Tom Maguire and the Trade Union Movement

In a landmark address, Len McCluskey remembers pioneering labour organiser Tom Maguire and argues that the trade union movement his generation built is as relevant as ever.

A plaque to Tom Maguire hangs in Leeds, where he was a key organiser of the 1890 gas strike.

I first came across Tom Maguire’s name when I was a young shop steward on the Liverpool docks, studying for a trade union diploma and reading E. P. Thompson. I remember feeling the empathy I had then for a young radical with fire in his belly.

Tom Maguire achieved much for the cause of socialism and trade unionism during his short life, something which is best understood when considering his role in leading the Leeds gasworkers’ strike of 1890 – dubbed the “Battle of Leeds” by none other than Friedrich Engels. During the strike running battles broke out when police tried to escort blackleg labour to the gasworks after their closure had plunged parts of the city into darkness.  

Engels gave Will Thorne, another strike leader, a copy of Capital with the words “To the victor of the Battle of Leeds”. Thorne was famously taught to read by Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Engel’s great friend Karl, and was one of the founders of the National Union of Gasworkers.

Thorne’s name is more prominent in our collective memories than Maguire’s, but it has often been said that Maguire was just as deserving of Engels’ accolade. Under Maguire’s direction, thousands of gas workers – members of the union formed in Leeds just a year earlier – were rallied to stop the strike breakers. The Leeds gasworks were owned by the council, which was dominated by the Liberal Party. Although the union had won the workers an eight hour day, wage increases and holiday pay, those Liberal councillors soon reneged on them when the cold weather passed and the demand for gas lowered.

Briggate and Boar Lane, Leeds, at the time of the gas workers’ strike in 1890..

Some 10,000 workers joined a mass rally in the city centre when the gas workers walked out, such was the growing strength of the trade unions in Leeds. And when the council brought in scabs from as far away as London, putting them up in the town hall overnight and organising a police and army escort to the gas works, an astonishing 30,000 workers turned up to stop them. Use of force on both sides was inevitable. 

However, much as with the Taff Vale railway strike some years later, many of the blacklegs were actually happy to be put back on the train by the union when it was explained what they had signed up for. With the council’s efforts to break the strike collapsing, it conceded most of the workers’ demands. And again much like Taff Vale, the gas workers strike convinced the unions that workers needed their own voice in parliament.  

Industrial Militant

Tom Maguire was a working-class socialist who recognised the hollow stance of many supposedly-radical organisations, particularly the Liberal Party. He had been advocating for the establishment of a Socialist Labour Party for some time and was also instrumental in setting up the Labour Electorate League in Leeds. 

Socialism was new at the time and not much understood. To raise awareness he published a leaflet in 1887 setting out why such a party was needed. It also briefly outlined the objectives of socialism, including putting a stop to “the mad competition for existence, which is the cause of poverty and “establishing a co-operative commonwealth”.

But it was the gas strike that exposed the extent to which the Liberals – supported by many trade unionists at the time – would never be on the side of working people. The gasworks struggle was an important chapter in the break-up of the two-party system and the founding of the Independent Labour Party three years later, which went on to play a key role in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee and then our Labour Party.

From the start Maguire was involved with New Unionism, working with the likes of Quaker Isabella Ford and factory inspector Clementia Black, to organise semi and unskilled workers into unions, including establishing unions for builders. They would also organise Jewish workers in the tailoring industry and tailoresses through the formation of a friendly society providing sickness benefit. 

For the first time the focus was on workplace issues, such as the huge deductions imposed on the women for things like the use of cooking facilities and, extraordinarily, the use of steam power even if they were working from home. This was very similar to the fines levied on the London match girls, the working-class women and teenage girls, uneducated and starving, who slogged for long hours for Bryant and May on slave wages and who became determined fighters and trade unionists. And, like the match girls, members of the Leeds tailors’ unions, with Maguire in the leadership, went on strike and secured an end to the charges for cooking and steam power. 

The key demand of Tom Maguire’s National Union of Gasworkers was an eight-hour day.

This might not have been as notable a moment in early British trade union history as that Bryant and May dispute, but it resulted in a determination by the Jewish tailors to win a shorter working week and was part of that New Unionism that saw the celebration of May Day in Leeds in 1889, a rally attended by some 6,000 trade unionists. It was presided over by Maguire, who was a passionate, eloquent speaker. A resolution calling for an eight hour working day was passed there, to great acclaim. 

It’s hard to imagine what Tom Maguire would have achieved if he hadn’t died so tragically of pneumonia, at just 29 years of age in 1895.

When I think about what unions have achieved since, as a direct result of Maguire and his comrades’ work, including the Factories Acts, Industrial Injuries Act, Health and Safety at Work Act, Equal Pay Act, sick pay, paid holiday leave, paid rest breaks and a shorter working week, I wonder what he would make of our so-called modern world of insecure work? I suspect he’d say don’t rest on your laurels, there’s more to be done. How right he’d be. 

The Challenge Today

Not long before I worked on the docks, dockers would go down to work and gather in what were called ‘pens.’ The comparison to cattle pens was apt, these men were treated like animals. They were hoping for half-a-day or a day’s work to put food in their kids’ bellies. They often had to fight each other to get that brass tally thrown down on the floor by the bosses, only with that in your hand could you work.

Any docker then would recognise a zero-hour contract for what it is. It’s the unregulated, casualised labour of our time, and in the 21st century, and it’s not modern at all, it’s absolutely shameful. I’m certain that Tom Maguire couldn’t have imagined how relevant his poem The Song of the Sweater’s Victim would still be. There’s no need for a new ode to today’s world of precarious work, this is the poem for gig economy workers in 2019: 

“Up in the morn, at break of day,
To the Sweater’s den we go;
We sweat our health and strength away,
And pale and sickly grow,
That the sweaters may dwell in mansions fair,
And wear the costliest clothes,
Whilst our children starve in hovels bare
Where the sunlight seldom goes.”

Tell me, when a terrified worker is forced to give birth in the toilet in a Sports Direct warehouse, when wages, terms and conditions are as low as they can legally go and employment rights are threadbare, and when a billionaire like Mike Ashley stands to remind us the extent of the abuse and exploitation greedy bosses are prepared to inflict, how much have we progressed since Maguire wrote that verse?

When a DPD courier dies because he misses medical appointments to avoid the firm’s £150 daily penalties if he doesn’t find cover for his shift, tell me how that’s different to the fines imposed on the match girls and the tailorresses?

It’s been suggested, when I’ve called on the British government to take manufacturing seriously and stop this country’s shift to an almost entirely service sector economy that I want to reverse the tide of progress, that I want to rebuild the dark satanic mills of our industrial past, along with the working and living conditions they came with.

Tom Maguire’s 1888 poem The Song of the Sweaters’ Victim sums up contemporary working conditions in many places.

Yet, in the here and now, the Amazons and Sports Directs of this world have already rebuilt those mills and restored their living and working conditions. Even an Uber app serves to exploit and oppress. 

It’s difficult to even start to comprehend the scandal of Amazon workers forced to sleep in tents near a warehouse, unable to afford to commute from homes further away and too terrified of the consequences of being late for shifts. This is a company run by a man – Jeff Bezos – who has amassed a fortune of over $150 Billion and is one of the 26 individuals who Oxfam have exposed as having more wealth than 50% of the world population.

And what about the Unite members in British Airways mixed fleet, mainly young men and women who had the same experience of sleeping in their cars to avoid cost of travel because their pay was so low? Fortunately, they had Maguire’s spirit and their heroic dispute for better pay brought them victory, respect and dignity.

The changing world of work is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges faced by trade unions today. I think it’s fair to say that after Tom Maguire and others worked so hard to establish 19th century trade unions, able to fight for workplace rights, and a political party able to support them, unions avoided the shackles for decades – until Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Keir Hardie’s Trades Disputes Act was passed in 1906 after the Labour Representation Committee, soon to become the Labour Party, returned 29 MPs to parliament. It reversed years of the whittling away of union rights enabled by the Trade Union Act of 1871.  

The Act legalised peaceful picketing and prevented employers taking legal action against workers for “breach of contract,” if done in pursuit of a trade dispute. The definition passed then was far wider than it is now, allowing workers to withdraw their labour in support of others not employed by the same company. It also, crucially, protected trade union funds. The biggest victory was the clause that exempted trade unions from legal action – a direct response to the Taff Vale judgement which fined the RMT’s predecessor union a staggering £42,000, over £2 million in today’s money.

The Trades Disputes Act’s protections were reversed by Thatcher’s anti-union laws, driven by her neoliberal dogma. As a result, our industrial landscape has changed fundamentally since Tom Maguire’s time, and even more dramatically in the time since I was a young worker on the docks. Our great manufacturing industries have been decimated, deliberately, by successive governments since the 1980s. 

Leeds was once known as “the city that made everything,” and the city and region undeniably remains a major centre of manufacturing. But there has been a significant swing towards digital and automated technologies, which in themselves present a major challenge to trade unions today.

The refusal by the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union laws was shameful. New Labour embraced neoliberalism and allowed the shift away from manufacturing to continue. During thirteen years of the New Labour government we lost one million manufacturing jobs. Now, over 70 per cent of our economy is in the service sector, bringing with it insecure and low-paid employment, zero-hour contracts, and bosses who tell workers, illegally, they either have no right to join a trade union, or they will be sacked if they do.

Margaret Thatcher’s government attacked Britain’s trade union movement, often literally, throughout the 1980s.

Of course services, whether public or private, are an essential part of any economy. But, in order to have good, well-paid services you need a vibrant manufacturing sector. Consecutive governments have failed to recognise that fact.

Running in parallel to Thatcher’s war on industry was her dismantling of collective bargaining, which has resulted in an increase of wealth going into profits. Thirty years ago, 65 per cent of GDP, the wealth that we created, went into the pockets of workers.  Today that’s down to 51 per cent. The wealth is still there, but it’s going to the super-rich and the corporate elite, and that’s no accident. 

That’s why Thatcher and her successors have tried to destroy us. Employers and the political establishment have always known, since the 1800s and the emergence of trade unions, that we are the first and often only line of defence for working people. Whenever the right-wing media try to portray unions as irrelevant, I always think, if we’re so irrelevant, why do they keep attacking us? Why don’t they just let us wither on the vine? It’s because they know how relevant we are.

It’s worth remembering that, while trade union membership has declined over 35 years, union density in the major sectors which drive our economy is still strong – 60, 70, 80, even 100 percent. Automotive, defence,  aerospace,  aviation, railways, passenger transport, road haulage, manufacturing, chemicals, oil, energy, as well as public services in health and local government – these remain strongholds of our movement today.

It’s the inclusion of difficult-to-organise, low-paid, precarious work that reduces the density overall. This is why trade unions are as necessary today as they were during the industrial revolution and Maguire’s years. And why John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to repeal all the anti-union laws and enable positive engagement between unions and employers, and a genuine role for organised labour in industry and government, is so welcome.

Threats and Opportunities

That word ‘relevance’ is crucial. The modern world of work is not just a challenge to trade unions because of its fragmented nature, but because unions have to make themselves relevant to the workers within it. Every time a journalist challenges me about the relevance of unions in today’s so-called gig economy, I agree – unions have to be relevant to each and every sector. Not just to try to recruit, but to actually win for workers too.

I believe that we are seeing an increasing interest in trade unionism. I hesitate to describe it as an increase in membership among young people in insecure sectors. Unite added over 30,000 young workers in 2017, but they were mainly in organised workplaces in traditional industries. We are working hard to organise younger workers in more insecure sectors, with the TGI Fridays dispute a key example. It’s clear the dire conditions facing many young workers is leading them to consider trade unions again. 

We’re even seeing it in the challenge to our traditional union models, with so-called pop-up unions focusing on the gig economy. Their approach is different to ours, but what we have in common is a determination that insecure workers can be organised, and the recognition that we can only do that if we’re meaningful to them as a movement.

We have to embrace digital technologies in order to communicate more effectively and provide the best possible service to our members, and we also have to listen if we are to deliver for working people. But I believe that the trade union movement, through its campaigning, organising, political, community and educational work is modernising and making itself relevant to today’s world of work. 

Disputes like the one in TGI Fridays are testing the union movement’s ability to adapt to an increasingly insecure labour market.

It’s interesting how history often repeats itself. Tom Maguire threw himself into trade union organising during the Industrial Revolution. The speed and nature of technological developments in recent years, leading to a new wave of automation and digitalisation, has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution – and is casting a long shadow. 

The replacement of workers by robots is an issue facing all parts of manufacturing and the service sector and represents another major challenge for trade unions today. Unite’s members are certainly in the centre of a brewing economic storm, and no more so than those in the auto sector.

Our own research has identified more than 650,000 members working in sectors where they are at high risk of losing their jobs through automation, and over 230,000 of these by 2035. In the hands of unrestrained big business, the rapid development of automation is a threat not only to jobs and wages, but to the social fabric. But there is no reason why it cannot be controlled and planned, by a government with the will to do it, so that its benefits can be reaped by workers and their communities as a whole.

Our challenge as trade unionists is not to push automation back, but provide an industrial response to it. As organised labour we should be deeply involved in the process that ensures robots and robotics, with proper workplace protections achieved by strong trade unions, can be a gateway to a better work-life balance and a more fulfilling society for millions.


Thousands lined the streets for Tom Maguire’s funeral, which was attended by Keir Hardie. He said of Maguire’s death that the labour movement had lost a keen sympathiser and an earnest champion.

E. P. Thompson, in his homage to Maguire, wrote “nothing in history happens spontaneously, nothing worthwhile is achieved without the expense of intellect and spirit. Maguire spent his energies without restraint.”

All his life Tom Maguire roared like a lion against injustice, using every tool at his disposal, including his poetry, which was sometimes dismissed. Resilience and resistance was in his soul.

His poem, Dedication is a fitting conclusion to his memorial:

“For though people may not know it
Yet to such as you they owe it
The world is green with tender hope
And not grey with despair
So write on though critics mock you
Dare to be a minor poet
And when you’ve got the length of that
There’s nothing you won’t dare”

Tom Maguire dared. We salute him and say thank you, Tom, you are remembered.