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Picketing and Counter-Picketing: Violence and Rioting in the Great Labor Unrest in Britain, 1910-1914

Political Violence
Political Ideology
Public Opinion
Political Cultures
Alessandro Saluppo
Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche, Geografiche e dell'Antichità, Università degli Studi di Padova
Alessandro Saluppo
Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche, Geografiche e dell'Antichità, Università degli Studi di Padova

In the years immediately preceding the war, Britain confronted an unprecedented mass upsurge in labor militancy and waves of strikes. Between 1910 and 1914, something over four thousand strikes were recorded involving about four million workers, while working days lost peaked to an annual total of ten million and more. At the same time, trade union membership rose from about two million to 4.1 million over the same time span. Among the most striking novelties of the “Great Labor Unrest” was its rabidly aggressive, violent and insurgent character. This was seen at Tonypandy, during the bitter South Wales coal strike of 1910, when picketing spiraled into rioting and violence. The railway and dock strikes of 1911 were marred by severe disturbances. In the Liverpool general strike of transport workers, affrays between strikers and troops resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” of August 13th, while in Llanelly troops opened fire on the crowd, killing two and wounding scores. Also in 1911, and continuing into 1912 and 1913, riots, looting, arsons, clashes with the police and pitched battles between strikers and strikebreakers were reported in all major industrial centres and ports of the United Kingdom.
With few exceptions, labor violence conformed to a distinct model of violent escalation, which entailed the hostile intensification and aggravation of the forms of interaction between capital and labor to the point where violence was used. The precipitating causes for violence were almost invariably linked to attempts by picket lines to prevent the entrance of strikebreakers and raw material supplies to the struck establishment and/or efforts by company guards, strikebreaking agencies, police authorities, and even the military to avert such interferences. Although violence was not confined to certain industrial sectors or geographic areas, its incidence and severity was higher where the employers, notably in the transport and certain sectors of the extractive industries, denied the formal recognition of the union and resorted to force.
Building on the more recent sociological and social-psychological approaches, the paper examines the processes and dynamics of violence in the great labor revolt of the prewar years in Britain. While previous studies have concentrated primarily on the general conditions from which the wave of disputes arose, my paper pays special attention to those factors which caused industrial disputes to escalate to the point at which physical violence was felt to be acceptable, thus leading to an extension and radicalization of the content of the conflict. In particular, it stresses the role of emotions like anger, insecurity, hate and fears, and also the importance of prejudice and stereotypes about the opponent, in the precipitation of violent phenomena. It also points out the ambiguities and uncertainties of British official labor policy -wavering between the use of the military and the establishment of joint boards of arbitration- and the absence of schemes to mitigate the disruptive effect of labor stoppages in influencing the perceptions, attitudes and patterns of behavior of the conflicting parties, inducing a radicalization of their strategies and forms of action.
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