The General Strike
In 1924, Frank Hodges, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was forced to resign following his appointment as Civil Lord of the Admiralty in the Labour Government. A. J. Cook went on to secure the official South Wales nomination and subsequently won the national ballot by 217,664 votes to 202,297. Fred Bramley, general secretary of the TUC, was appalled at Cook's election. He commented to his assistant, Walter Citrine: "Have you seen who has been elected secretary of the Miners' Federation? Cook, a raving, tearing Communist. Now the miners are in for a bad time." However, his victory was welcomed by Arthur Horner who argued that Cook represented “a time for new ideas - an agitator, a man with a sense of adventure”.
Will Paynter was one of Cook's supporters but admitted that he "did not regard him as a good negotiator at pit level." However, like other South Wales miners he considered him a "master of his craft on the platform... I attended many of his meetings when he came to the Rhondda and he was undoubtedly a great orator, and had terrific support throughout the coalfields."
A. J. Cook, a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), was a strong advocate of industrial action and was the co-author of a well-known Syndicalist pamphlet, The Miners' Next Step (1912). It stated: "That the organisation shall engage in political action, both local and national, on the basis of complete independence of, and hostility to all capitalist parties, with an avowed policy of wresting whatever advantage it can for the working class."
Cook was also a supporter of workers' control of industry: "Today the shareholders own and rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work. To vote for a man to represent you in Parliament, to make rules for, and assist in appointing officials to rule you, is a different proposition altogether."
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 miners 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.
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 Subsidised Mineowner - Poor Beggar!
Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)
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."
Kingsley Martin saw Cook make a speech on 26th April 1926. He recorded in his diary: "Cook made a most interesting study - worn-out, strung on wires, carried in the rush of the tidal wave, afraid of the struggle, afraid, above all, though, of betraying his cause and showing signs of weakness. He'll break down for certain, but I fear not in time. He's not big enough, and in an awful muddle about everything. Poor devil and poor England. A man more unable to conduct a negotiation I never saw. Many Trade Union leaders are letting the men down; he won't, but he'll lose. And Socialism in England will be right back again."
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. The leaders of the Trade Union Council were 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.
Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party refused to support the General Strike. MacDonald argued that strikes should not be used as a political weapon and that the best way to obtain social reform was through parliamentary elections. He was especially critical of A. J. Cook. He wrote in his diary: "It really looks tonight as though there was to be a General Strike to save Mr. Cook's face... The election of this fool as miners' secretary looks as though it would be the most calamitous thing that ever happened to the T.U. movement."
Cass Canfield, worked in publishing in 1926. In his autobiography, Up and Down and Around (1971) he argued: "The British General Strike, which occurred in 1926, completely tied up the nation until the white-collar class went to work and restored some of the services. I remember watching gentlemen with Eton ties acting as porters in Waterloo Station; other volunteers drove railroad engines and ran buses. I was assigned to delivering newspapers and would report daily, before dawn, at the Horse Guards Parade in London. As time passed, the situation worsened; barbed wire appeared in Hyde Park, and big guns. Winston Churchill went down to the docks in an attempt to quell the rioting. For a couple of days there were no newspapers, and that was hardest of all to bear for no one knew what was going to happen next and everyone feared the outbreak of widespread violence. Finally, a single-sheet government handout appeared - the British Gazette - and people breathed easier, but settlement of the issues dividing labor and the government appeared to be insoluble."
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.
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."
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."
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.
Walter 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."
In 1927 the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, ensured the trade union members had to voluntarily 'contract in' to pay the political levy, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal.
As a result of the General Strike Walter 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.".
(1) Kingsley Martin first met Winston Churchill while teaching at the London School of Economics. Martin wrote about Churchill and the General Strike in his book, Father Figures (1966)
The General Strike of 1926 was an unmitigated disaster. Not merely for Labour but for England. Churchill and other militants in the cabinet were eager for a strike, knowing that they had built a national organisation in the six months' grace won by the subsidy to the mining industry. Churchill himself told me this on the first occasion I met him in person. I asked Winston what he thought of the Samuel Coal Commission. When Winston said that the subsidy had been granted to enable the Government to smash the unions, unless the miners had given way in the meantime, my picture of Winston was confirmed.
(2) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)
During the nine days of the strike I remained silent. From one point of view I was not sorry that this experiment had been tried. The Trade Unions needed a lesson of the futility and foolishness of such a trial of strength. A general strike could in no circumstances be successful. A general strike is an attempt to hold up the community, and against such an attempt the community will mobilize all its resources. There is no country in the world which has proportionally such a large middle-class population as Great Britain. They with the help of governmental organisation, with a million motor-cars at their service, could defeat any strike on a large scale which threatened the vital services.
(3) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (2nd May, 1926)
Wonderfully serious and spiritually united Conference sat for two days in Memorial Hall... Miners' plea that they were defending general standard of life of workers has united T.U.'s with them, and as the real problem of breakdown of mining industry has been dealt with in propaganda minds and by stunt phrases, we are up against the hard face of impossibility as miners cannot budge from "not a shilling and not a minute" formula. The Government has woefully mismanaged the whole business... But the T.Us have been equally blameworthy: 1. Miners' impossible formula. 2. Allowing themselves to fall into general strike psychology. General Strike declared and at the meeting of T.U. General Council yesterday evident no forethought. No definite idea of what they are to consider as satisfactory to enable them to finish and go back to work. Position wonderfully like 1914. Strike cannot settle purely economic problem of bankruptcy of industry. Were it to be "won" industry remains bankrupt. Employers in the various trades may not remain passive, but may raise own trade matters. Will strike continue to help section after section? At T.U. General Council Meetings men like Bevin, Thomas etc. saw this and were plainly trying to avoid it. Question raised: How far could they pledge miners to accept a readjustment of wages. But alas, miners' executive gone home and Cook who alone is in town declined responsibility of answering for them. Rightly! It really looks tonight as though there was to be a General Strike to save Mr. Cook's face. Important man! The election of this fool as miners' secretary looks as though it would be the most calamitous thing that ever happened to the T.U. movement.
(4) Kingsley Martin saw A. J. Cook, the leader of the miners, make a speech on 26th April, 1926. That night he wrote about Cook in his diary.
26th April, 1926: Cook made a most interesting study - worn-out, strung on wires, carried in the rush of the tidal wave, afraid of the struggle, afraid, above all, though, of betraying his cause and showing signs of weakness. He'll break down for certain, but I fear not in time. He's not big enough, and in an awful muddle about everything. Poor devil and poor England. A man more unable to conduct a negotiation I never saw. Many Trade Union leaders are letting the men down; he won't, but he'll lose. And Socialism in England will be right back again.
(5) Jennie Lee, was a student at Edinburgh University when her father, a miner, was involved in the General Strike.
Although the General Strike lasted only ten days the miners held out from April until December. Until the June examinations were over I was chained to my books, but I worked with a darkness around me. What was happening in the coalfield? How were they managing? Once I was free to go home to Lochgelly my spirits rose. When you are in the thick of a fight there is a certain exhilaration that keeps you going.
Stanley Baldwin promised that there would be no victimization when the miners went back to work. That was one more piece of deliberate deception. My father was not reinstated - from four months he trudged from pit to pit, turned away everywhere. Uncle Michael was also victimized, and so sadly he came to the decision that the only thing to do was to go off to America.
(6) Margaret Cole gave her full support to the miners during the 1926 General Strike.
Some members of the Labour Club formed a University Strike Committee, which set itself three main jobs; to act as liaison between Oxford and Eccleston Square, then the headquarters of the TUC and the Labour Party, to get out strike bulletins and propaganda leaflets for the local committees, and to spread them and knowledge of the issues through the University and the nearby villages. My job was to be liaison officer, and half-a-dozen times during those nine days I was driven up to London by Hugh Gaitskill or John Dugdale to Eccleston Square, to collect supplies of the British Worker, any other news or instructions that were going, and while we were there to have a look at the centre of things; and to transport anyone who happened to require transport about the city.
The Government had made up its mind that "direct action" must be scotched once and for all, and, that being so, the Unions had no choice between surrendering and going on to civil war and revolution, which was the last thing they had envisaged or desired. They surrendered, ingloriously, but with the ranks unbroken; and though the immediate outcome was, naturally, a falling-off of membership, and a good deal of angry recrimination, the absence of any real revanche, any sacking of the leaders who had patently failed to lead, showed that the movement, when it had time to think things over, realised that it had in effect made a challenge to the basis of British society which it was not prepared to see through and that, therefore, post-mortems on who was to blame was unprofitable.
The industrial workers forgave their leaders. But they did not so easily forgive their enemies, particularly when the Government, to punish them for their insubordination, rushed through the 1927 Trade Union Act. This was a piece of political folly; it did not (because it could not) prevent strikes; what it did was to make it more easy to victimize local strike-leaders and also to put obstacles in the way of the Unions contributing to the funds of their own political Party.
(7) Henry Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Daily Herald, wrote about the General Strike in his autobiography, My Seven Selves (1935)
It is still frequently asserted, and perhaps by many believed, that this abortive attempt by Trade Unionists to assist their comrades, the miners, was an attack on the Constitution, a blow aimed at the State, a revolutionary act. It is natural enough for opponents of Labour, whether political or industrial, to misrepresent the General Strike in that way, but a number of writers of books have erred through ignorance.
No one who was acquainted with the Trade Union leaders at that period, no one who watched from inside the day-to-day development of the affair, can think of this assertion with anything but amusement. There was not a single member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress who would not have shrunk with horror from the idea of overturning the established order - if it had occurred to him. I am certain there was no one to whom it did occur. They decided on the strike in desperation. They had promised support to the miners, and they did not know what else to do.
(8) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935)
The purpose of the General Strike was to obtain justice for the miners. The method was to hold the Government and the nation up to ransom. We hoped to prove that the nation could not get on without the workers. We believed that the people were behind us. We knew that the country had been stirred by our campaign on behalf of the miners.
Mr 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.
I was heartily in favour of the General Strike. I believed we should see such an uprising of the people that the Government would be forced to grant our demands. Ramsay MacDonald was in favour of it. Philip Snowden was in favour of it. J. H. Thomas was in favour of it. When it came, it was so tremendous that there was no one big enough to control it.
(9) Helen Crawfurd, The Woman Worker (August 1926)
To the women in the coalfields, whether wife, sister or mother of the miner miner, the present situation gives food for thought.
Along with the menfolk; she has faced hunger, uncertainty and the knowledge of debts mounting up and of health and strength going down. Her own hunger has been bad enough, but that of her children has been infinitely more terrible.
Sunshine and the company of her fellows in meeting or demonstration;has kept alive in her spark of hope. Financial, help from workers in all lands, especially from Soviet Russia has proved to her the fellow feeling of the international working class. Red Friday of last year had encouraged her to hope, that the bitter lessons learned by the 1921 betrayal (Black Friday), and the subsequent reductions of all workers’ wages during 1922 (£,600,000,000) had been effective.
Whatever the leaders of the General Council may say, the fact remains that the magnificent solidarity shown by the organised workers during the nine days of the General Strike, was in support of the miners’ slogan, “Not a pehnny off the Pay. Not a Minute on the day.” They had learned that if the miners’ conditions were worsened theirs would follow as in 1922. The magnificent solidarity shown during those nine days gave promise of the struggle being, short and decisive. The calling off of the strike and the subsequent weeks of slow torture and suffering of the miners, their wives and children, are something that will go down in history as an infinitely greater betrayal than that of 1921. Not only was it a betrayal of the miners, but it was a gross betrayal of the whole Trade Union Movement. If Thomas and the other members of the General Council thought the Strike was wrong why did they not denounce it? Why did they not resign before leading their men into it? And why, having led them into it and having definitely promised in their directions sent out that:
“The General Council further direct that Executives of the Unions concerned shall definitely declare that in the event of any action being taken and trade union agreements being placed in jeopardy, it be definitely agreed that there will be no general resumpution of work until those agreements are fully recognised.” (Memorandum sent out by T.U.C., 30th April, 1926; signed A. Pugh, Chairman, Walter Citrine, Secretary.)
Why, having made this promise, did they allow their members to be humiliated by signing in their name the most grovelling and humiliating terms of peace, while still in a position to gain honourable terms.
The General Council of the Trades Union Congress, in order to save their miserable faces and to whitewash themselves, must needs find a scapegoat and put their sins upon it and send it out into the wilderness - and they foolishly imagine that in their recent attempt to vilify the leaders of the miners, they have as easily hoodwinked the British workers as the children of Israel fondly imagined they could hoodwink their God. Well, it won’t just work, and the day of reckoning is approaching!!! The rank and file of the workers did not betray the miners, neither in the General Strike, nor even in the present situation which calls for an embargo in handling of all coal. Again, it is the weak and vacillating, leadership which is proving itself Capitalism’s most valuable ally. Baldwin must go, and so must his allies.
If Cook could be made to hear the voice of the whole working class, who are solidly behind him and the miners, they would never hesitate. Only the operation of the embargo without waiting for a decision by the men who betrayed the General Strike will assure them of this support.
The leaders, like Clynes, MacDonald Thomas and Cramp, declare that the workers are not ready to give active support. This is not true. The workers are always in front of their Right-wing “leaders,” and the Dockers’ Strike in Plymouth and Boulogne, the Railwaymen’s Delegate Conference in South Wales, the resolution of the Manchester Railway Shopmen, have all shown that the mass of workers are profoundly dissatisfied with the unjustifiable calling off the Strike before justice was secured for the miners, and the other workers safeguarded against victimisation.
The workers realise that if the miners go back to work with lower wages and longer hours that will be only the first of a series of defeats inflicted on the whole working clsss. Next it will be the turn of the railwaymen, then the transport workers and dockers. Only a victory for the miners will protect wages. Only the embargo will enforce a victory for the miners.
And now the Bishops have appeared on the scene. Have they come to tell their fellow Bishops, who live largely on mining royalties to disgorge their ill-gotten gains? (The Bishop of Durham has £7,000 a year.) No, again it is the Baldwin slogan set to celestial music. “ The wages of all workers must come down” and again the miners must be the first victims. Arbitration and a promise to submit in advance to the findings of this arbitration court, is more dangerous ground than the workers have hitherto been called to traverse.
We Communists believe that capitalism can only continue to exist at the expense of the increasing misery of the working class. We also believe that only by loyalty and solidarity and organisation, can the workers triumph. The Bishops “whether consciously or unconsciously” to give them the benefit of the doubt, are simply another move in the capitalist game.
To you, women, the dark night seems long. But the organised might of the working class, under the courageous leadership of the Communist Party alone can bring the dawn and freedom to the struggling working class internationally.
(10) Henry Hamilton Fyfe helped to edit the Daily Worker during the General Strike.
The Government organ was called the British Gazette. We named ours the British Worker. Churchill ran theirs in his flamboyant style. We kept ours moderate in statement and strictly matter-of-fact. The Times paid us this tribute: "Although frankly propagandist, the British Worker has on the whole been a straightforward and moderate influence."
The TUC appointed censors to sit in the office and read the proofs. But these were easily managed. Our real difficulty was lack of paper. We were printing numbers far in excess of the Herald circulation. We went up actually to seven hundred and fifty thousand copies. Even then a cry arose from many parts of the country: "Give us more: we can sell them."
In the hope of shutting us down, or at any rate lowering our circulation. Baldwin meanly interfered with our paper supplies. I learned during the strike and the events which led to it how deceptive was the appearance of good humour and honest frankness which this adroit politician maintained.
(11) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)
The story of the strike has been told so often that it is unnecessary to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that in Hackney, as in every working-class area, there was great sympathy for the miners, who had been treated abominably, and there was a universal and reasonably justified feeling that the mineowners were a wicked lot. But there was also some feeling among the basically law-abiding and sensible working people of our country that political power could not, and should not, be won by industrial action. However, the strike call met with a loyal response.
(12) Walter Citrine, 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. It was a sympathetic strike on a national scale. It was full of imperfections in concept and method. No General Strike could ever function without adequate local organization, and the trade unions were not ready to devolve such necessary powers on the only local agents which the T.U.C. has, the Trades Councils.
(13) Cass Canfield, Up and Down and Around (1971)
The British General Strike, which occurred in 1926, completely tied up the nation until the white-collar class went to work and restored some of the services. I remember watching gentlemen with Eton ties acting as porters in Waterloo Station; other volunteers drove railroad engines and ran buses. I was assigned to delivering newspapers and would report daily, before dawn, at the Horse Guards Parade in London. As time passed, the situation worsened; barbed wire appeared in Hyde Park, and big guns. Winston Churchill went down to the docks in an attempt to quell the rioting. For a couple of days there were no newspapers, and that was hardest of all to bear for no one knew what was going to happen next and everyone feared the outbreak of widespread violence. Finally, a single-sheet government handout appeared - the British Gazette - and people breathed easier, but settlement of the issues dividing labor and the government appeared to be insoluble. The strike dragged on for a fortnight, with apparently no end in sight. Then, one day, the skies cleared; a compromise was reached and the workers returned to their jobs. It was remarkable that no bad feeling persisted between the opposing camps in view of the fact that the Country had faced a possible revolution.