Will Thorne

Fighting wage slavery

“It is easy to break one stick, but when fifty sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job.”

In 1889, thousands of men were working long, hard days for pitiful wages at the Beckton Gas Works in East London. Stokers could shovel coal for up to 13 hours a day and take home just 5d (2.5p) per hour.

Birmingham-born Will Thorne had been working since he was six, living on the poverty line with his mum and three sisters after his dad died. Now in his thirties and working at Beckton, Will knew things had to change. He wanted to form a union – The National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. On Sunday 31 March 1889, a large crowd gathered at the Beckton Works to hear him speak.

This is an extract from Will’s speech that day:

“Fellow wage slaves, I am more than pleased to see such a big crowd of workers and friends from Beckton Gas Works. I know that many of you have been working eighteen hours under very hard and difficult conditions, that many of you must be dead tired; often I have done the eighteen-hour shift.

This sort of thing has gone on for a long time; we have protested but time after time we have been sneered at, ignored and have secured no redress.

Let me tell you that you will never get any alteration in Sunday work, no alteration in any of your conditions or wages, unless you join together and form a strong trade union. Then you will be able to have a voice and say how long you will work, and how much you will do for a day’s work.

By your labour power you create things for the community, you create wealth and dividends, but you have no say, no voice, in any of these matters. All this can be altered if you will join together and form a powerful union, not only for gas workers, but one that will embrace all kinds of general labourers.

It is easy to break one stick, but when fifty sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job.

The way you have been treated is scandalous, brutal, and inhuman.

I pledge my word that, if you will stand firm and don’t waiver, within six months we will claim and win the eight-hour day, a six-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country.

Now will you do this?”

“We will!” came the mighty reply. This was the birth of the union. Within weeks, it had 3000 members. Will started negotiations with gas works bosses and soon delivered on his promise of an eight-hour working day. This was an excellent advert for union power and the Gas Workers’ Union’s numbers soon swelled to 20,000. Days later, the union’s successful campaign for the eight-hour day gave London dockworkers the confidence to go on strike.