At a time when some are calling for a General Strike we need to get clearer about what happened last time there was one in Britain...
In trade union history 4 May 1926 is a special date – the day the General Strike took place in Britain. Given all the myths that have sprung up and the siren calls for similar action often heard now, it’s particularly important to recognise what actually happened.
In fact, the impetus for the General Strike resides in much earlier events which unfortunately led to our working class drifting into a tactically inept, inflexible form of combat totally unsuited for an on-going, largely economic battle against a fully prepared, stronger class enemy.
In 1914, to strengthen their bargaining hand, the miners had sponsored the formation of a Triple Industrial Alliance with railway and transport workers as a tactic to press wage agreements and settle hours of work. The idea that trade unions should be revolutionary organisations – called syndicalism – was popular before the war and part of the background to this move.
In 1919, when the miners threatened to strike for more money and shorter hours, the other members of the Alliance declared support. To deflect this, the government set up the Sankey Commission, which duly reported almost wholly in favour of the miners, recommending wage increases, a seven- instead of an eight-hour day and a system of public ownership for the coal industry. Mines had been taken under direct government control during the 1914–18 War and remained so for a few peacetime years. With strike notices withdrawn, miners got their shorter day and some wage increases, but nationalisation was rejected.
At the end of March 1921 the mines were returned to private ownership. The coal owners refused to modernise the industry but immediately announced sweeping wage reductions, imposing a lockout of union members at all collieries. Again, the railway and transport unions threatened a Triple Alliance strike.
This time Lloyd George’s government responded with a State of Emergency, called reservists to colours, had machine-guns posted at pitheads and sent troops in battle order to working class areas. Last-minute negotiations petered out in confusion and the Triple Alliance strike action was withdrawn, earning the event the derogatory name Black Friday.
In this episode an obvious weakness was that the transport and railway workers had no demands of their own but were placing their own livelihoods in danger simply for the sake of the miners. The miners resumed work on the owners’ terms.
The 1923 boom in mining allowed negotiation of higher wages, but collapse soon followed and by 1925 with a return to the Gold Standard came calls for a reduction in wages. The newly formed TUC General Council, in an attempt to displace the Alliance, supported the miners. Realising conditions were not sufficiently in their favour, the government bought time in negotiations and brokered a deceptive peace in the mines with a nine-month coal subsidy. Tempt the gullible with temporary solace. The trade unions, swollen-headed by the effectiveness of their mere threat to strike, thought Prime Minister Baldwin had capitulated, and called the day Red Friday. Whereas the government – knowing it wasn’t ready – had allowed an armistice in order to gain time for a later assault.
At once the government took preparatory action in a strategic, class-conscious fashion. In September 1925, Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies Committees were formed in the metropolitan boroughs. Also registration of potential volunteers began, leading to a pool of 100,000 blacklegs by the time of the conflict, many of them British fascists. 226,000 special policemen were created. An Emergency Committee on Supply and Transport was established, meeting weekly to work out a scheme to keep food and transport services running. England and Wales were divided into ten divisions, each under a Civil Commissioner with Coal, Finance and Food Officers beneath them. In the event of a stoppage they were charged together with local authorities to control road transport, food and fuel supplies. By the spring of 1926, stockpiles of food, coal and fuel had been built up.
May 1926: An armoured car escorts a food convoy down the East India Dock Road, east London.
Meanwhile after Red Friday, trade union leaders acted as if trouble could be averted, and during the nine months of coal subsidy, to avoid being provocative, made no strike preparations or battle plans. Although the trade unions had declared war and rhetoric still flourished, union leaders and most of the membership had not apparently really meant it. No preparations for a national strike on the trade union side were made until the 27 April when two trade union leaders met. There was unreasoning faith in the prospect of a settlement crossed with a lack of enthusiasm for action among the majority of the General Council. Most had pinned their hopes on the Samuel Commission which reported unfavourably for miners in March 1926 on the key issues of hours and wages. The miners refused to accept it.
Three weeks of futile negotiation followed in April 1926. Unlike in 1925 the government, prepared for eventualities, was not interested in making concessions or obtaining a settlement. The trade unions still remained ridiculously hopeful of a settlement. But in the very final negotiations on Friday 29 April, the mine owners offered a wage cut on worse terms than the Samuel Commission and the government refused to interfere or continue with negotiations. An Emergency Powers Act was signed. On 30 April – the day on which the subsidy ran out – mine owners posted notices in most pits and a million miners were locked out.
On 1 May the various unions declared they were prepared to hand over their autonomy to the General Council during the dispute (never a wise course of action) and voted to join a National Strike on 3 May. The General Council now deemed the conduct of the dispute to be completely in its hands, either to organise a strike or – increasingly from day one – to arrange a climb-down and call it off.
The “General Strike” was not quite a general, all-embracing strike; it was a partial national strike of some elements. Only one section of the labour movement was called out: railway workers, transport workers, iron and steel workers, builders, printers, dockers. The number of strikers was between 1.5 and 1.75 million. Other trades and occupations were kept back: engineers, electricians, woodworkers, shipyard workers, post office and telephone workers. More critical, the trade unions went into battle unready and with divided leadership.
Government departments sent out detailed instructions, troop movements were announced including two battalions of infantry that marched through Liverpool. All army and navy leave was cancelled. Hyde Park was closed to serve as a food depot.
The response to the strike call was overwhelming. Its completeness surprised everyone including the TUC and the Labour Party which feared by association of losing “bourgeois” respectability. Public transport was mightily affected, especially the trains, and the trams in London stopped running for the duration of the dispute. Despite much publicity, the volunteers on buses and elsewhere had a minimal effect, but government plans to use road haulage lorries worked as goods were transported around the country by non-unionised labour.
The TUC General Council called off the strike on 12 May. It had obtained no terms for the miners or for the other workers who had struck in sympathy with them. The miners continued on strike alone for six months and eventually were forced back to work on regional settlements, longer hours and lower wages with an ever-present pool of unemployed miners to undermine their efforts.
In many other trades and occupations employers sought to inflict setback and sack trade union leaders. Within a year the Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927 was introduced forbidding sympathetic strikes and mass picketing. TUC membership fell from 5.5 million in 1925 to 3.75 million in 1930.
Tactics and strategy are the lifeblood of our class. Properly understood, a general strike is a political weapon reserved for the most propitious circumstances when a working class is ready to move to the revolutionary seizure of power; a measure to be deployed only when a class wants to overthrow the exploiters’ system and seize the levers of power. Unless such a level of understanding is there, a general strike should not be broached; other more irregular tactics should apply. ■