The General strike.
GENERAL STRIKE, 1926.
ORIGINS OF THE STRIKE.
The roots of the 1926 General Strike go back to before the 1914 - 1918 war. Over the years a struggle had been developing between; on the one hand a growing militant working class and on the other the employers and the state. The strike was initiated to defend the living conditions of the miners. There was now a realisation by the mass of the workers that joint action by the whole trade union movement was needed to defend the wages and conditions of the working class. The miners in 1919 won the 7 hour day with a pay increase, while the shipbuilding and engineering industry succeeded in getting their working week reduced from 54 hours to 47. Any concessions won directly after the war were made in an attempt to halt rising working class militancy. In 1922 the mines had been under government control, in early 1922 the mine owners once more took control of the mines and immediately announced savage wage cuts; lock-out notices were posted on all pits coming into force on March 31st. The Triple Industrial Alliance, an alliance formed in 1914 by miners, transport workers and railwaymen, called for a rail and transport strike to begin on April 12th 1922. The government called up the reservists and declared a state of emergency. A proposed scheme for a temporary settlement of the wages issue on a district basis was rejected by the miners Executive Council. The other parties of the alliance called off the strike, declaring that the miners had rejected a chance of a settlement. The miners resumed work on the mine owners terms. After this defeat of the miners employers imposed wage cuts throughout most industries: heavy and light engineering, building, transport, the cotton industry and others. The 1924 Labour government returned to the Gold Standard, which in turn increased prices of British goods on the export market. With the drop in coal exports the mine owners proposed a new wage structure that would cut miners wages by between 10% and 25%. The mine owners, without further discussion, imposed the new wage structure as from July 31st 1925. The TUC in agreement with the rail and transport unions decided to operate an embargo on the movement of coal. The government agreed to pay the mine owners a subsidy until 1st of May 1926, and the mine owners withdrew their notices. On the 31st of July 1925 the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, stated "All the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help to put industry on its feet". During the next nine months the government prepared for a showdown with the unions. On the other hand, in spite of continual warnings from activist and from some left wing groups, the TUC leadership made no preparations for the showdown that would inevitably follow the end of the mining subsidy.
On Thursday April 29th 1926 a special conference of the Executive Councils of the 200 unions affiliated to the British TUC was called to consider the mining dispute. It unanimously accepted the following resolution, "This conference of Executives of Trade Unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress endorse the efforts of the General Council to secure an honourable settlement of the differences in the coal mining industry. It further instructs the Industrial Committee of the General Council to continue its efforts and declares its readiness to continue provided that the impending lock-out notices of the mine workers are not enforced. That this conference hereby adjourns until tomorrow (Friday) and agrees to remain in London to enable the General Council to consult, report and take instructions".
The conference was not a fire and thunder affair but rather timid. Whether they were either afraid of or had tried to ignore the prospects of a general strike. Hoping that their declared support for the miners would somehow produce a settlement without further action, the special conference was adjourned until Friday; it resumed in the morning and then continued to adjourn and resume until 11:30 PM when it received the Negotiating Committee's report - it had achieved nothing. No proposals had been made by the Prime Minister, the cabinet or the mine owners that meant anything less than complete surrender by the miners. It was now very clear, the mine owners and the miners were ready for a struggle. The attitude of the Industrial Committee of the TUC was not at all clear.
On Friday April 30th 1926 the mine owners put forward their final demands to the miners, "A uniform national minimum of 20% over 1914 standard wage on a uniform 8 hour day". For miners in Scotland that meant a wage cut from a wage of 9/4 a day, to 7/6 a day for skilled coalface workers and a wage cut from a wage of 6/8 a day to 6/- a day for labourers, plus an extra hour on each daily shift. A special miner's conference rejected the mine owners new terms.
On May 1st 1926 the cabinet had refused to ask the mine owners to suspend the lock-out. The previous day the King had signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency. Local authorities were informed by a Ministry of Health circular that the measures previously arranged should be taken to cope with a national stoppage. Civil Commissioners and their staff's names were published. The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS), set up to keep supplies moving in the event of a strike, put up notices asking for more volunteers. Troops were moved to all industrial sites. All this was in place before any official call by the General Council of the TUC for strike action. The Conference of Executives decided to accept the General Council's recommendation to strike by 3,655,527 votes for and 49,911 against. The strike was to begin on Monday May 3rd 1926 at 11:59PM.
On the eve of the strike a May Day demonstration marched through Bridgeton to Glasgow Green; there was a tremendous feeling of solidarity, also a wide spread class consciousness which in some degree was due to the selfless effort of the great propagandist and political activist John MacLean, who died in November 1923. It was obvious from the mood of the demonstration that the people were ready with the miners to face a showdown with the employers and the government. The mass support for the miners was more a class instinct than a political development. Glasgow, the industrial heartland of Scotland, was also the centre of the strike in Scotland. Most militant areas formed Councils of Action, and industrial areas were organised by strike committees. Throughout North Lanarkshire and the Vale of Leven, two of the most militant areas in the West of Scotland, Councils of Action were formed. Strike committees were formed throughout North Ayrshire, the Stirlingshire Coalfields and East Renfrewshire. In Glasgow it was the Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee of the Trades and Labour Council that took control, this was set up at the last minute. There was an overwhelming response to the first line call-out which included workers from railways, transport, building, chemical, gas, print and steel.
One of the problems facing the Glasgow Central Strike Committee was having to deal with a Tory City Council. The City Council was very active in promoting the OMS. Also, the City Council ran the City's tram service, and tried to keep it running with OMS volunteers, this caused frequent and violent clashes between the police and strikers. Hundreds were arrested in these clashes. The government was worried about what might happen in the great industrial cities like Glasgow and sent 7 naval vessels to the Clyde in an attempt to overawe the strikers. Naval ratings were used to protect OMS volunteers unloading goods at the Glasgow docks. The police and OMS volunteers tried to run a tram service through Rutherglen. The first tram driven by university students protected by police got as far as Rutherglen High Street where it was surrounded by hundreds of strikers. The trolley was taken off the overhead wires, the students were manhandled, and the police beat a hasty retreat. The tram stood in the High Street silent and still for the rest of the strike. The tram service was the weakest link in the solidarity of the strike in Glasgow. Crowds were inclined to gather in the streets, they were unorganised crowds who resented the activities of blacklegs and tended to show their anger. Spontaneous mass picketing frequently occurred throughout the strike, large numbers of men and women from a district would go out to try and stop any strike breaking activity, putting themselves at risk to arrest and imprisonment. The usual targets were buses, trams and lorries. On Tuesday the 4th of May, in the Eastend of the City three buses were attacked and overturned. On Thursday the 6th of May a miners' picket marched to Ruby Street tram depot, Ruby Street was a cul-de-sac with the tram depot gates at the top; as the miners reached the tram depot gates the gates swung open and an army of police charged out with batons drawn, a violent scene ensued with many arrests. On the same day in the Central District of Glasgow attempts were made to stop buses, one being overturned and ten people arrested. There were other violent clashes at Bridgeton with 64 arrests. There were riots on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with 120 arrests. In Glasgow the solidarity of the strike and the spontaneous mass picketing was an indication of the strength of feeling in support of the strike.
On Monday May the 10th 100 people appeared before the Glasgow Sheriff Court, 22 were given from 1 -3 months hard labour. On the same day at the Glasgow Police Courts a further 100 cases were dealt with for minor offences. here was widespread anger at the conduct of the police, more so the Specials and at the severity of the sentences. Parliament passed regulations giving power to the police to prohibit public meetings. Courts were being seen as instruments of class hatred and vengeance. In one hearing a well dressed young man was charged with stone throwing in a disturbance and given 3 months on the evidence of two policemen, contrary to several independent witnesses. A woman charged with mobbing and rioting was arrested on Friday the 7th of May she was refused bail and held in remand for two weeks in spite of the fact that she was the mother of 5 young children. On May the 14th the Labour group on the City Council called for a full inquiry into the conduct of the police after receiving several complaints from uninvolved citizens about unwarranted attacks on them, in particularly by the Specials. Tales of police and strikers playing football together never happened in Glasgow. There were calls for workers to carry "walking sticks" as a means of defending themselves, however instructions from the higher echelons instructed the workers to be peaceful and law abiding even though this was proving almost impossible due to the attitude of the police.
THE SCOTTISH WORKER.
The Minority Movement issued a daily "Worker's Press" until raided and closed down by the police. The police prevented strikers from holding meetings, this was a serious barrier to attempts to discuss and share news of the strike. There were instances of the police forcibly breaking up strikers' meetings. The "Scottish Worker" was published on May the 10th and for the next six days. On the first day of issue 25,000 copies sold in the first hour. The lack of published material during the strike had been a difficulty, information being carried by word of mouth round the area by walking, cycling, motorcycle or what ever was available. Political divisions of the left that had been fiercely debated over the years had all been forgotten, the main theme of all debate was to make the strike solid.
How solid the strike was can be seen from the these figures: of the 2400 railway clerks in Glasgow only less than 300 turn up for work, Glasgow Corporation had 1087 tramcars but less than 200 were able to run, none of them were running on the Eastend routes, but only on central routes. A few buses were running between Glasgow and some places south and west of the city. The number of trains that normally ran to and from Glasgow on a daily bases numbered about 14000, only 28 trains ran from Glasgow Central Station on Saturday. There were almost no blacklegs from the great mass of unemployed in spite of their poverty and suffering.
There were a large number of arrests in Glasgow during the nine days. By Monday morning about 300 had been arrested, of which 120 had been arrested in the Eastend of the City between Wednesday and Friday. The police violence and high number of arrests seemed to have no effect on the morale of the strikers. Towards the end of the first week of the strike there seems to have been unprovoked police violence. This may have been an attempt to intimidate the people in the hope that they would abandon outdoor meetings and mass picketing. Bridgeton seems to have seen some of the worst of this, following the mass picket of the Ruby Street tram depot. During the day of Friday 7th the police attacked the Bridgeton area, a busy, densely populated working class district, making 44 arrests. The reason given was that youths were holding up bread vans and coal lorries. In the evening crowds gathered in the streets around Bridgeton Cross, the police and mounted police attacked the crowds with batons. The following day the Bridgeton Parish and Town Councillors complained to the Superintendent of the Eastern Police Division of, "The molestation of unoffending citizens by agitated policemen who were accused of unwarranted interference with a number of persons."
Sir HERBERT SAMUEL.
As the strikers all over the country were improving their organisational skills and over coming the lack of preparation for the strike by the leaders of the TUC, events in London were taking place that neither the strikers nor the miners leaders were aware of. Chairman of the Coal Commission, Sir Herbert Samuel, whose proposals had been turned down by the miners, returned to London from holidaying abroad and offered his services as mediator. The government informed him that abandonment of the strike must precede any official negotiations. On the 7th, 8th and 9th of May the BTUC negotiating committee without the miners met Sir Samuel. He drafted a memorandum in which it was proposed that no wage cuts should be made without some assurances that the reorganisation measures proposed in the Samuel Commission Report would be effectively adopted. It was also proposed that a Miners National Board should be set up to seek a final settlement. The Miners National Board would prepare a simplified wage agreement which should not affect the wages of the lower paid men and would fix reasonable figures below which the wage of no class of labour should be reduced. These were a revamp of the Samuel Commission Report that the miners had already rejected. The mine owners raised no functional objections to these proposals.
STRIKE CALLED OFF.
Against the wishes of the miners, the General Council called off the strike on the basis of the Samuel Memorandum and on May 12th they informed Baldwin that the strike was over. This was done without any guarantees, with no terms, no written statement, it was unconditional surrender. The militant shipyard and engineering second line of workers had just joined the strike in force. It was obvious the workers were taking control of the strike, when the surprised call-off was announced.
The reaction by the vast majority of the Glasgow strikers to the end of the strike was of: surprise, anger, betrayal and disgust. Tom Scollan stated "the reaction was disgust, absolute disgust all over Glasgow, . the rank and file movement were still loyal, would have carried on". Kerrigan wrote, "The overwhelming feeling was of anger, disgust and a feeling of having been betrayed, . the rank and file would not only have carried on but would have sharpened the struggle". The Partick Strike Committee held a mass meeting in a cinema with an overflow meeting outside which resolved that, "We protest against and deplore the calling off of the general strike and, furthermore, we call upon the Scottish TUC to issue an immediate call for the resumption of the strike until such time as a definite basis for a settlement is forthcoming and an assurance given that there will be no victimisation as a result of the general strike." The Glasgow Trades and Labour Council on the 14th of May passed the following motion moved by Kerrigan by 149 votes for and 36 against, "That the Trades and Labour Council express to the TUC strong disapproval of the manner in which the general strike was terminated." One strike official stated, "A victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemy" . In spite of the depth of feeling, they made no attempt to continue the strike locally. Most commentators agree that the strength of the strike came from the solidarity of the grass roots mass support and the weakness from above by the limp hand of indecisive bureaucracy. The strikers shock and disgust at the call off was only matched by the employers' and government's shock and surprise at their victory. At the BTUC Bournemouth Congress, September 1926 Jack Tanner of the AEU asserted "The rank and file of all unions affiliated to congress want to know the whole truth regarding the national strike".
RETURN TO WORK.
It would appear that in Glasgow none of the strikers disobeyed the TUC's orders by continuing the strike in support of the miners. However, victimisation of strikers was rife. On the railways, tramways, at the Clyde Trust, at Singer's works in Clydebank and in the newspaper industry strikes continued on terms of reinstatement, strikers eventually having to make concessions to the employers. On the railways new conditions were inferior to those in place before the strike. On the Glasgow tramways 188 T.& G.W.U. members lost their jobs. In the newspaper industry in Glasgow the three main publishers, taking in the Glasgow Herald, the Evening Times, the Bulletin, and the Evening Citizen, refused to negotiate with the unions and refused to employ union labour. In many industries throughout Glasgow leading strike activists were never reinstated to their jobs.
The miners' struggle continued. The Glasgow Trades and Labour Council called upon the General Council of the TUC to immediately reimpose a 5% levy on all organised workers in employment in order to carry out its promise to support the miners in their struggle and to ensure their final victory. The calling off of the general strike had been a betrayal of the working class and a particularly brutal betrayal of the miners. The miners struggled on until deprivation, poverty, starvation and shear desperation drove them back in November 1926 to lower wages and worse conditions. In some coalfields wages were less than the 1926 unemployment benefit. The historian A. J. P. Taylor commented on the general strike with these words, "The response of the trade union members was fantastic, all stopped work when called upon, and practically none returned to work until the strike was over. These were the very men who had rallied to the defence of Belgium in 1914, The voluntary recruitment of the first world war and the general strike of 1926 were acts of spontaneous generosity, without parallel in any country. The first was whipped on by almost every organ of public opinion, the second was undertaken despite their disapproval. Such nobility deserves more than passing tribute. The strikers asked nothing for themselves. They did not seek to challenge the government, still less to overthrow the constitution. They merely wanted the miners to have a living wage."
Posted by John Couzin.