The General Strike of 1926 has gone down in socialist folklore as a decisive moment in the struggle of the British working class. It was but not in the way that is generally meant. The national strike was called by the trades union congress (TUC) in support of the striking miners who had been asked to accept a reduction in wages when the bottom fell out of the European coal market. There was an immediate and overwhelming response to the strike call - almost half of the six million trade union member in the country came out immediately. The Government, too, was ready and a small army of volunteers kept food and essential supplies on the move. The miners obstinately refused to compromise or negotiate and, after nine days, the TUC capitulated and ordered a return to work. The miners held out for another six months until starvation drove them back to work on terms much worse than those initially on offer.
With upwards of one million workers, the coal industry was far by the largest in post-WWI Britain. It had, too, always been the symbol of class struggle in Britain. It was generally accepted that most industrialists, however much they were overpaid, at least earned their rewards by their own skill. In contrast, the popular working-class image of the mine-owner was that he possessed no skill and was where he was by the simple and lucky accident of finding himself sitting above a coal deposit. In the post-war depression of 1921, the Lloyd-George government effectively abandoned its economic responsibilities and de-nationalised all the main industries. This included handing the coal-industry over to the nine-owners. The new agreement offered to the miners involved a reduction in wages and a return to the old system of district rates where miners at inferior pits would be paid less than those working at richer seams. The miners refused and a Lockout followed. The rest of the Trade Union movement failed to support them and argued for compromise instead of an-out-and-out class war. The miners finally capitulated and returned to work on worse terms than were on offer at the beginning of the strike.
The industry went on to do unexpectedly well. Competition from Europe was extremely patchy. Poland was still in a state or turmoil and German coal production had virtually ground to a halt during the French occupation of the Ruhr valley. The economic upturn, and the election of the first (and short-lived) Labour government, meant that the British miners could successfully negotiate better condition in 1924. By now, however both the Polish and German coal industries had recovered and were poised to knock the bottom out of the European market. The mine-owners knew no remedy other than a wage-cut. The miners were ready as ever for an all out fight. Conflict again loomed. The Conservative Government refused to help with any new subsidy. The Trades Union Council (TUC) attempted to mediate a compromise but met total opposition from the miners' leaders. A lockout was threatened for July 31 1925. Twenty-six hours before that deadline the Government backed down. They brought in a nine-month subsidy to hold wages at their existing levels and set up a Royal Commission to investigate how the industry could be made more efficient and productive. The Lockout was called off and the Commission was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, the former Liberal Minister. The Government had bought time.
The Commission spent the winter hearing witnesses and preparing its 300 page report. The TUC did nothing. The transport and railway unions, rightly recognised that if there were to be an embargo on the movement of coal their members would be in the front line. They therefore began to argue for more widespread solidarity and the other unions agreed. The Baldwin Government made its preparations to resist any mass action that might arise. Plans for an emergency system of transport were made, and a system of autonomous civil commissioners in ten areas across the country was set up. The Samuel Commission reported on March 11th 1926. It mapped out a future industry which would involve better working conditions, the amalgamation of smaller pits and the nationalisation of royalties. For the present, however, it recommended an immediate reduction in wages. No-one accepted this. The owners rejects all talk of reorganisation and argued not only for a reduction of wages but also for longer working hours. The miners' response was blunt "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day". When asked what they could offer to help the industry the reply was a bleak "Nowt. We've nowt to offer."Both the Government and the TUC tried to intervene but, with the existing agreement in the coal industry due to expire at the end of April, time was not on their side. The owners demanded reduced wages and district agreements. The miners refused and on May 1st they were locked out.
On the same day, a special trade union conference overwhelmingly gave full authority to the general council of the TUC and approved plans for a national strike on the following Monday, May 3rd. However, there was confusion from the beginning. The miners believed that they had delegated only the power to conduct the strike to the general council but the council believed that it had the power to negotiate over the miners wages and conditions. They planned to give way on the question of the miner's wages if the Government would accept the Samuel report and fully implement it. Throughout the Sunday, the council and the Government held clumsy negotiations, neither side willing to "give way" before the other. Shortly after midnight word came that the compositors at the Daily Mail had refused to set the paper because of a Government advertisement appealing for volunteers. This had been printed in all the other papers and the compositors had not been backed by their union, nonetheless the Government called off the negotiations on the grounds that this amounted to an "overt act". The general strike began immediately.
Some London tram drivers resorted to violence
In fact, the strike was not actually meant to be general from the outset. The transport and railway workers were called out at once as were the printers and workers in heavy industry and utilities. The remaining workforce were held back "in the second line". The response was overwhelming with almost half of the countries 6 million workers taking part. Within twenty-four hours there were no trains, trams or buses, the newspapers disappeared from the streets, the docks were idle and the iron and steel industries silent. The Government, however, was ready and made good use of the new road transport system. More than 300,000 volunteers, mainly from the professional, middle and upper classes, had answered their call. They took on roles as lorry-drivers or telephonists. Hundreds of students drove buses or manned the signal boxes on the railways, troops in armoured vehicles escorted convoys of essential foodstuffs and the Royal Navy worked as temporary dockers on the Thames. The arrangements for the transport of food supplies were effective. The road hauliers worked effectively, the largest burden being the transport of potatoes. A milk surplus was created by postponing the making of cheese and the milk was brought into the towns by special milk-trains. In London, Hyde park was designated a milk pool where shopkeepers and dairies sent their carts to pick up the milk that was normally delivered to them. The volunteers were, not unnaturally, unpopular with the strikers and there were some unpleasant incidents particularly in sub-urban London where buses and trams were obstructed or wrecked and many had to run under police protection. There riots on the streets of London on the first day. About 4,000 people were charged with violence or incitement and many of these received prison sentences. More peacefully, there were daily marches by workers in the cities and the miners sat playing cards at the entrances to their pits enjoying a break from the daily grind.
Behind the scenes both the Government and the TUC sought compromise and negotiation. Herbert Samuel was once more drafted in. He came up with proposals for a National Wages Board in the coal industry which would impose reductions in wages but only after his original recommendations for reorganisation had been "effectively adopted". This was acceptable to the general council but the miners still held out against all compromise. The council capitulated on May 12th and called off the strike unconditionally. Some employers attempted to impose penalties on the returning workers and to reject those who had been most active in the strike but the Government intervened to ensure a fairly amicable return to normality.
The Milk Pool at Hyde Park
The miners, in their obstinate refusal to negotiate or compromise, effectively destroyed themselves. The Government offered to fully implement the Samuel report if both sides of the industry would accept it. The miners refused outright and remained on strike for a further six months. They were driven back by starvation and had to accept longer hours, lower wages and district agreements. Nothing was done to reorganise the industry and the large pool of unemployed miners created by the longer working hours meant that the advantage remained in the hands of the owners. For their part, the Government passed the Trades Dispute Act (1927) which outlawed general strikes and also made the political levy that trade unionists paid to the Labour Party a matter of "contracting in" rather than "contracting out". They recovered under the Atlee government when the industry was nationalised in 1946. They went on strike again in January 1972 and forced the Heath Government to declare a State of Emergency another all out strike in February 1974 in support of a 30-40% pay claim preceded the general election which produced a hung Parliament and the end of the Heath administration. Their mistaken belief that they were solely responsible for that appears to have been a factor in their strike of 1985 during which there was much talk of bringing down the Thatcher Government. It ended in humiliation for the miners and marked the beginning of the end of the industry which is now all but non-existent.