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1926 United Kingdom general strike

The UK General Strike of 1926 was a general strike that lasted nine days, from 3 May 1926 to 12 May 1926. It was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an unsuccessful attempt to force the government to act to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for coal miners.

Causes of the General Strike

The British coal-mining industry suffered an economic crisis in 1925, largely caused by five factors:

  • 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.
  • Productivity, which was at its lowest ebb. Output per man had fallen to just 199 tons in 1920–4, from 247 tons in the four years before the war, and a peak of 310 tons in the early 1880s.
  • The fall in prices resulting from the 1925 Dawes Plan that, among other things, allowed Germany to re-enter the international coal market by exporting "free coal" to France and Italy as part of their reparations for the First World War.
  • The reintroduction of the Gold Standard in 1925 by Winston Churchill: this made the British pound too strong for effective exporting to take place from Britain, and also (because of the economic processes involved in maintaining a strong currency) raised interest rates, hurting all businesses.
  • Mine owners wanted to normalise profits even during times of economic instability — which often took the form of wage reductions for miners in their employ. Coupled with the prospect of longer working hours, the industry was thrown into disarray.

Mine owners therefore announced that their intention was to reduce miners' wages, and the TUC responded to this news by promising to support the miners in their dispute. The Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin decided to intervene, declaring that they would provide a nine-month subsidy 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.

This decision became known as "Red Friday" because it was seen as a victory for working-class solidarity and Socialism. In practice, the subsidy gave the mine owners and the government time to prepare for a major labour dispute. Herbert Smith (a leader of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain) said of this event: "We have no need to glorify about victory. It is only an armistice."

The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926: it recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended that the government subsidy should be withdrawn and that the miners' wages should be reduced to save the industry's profitability. A previous Royal Commission, the Sankey Commission, had recommended nationalisation a few years earlier to deal with the problems of productivity and profitability in the industry, but Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, had rejected its report.

After the Samuel Commission's report, the mine owners published new terms of employment for all miners. These included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage agreements, and a reduction in wages. Depending on a number of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine owners declared that if the miners did not accept the new terms then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) refused the wage reduction and regional negotiation: "Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day."

The General Strike

A Conference of the TUC met on 1 May 1926, and subsequently announced that a general strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin on 3 May

The leaders of the Labour Party were terrified by the revolutionary elements within the union movement and were unhappy about the proposed General Strike. During the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Government and the mine owners. However, these efforts failed, due mainly to an eleventh-hour decision by printers of the Daily Mail to refuse to print an editorial condemning the General Strike entitled "For King and Country". 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". When Baldwin heard of this, he called off the negotiations with the TUC by saying that this refusal was interfering with the liberty of the press.

King George V took exception to suggestions that the strikers were 'revolutionaries' saying, "Try living on their wages before you judge them.

The general public mainly backed the government as they thought that the strikers were undermining democracy supporting a communist overthrow of the British way of life.

The TUC feared that an all-out general strike would bring revolutionary elements to the fore. They decided to bring out workers only in the key industries, such as railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers and ironworkers and steelworkers.

The Government had prepared for the strike over the nine months in which it had provided a subsidy, creating organizations such as the Organization for the maintenance of supplies, and did whatever it could to keep the country moving. It rallied support by emphasizing the revolutionary nature of the strikers. The armed forces such as the army and volunteer workers helped maintain basic services. Even in 1920, the government's Emergency Powers Act had been passed. It was an act 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". Workers' 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.

On 5 May 1926, both sides gave their views. Churchill (at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer) said in his 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". In the British Worker, the TUC's newspaper: "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 Organization for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). They were 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 Q Division under Rotha Lintorn-Orman to combat the strikers.

On 6 May 1926, there was a change of atmosphere. Baldwin said: "The General Strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy". Means of transport began to improve with volunteers and blackleg workers.

On 7 May 1926, the TUC met with Sir Herbert Samuel and worked out a set of proposals designed to end the dispute. The Miners' Federation rejected the proposals. The British Worker was increasingly more difficult to operate because Churchill had decided to take over the production of paper. 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 army. They broke the picket line and transported food to Hyde Park. This episode showed that the government was in greater control of the situation. In a change of policy, the Army was chosen to move the lorries instead of the OMS. The volunteers who comprised the OMS were seen as reactionaries by the strikers and were often met with violence. Revisionist historians have claimed that use of the OMS in transport would have caused a revolution.

On 11 May 1926, 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."

Also on this day, two unions took the TUC to court to prevent them being called out on strike. The unions won their case against the TUC, and Justice Astbury, the judge, concluded that the General Strike was illegal. This made the TUC and unions liable to huge fines from employers as they were now not covered by the Trade Disputes Act, which basically said that the unions were not liable to loss of work. This also meant that Government had the ability to confiscate all union funds. This became know as the Astbury Judgment, and many people believe that this was the main reason for the TUC calling the strike off.

As a result of this...

On 12 May 1926, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce their decision to call off the strike, provided that the proposals worked out by the Samuel Commission were adhered to and that the Government offered a guarantee that 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." Thus the TUC agreed to end the dispute without such an agreement.

After the General Strike

For several months the miners continued to maintain resistance, but by October 1926 hardship forced many men back, especially those with young families. By the end of November most miners were back at work. However, many remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages, and district wage agreements. The strikers felt as though they had achieved nothing.

In 1927, the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, and ensured that trade union members had to voluntarily "contract in" to pay the political levy. It also forbade civil service unions from affiliating with the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal.

The effect on the British coal-mining industry was profound. By the late 1930s, employment in mining had fallen by more than one-third from its pre-strike peak of 1.2m 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 1926 General Strike in Literature

The poet Hugh MacDiarmid composed an ultimately pessimistic lyrical response to the General Strike which he incorporated into his long modernist poem of the same year, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. His imagistic depiction of how events unfolded occurs in the extended passage beginning "I saw a rose come loupin oot..." (line 1119).

In the 1945 novel Brideshead revisited, one of the main characters, Charles Ryder, returns from France to London to fight against the workers on strike.

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