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General Strike (Britain)

GENERAL STRIKE (BRITAIN).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The General Strike of May 1926 was the most important industrial conflict in British history and the only occasion on which representatives of the British trade union movement as a whole have struck for more than one day in support of fellow trade unionists. In fact, almost one and three-quarter million vital or front-line workers came out in support of about one million miners who had been locked out for rejecting reductions in pay and conditions. For nine days, from 3 to 12 May, Britain ground almost to a halt. A few trains and buses ran, but only when driven by volunteers from the anti-strike middle and upper classes. Yet despite this unity of the workers, fighting what seemed to be a class war, the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called off the dispute amid controversy, was criticized by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and lost some prestige throughout the country for the rest of the interwar years.

The General Strike was the culmination of a number of events. Most obviously, the postwar coalition government led by David Lloyd George (1863–1945) wanted to return the coal industry, which had been taken over by the state in 1915, to the coal owners (rejecting the decision of the Sankey Commission of 1919 that the coal industry should remain under state control). Thereafter, the Conservative-dominated governments of the early 1920s resolved to bring down wages in mining and other industries. At the same time, the TUC formed a General Council in 1921, part of whose responsibility was the uniting of workers industrially in order to resist wage reductions. The volatile industrial relations in the coal industry operated within this context. The return of the mines to the coal owners in April 1921 provoked a mining dispute that the miners and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain lost. This defeat was due to the decision of the other unions in the Triple Alliance, the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers Federation, on 15 April 1925 (better known as "Black Friday") not to support the miners. There was a feeling that the miners had been let down, and when they were faced with further substantial wage reductions and longer hours again in 1925, the General Council of the TUC felt obliged to support them. That potential coal conflict was bought off at the last minute on 31 July 1925, known as "Red Friday," when the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947) provided a nine-month subsidy for the coal owners. This action merely delayed the mining strike by nine months, during which period the Royal Commission on Coal, chaired by Sir Herbert Louis Samuel (1870–1963), deliberated and reported upon the need to nationalize the coal industry, to temporarily reduce wages and end the subsidy. These recommendations were unlikely to satisfy the miners or the mine owners, and it was no surprise that the coal owners announced wage reductions and the ending of national negotiations in coal from 1 May 1926, the day after the subsidy expired.

The miners refused to accept the cuts in wages and the worsening of conditions of employment, and were locked out of negotiations from May until November 1926. On the other hand, in a display of unusual unity, the affiliated unions of the TUC agreed on 1 May to call out some of the vital supply and transport workers, the "frontline" workers, on strike from 11:59 p.m. on 3 May. A last-ditch attempt to avoid conflict failed when the Baldwin government refused to talk further with the TUC because the printers at the Daily Mail newspaper refused to print an editorial critical of the unions. Some "second-line" workers, such as engineers and shipbuilders, were called out on 12 May, the day the strike was terminated.

The General Strike was very effective in stopping the trains, urban traffic, and the movement of goods. There was violent conflict between the strikers and the authorities, although most of it was of a minor nature. The government had prepared for the dispute, producing the British Gazette under the editorship of Winston Churchill, gathering food at the Hyde Park food center, and ensuring the continued movement of vital supplies throughout the country. As a result, TUC leaders were convinced that they could not win and James Henry Thomas (1874–1949), the railwaymen's leader, was put in charge of the TUC negotiation committee that sought a resolution to the conflict. Although it could not deal directly with the government, which refused to negotiate under the threat of a strike, it enlisted the good offices of Samuel, the Liberal who had chaired the Royal Commission on Coal in 1925–1926, to discuss possible solutions to the dispute, hoping that the Baldwin government would respond to his independent role. In fact, it was quite clear that the Samuel Memorandum that emerged and was presented to the miners' leaders on 11 May would not be accepted by anyone other than the TUC. The miners objected to the suggestion that wages should be reduced, and the government was not prepared to consider the Memorandum while in dispute. Therefore, in an act of capitulation, the representatives of the TUC met with Baldwin at 10 Downing Street and called off the dispute shortly after noon on 12 May. The miners, who stuck out the strike for another six months, were abandoned by the TUC, although trade unionists paid a financial levy to support them throughout their dispute. They were eventually forced to accept wage reductions, the lengthening of hours, and the end of national negotiations in November 1926.

The symbolic and political significance of the General Strike was immense. In an obvious way, the revolutionary potential of the British trade union movement was shown to be nonexistent. The role of the TUC thus caused prolonged bitterness among the more militant sections of the miners' unions and, in the Workers' Weekly newspaper of 13 May 1926, the Communist Party of Great Britain denounced the calling off of the General Strike as the greatest crime ever permitted in the history of the British working class and the working class of the world. Other, less militant forces agreed. The general strike was thus discredited as a political weapon, even though the TUC had at least demonstrated some potential for unity of action. The consequences of the strike were both positive and negative. There was anti-strike legislation, particularly the Trades Dispute Act (1927), which restricted general and sympathetic strikes. The Mond-Turner talks between the big employers and the TUC opened more channels of helpful communications between unions and business, which augured well for the industrial economy of the mid and late 1930s.

See alsoLabor Movements; Strikes; United Kingdom.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Laybourn, Keith. The General Strike of 1926. Manchester, U.K., 1993.

Morris, Margaret. The General Strike. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1976.

Phillips, G. A. The General Strike: The Politics of Industrial Conflict. London, 1976.

Renshaw, Patrick. The General Strike. London, 1975.

Keith Laybourn

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