40 Years On

The “General Strike” of May 1926 was of course not a general strike—but it did not need to be. It brought the level of production for the year down by about a third—equivalent to the effect of a major slump, and its cost to the capitalist class was put at £100 million or more. The industries wholly or partly called out on strike in support of the miners were transport, printing, iron, steel and metal and heavy chemicals, building, electricity and gas; and the Ministry of Labour estimated that the numbers involved totalled about 1,600,000, in addition to over a million miners. This was nearly half of all trade unionists at the time (5½ million) and nearly sixty per cent of the 4,366,000 who were affiliated to the T.U.C. Among the strikers, as Lord Citrine points out (he was Acting General Secretary of the T.U.C. in 1926) were “hundreds of thousands who had never been out on strike in their lives”. The supporting strikes lasted for nine days though the miners continued after the others had gone back and some of the coal fields did not give up the struggle until December. ,

The total of working days lost in 1926 reached the highest figure of all lime, 162 million working days which may be compared to between two and three million days a year in recent times.

Lord Citrine, in an interview, published in the Sunday Times Magazine Supplement (10.4.66) claims that “It was not a defeat for the trade unions”, and if we leave aside for the moment the miners and the thousands of workers who were victimised, there is some truth in this. It was an unprecedented demonstration of working class solidarity, and employers, in face of it, did not feel emboldened to try a general move for wage reductions and longer hours and the official index of wage rates stood at the same level at the end of 1926 as it had at the end of 1925 (as also did the cost of living index).

For the miners however, it was different: in addition to wage reductions their hours were lengthened by half an hour or one hour a shift, with increases of 1½ to 2½ hours a week for surface workers.

In the twenty years before 1926 there had been a lot of propaganda in this country for the general strike, either in support of wage claims, or to stop war or as syndicalist “take and hold” action, but in the event the determining factor was the conditions of capitalism—the steep decline of the coal industry, and heavy and increasing unemployment: it stood at about 1¼ million, over 10%.

Workers feared that an attack on the miners if not beaten off would be followed by attacks on wages in other trades. The feeling was no doubt helped by the disappointment of many workers with the Labour Government which had had a nine months office in 1924. They wrongly concluded that that inglorious episode pointed to the uselessness of political action itself.

The Government had been badly frightened by the strike, imagining that it represented a revolutionary conspiracy by members of the Communist Party and agents of the Russian government. (The T.U.C. had refused an offer of financial aid from Russia.) When it was over the Government hurried to pass the 1927 Trade Disputes Act which restricted trade union activities in certain directions, made sympathetic strikes illegal and cut government workers unions off from illation to the T.U.C. and Labour Party, and international trade union organisations, etc., this in spite of the fact that Civil Servants did not strike and had not been called on to do so. The Act hit the T.U.C. since they lost some hundreds of thousands of affiliated members and doubly hit the Labour Party because individual trade unionists now had to contract in to pay the political levy instead of having to contract out if they objected to paying. (The whole of the 1927 Act was repealed by the Attlee government in 1946.)

A period of decline set in for the trade union movement and particularly for the T.U.C., to be hastened within a few years by the depression of the nineteen thirties, T.U.C. membership declined from 4,366,000 in 1926 to a low point of 3,295,000 in 1934; but since then expansion has been continuous and the present membership, 8,771,000 out of a total trade union figure of 10 million is a record.

Among the developments of the past forty years, both in the T.U.C. and in the unions as a whole have been the increased number of women trade unionists, the spread of trade unions to “non-manual” workers and the decline in the number of unions through amalgamations, though ’ big unionism” measured by the biggest union of all, the nearly 1½ million strong Transport and General Workers Union no longer has the glamour it once had.

Women trade unionists now exceed two million, compared to 832,000 in 1925; still however not more than one in four of women workers. Similar growth has been made among general clerical workers, bank and insurance clerks, civil servants and local government staffs, doctors and teachers.

With the decline of the coal industry from over a million workers to under 500,000 and of the railways the expansion of non-manual unions has shifted the balance in the T.U.C. helped last year by the application of the National Association of Local Government Officers’ Association with 326,000 members.

The number of separate unions has dropped from 1,144 in 1925 to 591 in 1964 but over two thirds of total trade union membership is in the 18 unions with over 100,000 members all of which, except the National Union of Teachers, are in the T.U.C. Nevertheless the concentration of union membership in a small number of large unions has developed much less in Britain than in Germany, Sweden and some other countries and the British figure of only about 40 per cent of workers in trade unions also compares unfavourably.

The Swedish trade unions have recently, both because the recent wage negotiations were marked by threats of a general strike before eventual agreement was reached on a three year agreement. In Sweden the T.U.C. itself act as the negotiating body with the employers, something the British T.U.C. has no power to do though in 1926 the difficulty was overcome by the trade union executives being called to a conference in which they endorsed the strike plans of the T.U.C. General Council. But the real difference between Sweden in 1966 and Britain in 1926 is that the Swedish employers are faced with an acute labour shortage and were reluctant to have their booming trade interrupted by a strike (or by the lock-out they threatened at one stage). In Britain forty years ago the advantage was with the employers and especially with the coal owners—a shut down of the mines was almost a blessing to them.

Years of nearly full employment also encouraged a development which governments and employers favoured anyway, the widespread practice of unions and the T.U.C. being represented on joint productivity bodies with employers and the government, on organisations such as the National Economic Development Council, and of union officials being appointed to the boards of nationalised industries. The latest innovation is the government inspired plan to have trade unions invest funds in the Fairfield ship building company in order to save it from closure.

The argument advanced for this development by supporters of the Labour Party is that as they believe in planning it is logical that trade unions should at all levels have a hand in formulating and carrying out the plans for increasing production, and for sharing the product on the lines of the Government’s Incomes Policy. It is based on a twofold illusion. Capitalism cannot be planned, either by those who own the means of production and distribution or by governments; still less by the trade union representatives invited in to be “consulted”, as will be shown the next time trade and production take a downward turn and unemployment rises.

The illusion goes much deeper than this. It shows itself in every conference of the T.U.C. and of the separate unions. The agendas are weighed down with scores of high sounding motions on all sorts of questions thrown up by capitalism at home and internationally, reflecting the emotional reactions of delegates but utterly useless from a practical point of view. Nobody takes the slightest notice of them, and most are soon forgotten by those who voted then. It is not merely that time spent on them is wasted but the real business of trade unions, looking after the interests of members as wage earners, suffers greater or less degree of neglect as a consequence.

And the question which ought to be the overriding concern of trade unionists as members of the working class, their interest in getting rid of capitalism and its wages system, and establishing Socialism, never gets heard at all. In this the trade union movement is little further advanced than it was forty years ago.


Trade union conferences go on passing resolutions for the nationalisation of industries, always in the belief that replacing the private capitalist by the state will somehow save the workers from the consequences of capitalism. They fail to lake note of the experience of the miners. Before and during the 1926 strike the trade unions and the Labour Party were advocating nationalisation of the mines as the one and only remedy. Evidence on those lines had been given to the Royal Commission on the coal industry, the report of which came out a few months before the strike, recommending nationalisation of coal royalties but not of the industry itself. The Miners Federation looked on nationalisation as a way to solve wage problems and to step the closure of uneconomic pits and loss of jobs. And now that the coal industry has been nationalised for twenty years the miners are complaining about exactly the same problem. At the T.U.C. at Brighton in 1965 Congress carried a National Union of Mineworkers motion in favour of a “National fuel policy” designed to save the coal industry against competing fuels. In his supporting speech the General Secretary of the N.U.M. stated that jobs in the coal industry were dropping at the rate of 40,000 a year and a quarter of a million had disappeared since 1954. And the miners delegate who seconded could see no difference between Tory and Labour policy for closing down uneconomic pits. How could it be otherwise? What counts for capitalism is costs of production and prospects of profits. If oil and gas are cheaper than coal, (and new finds of natural gas in the North Sea threaten a still cheaper competitor) coal is no longer king and miners must look for other jobs. And of course nationalisation has solved no wages problem and local strikes in the coal industry go on steadily at about a dozen or so a week year in year out.


This fortieth anniversary of the General Strike finds the trade unions facing likely new developments in trade union law when the Royal Commission on trade unions and employers associations finishes its work. When Webb wrote the 1920 introduction to his History of Trade Unions he was confident that the earlier indefinite and precarious state of trade union law had gone and that the legal and constitutional status of the unions “has now been explicitly defined and embodied in precise and absolutely expressed statutes”. How wrong he was. New court decisions, and the “unofficial” strikes which have come with low unemployment, not to mention the growing acceptance of the idea of strikes by civil servants and other workers, who in 1920 only half-heartedly adopted the implications of trade union organisation, have led to demands for amendments to the law and for the setting up of new machinery for avoiding and settling disputes.


Some of the pressure for change stems from the employers dislike of the intractable attitude of unions in a period of full employment, but it also comes from people who imagine that social structure has altered and made former trade union action unnecessary. But capitalism is not essentially different, and the class struggle has not disappeared. While it is hard to imagine circumstances in which the 1926 experience could be repeated a sharp worsening of trade, with consequent pressure on wages, could overnight produce large-scale conflicts no matter what the Royal Commission may recommend and no matter what new laws and new industrial conciliation bodies may be set up. What we as Socialists may hope is that workers will not go on deluding themselves that trade union action, necessary as it is, can solve their problems. Not action within capitalism but political action to establish Socialism is what the situation requires.


Edgar Hardcastle