Why The General Strike Of 1926 Take Place History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
A normal strike involves a group of workers usually from one industry withdrawing their labour in order to pressurize their employer or the government to meet with their demands, however a general strike like what happened in England involves groups from different industries all stopping work in support of one-another to win group demands. In May 1926, in the greatest unity the unions have ever shown in this country one and a half million members of the ‘Triple Alliance’ supported the miners and went on strike. There were various reasons why so many people were willing to strike. The miners demanded a lot of respect and higher wages because of the dangerous job they did and they were seen as the ‘barometer’ of industrial relations, this means if it happened to the miners it happened to the rest of the countries workforce soon after. The minors were very political minded and rebellious. The mine owners were rich and influential and when coal prices dropped in the aftermath of world war one, they wanted to decrease the wages and increase the working day, the miners looked to their unions who were strong and confident. There are many reasons for the occurrence of the General Strike, some more poignant than others. In this essay I will explore the long and short term causes and analyse them to see how they affected the decisions made by the unions and the government in the lead up to the strike. I will also consider the trigger factor of the strike as that is an important aspect of the event. Though, I believe that all the events are important, large or small, when main industrial trades in a country refuse to work.
The demand for coal was huge at the beginning of the war because it was used to power the war ships which would fight in the war, so if they did not have any then we would have no-one to fight. Also it was used in trains which meant that we needed coal to transport the troops from one place of the country to the next. Since it was also used in factories it would have been used in the process of making machinery and weapons to fight in the war with so without these weapons e would be unable to even fight. Also since coal was the only main substance it was used to keep people alive in their homes so they didn’t die of freezing. The First World War had seen a change in attitude from many British workers. People had been worried that if Germany won they would be in danger of losing hard-won rights, such as the freedom to vote and join trade unions. The war saw everybody, rich and poor, united in the struggle, agreeing to policies such as rationing and mobilisation and they thought that they would use the same kind of effort during peace time to improve upon living and working conditions. The returning soldiers soon found that such promises like ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ to make people enlist into the army, but only a small proportion of people benefited from the new council houses-the rest lived a life of hardship in the slums, sometimes in worse conditions than those they had dealt with during the war. The miners union decided to increase their strength by combining with railwaymen and transport workers in a triple alliance. A strike in one of those industries would have stopped work in the other two, so it seemed sensible for them to join and become stronger. In the aftermath of World War 0ne, there was a short-lived economic boom. This quickly came to an end and unemployment rose rapidly from250,000 in the autumn of 1920 to 2 million in June 1921. The prevailing economic, social and political conditions led to a series of skirmishes and battles between the working class and the ruling class that culminated in the General Strike. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 had a profound effect on the situation, inspiring a generation of militants and leading directly to the formation of the British Communist Party the British ruling class feared the example of October and intervened directly against Soviet Russia. In late 1920 however, the government was forced to back away from escalating its intervention as far as outright war by the threat of a General Strike. As unemployment, rose the employers attacked wages and conditions and trade union membership fell. In the 1920’s the miners comprised one sixth of the male workforce and nearly one fifth of all trade unionists. These facts and their militancy meant that they were right in the firing line when the bosses went on the offensive.
During the war the mines had been nationalised by the government so the coal could go to Britain’s war effort. After the war ended the government handed the mines back to their private owners, despite a government inquiry, the Sankey Commission, which proposed that the mines should remain permanently nationalised. The de-nationalisation of the mines wasn’t a popular decision with the miners as the government had given them a standard wage (across the country) which they were able to live off, the private owners were not so fair.
Another long term factor for the strike was that while Britain was concentrating on the war, other countries like Japan and the USA had time to modernise and develop their industries so by the end of the war they were major competition. These countries had taken over Britain’s overseas markets. Britain was over producing, especially coal and had to sell its goods at lower prices to compete, thus miner’s wages were lowered and hours rose in order to produce more coal to make up for lost money. There were also changes in fuel use-oil was being used instead of coal in some places and new materials were becoming available. This meant that the demand for traditional industrial output was falling. Another problem was the Ruhr area of Germany which was taken over by the French and the coal produced there was used to pay off some of Germany’s war debts to European. When the French left the Ruhr it was modernised and was able to produce coal far more effectively than Britain’s mines. The mines in Britain were not modernised and found it hard to compete with the Ruhr coal and other countries as well.
One of the long-term causes of the strike went right back to before World War One. Between 1906 and the outbreak of war union membership doubled and trade unions grew in size. Industrial disputes were familiar and in 1918 when the police were not given permission to join a union they even went out on strike. When there were problems between the miners and the owner’s strikes often occurred but these were suspended on the outbreak of war because of the ‘national emergency’. The mines were nationalised and were run by the government, and the minors preferred this and thought it was the only way to get the modernisation they hoped for. After the war coal prices dropped mainly because of the stiff competition British coal faced with cheaper coal that Germany and Poland were mining in more modernised pits. In Britain in 1924 only cutting machines produced twenty per cent of the overall output, the rest was by handpicks. In addition France and Italy the main buyers before the war were now receiving free coal under the reparations from World War I. Mine owners failed to promote greater efficiency and more mechanisation which would allow them to compete better with other countries, the owners blamed falling profits on high wages and this lead to mine owners wanting to cut wages and increase the working day. After the war the government agreed to hand back the mines to the original owners and all hope of nationalisation and modernisation that would enable the industry to survive was lost.
Another long-term factor was down to the trade unions as they were becoming stronger all the time and union membership was always rising. They were strong and confident, and as the triple alliance would bring the country to a standstill they believed all they had to do in an industrial dispute was to threaten strike action and the government would back them up. This time they were wrong. They also believed in syndicalism, where they thought workers had a right in the running of the industry they worked in. They also wanted the mines to be nationalised and wanted more pay for the miners and not a cut in their wages and an increase in the working day. “Not a penny off the day, not a minute on the day” was one of their ‘slogans’.
The miners themselves were very politically minded, and founder of the Labour party Keir Hardie was a miner so they knew the Labour government would support them. They also believed in their Unions to help them through disputes. Since the World War miners wanted more pay for the dangerous job they did and thought the only way the mines would be modernised is if the government took them over and nationalised them. After the war when coal prices dropped and mine owners proposed to drop the wages and increase the working day they made no hesitation in calling upon there union and fellow members of the strong Triple Alliance to support them.
The mine owners also played a big part in why the general strike took place, as they were the people who wouldn’t listen to the miner’s demands. They took a hard line and when coal prices dropped they immediately tried to lower wages and lengthen the day. They were rich and very influential and made huge profits, and were able to influence the Conservative government. They disagreed with nationalisation, which the miners wanted so badly and ignored the Sankey commission, which stated that the mines should be nationalised. They accepted wage subsides from the government and then ignored the recommendations of the Samuel Commission and dropped wages by thirteen percent and lengthened the day further. At the same time the TUC became determined to protect the wages of its affiliated members and felt morally committed to protect the miners after the events of 1921. The two sides were almost bound to come into conflict if a major industrial dispute occurred, and with industrial relations becoming bitter in the coal-mining industry once more in 1925 and 1926, it made some form of major confrontation or general strike almost inevitable.
Although the long term causes are stretched out among a large time scale they still have a significant impact on the strike. The connection between the demand fro coal and the decline in the industry itself pt pressure on the Government and the Mine Owners to come up with a solution to the problem of lowering wages. The fact that they didn’t do any of these situations lead partially to the reason why the General Strike happened – discontent.
An intermediate cause of the strike was Black Friday, 15th April 1921, when the coalminers went on strike because they could not live off their low wages and hated the long hours they were made to work to produce coal that was not needed and could not be sold effectively. The miners asked for support in their strike from their partners in the Triple Alliance, but none was received. The miners were forced to stop the strike and return to work, while their industry and others like the Dockers, railwaymen and building workers, suffered more pay cuts. This was a ‘black’ day as the Triple Alliance did not work together and no results were achieved. It proved that the only way to contract any changes was to strike as one body, as the industries were not influential enough to strike alone.
The prospect of a general strike was a serious threat to the Conservative Government. The Prime Minister at the time was a Stanley Baldwin. They were not yet ready for a general strike and decided to buy themselves time to make preparations in the event of such a strike breaking out. The Government intervened in the dispute by giving the Mine Owners a subsidy of £10 million, to keep wages at the same level as there were before the wage cuts were imposed.
This move by the Government was seen as a great victory by the miners and the event became known as ‘Red Friday’ – this is because the subsidy had been announced on Friday 31st July 1925. It was seen as a victory for working class solidarity and showed what could be achieved by a united union movement. The Government had apparently backed down when faced with the prospect of a General Strike. However it was also announced that the subsidy would only last for 9 months. In the meantime the Government were making preparations for an eventual showdown with the unions.
The Samuel commission was set up at the same time as Red Friday in 1925 to study the coal industry published its findings and recommendations for the Industry. In March 1926 it published its findings, which recognised that the industry had to be re-organised, but rejected the miners’ demand for nationalisation of the pits, to replace the private ownership of the Mine owners who run the pits to make profit.. It did, however, recommend that the subsidy should end, as it was wasting taxpayers’ money. It also agreed with the proposed wage cuts and increased working hours from 7 to 8 hours a day. The Samuel Report sided completely with the government, which sparked outrage throughout the trade unions, especially the miners. The Government responded to the report by declaring that the subsidy would end on 30th April 1926. The Govt. immediately responded to the Samuel Report by declaring that the subsidy to the Mine Owners would end on 30th April 1926. The mine owners made it clear that they would increase the working day from 7 to 8 hours and reduce wages by between 10 and 25%.
The Miners Union, the Mine Owners and the Govt. had several meetings in order to try reach a compromise to the dispute. However none was found and the Miners went out on strike on 1st May 1926 in response to increased hours and wage cuts that were proposed. The Miners leaders then agreed to let the Trade Union Council (TUC) which represented all Trade Unions to conduct discussions on their behalf with the Govt. And Mine Owners. The TUC had also promised the Miners their support and backing if they failed to reach an agreement. Over the next two days great efforts were made by the TUC to reach an agreement with the Govt. and Mine Owners to prevent a General Strike.
The Trades Union Congress called a conference of its constituent unions and reported that it could see no alternative to a general sympathetic strike as a means of giving the miners what the wanted. The executives resolved that a strike would be set from midnight 3 – 4 May. The large majority of the organised workers ceased work. The country was at a standstill and the government decided that middle class volunteers would carry out the essential services.
In preparation for the inevitable General Strike, the government had built up coal stocks for the last 5 months; increased the number of special constables from 98,000 to 226,000; drew up instructions for the army, navy and police to guard docks, telephone exchanges and power stations; gave money to haulage firms to put 200,000 vehicles at the Government’s disposal; divided the country up into ten areas, each to be controlled by a member of the Government in a state of emergency; and set up and co-ordinated the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies.
The O.M.S was established by the Government in 1925. It involved the drawing up of lists of volunteers who would do the jobs of the strikers and keep the essential services working in the event of the outbreak of a General Strike. Around 30,000 men and women volunteered to join the O.M.S who were largely from the Middle Classes, and university students, and from the south of England. The types of jobs they were trained to do, included: driving trains and buses; unloading cargoes at the docks, whilst others were recruited as Special Constables who were trained to control the strikers in case of trouble and violence. They became known as strike breakers. Many joined the O.M.S for political reasons but others joined for financial reasons, as a Special Constable was paid £2 6s 3d (£2.31) per week plus food and accommodation. Whereas, miners in Yorkshire, had gone on strike because they were paid just £1 10s 3d (£1.51) per week. The Govt. were willing to allow the General Strike to happen at this point, as they were much more prepared than they had been on Friday 31st July – Red Friday.
The Trades Union Congress, on the other hand, made no preparations, as they never truly believed that the Government would allow a General Strike to take place – they never even arranged for their newspaper to be distributed, although they knew that no ordinary newspapers would be printed. The miners also weakened their position by giving a record output of coal, making it even easier for the Government to build up reserve stocks of fuel.
Stanley Baldwin had seen the refusal to print the article as an attack on freedom of press, and therefore started to believe that the General Strike was a constitutional issue, and the trade unions were trying to overthrow the Government. This idea was made more realistic because of the recent communist revolution in Russia. On the other hand, the trade unions still believed it to be an industrial dispute for better wages and general working conditions. Each side released propaganda trying to persuade the public to believe their views on the matter.
When the General Strike actually began the TUC adopted the following course of action: to begin with they would bring out workers in key industries – railwaymen, transport workers, Dockers, printers, builders, and iron and steel workers, 3 million men in total. Only later would the other trade unionists, like the engineers and shipyard workers be called out. From the unions’ point of view the strike was a success, as the men who were called out ‘downed tools’ almost to a man and seemed prepared to stay out as long as the leaders asked them to. With the exception of Journalists, sailors, firemen, and electrical engineers, every union supported the strike. Due to this hardly any trains or buses ran, newspapers ceased and factories stood idle. Occasionally Lorries would move through the streets, with the placard, ‘Permit from the TUC’ on.
These short term causes all added together put a huge impact on the reason why a General Strike broke out. The factors added together such as the printers refusing to publish the Governments censorship, and the O.M.S been set up to count for the strikers, had all put tremendous pressure on the Unions to act upon their beliefs.
Although there were many long term factors associated to the General Strike of 1926, such as the decline of the coal industry after the war, due to the falling needs for coal, and conflict between the Mine Owners and Workers, I do not believe any of these were to fault on their own for the cause of the General Strike. The Govt. at this time, some 5 years before the strike should have been able to sort any problems that may have occurred out, and due to this the General Strike may not have happened. Although other long term/ intermediate causes such as Black Friday and the Sankey commission caused tension between the mine owners and their workers, which meant that there would be an eventual showdown, but the short term causes such as ‘Red Friday’ and ‘The Samuel Commission’ triggered the General Strike and made it more imminent. The trade unions saw some causes as insignificant, for example the Daily Mail’s refusal to print an anti-strike article, whereas the Government saw them as very important, and in this case made them think that the issue was turning into one of a constitutional nature. Due to all these factors I do not believe that there was one specific reason why the General Strike broke out, yes there was a few key causes such as, the discontent among workers due to the cramped conditions and the lower in wages, but the strike would not have occurred if the subsidy hadn’t of occurred, because the subsidy was only emplaced due to the fact the Government wasn’t ready for a strike by the Miners earlier on. Also there would have been no major cause for the strike without black Friday which was when the Miners lost their battle with wages and shorter hours., however this again would have been nothing without the TUC being created, as this was the only way the miners were able to put forward their case and go on strike, if they had no support through other unions it would not have taken place, let alone lasted for any length of time.
Q.2-Study Source C. How accurate is this interpretation of the General Strike as a violent dispute? Use the sources and your knowledge to explain your answer.
The General Strike began on the 4th may and lasted until the 12th May, during this period some areas were hit by violence from striking workers, leading it to be thought of as a violent dispute. There is available evidence which supports the idea that the strike was a violent dispute in a few areas, above all the docks. This essay will assess how accurate source C is at interpreting the violence of the situation using evidence obtained from studying other resources. The limitations of the source will also be evaluated to distinguish any omissions or possible unbalanced analysis.
The scene depicted in source C is an undeniably a violent one, there are a lot of policemen amongst the crowd of strikers and a few of the strikers are being restrained. This illustrates that the situation is out of control causing a lot of force to be needed. This is useful towards showing how violence was coped with during the strike since we know 200,000 special constables were sworn in to support the police if strikes occurred. Likewise the armoured vehicle towards the front of the picture implies that a lot of force was needed to discontinue strikes which took part. Similarly to the points mentioned above an armed officer is illustrated in the painting aiming a machine gun. This entails that the troops feel threatened by the level of violence being used and are willing to use weapons to appear threatening back. Alternatively this could also illustrate that the troops used weapons to intimidate and provoke the strikers causing more violence, as The British Worker stated was happening. This reveals that violence was used equally by both sides of the strike. The information it is possible to extract from this source is very useful at understanding the nature of the strikes.
However there are also many limitations in the source which cause it to not be entirely reliable. For instance the painting depicted is nearby a dock, this is revealed by the cranes shown in the background of the picture. The London Dock was the only area in which it was necessary for troops to be called in and preserve order. Docks in general were also the most prominent areas that strike took place in. Therefore the sources reliability is in question since it does not represent the entire country and in many areas there were no strikes at all therefore it is an unfair judgement of violent disputes. Only 4,000 people were prosecuted for violence or incitement to violence out of the millions of people striking, which is an extremely small number proportionally. It is also a painting of a food convoy which were typically violent events; therefore it is not possible to assume strikes like these occurred every day, so the regularity of them is impossible to determine. Another unreliable point is that it was painted for the Electrical Trade Union which suggests it may be pro-union and therefore exaggerating the force of the troops to make it appear is if the strikers were being provoked. For the above reasons we cannot trust the reliability of the painting although it does convey some valuable information.
Although the painting contains many implications of violence, it does not in fact portray any actual violence. However it is known there were cases of violence and these are omitted in this source. For example there are reported cases of attempts to puncture tyres and of throwing stones to interrupt the progress of those who ‘black-legged’ the jobs. Another instance was recorded where strikers attempted to sabotage a railway line. Other forms of violence, such as these, used in the General Strike are emitted from source A, therefore does not give the full picture of the types of violence being used, which it would also be essential to know when studying violence used in the General Strike.
In conclusion Source C is an accurate interpretation of violence in certain areas and how order was reserved by troops of armed policemen; however its reliability must be questioned since the scene depicted was at a food convoy near a dock- both were the most common areas of violence during the strike. It may also be questioned whether the artist was biased since he was painting the picture for the Electrical Trade Union. There is also a lack of information about violence in other areas of England, and about different types of violence used, therefore it is useful towards studying violence in the General Strike along with other sources, but not on its own. To conclude Source C is an accurate interpretation of the war, however not enough information can be drawn for it to be fully useful by itself and there is reason to believe it is not wholly reliable.
Q.3-Is There Sufficient Evidence in Sources A to E to Explain Why the T.U.C. Called of the General Strike?
The General Strike was called off by the T.U.C. on the 12th May 1926. Whether it was a ‘working class war against the establishment’ or an ‘uprising of the ungrateful lower classes’, it was a stepping stone in Trade Union activity, though it did not seem so for a while afterwards when Trade Unions lost respect and funds. The Strike pulled the labour class together to work for one cause and it proved that the fundamental beliefs of Trade Unions were well grounded. The General Strike was called off for a number of reasons which I will outline in the following essay. I will assess sources A to F and see if there is enough evidence contained within them to explain why the T.U.C. called off the General Strike.
The Government had prepared for the Strike far better than the T.U.C. which was over confident after the renewed subsidy in 1925. The government had used the extra nine months to prepare for an all-out strike and they did a number of things. Firstly, they organised the OMS or Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, where the country was separated into regions and each had volunteers to keep vital services available i.e. food supplies and transport. There was enough coal to provide electricity. Secondly, the leading members of the British Communist Party were arrested and imprisoned for sentences of 6-12 months, under the Incitement to Mutiny Act. This was an act dragged up from 1797, when Nelson was in charge of the Navy and it shows how the government were doing everything and anything within their power to prepare. Thirdly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Winston Churchill) took charge of producing an official government newspaper for the duration of the Strike. The British Gazette was the voice of the government during the Strike and therefore any sources from it are extremely biased.
The main aim of the General Strike was to ‘hold-up’ Britain. Without a complete shutdown of the British economy the Strike would have had little impact. Source B (very reliable due to being a photograph from the time) shows us that the country still had a skeleton transport system (only 40 buses from a fleet of 4400 were running) and necessary supplies were being delivered. So from this source we can see that the Strike was not having a enormous impact or the effect desired by the T.U.C. Black-leg labourers were middle class and unemployed people who filled in the jobs of citizens who were on Strike. They drove the buses, trains and food convoys, worked on the docks and in factories. Without them Britain would have entirely shut down and the Strike would have worked. Many of these men were delighted to help, for example by driving buses like in Source B-childhood dreams comes true! The problem was; the black-leg labourers were proving to be somewhat good at filling in for the strikers who became afraid of losing their jobs permanently and so returned to work.
The government was provoking the strikers to become violent. They had armed policemen and soldiers protecting food convoys and the black-leg labourers, as if daring the Strikers to battle. An extract from English History 1914-1945 says, ‘Churchill tried to provoke conflict by parading armoured cars through the streets’. We can see how the government tried to do this from photographs taken during the Strike, though from the photos we can also see the peacefulness of the crowd. In Source C we can see a painting of sturdy, well-fed strikers fighting at the Docks. This was obviously not the real condition the men were in as Britain’s populations consisted mostly of under nourished, over-worked males-who would have been worse for wear due to the Strike. This source is bound to be unreliable and biased because it was drawn by a member of a Trade Union 28 years after the end of the Strike. From Source A we learn that ‘altogether 4000 people were prosecuted for violence or incitement to violence and about a quarter of these received prison sentences’. This is an inconsequential number among the millions of strikers and not a major reason to call off the Strike but if there had been aggression the T.U.C might have never recovered. For if there had been hostility the Trade Unions would have lost the sympathy vote and therefore most of their support. Source A is relatively reliable because it is written after the event by a third party. The government could have created far more effective propaganda from a violent strike than a peaceful one. The government also used propaganda to incite brutality. The main line of attack was through The British Gazette, but the strikers had a newspaper too, The British Worker, and they were able to combat the propaganda and broadcast messages, encouragement, warnings and advice to their followers. The sources from both newspapers announcing the end of the Strike use words that conjure up images of war, for example, surrender, peace and unconditional. In my view this was a final attempt on both sides to justify the Strike, as wars are thought of as ‘just causes’ by some and would make the government happy because they had ‘victory’ and the workers more angry and devoted to their cause due to their ‘losing’.
The Strike had lost some early support due to a number of peoples believing that the Trade Unions were attacking the British system of government and attempting to overthrow it. They linked it to the Russian Revolution which was known for its violence and brutality (towards the upper classes). The Russian Revolution had begun with widespread strikes and troubled workers, so people were afraid. Also individuals were afraid of syndicalism, the belief that the workers should run the industries as this is rather like communism and would leave many factory and mine owners redundant or in the same circumstances as their own workers. Some early support for the Strike had dried up, perhaps it was going on for too long and people lost interest or perhaps supporters became worried as to how it would affect themselves and their jobs. The Strike could be perceived as a class war. Perhaps people believed the working classes were trying to hold the rest of the country to account for its hardships. Others believed it was just two obstinate groups of people on a collision course and assumed they would work out their problems.
Unity in the Trade Union Congress might have been fractured. In a source I have seen; a Punch Cartoon from April 1921 ‘An Employer’s View of the Triple Industrial Alliance’ there is a three headed dog representing Cerberus-guardian of the gates to the underworld. The three heads, labelled ‘transport’, ‘miners’ and ‘railways’ are different. ‘Miners’ looks angry and unsettled whereas the other two look tired and fed up. This shows where most of the turmoil in the T.U.C. was coming from. The ‘miners’ head is in the middle- as if it is controlling the other parties. Though this is from an emp
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