05, A desire for action

At eighteen years of age I was entitled to join a Club. We met in our rest hours between three and five and met a few cooks who had a desire for action. We talked about many things: Continental and British working class history in particular, and agreed it was second to none. We then tried to find the reason why the working class struggles in Britain were no longer direct action by the rank-and-file but agreements lasting months or years by trade union leaders or politicians with the bosses or industry. When we could, we went to meetings of all kinds, Liberal, Liberal-Labour and then Labour Party, which even in those days seemed to us to have one main desire: to build up its party from the workers in or out of the trade unions solely for the leaders to get political jobs. This Labour Party did not appeal to us. We listened to Harry Quelch, H. M. Hyndman, Ben Tillett, John Burns and many others, but we were not convinced that any of them struck the note we were longing for. Then we heard Tom Mann with his cry of “Solidarity of all workers”. We came into contact with Paul Vogel. Together we spread the agitation for a union of action for catering workers. A mass meeting was held in Trafalgar Square, but the propaganda was too revolutionary at that time, so the union failed for a few years. But we carried on the agitation in and out of work, everywhere where catering gathered, and spread the gospel of direct action.

We talked of ‘Bloody Sunday’, we studied the Chartist movement and gradually we increased our numbers. About this time, I was a full-blown cook at 21 years of age, when a strike of waitresses at a West End restaurant occurred. All of us went to their aid but in spite of a splendid fight the strike failed, because the girls came out. The stay-in strike was our policy. A few of these girls opened a cafe in the West End without help, calling it Ken’s Cabin. Others got good jobs under other names, but all became members of our union.

About 1900 Guy Bowman gave lectures on syndicalism in a hall in Little Newport Street and Tom Mann came in as well. These meetings were attended mainly by catering workers of all nationalities. Slowly but surely everyone at those meetings began to get knowledge of the class struggle. We watched the trade union movement in all other trades discontented by contracts with the boss, to give one, two or three months notice before striking, and then they just walked out of the works. Blacklegs from the unemployed army filled the job, the strikes were batoned by the police but not the ‘leaders’. When things got too hot they made another ‘agreement’ with the bosses and ordered the men back to work. Perhaps the men gained a little, perhaps not. The main thing that mattered was that the trade union leaders still had their well-paid jobs and the funds of the union were safe, what was left of them. About this time Keir Hardie formed the Independent Labour Party, which was just another political party and did not appeal to any of our members. Then came the Socialist Party of Great Britain. I and others joined this party to learn socialism, but later, along with H. Maslin and others, we left because of a letter in the Socialist Standard signed “Upton Park.” The questioner wanted to know what would be the action of a member of the SPGB elected to Parliament, and the answer was that the Socialist member, backed by the revolutionary votes outside, would consider capitalist measures on their merits! This was quite enough for us. Never having much faith in any politicians we finally broke with that so-called revolutionary party.

The Industrial Workers of the World in the USA drew our attention, as a gang of strikebreakers stopped at nothing to smash the IWW. Several of the most prominent members fled from the USA. George Swassey was one of these. He came to our hall in Little Newport Street and told us of the story of the IWW, the bitter hatred of the ‘respectable’ trade unions, the persecutions, prosecutions and the brutality of gunmen. From George Swassey’s talks, from our own experience of trade union officials in this country, from Tom Mann, Guy Bowman, and above all from our knowledge obtained of the class struggle, we realised there is no other basis but direct action at the point of production for the catering trade workers.

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