The General Strike of 1926
The General Strike of 1926 originated when the coal industry was to be returned to the control of its owners, after Wartime government control, in 1921. They were insistent on reducing pay and conditions. As a result, the Miners Federation of Great Britain asked the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation to assist them by joining the strike. However, this did not come about, and the miners were defeated on a historic day known as “Black Friday”.
As Britain's coal exports continued to decline over the next four years, in the Summer of 1925, coal pit owners informed the Miners’ Federation that they were to reduce pay and conditions and make job cuts as they were producing coal at a loss. But the miners were not willing to negotiate wage reductions or longer hours. Hence, the Trade Unions Congress were able to get transport workers to agree to an embargo where they would stop the movement of coal.
At midnight on the 31st of July 1925, when a coordinated strike of mine, railway and transport workers was about to begin, Baldwin’s Tory government announced that a Royal Commission would be established to investigate the flaws of the coal industry and produce a Final Report at the end of next April. Meanwhile, the government would provide the coal industry with a subsidy that would cover the gap between production and the market price of coal. Although this was seen as a victory, it basically delayed the issue for a year.
On the 3rd of May 1926, a historical battle began with 1.75 million workers striking across the country. Whilst the strike was supported by a vast majority of trade unionists, it was clear that the Government was not going to make a U-turn on its policies, and retained the support of the coal owners and capitalists.
The effects of the strike were somewhat limited by the volunteers who replaced strikers at their workplaces, whilst troops were called to make sure the government maintained control over the essential services. They helped to prevent disorder from spreading, and food supplies soon returned to normal with the help of the volunteers and strike breakers.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the General Council of the Trade Unions Congress were not committed to a miner’s revolution, nor dedicated to the General Strike, so it was easy for them to call the strike off on the 12th of May when they were unable to get the miners to agree to new terms, such as pay cuts and increased working hours. However, they had failed to receive any guarantees from the government on issues, such as victimisation, and some employers took the opportunity to derecognise unions. An example of mass victimisation was in Hull, where over 30,000 workers, including railway workers, dock workers, printers and engineers remained on strike after the 12th of May in support of reinstating 150 victimised tramway workers who had lost their jobs to strike-breakers.
When the strike was called off, there was a lot of disappointment among workers. Around 80,000 had been on strike in Sheffield after the strike was called off. This was possible with funds provided by the Soviet Union and the school feeding arrangements across Labour-led counties that provided millions of additional free meals to school children, at a cost of approximately £300,000.
Despite the swathes of support that the miners had received at the beginning, the miners were soon left to continue their flight alone. After the General Strike had been called off the previous year, the Baldwin government passed the anti-trade union Disputes and Trade Union Act in 1927, prohibiting sympathetic strikes. This act would not have done much when workers united together and was abolished after the Second World War by the Labour Government which was led by Clement Attlee.
Unfortunately, the strike had not succeeded in providing any salary increases or improvements in the working standards of miners. Miners were earning the modern-day equivalent of 32 ½ pence a day and had to pay between 15 and 25 pence in tax. Meanwhile, some mine owners were receiving up to £22,000 pounds a year and did not have to pay tax.
Later, during the General Election of 1929, Labour emerged as the largest party in a hung parliament, despite receiving fewer votes than the conservatives. As a result, on June 4th 1929, Baldwin resigned from his post as Prime Minister, and Ramsay MacDonald came in for his second term as Prime Minister, leading the second Labour government.