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1926 United Kingdom General Strike
Coal miner strike in UK in 1926
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Tyldesley miners outside the Miners' Hall during the strike
The 1926 general strike in the United Kingdom was a general strike that lasted nine days, from 4 to 12 May 1926. It was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an unsuccessful attempt to force the British government to act to prevent wage reductions and worsening conditions for 1.2 million locked-out coal miners. Some 1.7 million workers went out, especially in transport and heavy industry. The government was prepared, and enlisted middle class volunteers to maintain essential services. There was little violence and the TUC gave up in defeat.
According to a leading TUC researcher, Walter Milne-Bailey, "There has never been a more amazing display of labour solidarity and the effect of such a demonstration must inevitably be deep and enduring. Workers have learnt a new sense of their oneness and their power."
The Subsidised Mineowner--Poor Beggar! from Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)
The First World War: The heavy domestic use of coal in the war meant that rich seams were depleted. Britain exported less coal in the war than it would have done in peacetime, allowing other countries to fill the gap. The United States, Poland and Germany and their strong coal industries benefited, in particular.
Coal production was at its lowest ebb. Annual output per man had fallen to just 199 tons in 1920-1924, from 247 tons in the four years before the war, and a peak of 310 tons in the early 1880s. Total coal output had been falling since 1914.
Mine owners wanted to maintain profits even during times of economic instability, which often took the form of wage reductions for miners in their employment. Coupled with the prospect of longer working hours, the industry was thrown into disarray.
Miners' pay had been lowered from £6.00 to £3.90 (then £3 18s.) over seven years.
Special Committee of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress at Downing Street, ready to discuss the mining crisis with Baldwin
Mine owners announced that their intention was to reduce miners' wages. The Miners Federation of Great Britain rejected the terms: "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day." The Trades Union Congress responded to the news by promising to support the miners in their dispute. The Conservative government, under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, decided to intervene by declaring that a nine-month subsidy would be provided to maintain the miners' wages and that a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, would look into the problems of the mining industry and consider its impact on other industries, families and organisations dependent on coal supplies industry.
The Samuel Commission published a report on 10 March 1926 recommending that national agreements, the nationalisation of royalties and sweeping reorganisation and improvement should be considered for the mining industry. It also recommended a reduction by 13.5% of miners' wages, along with the withdrawal of the government subsidy. Two weeks later, the prime minister announced that the government would accept the report if other parties also did.
A previous royal commission, the Sankey Commission in 1919, had failed to reach an agreement, producing four different reports with proposals ranging from complete restoration of private ownership and control, to complete nationalisation. David Lloyd George, the then prime minister, offered reorganisation, which was rejected by the miners.
After the Samuel Commission's report, the mine owners declared that miners would be offered new terms of employment, which included lengthening the work day and reducing wages depending on various factors. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain refused the wage reduction and regional negotiation.
The final negotiations began on 1 May but failed to achieve an agreement, leading to an announcement by the TUC that a general strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin on 3 May, a Monday, at one minute to midnight.
The leaders of the British Labour Party were not happy about the proposed general strike because they were aware of the revolutionary elements within the union movement and of the damage that the association would do to the party's new reputation as a party of government. During the next two days, frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement between the government and the mining industry representatives. However, they failed, mainly because of an eleventh-hour decision by printers of the Daily Mail to refuse to print an editorial ("For King and Country") condemning the general strike. They objected to the following passage: "A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people".
Troops on guard at a bus station; each bus had a police escort during the strike
Baldwin was now concerned about the TUC and printers' action interfering with the freedom of the press.
King George V tried to stabilise the situation and create balance saying, "Try living on their wages before you judge them."
The government had been preparing for the strike over the nine months in which it had provided a subsidy by creating organisations such as the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, and it did whatever it could to keep the country moving. It rallied support by emphasizing the revolutionary nature of the strikers. The armed forces and volunteer workers helped maintain basic services. It used the Emergency Powers Act 1920 to maintain essential supplies.
On 4 May 1926, the number of strikers was about 1.5-1.75 million. There were strikers "from John o' Groats to Land's End". The reaction to the strike call was immediate and overwhelming and surprised both the government and the TUC; the latter not being in control of the strike. On this first day, there were no major initiatives and no dramatic events except for the nation's transport being at a standstill.
"Constitutional Government is being attacked. Let all good citizens whose livelihood and labour have thus been put in peril bear with fortitude and patience the hardships with which they have been so suddenly confronted. Stand behind the Government, who are doing their part, confident that you will cooperate in the measures they have undertaken to preserve the liberties and privileges of the people of these islands. The laws of England are the people's birthright. The laws are in your keeping. You have made Parliament their guardian. The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin".
On 5 May 1926, both sides gave their views. Churchill commented as editor of the government newspaper British Gazette: "I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action. It is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it". Baldwin wrote, "The general strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy". The British Worker, the TUC's newspaper, wrote: "We are not making war on the people. We are anxious that the ordinary members of the public shall not be penalized for the unpatriotic conduct of the mine owners and the government".
In the meantime, the government put in place a "militia" of special constables called the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) of volunteers to maintain order in the street. A special constable said: "It was not difficult to understand the strikers' attitude toward us. After a few days I found my sympathy with them rather than with the employers. For one thing, I had never realized the appalling poverty which existed. If I had been aware of all the facts, I should not have joined up as a special constable". It was decided that fascists would not be allowed to enlist in the OMS without first giving up their political beliefs, as the government feared a right-wing backlash so the fascists formed the so-called "Q Division" under Rotha Lintorn-Orman to combat the strikers.
On 6 May 1926, there was a change of atmosphere. The government newspaper, British Gazette, suggested that means of transport began to improve with volunteers and strikebreakers, stating on the front page that there were '200 buses on the streets'. They were, however, figures of propaganda, as there were in fact only 86 buses running.
On 7 May 1926, the TUC met with Samuel and worked out a set of proposals designed to end the dispute. The Miners' Federation rejected the proposals. The British Worker was increasingly difficult to operate, as Churchill had requisitioned the bulk of the supply of the paper's newsprint so it reduced its size from eight pages to four. In the meantime, the government took action to protect the men who decided to return to work.
On 8 May 1926, there was a dramatic moment on the London Docks. Lorries were protected by the British Army. They broke the picket line and transported food to Hyde Park. That showed that the government was in greater control of the situation. It was also a measure of Baldwin's rationalism, in place of Churchill's more reactionary stance. Churchill had wanted, in a move that could have proved unnecessarily antagonistic to the strikers, to arm the soldiers. Baldwin, however, had insisted otherwise. In Plymouth, tram services are restarted, with some vehicles attacked and windows smashed. However, also in Plymouth, a football match, attended by thousands, occurs between a team of policemen and strikers, with the strikers winning 2-0.
On 11 May 1926, the Flying Scotsman was derailed by striking miners near Newcastle upon Tyne. The British Worker, alarmed at the fears of the General Council of the TUC that there was to be a mass drift back to work, claimed: "The number of strikers has not diminished; it is increasing. There are more workers out today than there have been at any moment since the strike began".
However, the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union applied for an injunction in the Chancery Division of the High Court to enjoin the General-Secretary of its Tower Hill branch from calling its members out on strike. Mr Justice Astbury granted the injunction by ruling that no trade dispute could exist between the TUC and "the government of the nation" and that except for the strike in the coal industry, the general strike was not protected by Trade Disputes Act 1906. In addition, he ruled that the strike in the plaintiff union had been called in contravention of its own rules. As a result, the unions involved became liable, by common law, for incitement to breach of contract and faced potential sequestration of their assets by employers.
On 12 May 1926, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce its decision to call off the strike if the proposals worked out by the Samuel Commission were respected and the government offered a guarantee there would be no victimization of strikers. The government stated that it had "no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike". However, the TUC agreed to end the dispute without such an agreement. Various strikes continued after this as their unions negotiated deals with companies for their members to return to work.
The miners maintained resistance for a few months before being forced, by their own economic needs, to return to the mines. By the end of November, most miners were back at work. However, many remained unemployed for many years. Those still employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages and district wage agreements. The strikers felt that they had achieved nothing.
The effect on British coal mines was profound. By the late 1930s, employment in mining had fallen by more than a third from its pre-strike peak of 1.2 million miners, but productivity had rebounded from under 200 tons produced per miner, to over 300 tons by the outbreak of the Second World War.
The split in the miners that resulted from Spencerism and the agreement of the Nottinghamshire miners to return to work, against the policy of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain divided the coal miners as a national bargaining force until the establishment of the National Union of Mineworkers.
In the long run, there was little impact on trade union activity or industrial relations. The TUC and the trade union movement remained intact and did not change their basic policies. Keith Laybourn says that historians mostly agree that "In no significant way could the General Strike be considered a turning point or watershed in British industrial history." There have been no further general strikes in Britain, as union leaders such as Ernest Bevin, who had coordinated the strike, considered it a mistake; they decided that action by political parties was a better solution. However, the country came close to a one-day general strike on 31 July 1972 over the imprisonment of the Pentonville Five.
In popular culture
Young Anarchy by Philip Gibbs was the first novel to mention the General Strike.
Meanwhile (1927) by H. G. Wells was the first novel to feature the General Strike, and describes the Strike's effect on the British Labour movement.
The strike functions as the "endpiece" of the satirical novel, The Apes of God, by Wyndham Lewis. In that novel, the half-hearted nature of the strike, and its eventual collapse, represents the political and moral stagnation of 1920s Britain.
^Thomas, Jo; Willis, Michael; Waller, Sally (25 December 2015). Oxford AQA history A level and AS component 2. Wars and welfare : Britain in transition, 1906-1957. Oxford. ISBN9780198354598. OCLC953454036.
^ abcPeter Humm, Paul Stigant, Peter Widdowson, Popular Fictions. London, Routledge, 2013 ISBN1136492569 (p. 127-150)
^"Heslop describes the miner's involvement in the General Strike of 1926 in The Gate of a Strange Field...."Rosemary M. Colt and Janice Rossen, Writers of the Old School: British Novelists of the 1930s. Springer, 1992. ISBN1349118273. (p.46)
^"Ellen Wilkinson's first novel, Clash, explores the playing out of this [class] war during the week of the General Strike in May 1926..." Nicola Wilson, Home in British Working-Class Fiction. Routledge, ISBN1317121368, 2016 (p.81)
^Lynda G. Adamson, World Historical Fiction: An Annotated Guide to Novels for Adults and Young Adults. Phoenix, Arizona : Oryx Press. ISBN9781573560665 (p. 256)
Barron, Hester. The 1926 Miners' Lockout: Meanings of Community in the Durham Coalfield (2010)
Chaloner, W. H. "The British Miners and the Coal Industry between the Wars" History Today (June 1964) 14#5 pp418-426, focus on historiography of 1926 miners.
Ferrall, Charles, and Dougal McNeill, eds. Writing the 1926 General Strike: Literature, Culture, Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Gildart, Keith. "The Women and Men of 1926: A Gender and Social History of the General Strike and Miners' Lockout in South Wales", Journal of British Studies, (July 2011) 50#3 pp 758-759
Gildart, Keith. "The Miners' Lockout in 1926 in the Cumberland Coalfield", Northern History, (Sept 2007) 44#2 pp 169-192
Hattersley, Roy. Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars (2008) pp 115-42.
Laybourn, Keith. The General Strike of 1926 (1993)
Morris, Margaret. The General Strike (1976) 479pp; detailed history
Mowat, Charles Loch. Britain between the wars: 1918-1940 (1955) pp 284-338, A non-partisan account.
Perkins, Anne. A Very British Strike: 3-12 May 1926 (2008)
Phillips, G A. The General Strike: The Politics of Industrial Conflict (1976)
Reid, Alastair, and Steven Tolliday, "The General Strike, 1926", Historical Journal (1977) 20#4 pp. 1001-1012 in JSTOR, on historiography
Robertson, D. H. "A Narrative of the General Strike of 1926", Economic Journal (1926) 36#143 pp 375-393 in JSTOR by a leading economics professor
Saltzman, Rachelle Hope. A Lark for the Sake of Their Country: The 1926 General Strike Volunteers in Folklore and Memory. Manchester University Press, 2012.
Saltzman, Rachelle H. "Public Displays, Play, and Power: The 1926 General Strike." Southern Folklore: Façade Performances (Special Issue) (1995) 52(2):161-186.
Saltzman, Rachelle H. "Folklore as Politics in Great Britain: Working-Class Critiques of Upper-Class Strike Breakers in the 1926 General Strike". Anthropological Quarterly Vol. 67, no. 3, 1994, pp. 105-121., https://www.jstor.org/stable/3317548
Somervell, D.C. The Reign of King George V, (1936) pp 351-68.online free
Taylor, Robert. TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000) 313pp
Skelley, Jeffrey. The General Strike 1926. Lawrence and Wishardt, London 1976
Smith, Harold. Remember 1926. A book list. Remember 1926, Coventgarden 1976
Turnbull, Tommy. A Miners Life The History Press 2007
Usherwood, Stephen. "The B.B.C. and the General Strike" History Today (Dec 1972), Vol. 22 Issue 12, pp 858-865 online.
The 1975 BBC series Days of Hope depicts events that led up to the 1926 strike.