Walter Citrine was born in Wallasey on 22nd August 1887. The second of three sons and third of five children of Alfred Citrine (1852–1937), a seaman from Liverpool. His mother, Isabella Citrine, worked as a nurse.
Citrine left elementary school at twelve, and eventually obtained an apprenticeship as an electrician and worked on a number of sites in the Merseyside area. He also attended evening classes where he studied economics, accountancy, and shorthand.
During his studies he read the works of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and in 1906 he joined the Independent Labour Party. He mixed with other socialists. Susan Lawrence described him as a "goose" but he impressed Beatrice Webb. She recorded in her diary that Walter Citrine had "overweening ambition" and was someone with "very real ability". Webb went on to say that "he is loquacious, naively vain and very disputatious... I think he is very ambitious".
On 28 March 1914 he married Dorothy Helen (1892–1973). Later that year he was elected as the first full-time district secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU). In the 1918 General Election he stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Wallasey. He now decided to concentrate on his trade union career and in 1919 he became secretary of the local Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades. In 1920 he moved to work in the ETU's Manchester headquarters, and in January 1924 became the assistant general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
On 30th June 1925 the mine-owners announced that they intended to reduce the miner's wages. Will Paynter later commented: "The coal owners gave notice of their intention to end the wage agreement then operating, bad though it was, and proposed further wage reductions, the abolition of the minimum wage principle, shorter hours and a reversion to district agreements from the then existing national agreements. This was, without question, a monstrous package attack, and was seen as a further attempt to lower the position not only of miners but of all industrial workers."
The General Council of the Trade Union Congress responded to this news by promising to support the National Union of Mineworkers in their dispute with their employers. The Conservative Government, decided to intervene, and supplied the necessary money to bring the miners' wages back to their previous level. This event became known as Red Friday because it was seen as a victory for working class solidarity.
In October 1925 Citrine visited the Soviet Union but he was recalled following the death of TUC general secretary Fred Bramley. Citrine now had to deal with the dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers and the government.
The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, stated that this subsidy to the miners' wages would only last 9 months. In the meantime, the government set up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, to look into the problems of the Mining Industry. The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926. It recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalization. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced.
The month in which the report was issued also saw the mine-owners publishing new terms of employment. These new procedures included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage-agreements, and a reduction in the wages of all miners. Depending on a variety of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine-owners announced that if the miners did not accept their new terms of employment then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits.
It soon became clear that A. J. Cook would play an important role in the proposed strike. David Kirkwood remarked that: "Arthur Cook, who talked from a platform like a Salvation Army preacher, had swept over the industrial districts like a hurricane. He was an agitator, pure and simple. He had no ideas about legislation or administration. He was a flame. Ramsay MacDonald called him a guttersnipe. That he certainly was not. He was utterly sincere, in deadly earnest, and burnt himself out in the agitation."
The Trade Union Congress called the General Strike on the understanding that they would then take over the negotiations from the Miners' Federation. The main figure involved in these negotiations was Jimmy Thomas. Talks went on until late on Sunday night, and according to Thomas, they were close to agreement when Stanley Baldwin broke off negotiations. The reason for his action was that printers at the Daily Mail had refused to print a leading article attacking the proposed General Strike. The TUC negotiators apologized for the printers' behaviour, but Baldwin refused to continue with the talks. The General Strike began the next day.
The Trade Union Congress adopted the following plan of action. To begin with they would bring out workers in the key industries - railwaymen, transport workers, dockers, printers, builders, iron and steel workers - a total of 3 million men (a fifth of the adult male population). Only later would other trade unionists, like the engineers and shipyard workers, be called out on strike.
On the 7th May, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, approached the Trade Union Congress and offered to help bring the strike to an end. Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Samuel and worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included: (1) a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; (2) a minimum wage for all colliery workers; (3) workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; (4) the wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued. However, Samuel warned that subsequent negotiations would probably mean a reduction in wages. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but were rejected by the executive of the Miners' Federation. A Conference of Trade Union Congress met on 1st May 1926, and afterwards announced that a General Strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin two days later.
Walter Citrine was unhappy about the proposed General Strike, and during the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Conservative Government and the mine-owners. As Tom Buchanan has pointed out: "While never wholly abandoning socialism, Citrine later came to believe that workers' interests could best be protected and improved within a capitalist system by the strength of their institutions: above all, the trade unions."
On the 7th May, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry, approached the Trade Union Congress and offered to help bring the strike to an end. Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Samuel and worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included: (1) a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; (2) a minimum wage for all colliery workers; (3) workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; (4) the wages subsidy to be renewed while negotiations continued. However, Samuel warned that subsequent negotiations would probably mean a reduction in wages. These terms were accepted by the TUC negotiating committee, but were rejected by the executive of the Miners' Federation.
On the 11th May, at a meeting of the Trade Union Congress General Committee, it was decided to accept the terms proposed by Herbert Samuel and to call off the General Strike. The following day, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce to the British Government that the General Strike was over. At the same meeting the TUC attempted to persuade the Government to support the Samuel proposals and to offer a guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers. This the Government refused to do. As Lord Birkenhead, a member of the Government was to write later, the TUC's surrender was "so humiliating that some instinctive breeding made one unwilling even to look at them."
On 21st June 1926, the British Government introduced a Bill into the House of Commons that suspended the miners' Seven Hours Act for five years - thus permitting a return to an 8 hour day for miners. In July the mine-owners announced new terms of employment for miners based on the 8 hour day. The miners were furious about what had happened although the General Strike was over, the miners' strike continued.
Will Paynter remained loyal to the strike although he knew they had no chance of winning. "The miners' lock-out dragged on through the months of 1926 and really was petering-out when the decision came to end it. We had fought on alone but in the end we had to accept defeat spelt out in further wage-cuts." By October 1926 hardship forced men to begin to drift back to the mines. By the end of November most miners had reported back to work. However, many were victimized and remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages and district agreement.
To many trade unionists, Walter Citrine had betrayed the National Union of Mineworkers. Under the leadership of Citrine, the TUC developed a new approach to industrial disputes. As one historian has argued: "His intention was not, as during the general strike, to coerce the government, but rather to make the unions reliable partners in negotiation with employers and the government of the day."
Citrine argued his his autobiography, Men and Work (1964): "I do not regard for General Strike as a failure. It is true that it was ill-prepared and that it was called off without any consultation with those who took part in it. The fact is that the theory of the General Strike had never been thought out. The machinery of the trade unions was not adapted for it. Their rules had to be broken for the executives to give power to the General Council to declare the strike. However illogical it may seem for me to say so, it was never aimed against the state as a challenge to the Constitution. It was a protest against the degradation of the standards of life of millions of good trade unionists."
As a result of the General Strike Citrine had rejected the conflictual model of industrial relations and wanted to replace it with one that sought to remove the causes of disputes and establish a mechanism for their speedy resolution. In 1928 he established the Mond-Turner talks but as Professor Mary Davis has pointed out: "The main employers' organisations representing the older industries overwhelmingly rejected the Mond-Turner proposals."
In 1928 Citrine was also appointed president of the International Federation of the Trade Unions. This is a post he held for seventeen years. He also developed a close relationship with Ernest Bevin, the most significant trade union during this period.
In the 1929 General Election the Labour Party won 288 seats, making it the largest party in the House of Commons. Ramsay MacDonald now became prime minister, but he had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power.
The election of the Labour Government coincided with an economic depression and MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May.
Ramsay MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.
MacDonald was determined to continue and his National Government introduced the measures that had been rejected by the previous Labour Cabinet. Labour MPs were furious with what had happened and MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party.
Walter Citrine, who had developed a good relationship with Ramsay MacDonald during the General Strike, opposed the cabinet's plans for restoring financial confidence through cuts in welfare benefits. In October, 1931, MacDonald called an election. The 1931 General Election was a disaster for the Labour Party with only 46 members winning their seats. MacDonald, now had 556 pro-National Government MPs and had no difficulty pursuing the policies suggested by Sir George May. However, disowned by his own party, he was now a prisoner of the Conservative Party, and in 1935 he was gently eased from power.
Citrine's influence over government declined during the Great Depression. However, he upset many in the labour movement when he accepted a knighthood in 1935. Citrine disagreed with the foreign policy pursued by Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and became chairman of the World Anti-Nazi Council and in December 1936 sharing a pro-rearmament platform with Winston Churchill at the Royal Albert Hall.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War some trade union members joined the International Brigades in Spain. H. N. Brailsford chaired the Labour Spain Committee, a pressure group advocating an active pro-loyalist policy. He also played a role in persuading men to join the British Battalion, that was formed in January 1937. As the author of The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement (1991) has pointed out: "it soon became apparent that the assistance of dependants and wounded would be an expensive task - the estimated weekly cost rose from an initial £70-90 to £700 in November 1937."
H. N. Brailsford approached Citrine and suggested that the labour movement should take responsibility for the 230 trade unionists and 40 Labour Party members fighting in the battalion. Citrine, who was concerned about the growing influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the International Brigades, rejected the idea. His hostility to communism was confirmed with the publication of his book, I Search for Truth in Russia (1936).
Citrine fully supported Clement Attlee and the 1945 Labour Government's policy of nationalization. Granted the title, Baron Citrine, in July 1946, he was seconded to join the new National Coal Board where he had special responsibility for training, recruitment, and education. He was also appointed as chairman of the British Electricity Authority (BEA) until his retirement in 1957.