a general one. This fact has been recognised even by the scribes of the capitalist press. The Weekly Dispatch, among other capitalist newspapers, has pointed this out. It says:

“Another point to be noted is this. The Welsh strike for the moment simply paralysed the life of the community. And why? Because it was a case where labour operated not merely by one combination, but by a combination of combinations, and because it contrived to neutralise the blackleg. The strikers first shut up the seaport of the district, and then strangled its railway system. If that were done in London – and it can be done – we leave it to our readers to say what would happen within twenty-four hours. The alternative would be surrender or civil war, and the sooner this ugly fact is faced the better.”

We do not think that a General Strike even in London would involve civil war, because we do not know who would do the fighting on the part of the capitalist classes. With outbreaks among the soldiers in our garrison towns, and with a fierce discontent among them, of which these revolts are only the outward symptoms, it will not do for fat railway directors and other sweaters to rely too much on their army. As for the police they would simply, to use a graphic Americanism, be “chawed up” in the event of a popular outbreak. Robert knows this, and he will if he is a sensible man take care to be out of the way when trouble comes. We fear that so great is the unpopularity of the force, that a blue uniform would be a certain passport to Paradise. Of course, we would not insult the “respectable” police by hinting that they would be sent anywhere else by a revolutionary mob. Therefore, provoking general strikes by “smashing unions” is not to be such a safe amusement as some capitalists appear to think. Let them listen to the words of wisdom of the Weekly Dispatch again:

“Moreover, do people know what the effect of ‘smashing up unionism’ must be? As Professor Lugo [Lujo] Brentano, of Breslau, told the Germans in his great work on English guilds, nothing but the trades union stands between England and the social revolution.”

What do you think of that, ye Norwoods and Liveseys? The Dispatch, and other papers that have said the same thing, are right, but it will not be the social revolution of legality that these people are forcing on. Do you know what you are doing, you rich respectable gentlemen of the middle classes? When unions are smashed, what will happen then? Will the workers sink into the old condition of miserable slavery? Are the “resources of civilisation” exhausted when the unions are defeated? Do you know what you are doing? – you are provoking, not the Red, but the Black Terror. You are putting the torch into the hands of the incendiary to fire your mansions; you are urging on the masses to use those dread forces which the science of your civilisation has placed in their hands; you are whetting the sword for your own slaughter. That is what you are doing, gentlemen of the middle classes.

There is one thing which strikes us particularly in this crisis in South Wales – how much more advanced the men are than their leaders. Mr. Harford,[3] the delegate of the men, accepts a compromise. The men, knowing their own business better than any trade-union leader, reject Mr. Harford’s compromise, and stick to their original terms. But it has been reserved for William Abraham (Mabon) to treat the public to an exhibition of unexampled cowardice and treachery. He and two other gentlemen have issued a disgraceful document,[4] in which they recommend the miners to let the company run the trains with their blacklegs, knowing well all the time that it is only the fear of having every bone in their bodies broken by the stalwart miners of Rhondda Valley that has kept shoals of blacklegs out of the district. We advise the miners not to follow this cowardly and treacherous advice. All the gentlemen who signed that document – we give their names, it is right that they should be remembered: William Abraham (Mabon), M.P.; William Evans (miners’ agent); T. Pascoe Jenkins (president of the Rhondda Labour and Liberal Association, Pentre) – are in the pay of the Liberal party, a party that has always sold and betrayed the people. For all we know, they may be in the employ of the railway directors. We therefore advise the miners not to let a single train pass along the line manned by blacklegs. If the miners do, the treachery of Messrs. Abraham and Co. will be successful and the railway men will be defeated.[5]

D. J. Nicoll.

1, The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and the Taff Vale Railway
2, Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian war, 1870 was a defeat for the French; Norwood and Livesey were London employers from the St Katharine Docks Company and South Metropolitan Gas Company respectively.
3, Edward Harford was General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants
4, The Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman’s News, 15th August 1890 contains this letter and other strike news
5, For details of the negotiated settlement see The Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman’s News, 22nd August 1890,

From: The Commonweal: the official journal of the Socialist League Vol. 6., No. 240. Saturday, August 16, 1890.