The General Strike began on 3rd May, 1926. Arthur Pugh, the chairman of the Trade Union Congress, was put in charge of the strike. The TUC 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. Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU), was placed in charge of organising the strike.
The Organization for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) also put their plans into action. In all, around 30,000 people volunteered to unload cargo at the docks, and drive buses and trains. Others were recruited as Special Constables in the police force. People joined the OMS for various reasons. Some did it for financial reward. For example, a Special Constable was paid £2 6s 3d per week plus food - miners had been locked out for refusing to accept wages of £1 11s 7½d.
The government began publishing The British Gazette. Baldwin gave permission to Winston Churchill to take control of this venture and his first act was commandeer the offices and presses of The Morning Post, a right-wing newspaper. Churchill stated that "The field of battle is no longer transport but news".
The TUC responded by publishing its own newspaper, The British Worker, during the strike. Some trade unionists had doubts about the wisdom of not allowing the printing of newspapers. Workers on the Manchester Guardian sent a plea to the TUC asking that all "sane" newspapers be allowed to be printed. However, the TUC thought it would be impossible to discriminate along such lines. Permission to publish was sought by George Lansbury for Lansbury's Labour Weekly and H. N. Brailsford for the New Leader. The TUC owned Daily Herald also applied for permission to publish. Although all these papers could be relied upon to support the trade union case, permission was refused.
Local Trade Councils also published strike bulletins. The Government attempted to stop these local papers and, significantly, of the 9,000 people arrested during the strike, the majority were under the charge of "having under his control any document containing any report or statement... likely to cause disaffection... among the civilian population." In other words, they were printing or distributing strike bulletins.
BBC radio broadcasts were another way that people could discover what was going on. People tended to trust the BBC news assuming it to be unbiased, but during the strike radio controllers did respond to the tremendous pressure exerted by the British Government. For example, after talks with the Government, the BBC decided not to broadcast the Archbishop of Canterbury's proposals for a settlement of the General Strike.
As part of the government propaganda campaign, the BBC reported that public transport was functioning again and after the first week of the strike it announced that most railmen had returned to work. This was in fact untrue as 97% of National Union of Railwaymen members remained on strike. It was true that volunteers were emerging from training and that more trains were in service. However, there was a sharp increase in accidents and several passengers were killed during the strike. Unskilled volunteers were also accused of causing thousands of pounds' worth of damage.
John C. Davidson, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, was given responsibility for the way the media should report the strike. "As soon as it became evident that newspaper production would be affected by the strike, Davidson arranged to bring the British Broadcasting Company under his effective control... no news was broadcast during the crisis until it had first been personality vetted by Davidson... Each of the five daily news bulletins plus a daily 'appreciation of the situation', which took the place of newspaper editorials, were drafted by Gladstone Murray in conjunction with Munro and then submitted to Davidson for his approval before being transmitted from the BBC's London station at Savoy Hill."
Several politicians representing the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, appeared on BBC radio and made vicious attacks on the trade union movement. William Graham, the Labour Party MP for Edinburgh Central, wrote to John Reith, the BBC's managing director, suggesting that he should allow "a representative Labour or Trade Union leader to state the case for the miners and other workers in this crisis".
Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party, also contacted Reith and asked for permission to broadcast his views. Reith, under orders from Davidson, rejected his offer. Anne Perkins, the author of A Very British Strike: 3 May-12 May 1926 (2007) has argued that if the government had accepted the proposal and people had "heard an Opposition voice would certainly have done something to restore the faith of millions of working-class people who had lost confidence in the BBC's potential to be a national institution and a reliable and trustworthy source of news."
By 12th May, 1926, most of the daily newspapers had resumed publication. The Daily Express reported that the "strike had a broken back" and it would be all over by the end of the week. Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, was extremely hostile to the strike and all his newspapers reflected this view. The Daily Mirror stated that the "workers have been led to take part in this attempt to stab the nation in the back by a subtle appeal to the motives of idealism in them." The Daily Mail claimed that the strike was one of "the worst forms of human tyranny".
Walter Citrine, the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), was desperate to bring an end to the General Strike. He argued that it was important to reopen negotiations with the government. His view was "the logical thing is to make the best conditions while our members are solid". Baldwin refused to talk to the TUC while the General Strike persisted. Citrine therefore contacted Jimmy Thomas, the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), who shared this view of the strike, and asked him to arrange a meeting with Herbert Samuel, the Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry.
Without telling the miners, the TUC negotiating committee met Samuel on 7th May and they worked out a set of proposals to end the General Strike. These included: (i) a National Wages Board with an independent chairman; (ii) a minimum wage for all colliery workers; (iii) workers displaced by pit closures to be given alternative employment; (iv) 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 and attempted to persuade the Government to support the Samuel proposals and to offer a guarantee that there would be no victimization of strikers.
To many trade unionists, Walter Citrine had betrayed the miners. A major factor in this was money. Strike pay was hemorrhaging union funds. Information had been leaked to the TUC leaders that there were cabinet plans originating with Winston Churchill to introduce two potentially devastating pieces of legislation. "The first would stop all trade union funds immediately. The second would outlaw sympathy strikes. These proposals would... make it impossible for the trade unions' own legally held and legally raised funds to be used for strike pay, a powerful weapon to drive trade unionists back to work."
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. As Anne Perkins has pointed out this move "destroyed any notion of an impartial government".
When the General Strike was terminated, the miners were left to fight alone. Arthur J. Cook appealed to the public to support them in the struggle against the Mine Owners Association: "We still continue, believing that the whole rank and file will help us all they can. We appeal for financial help wherever possible, and that comrades will still refuse to handle coal so that we may yet secure victory for the miners' wives and children who will live to thank the rank and file of the unions of Great Britain."
In 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. Hardship forced men to begin to drift back to the mines. By the end of August, 80,000 miners were back, an estimated ten per cent of the workforce. 60,000 of those men were in two areas, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
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 to the Labour Party, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal. As A. J. P. Taylor has pointed out: "The attack on Labour party finance came ill from the Conservatives who depended on secret donations from rich men."
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.
The response of union members was fantastic: all ceased work when called upon, and practically none returned to work until the strike was over. There were the very men who had rallied to the defence of Belgium in 1914. The voluntary recruitment of the First World War and the strike of 1926 were acts of spontaneous generosity.
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.
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.
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.... 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.
A long line of lorries swinging into Hyde Park during the week bore sure witness to the fact that the strikers had suffered early defeat in their attempt to starve London.... The convoy looked like the commissariat of a victorious army, and the illusion was heightened by the sight of soldiers perched high on their loads, some of them smoking, most of them smiling, and all of them going about their job with the casual good humour characteristic of the British private in peace and war... There were few people in the streets, but as dockland grew closer an occasional knot of strikers on picket duty gazed in amazement at the column. Troops had descended on their objective before the enemy had time to realize that they were there.
There is as far as the Trade Union Movement is concerned, no "attack on the community". There is no "challenge to the Constitution." The workers have exercised their legal and long-established right of withholding their labour, in order to protect the miners against a degradation of their standard of life, which is a menace to the whole world of labour.
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 mine owners 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.
A striker at Farnworth, near Bolton, received a month's imprisonment for tearing down a Government poster; another in north London was given six weeks with hard labour for telling a crowd that the Liverpool police were on strike; a Communist found chalking 'seditious' slogans on a pavement at Castleford was gaoled for two months with hard labour and fined £200; at Penrith the local secretary for the National Union of General Workers went to prison for three months with hard labour for issuing a leaflet urging workers not to become special constables.
He (MacDonald) said he was anxious to give a talk. He sent a manuscript along... with a friendly note offering to make any alterations which I wanted... I sent it at once to Davidson for him to ask the Prime Minister, strongly recommending that he should allow it to be done.... The idea was rejected... I do not think that they treat me altogether fairly. They will not say we are to a certain extent controlled and they make me take the onus of turning people down. They are quite against MacDonald broadcasting, but I am certain it would have done no harm to the Government. Of course it puts me in a very awkward and unfair position. I imagine it comes chiefly from the PM's difficulties with the Winston lot.
A solution is within the grasp of the nation the instant that the trade union leaders are willing to abandon the General Strike. I am a man of peace. I am longing and working for peace, but I will not surrender the safety and security of the British Constitution. You placed me in power eighteen months ago by the largest majority accorded to any party for many years. Have I done anything to forfeit that confidence? Cannot you trust me to ensure a square deal, to secure even justice between man and man?
Right from the start of the strike it became evident that the bureaucratic leaders were afraid and nervous about the situation. They tried to confine the General Strike into certain channels which even imposed limitations upon the free development of necessary strike preparations ... The officials opposed propaganda, demonstrations, mass pickets, everything that was vital to the strike. They tried to inculcate pacifism into the workers so as to tie their hands. And they were definitely and signally failing the longer the strike lasted. The General Strike would have won with ease, provided the leadership was effective. The General Strike was lost because it was betrayed.
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.
Financial, help from workers in all lands, especially from Soviet Russia has proved to her the fellow feeling of the international working class. 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 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.
The country has come through deep waters (the General Strike) and it has come through in triumph, setting such an example to the world as has not been seen since the immortal hours of the War. It has fought and defeated the worst forms of human tyranny. This is a moment when we can lift up our head and our hearts.
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.
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.
Many miners found they had no jobs to return to as many coal-owners used the eight-hour day to reduce their labour force while maintaining productions levels. Victimisation was practised widely. Militants were often purged from payrolls. Blacklists were drawn up and circulated among employers; many energetic trade unionists never worked in a it again after 1926. Following months of existence on meague lockout payments and charity, many miners' families were sucked by unemployment, short-term working, debts and low wages into abject poverty.
Questions for Students
Question 1: Why did people join the OMS and became Special Constables during the General Strike?
Question 2: During the strike, the Russian Trade Union Council sent a cheque of £200,000 to buy food for strikers. The British TUC sent it back. Can you explain why?
Question 3: Extracts 8 and 9 both contain biased statements insofar as they were written by people with clearly stated points of view. Explain how the particular viewpoint, or bias, makes itself clear in each of the extracts.
Question 4: Study sources 13, 17, 20 and 22. Explain if the cartoons are pro or anti the strikers.
Question 5: Why was control of the media such an important factor in the progress of the General Strike.
Question 6: Give as many reasons as you can why the General Strike came to an end.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.