Matthew Cookson looks at how for nine days a mass strike had the ruling class living in fear and how the strike failed to achieve victory
For the first time in decades there is the prospect of a general strike in Britain. Hundreds of thousands of workers are striking this week, and there are serious plans for an even bigger strike in the autumn.
Dave Prentis, leader of the Unison union, said of autumn’s prospective action, “It will be the biggest since the General Strike. It won’t be the Miners’ Strike. We are going to win.”
The 1926 General Strike was a defining moment in British history. But its details—and the lessons that should be taken from it—are little known.
The General Strike was the culmination of struggles that rocked the ruling elite in Britain before and after the First World War.
The General Strike ended a 16-year period of intense militancy on the part of the British working class. This began with the Great Unrest of 1910-14 and continued through the engineering struggles during the First World War and in the mass strikes of 1919.
The events of 1926 were far more defensive on the part of the unions. But nonetheless the bosses were worried the working class might win.
The Tory government and the employers were determined to break the power of the unions, forcing down wages to restore their profit levels.
They planned a general offensive against workers, targeting the miners in July 1925. Mine owners announced that they were increasing the working day, cutting wages and tearing up all previous agreements.
The TUC responded by ordering an embargo on the movement of all coal, of which stocks were low.
The government was forced to intervene to subsidise the mine owners for nine months while a report on the industry—the Samuels Commission—was conducted.
The unions declared this, “Red Friday”, a victory. The Daily Mail worried “It is difficult to express in words the indignation and consternation with which the public has received the government’s capitulation to the extreme socialists.” In fact Red Friday only postponed the battle.
The government meticulously prepared for the threat of strikes like it was going to war. Coal was stockpiled, strikebreakers organised and the country was divided into ten administrative districts for the direction of operations. It also arrested leading Communist Party militants.
The government also sent a warship to Newcastle, and recruited 226,000 special policemen.
Despite knowing this, the TUC did nothing to prepare, even as the crunch point got closer.
The Samuels Commission recommended that miners accept wage cuts and the reorganisation of the industry.
The mine owners issued an ultimatum to workers—accept the attack by the time the government subsidy expires, or be locked out of work.
The miners refused.
The TUC and Labour Party leaders spent two weeks desperately attempting to cobble together a deal. But the Tories were intent on defeating the unions and broke off negotiations.
The TUC was forced to call a General Strike from 3 May. It kept a tight grip on the strike’s running from the start refusing to use the full power of the organised working class.
It did not call all union members out, hoping its strategy of bringing out different groups while others waited would allow for a compromise agreement with the government.
In contrast rank and file union members enthusiastically followed the call—they wanted a strike.
Workers realised that a defeat for the miners would be a blow to the entire working class— and many knew that they could be next in the firing line.
The solidness of the action took the TUC and the government by surprise.
Transport, printing, production, building and power workers were called out in the first wave.
This left key sections—such as engineering, textiles, light industry, post and telephones—out of the action.
The first eight days of the strike saw two million workers join the strike. The second added another 500,000. There were also one million locked-out miners. But the TUC refused to call upon a further one million union members.
The TUC produced the British Worker newspaper which discouraged picketing. Strikers were advised to develop friendly relations with the police. This gave the state and its scabs a free hand to attempt to break the strike.
But strikers confronted police and strikebreakers in many areas. There were riots in Plymouth, Swansea, Southsea and Nottingham. Five thousand stormed a police station in Preston to try and release a striker. In Edinburgh a football pitch was used to impound vehicles that did not have trade union passes.
Buses were overturned in Glasgow, the Flying Scotsman train was derailed near Newcastle, while there were clashes in London, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh and other places.
Councils of action were set up across the country to organise picketing, food distribution and information.
The TUC worried about the councils, in which the Communist Party had influence. It feared that its control over the strike was slipping.
The TUC claimed that the strike was weakening, despite all evidence to the contrary.
A report by the TUC intelligence committee admitted, “There is a small return to work in some outlying areas, this was due to lack of information by the TUC and was easily offset by those joining the strike and industries closed by it.”
As the strike entered its second week, key industries were closing down through lack of supplies.
But after nine days, the TUC called-off the strike for a non-binding agreement, which included wage cuts.
Yet hundreds of thousands remained out on the tenth, unofficial, day—and 100,000 more joined. But, workers were not confident enough to stay out without union support.
The miners were left to fight on their own and were eventually forced back to work in October on humiliating terms.
The social position of trade union officials between workers and employers, means that they have an interest in maintaining the system as it is. This does not rule out struggling for better conditions, but it does rule out overturning the capitalism.
That does mean that leaders can stand up for their members. Even right wing leaders can lead strikes.
But the role of union leaders means that they will only take things so far.
The crucial factor determining which way they move is the strength of workers’ independent rank and file organisation. In 1926 the union leaders accepted that the state was a neutral institution and there was such a thing as the national interest. This meant that the TUC refused to recognise the true nature of the enemy and stated that the General Strike was solely an industrial dispute.
In contrast the government saw that the strike was a direct challenge to its rule and mobilised accordingly.
Unfortunately, there was insufficient pressure from below to counteract the leadership’s failiures. The left’s inability to stop the sell-out or reduce its impact was mainly down to the Communist Party’s attitude towards the TUC.
Communist Party members threw themselves into building the strikes but under the influence of the increasingly Stalinised Communist International, it raised the slogan “All Power to the General Council”. The party believed that leftwingers at the top of the TUC would take the struggle forward.
It did not build a rank and file movement strong enough or prepared enough to challenge the TUC.
The weakness of rank and file organisation meant that bosses went on the offensive, victimising tens of thousands of activists. The TUC’s surrender meant a defeat for the union movement—it took generations to recover.
As we enter into a rising period of struggle the challenge is to build up the confidence of organised workers and recognise the scale of the strength we have when we fight together.