The General Strike of 1926
London’s Piccadilly was jammed with traffic. So was the Thames Embankment. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes—cars, vans, bicycles, horses and carts, almost anything on wheels— had been pressed into service.
This traffic chaos was news, but there were no newspapers. Out of Fleet Street came only a few bundles of single-sided cyclostyled sheets with a very brief digest of news snippets.
The railway stations were quiet except for the murmur of voices of bewildered people who had turned up with the hope of getting a train.
The docks were still and silent. Only at the gates, where groups of dock workers stood around, was there any sign of life.
The same pattern prevailed in towns and cities all over the country.
It was Tuesday, May 4, 1926–the first day of the General Strike. Workers whose Trade Unions had called on them to stop work, did so unanimously. The solidarity of the strike surprised even Trade Union officials and confounded thousands who had not expected the strike to take place.
During previous months, talks and negotiations, committees and commissions, reports and announcements telling how Trade Union leaders, the Government, the clergy and some prominent individuals were striving to find a solution to the deadlock, had led lots of people to believe that the strike would be cancelled at the last moment or that, if it was called, it would be a feeble affair, causing them little inconvenience. So, many awoke on that May morning without a thought that the day would be different to the one before.
For nine days the strike continued, more Unions joining in when called upon. At midday on the ninth day the General Council of the Trades Union Congress went to the Prime Minister and announced, “ . . the General Strike is being terminated today.” The news was broadcast at 1 p.m.
This abrupt ending caused more consternation inside Trade Union ranks than the calling of the strike had caused outside. Thousands of active, local Trade Unionists were struck speechless by the news. When they recovered their wits they set up a howl of protest and recrimination. They were the men who, during those nine days, had organised the pickets and demonstrations, arranged entertainment and recreation for the strikers, produced local strike bulletins, issued transport permits, planned help for the halt, the maimed and the blind and done the multitude of organisational jobs that had kept the strike solid. They had been the N.C.O.s of the battle. With confused ideas about the strike—theirs not, they thought, to reason why—they had done their job with enthusiasm. When, at the height of their zeal, they heard the retreat sounded, they were flabbergasted and enraged.
Angry voices accused the T.U.C. General Council of cowardice and treason. The General Council accused the miners of making impossible demands. Denunciation, recrimination, spite and mud-slinging were rife for weeks but, by the time of the next Trades Union Congress, the venom had subsided and members of the General Council were re-elected to office.
During the forty years since the General Strike the question has been frequently asked, “If the strike had not been called off so precipitately, could it have been brought to a successful conclusion?” The questioners have different ideas about what would have been a successful conclusion.
Their question implies that the Trade Unions planned the strike with a particular object in view, that the workers were led into the fight towards some preconceived goal. This is a complete misunderstanding of the event.
The threat to strike was an act of defence and defiance which the T.U.C. General Council did not expect to have to put into effect. They candidly admitted that they did not want the strike, that they did everything to avoid it including, as one of them said, grovelling to the Prime Minister. The Government forced them into the fight.
Ten months earlier the coal miners had given notice of their intention to terminate the miners’ national agreement, to reduce their pay and increase their working hours. Failing acceptance of these demands, the miners were faced with a lock-out. They sought support from the T.U.C. and a committee of Unions representing miners, dockers, railwaymen and road transport workers planned to completely stop the handling of all coal if the lock-out notices were not withdrawn. At the final hour the notices were withdrawn, the Government granted the mine owners a nine months subsidy and set up a commission to investigate the coal industry.
The Trade Unions were delighted and the day of victory passed into the annals of working class history as “Red Friday”.
To those who did not blind themselves to what was happening around them, it was apparent that the employers and the Government had bought time to prepare for a show-down. The Trade Union leaders did the three monkey act; they saw nowt, heard nowt and did nowt.
The Government, without any effort at secrecy, instituted a strike breaking organisation, The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, mainly under the control of military and naval personnel. At the same time they held out hope to the miners by appointing a commission of enquiry into the coal industry.
Months later, when the commission reported, it offered the miners nothing and, with the end of the Government subsidy drawing near, the mine owners again submitted their demands.
With the Prime Minister acting the part of a benevolent mediator it was simple to misunderstand, if not ignore, the Government’s bellicose activities. After Red Friday it appeared logical to again threaten strike action as a counter to the mine owner’s threats. But with the passing days it became clear that the Government and employers were digging in their heels.
As zero hour approached, a conference of Trade Union delegates met in London and the T.U.C. General Council, acting as negotiating committee, met the mine owners and the Prime Minister daily. The Council found itself shuttled between an immovable Government and an irresistible delegate conference. When finally they reported their inability to move their opponents, the assembled delegates voted by 3,653,527 to 49,911 to empower the General Council to go ahead with the strike.
Despite the overwhelming vote, the General Council utilised the twenty six hours between the decision to strike and the appointed time for it to commence, to again try to get the miners’ lock-out notices withdrawn so that negotiations could continue without strike action. Eventually, a full cabinet meeting flatly refused even this modest request and the Prime Minister told the General Council that the proceedings must close because the strike had been called and because of overt acts, affecting the freedom of the press, that had already taken place. Printing Trade workers on the Daily Mail had refused to print an anti-working class article, and had walked out.
The Government utilised these last few hours to set its strike breaking machinery into operation. The King signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency under the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. Orders in Council were issued, army leave was cancelled and troops moved to industrial areas. The commissioners of the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies were instructed to put their machinery in motion. The mine owners made a final offer to the miners to settle with reduced wages and increased hours. At midnight on Monday the strike was on.
Throughout the strike the Union leaders emphasised that it was entirely an industrial dispute. The Government insisted that it was a challenge to the state and the democratic constitution and would lead to civil war. Communists urged that the strike could be used to displace the Conservative Government in favour of a Labour one. A few scatter-brained individuals even saw the strike as an attack on capitalism by class conscious workers, with the prospect of a social revolution.
All the circumstances considered, it was obvious the workers could not win. The number involved in the strike action was about three million. (G. D. H. Cole put the figure at 2,751,000).) That was quite a small portion of the total working class. The remainder were sympathetically indifferent, apathetic or hostile. The Government, despite a mild pretence at being an unbiased referee, was doing its job of keeping law and order. That meant preserving capitalist law and preventing the workers from being disorderly. Strikes create disorder. From its position of strength the Government could not lose.
Had the Government been weaker, and resigned under the strike threat, its successor, whether Liberal or Labour, would have had to do the same job of running capitalism. Subsequent Labour Governments proved that. Under similar circumstances they did similar things in the attempt to make capitalism run smoothly. The present outcry against unofficial strikes is a continuation of the policy. The workers must be kept at work without interruption for the hours and wages that the current trade condition requires.
That the General Strike could have led to a social revolution is a fantastic notion. The three million strikers reacted to what they considered an injustice, not because they were conscious of their class status and certainly not because they understood capitalism and the need to overthrow it.
When the strike was over the workers showed how un-class-conscious they were. Trade Union policy during the following years was one of greater class collaboration than ever before and Trade Union leaders cemented themselves more securely in their jobs.
The strike should have revealed the true nature of capitalist government, the real function of the state and the futility of leadership. But very few learned.
The workers will continue to struggle within capitalism and, whatever political party is in power, the government will use the state machinery against them, to keep them from disrupting the system or damaging the prospect of profits.
The General Strike was one battle in a continuous war. It was not a Waterloo. It was more like a Dunkirk. Battles on the industrial field, whether won or lost, will leave the workers still a subject class. With the employers entrenched behind their state, it requires political organisation with a knowledge of Socialism to dislodge them.