1926 General Strike

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The 1926 General Strike was an industrial dispute in the United Kingdom. 1.7 million workers went on strike in support of coal miners, but they quickly gave up without winning any concessions. At the time, the action was viewed by certain sectors as communist conspiracy and the strike was opposed by many on the right, including from the nascent British fascist movement and more mainstream representatives of capitalism. It took place at a time of national tension, with arguments over female suffrage, paranoia about communism, economic depression, social changes from the recent World War One, and unrest in the British Empire and recently-independent Ireland, and therefore for conservatives it seemed a further symbol of British decline and a society turning upside down.[1] Despite its failure and the lack of any revolutionary motivation (indeed, an apparent lack of any kind of planning) among its organisers, it remained for many years a dark spectre which right-wingers could use to invoke the danger of trades unions and socialism.

The strike[edit]

The economy was in a depression following World War One, and return to the gold standard in 1925 made things worse. The management of Britain's coal mines (then privately-owned) sought to reduce miners' pay and increase working hours from 7 to 8 hours per day. In 1925 the Trade Unions Congress (which included most major British unions) took action to stop the movement of any coal, and the government under Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin stepped in to stop the dispute, subsidising the coal industry and set up a body, the Samuels Commission, to study conditions in the industry.[2]

The dispute intensified in May 1926. Coal mine management imposed a lock-out starting on 1 May, which prevented miners from going to work. A general strike was called on 3 May 1926, in support of the miners, although not all workers were called out.[3] Transport workers among the most militant and seen as key to bringing the government to its knees: the nation could survive without coal mining for months, especially in summer, but surviving without food on an island already dependent on imports would be a lot tougher. Hence it was there that efforts were focussed by both sides: on 8 May scab workers managed to break the transport strike and bring food from London's docks. Although this weakened the strikers' position, actions continued for a few more days: the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive was derailed by militants on 10 May. But on 11 May 1926, the strike was called off, and workers were forced to accept most of their employers' demands.[4]

Press[edit]

Workers in the media were often militant, particularly the printers, although the government tried to maintain a steady stream of propaganda, including the creation of its own newspaper, the British Gazette.[5]. The right-wing press was typically militant too. The Daily Mail published an editorial which declared: "A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people." However its own staff refused to print this editorial.[3]

Strikebreakers[edit]

There was a large movement by those of the middle and upper classes to help out the government and industry during the strike by performing the tasks of striking workers, with an estimated 500,000 volunteers in total. This has been compared to "play-acting" or "fancy dress parties", giving nice upper-class people the chance to pretend to be lorry drivers or telephone operators, and thus making it a key event in the lives of the upper classes as well as the workers.[1]

Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies[edit]

The strike was opposed by many on the right, with those hostile to organised labour forming the Organisation for the Maintenance of SuppliesWikipedia's W.svg (OMS). This was intended to provide a pool of volunteers who would take over from striking workers in coal mines, railways, etc. As you might guess, this was a poorly thought out idea by people who at best were well-meaning amateurs.

The OMS, like many bad ideas, had its origin in a letter to the Times newspaper. It was founded by Lord Hardinge, a diplomat and former Viceroy of India, and was intended to be non-political. The Daily Mail, known for its enthusiasm for fascism in the inter-war period, was a supporter. However, the OMS was criticised by most of the media. The Daily Express, which was certainly not a communist organisation, denounced it as quasi fascist and compared it to the Ku Klux Klan and Blackshirts. The Metropolitan Police refused to have anything to do with it at first.

When the strike began, the OMS gave its membership list to government and its members were contacted to temporarily take over the jobs of striking trade unionists. Around 5000 volunteers took part, but unsurprisingly they proved rather useless at the tough and physically skilled jobs of dockers and railwaymen. They did publish a newspaper, the British Gazette, and many worked as car or truck drivers; overall there were about 5000 volunteers.[6]

Fascists[edit]

Rotha Lintorn-Orman's British Fascisti was also active in opposing the strike, but its members were required to leave the BF before signing up to the OMS. The party split as a result, with many members leaving to form the Loyalists and Scottish Loyalists, which allowed them to join the OMS.

Various individual fascists took up temporary work during the strike. These included journalist and rugby player Peter Howard, briefly a member of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts and later a leader of the Moral Re-Armament movement, who was one of several rugby union players to take an active role in strikebreaking.[7] Neil Francis Hawkins, a major figure in the British Fascisti and later British Union of Fascists, was also involved in the OMS's strikebreaking activities.[6]

National Citizens' Union[edit]

Formed in 1921 from the Middle Classes Union, which started up in response to the 1918 Reform Act that extended the franchise to the working classes. It was anti-semitic and right-wing, and involved with OMS and strikebreaking. In the 1930s, the NCU worked closely with the even more anti-semitic and pro-Hitler Militant Christian Patriots.[8][9]

Conspiracy theories[edit]

The strike came 2 years after the Zinoviev letter hoax, a purported Soviet plot contingent on a Labour election victory. Hence it was a time of febrile conspiracy theories about communist plots. The Communist Party of Great Britain admitted there was no intention of overthrowing the constitution.[10] The Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks argued that even though the communists in the Soviet Union hadn't actually organised the strike, it was still part of their evil plans for Revolution, conceived on a 1924 trip by left-wing trades unionists to Moscow.[11][12]

On the other hand, the left also had its fantasies: some Trotskyites blame the failure of the strike on the reluctance of the Communist Party of Great Britain and trade unionists to proceed from industrial action to true revolution. The Socialist Workers Party and many others on the extreme left blamed the failure on union leaders betraying their members and pretending the strike was weakening when in fact it was as strong as ever.[2][13] As mentioned above, this isn't really true either.

Later influence[edit]

The threat of trade union influence obviously wasn't a great bogeyman because Labour came to power in the 1929 general election. New prime minister Ramsay MacDonald was able to improve conditions for miners a bit, until the Great Depression came along and messed everything up again.

Even though the 1926 General Strike was a failure, the threat of another general strike loomed large over British industrial policy for decades. In the 1970s when there was large-scale trade union militancy against the governments of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan (which culminated in the 1978-79 winter of discontent) various individuals such as Walter Walker formed organisations of strikebreakers with the intent of repeating the actions of the OMS.

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Folklore as Politics in Great Britain: Working-Class Critiques of Upper-Class Strike Breakers in the 1926 General Strike, Rachelle H. Saltzman, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3, Symbols of Contention: Part 2 (Jul., 1994), pp. 105-121
  2. 2.0 2.1 What happened in the 1926 general strike?, Socialist Worker
  3. 3.0 3.1 See the Wikipedia article on 1926 United Kingdom general strike.
  4. The General Strike 1926, BBC GCSE Bitesize
  5. See the Wikipedia article on British Gazette.
  6. 6.0 6.1 See the Wikipedia article on Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies.
  7. A Social History of English Rugby Union, Tony Collins
  8. Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations, Peter Barberis, John McHugh, Mike Tyldesley, p632
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Middle Class Union.
  10. The Reds and the General Strike: The Lessons of the First General Strike of the British Working Class, Communist Party of Great Britain, online at Marxists.org
  11. 'Communist plotting: lessons from the General Strike', pamphlet written by Sir William Joynson-Hicks, published by the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, September 1926, copy from Union of Communication Workers archive at Warwick University
  12. '"Jix" attacks the trade unions', Trades Union Congress and Labour Party 'notes for speakers' criticising Sir William Joynson-Hicks' claims of 'Communist plotting', 20 August 1926, copy from Union of Communication Workers archive at Warwick University
  13. 1926: How the TUC betrayed the General Strike, Dave StocktonWorkers Power, 2012