By 1888 only 5% of the labour force were members of trade unions. Those who were, tended to be skilled craftsman and workers in the textile and mining industries. The success of the Bryant & May strike encouraged other unskilled workers in Britain to consider the possibility of forming unions.
Ben Tillett, General Secretary of the Tea Operatives & General Labourers' Association, was one of those who had been inspired by what Annie Besant had achieved with her Matchgirls Union. Tillett explained how dockers in London were treated: "We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattlemarket, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day's work."
In the summer of 1889 Tillett and his union became involved in a dispute over pay and conditions. The men who worked at the London Docks demanded four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. The dockers went on strike but their employers were confident that they would be able to starve the men back to work. Tillett described the role played by Tom Mann in this strike: "I placed Tom Mann in charge of the difficult duty of seeing that the system of relief was systematically organised. The strikers, I might even say the dockers in general, involved in the stoppage of work, were recipients of relief. They were all desperately in need and when it was announced that relief tickets were to be distributed some thousands of them gathered before the door of the dingy little coffee tavern where Tom Mann and his helpers, having just received the relief tickets from the printers, were preparing to issue them."
Beatrice Potter was one of those who observed these events: "The dock strike becoming more and more exciting - even watched at a distance. Originally 500 casuals marched out of the West and East India Docks - in another day the strike spread to the neighbouring docks - in a week half East London was out. For the first time a general strike of labour, not on account of the vast majority of strikers, but to enforce the claims to a decent livelihood of some 3,000 men. The hero of the scene, John Burns the socialist, who seems for the time to have the East London working men at his feet, with Ben Tillett as his lieutenant and ostensible representative of the dockers."
Ben Tillett was active in the socialist movement and was able to persuade several friends, including John Burns, Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx, H. M. Hyndman, James Keir Hardie and Henry Hyde Champion, to help the 10,000 men on strike. Tillett found Champion especially helpful: "Our principal Press officer was the Socialist journalist, Henry Hyde Champion, one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Although he was in no way officially connected with the Dockers' Strike, he rendered us very valuable help.... He founded and edited the Labour Elector, which became the official, or semi-official, organ of the Strike Committee."
Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Labour Church also raised money for the strikers and their families. Trade Unions in Australia sent over £30,000 to help the dockers to continue the struggle. As H. M. Hyndman pointed out: "Suddenly the big contribution of 30,000 came from Australia in one lump, and put a new face on the whole matter. The men and the leaders were immensely encouraged; the employers, who really had a very bad case, were proportionally depressed. It at once became possible to carry on the strike for a little time longer." After five weeks the employers accepted defeat and granted all the dockers' main demands. Beatrice Potter wrote in her diary: "The dock strike has ended in a brilliant victory to the men; all their demands (with the exception of fixed times for taking on) conceded - the concessions come into force in November."
John Burns believed an important lesson had been learnt: "Still more important perhaps, is the fact that labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything. He has tasted success as the immediate fruit of combination, and he knows that the harvest he has just reaped is not the utmost he can look to gain. Conquering himself, he has learned that he can conquer the world of capital whose generals have been the most ruthless of his oppressors."
After the successful strike, the dockers formed a new General Labourers' Union. Ben Tillett was elected General Secretary and Tom Mann became the union's first President. In London alone, 20,000 men joined this new union. Tillett and Mann wrote a pamphlet together called the New Unionism, where they outlined their socialist views and explained how their ideal was a "cooperative commonwealth".
The Dockers' Strike was a turning-point in the history of trade unionism. Over the next few years a large number of unskilled workers joined trade unions. Between 1892 and 1899 membership of trade unions increased from 1,500,000 to over 2,000,000.