Tower Hamlets, London: Tailors and Dockers – striking solidarity

A black and white posed photograph of a group of men and women variously standing or sitting around large tables. Fabric lies on the floor in the foreground.
  Jewish tailors in Christian Street. © Jewish Museum London

When

1912

Where

East End of London

In 1889 when Jewish tailors in East London were on strike and desperately needed funds to keep their families fed, the mainly Irish dockers’ union gave them £100, by far the biggest donation they received.

It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers

Rudolf Rocker

1912 saw another flurry of strikes over poor pay and conditions, beginning with miners and then dockers in London. By the summer, tailors in the West End were on strike. There was a concern from German activist and anarchist, Rudolf Rocker, that the mostly Jewish tailors based in the East End would step into the West End tailors’ roles, undermining their strike.

Rocker argued that the East End tailors should join the strike, to help win better conditions for all. At a meeting, he managed to convince 8,000 East End tailors to back the strike too.

Not long afterwards, the West End tailors won their strike and returned to work. The East End however, did not. Despite terrible hardship, their strike held out for three further weeks, until they finally secured their demands.

Rocker’s aim was to build solidarity between working communities, firstly the groups of tailors. Then, he set his sights on the dockers, remembering their solidarity in 1889.

Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers

Rudolf Rocker

Having won their strike, the East End tailors now felt that they must do something to help their fellow workers, the Irish dockers.

The dockers had been striking for so long many of them were starving. Rocker’s female comrades coordinated an effort to ask Jewish tailoring families to take dockers’ children into their homes to care for them whilst their parents were on strike.

Offers poured in and in the final weeks of the dock strike, over 300 children were taken care of by Jewish families in the East End.

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