On 3 May 1926, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for a general strike across Britain to start one minute before midnight.
More than one million coal miners had been locked out of their mines after a long-running dispute with the government and with the mines’ private owners, who wanted them to work longer shifts for reduced pay.
Around three million other workers across the land – including from heavy industries such as iron and steel, as well as those who worked on the railways and in transport. Others were in shipbuilding, engineering and chemicals, the gas and electricity industries, and the printing and building trades. All walked out in solidarity.
The bitter General Strike lasted nine days and ended in the betrayal and defeat of the miners. It divided Britain, brought the country to a standstill, and saw sporadic disturbances, vandalism, and 9,000 arrests.
The lead-up to the General Strike
During the First World War (1914 to 1918) the government nationalised the coal industry. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain was the largest group of industrial workers in the country and coal was central to the war effort.
Miners’ hours and wages improved – they had received an 18.5% wage increase. Post-war, they wanted to retain these benefits. However, on 31 March 1921, the coalition government’s Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, returned the mines to private ownership.
The economic slump in Britain in the post-war years saw mass unemployment, with many traditional industrial employers (such as shipbuilding, textiles, and coal mining) trying to cut costs. The coal industry, having failed to modernise, was being squeezed by foreign competition. The mine owners wanted miners to accept pay cuts and longer hours, or face pit closures. The various unions began cooperating more closely against this threat.
Coal mining was a harsh, dangerous occupation. Poverty and hardship were rife. Mineworkers were strongly unionised. They had already gone on strike against wage reduction in April 1921, but failed in their demands and were forced back to work on lower pay.
Wage cuts and extra hours
Four years later, on 30 June 1925, the mine owners demanded a further wage cut and an extra hour on a working day as coal was being produced at a loss.
Arthur J. Cook – long considered a Communist and agitator by the authorities and who had been briefly imprisoned in the war for his anti-war stance after miners had been conscripted to the army – proclaimed: ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.’ The National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation agreed to stop all movements of coal.
In order to buy time, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin agreed to pay mine owners a subsidy for nine months to avoid the imposition of wage cuts (‘Red Friday’). But in anticipation of a national strike, Baldwin had already instituted the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) in September 1925 to coordinate food and fuel supplies, and established an army of strike-breaking volunteers.
Baldwin also set up a Royal Commission into the mining industry headed by Sir Herbert Samuel. Its report, published in March 1926, was critical of the mine owners and said that radical changes were necessary within the industry. But among its recommendations was that the government subsidy to mine owners should be withdrawn and that miners’ wages should be reduced.
This was totally unacceptable to the miners and the TUC but approved by the government. The TUC General Council, set up to co-ordinate a national strike, threatened a strike of Britain’s key workers on 4 May.
Urgent negotiations between the various parties took place. The TUC and leaders of the opposition Labour Party, led by James Ramsay Macdonald, were initially unhappy about a general strike because they knew there were revolutionary elements within the union movement that could be damaging. Macdonald believed too that strikes should not be used as a political weapon.
However, everything changed when the Daily Mail’s printers refused to print a provocative editorial critical of the trade unions: ‘…a general strike…is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the right and liberties of the people…’.
In response, Prime Minister Baldwin broke off negotiations.
The TUC General Council immediately retaliated. On 4 May 1926, the General Strike began with more than one million coal miners locked out of their mines.
Workers down tools and the strike begins
More than three million workers from across the country downed tools during the strike.
The TUC initially limited strike action to the key unions such as iron and steel, railways and transport. But these strikers were quickly joined in solidarity by the overwhelming majority of trade unionists across the country.
The public tried to go about its business. Most accepted the strike with ‘…good temper and fortitude…’ according to BBC radio, but much of the country was paralysed. Public transport was at a standstill. Roads were in gridlock. Industry ground to a halt.
Newspapers had halted publication, but both the strikers and the government published their own. The former brought out ‘The British Worker’ which stressed that the strike was an industrial dispute and not an attack on the constitution.
The government’s ‘British Gazette’, edited by Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, claimed the strikers wanted to overthrow society. This was considered extreme by the public and the newspaper was viewed with suspicion.
Mining communities suffered great hardship. Miners’ wives were as active as their husbands: fundraising, rallying communities, supporting families, providing food and clothing, and running soup kitchens.
Strike-breaking volunteers go into action
The government had been preparing for a strike for months. It now relied on the estimated 30,000 volunteers of the OMS to take on some of the work of the strikers, including working in the docks, on the railways and driving trams and buses.
Many volunteers came from the middle-classes and were white-collar workers. Some were students from universities and public schools, such as Eton.
The military was mobilised to maintain law and order. They were a visible presence on many town and city streets, along with police officers (50,000 Special Constables in London). Soldiers protected food supplies and convoys and guarded transport hubs and vehicles against sabotage.
The government feared insurrection. The Russian Revolution had happened only 9 years earlier in 1917, when workers overthrew the monarchy and the government.
Disturbances, vandalism and arrests across Britain
Hundreds of thousands of pickets enforced the strike in the North. There was very little violence across the country. Mostly there were just minor disturbances, looting, assaults and vandalism, with some local demonstrations and rioting.
An estimated 9,000 people were arrested in total, the majority for printing or distributing strike bulletins.
The express, en route from Edinburgh to London, was carrying around 100 passengers and was operated by a ‘blackleg’ train driver, with OMS student volunteers acting as footplate men and guards.
Strike-breaking trains, including those carrying coal, often ran through strike-torn districts and were sometimes stoned by the impoverished mining communities.
As a gesture of defiance, in broad daylight, miners in the coal town of Cramlington, Northumberland, removed a section of track. But the first train through was not a coal train, it was the express.
Its driver had been pre-warned of potential trouble, the train was creeping along slowly and, extraordinarily, despite the derailment of the locomotive and 5 of the 9 carriages, there were no casualties. Miners’ wives rushed to help but were rebuffed by class-ridden abuse from passengers.
Nine miners received prison sentences ranging from four to eight years.
Final days of the strike
The TUC was desperate to bring an end to the strike. Workers were drifting back anyway.
Without reference to the miners, the TUC met with Sir Herbert Samuel and negotiated a set of proposals, including a minimum wage for colliery workers, an independent National Wages Board, miners who suffered pit closures to be given alternative employment, and the wage subsidy to carry on during negotiations.
The TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street on 12 May to try and persuade the government to agree. Baldwin refused to accept the main proposals. The TUC gave in unconditionally. Major factors were that strike pay was haemorrhaging strike funds, as well as the leaked news that Winston Churchill was set to introduce legislation that would cripple future trade union activity.
Nine days after it had begun, the strike was over. The miners felt totally betrayed. They remained on strike, left to fight on alone.
The aftermath of the General Strike
Six months later, by the end of November 1926, hardship obliged most miners to return to work. There was bitter resentment and a sense of humiliation as they were again forced to accept lower wages and longer hours. Many remained unemployed. Employers practised widespread victimisation, with blacklists and the sacking of militants.
In 1927, the government passed the Trades Disputes and Trades Union Act, which included making supporting strikes illegal and severely curtailing mass picketing.
Just two years later, on 30 May 1929 and in the face of rising mass unemployment, the public turned on the Conservatives, electing a Labour government with Ramsay Macdonald as Prime Minister.
Written by Nicky Hughes
Feature image: Coal miners in the 1920s. Source: Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.