Previously I have dealt with the often sectarian nature of calls for general strikes. [see ‘Sectarianism and the question of a General Strike’.] In a later article I presented a brief over-view of the UK social and economic ferment around the early inter-war period (1918 – 1922). [see ‘General Strike: Myth and Misconception’.] In that second article the main organisation structure for mass working class opposition to the needs of capital were based around an ‘official’ alliance of the three largest concentrations of workers, the Miners, the Railway workers and the Dockers. That agreement for mutual support became popularly known as the ‘Triple Alliance’. It is a period well worthy of study for it represents the closest analogue to the present crisis of capitalism. However, the failure of that alliance – under circumstances which were favourable to success – did not end the difficulties faced by working people. Indeed the failure made them worse.
In this third concluding article on this question I shall consider the events around the famous, (or perhaps in some ways the infamous) 1926 General Strike. Having faced a weakened ruling elite between 1918 – 1922 and lost, the working class in the post Triple Alliance period, suffered wage reductions and increased working time. Under the capitalist mode of production, wage reductions and longer working hours increase the surplus-value produced by workers and pocketed by the owners of Capital for further distribution as profits, interest and taxes. Industrial capitalists and pro-capitalist politicians at the time needed this increase in surplus-value because world competition and the effects of the first world war, had significantly reduced the post-war rate and mass of surplus-value in the UK. That situation along with high levels of surplus finance-capital was the underlying socio-economic basis of the heightened inter-war class struggles dealt with in the previous articles. But that short period of struggle was only the beginning of the dire situation for workers.
The failure of these mass-based struggles meant that the organised workers, post 1921, conducted their defensive struggles on a sectional basis – and with very little success. The arrest and black-listing of union activists involved in the triple alliance movement weakened the left and strengthened the right wing in the trade union movement. The Union elites, many of whom had backed down in face of government threats and promises, retained their exalted positions within the trade union movement along with their ideas of peaceful reformist progress. During this period the middle-class intellectuals in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) produced their own contribution to the reform of capitalism entitled ‘Socialism in our Time’. The report recommended a minimum wage and nationalisation of key industries. This was exactly the bourgeois form of ‘socialism’ that Marx had warned against in 1848. In fact when partially implemented later in 1948-50 this form of ‘socialism’ was the means of rescuing and resuscitating capitalism. However, that was in the future; meanwhile in 1925 the situation was still bleak.
A) 1925 – Manoeuvres and preparations
Despite the previous Triple Alliance debacle, the idea of a mass strike did not completely die out. Even after the earlier defeats an element of fantasy rhetoric and wishful thinking still surfaced in trade union debates. For example, A. B. Swales of the Amalgamated Engineering Union at the TUC conference in 1925, thought the collapse of capitalism was nigh and perhaps getting carried away during his speech, stated;
“…at last there are clear indications of a world movement rising in revolt and determined to shake off the shackles of wage slavery.”
Such hopeful thinking was not entirely without basis, for there was indeed rising class conflict throughout Europe. In Russia this ferment had been transformed – at least initially – into workers revolution. Some of the left delegates to the 1925 annual TUC conference, hoping for the best, could not have known what totalitarian direction the events in Russia had already taken. Nor could they perhaps anticipate that the mistakes made in 1919 – 1921 would be so quickly repeated when they passed a resolution calling for a general strike. Although the fact that the resolution was referred to the right-leaning General Council for further consideration, may have caused a few utterances of ‘Oh no! – Not again’ for some of the more critical delegates.
Outside of the conference hall it was the continuing conflict between the miners and mine-owners which continued to focus attentions of workers and government alike. The quarrel came to a head during the summer of 1925 and a 1,000 strong conference of mine workers union delegates met and agreed to take decisive action. The main thrust of this action was to be in the form of an embargo on the movement of coal to begin on July 31st. On hearing of this decision the government backed down, met the union leaders and agreed to initiate a serious inquiry on the mining industry. A Royal Commission was therefore set up to examine the problems obstructing development in the mining industry. The commission was typically dominated by businessmen and senior civil servants – not all of whom were unsympathetic to the mine workers. Six months of waiting and marking time for the miners and workers followed this announcement whilst the Royal Commission deliberated. In contrast the government was quite active during this period.
Indeed, government officials behind the scenes were very busy setting up an Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS). It was an organisation for recruiting and deploying volunteers to do exactly what it said on the tin so to speak – maintain the supply of essential materials and goods! This organisation plus the Emergency Powers Act of 1920 as supplemented by Circular 636, together with a number of government initiated conferences, formed the main basis of the governments preparations for a possible general strike. In contrast the TUC did next to nothing to prepare for such an eventuality. After some months the Royal Commission Report on mining was published, a Report which satisfied neither the mine owners of the miners. The mine owners wanted longer hours for the same wages, the miners wanted more money for the same hours. In other words it was still – stalemate!
B) 1926 – Just eight days of action.
After numerous unsuccessful meetings between miners representatives and mine owners reps, it was clear that no compromise was possible. For this reason on the 28th April the miners attended a further delegate conference to decide yet again what action they should take. The day after this rank and file conference a meeting of executive members of the effected trade unions also took place. These two meetings followed the previous months of more formal encounters, mainly between Trade Union leaders and government representatives. Against this background of deadlocked negotiations, the mine owners decided to assert their control and institute a ‘lock-out’ to commence on April 30th. Yet meetings between Trade Union leaders and government and mine owners representatives continued.
During one such meeting the Prime Minister Baldwin declared an end to the talks. His stated reason was because printers at the Daily Mail had refused to print a Monday issue unless an unfavourable editorial was altered. The withdrawal of the government and the threatened lock-out, forced the reluctant TUC general council to go through with the threatened general strike. It was set to start from midnight May 3rd 1926, and it did. The following day no trains ran, the docks were still, no buses moved and no newspapers appeared. In addition, building workers struck as did those in iron and steel, chemical, print, road transport, electricity and gas workers. The general strike was on.
a) Workers strike organisation.
With thousands of workers out on strike, many more expressed a desire to join in and support the struggle, but were held back by their union leaders. Nevertheless, a wide range of local workers action-groups were quickly formed around a core of strike requirements. These activities were, picketing, publicity, transport, communications, entertainment, meetings and permits for work and movements. Throughout the country, 54 of these strike groups took the name of ‘councils of action‘, 45 adopted ‘strike committee’ as their title, 15 were designated ‘Trades Council Committees‘, nine, ‘emergency committees’ and eight bore miscellaneous names. Typically, each union leadership gave differing guidelines and instructions to their union members. This lack of cohesion was further complicated by the fact that local strike committees were not allowed to communicate directly with the TUC but had to go through their own trade union executives.
Obvious problems of continuity and lack of consistency thus emerged throughout the country and exposed the weakness of sectionalism and the reformist and half-hearted perspective of the trade union leadership. For example, the co-op movement offered to give strikers credit or vouchers during the strike, but the unions would not guarantee to settle the amount owed when the strike was over. Nevertheless, the strike continued to develop with 1.25 million workers being directly involved after a couple of days. Meanwhile, the TUC did all it could to keep control of the movement and to stifle local initiatives. During numerous local actions, many activists were arrested by the government and a growing awareness of this resulted in many of the most prominent local activist changing their place of sleeping every night. Despite such avoidance measures, over 3,000 workers were arrested during the period of the strike.
In spite of provocations and arrests the strikers in general were well organised and in high spirits. Each town and district of large cities took part in meetings, demonstrations, recreational activities, concerts and picketing operations. In addition most local groups were busy issuing permits, preventing the smooth operation of normal ‘official’ activities, ensuring their own and publishing local bulletins. However, in a number of places violence occurred when police attempted to prevent the strikers from controlling the movement of vehicles and the distribution of food. At Glasgow, Doncaster, Leeds and Barnsley violent disputes broke out over the running of buses and transport. In several areas of London violent clashes between police and strikers took place as they did to a lesser degree in other parts of the country.
However, despite the rank and file initiative and creativity within each area and locale it was the undisputed control the Trade Union leadership that was to determine the subsequent outcome. TUC officials and union heads, for example, were keen to deny government accusations that they were challenging the power of the state. Indeed, they were not, for during this period, they were frequently engaged in secret talks with government. On at least one occasion at a posh mansion belonging to a South African mine-owner between the 6th and 10th May they were busily discussing with a government intermediary. At this clandestine meeting a memorandum was agreed – but with no formal guarantees. This memorandum was eventually rejected by the miners leaders on May 11, whilst the strike was still growing in strength. Despite these unsatisfactory outcomes, at 12.20 on Wednesday May 12 a deputation from the TUC met with the Prime Minister and agreed to call off the strike.
b) The governments organisation.
As noted above the Emergency powers and the organisational framework to break the strike were already in place during 1915 and these swung into assertive action during the months of March and April 1926. The government by this time had 99 volunteer service committees, a force of 226,000 special constables, mounted police and armed soldiers to guard convoys. Strike breaking volunteers came forward from offices, ex-army personnel, students, rugby and cricket players, banks, city of London financiers, society ladies and managers of the various parts of industry and commerce. Further numbers of volunteers were recruited from businessmen, civil servants, local government officers, and unemployed workers. As the strike took hold these volunteers drove trains, buses, unloaded ships, warehouses, drove trucks, ran canteens and published the governments propaganda. The latter mainly through the medium of the ‘British Gazette’ – a broad sheet directed against the strike. A typical statement in it read;
“The country will break the strike or the strike will break the country.” (British Gazette May 6 1926.
In addition to arresting and jailing activists, the police confiscated typewriters, duplicators and were told by the OMS instructions to be as vigorous with their truncheons as they needed to be to contain and defeat the strike. Under the Emergency Powers Act the government also assumed the right to seize, land, buildings, food, vehicles, docks, railways, coal, petrol, electricity, gas and water supplies. Public meetings were prohibited, premises searched and fraternising with the troops was declared a punishable offence. Trade Union officials were threatened with arrest and threats to sequester union funds were made. Advice was sought by the government to have the Strike made illegal, but this was not pursued. Despite some set-backs and lack of ability of the strike-breaking volunteers, with all the power of the state and the pro-capitalist classes, the governments preparations were able to dwarf those of the Trade Union bureaucracy.
The BBC quickly announced the end of the strike over the radio and the TUC sent out telegrams to the local union offices calling off the strike – after just eight full days. In these communications the TUC deceitfully suggested that the miners situation was going to be resolved and for this reason the strike was no longer necessary. The rank and file greeted this news with dismay, disbelief, anger and frustration. Some decided and tried to go back to work whilst others refused and wanted to carry on. Employers were now free to take back those they wished and refuse those they thought unsuitable. Many workers were only taken back on condition they left their unions. Others had to sign a paper admitting they had broke their contracts. In this way new and therefore reduced contracts were forced upon large numbers of workers. Six months after the strike had been called off, 45, 000 railway workers had still not been accepted back at their workplaces.
Calling off the strike was considered by most workers and activists as another grand betrayal. Once again the working class had shown solidarity, initiative, good humour, discipline, organisational ability and stoicism, only to be sold out. Betrayed by a leadership which had one foot in ‘respectability’ along with ambitions for future parliamentary careers and peerages. By the11th May the strike was still spreading and indeed the engineering workers followed instructions to come out as the ‘second wave’ on the 11th. The date is important. The TUC leaders already knew in their own minds they would probably call the strike off the very next day but let the engineers strike. Many of these subsequently lost their jobs and livelihood as victimisation took hold of all employers organisations and managers. The blacklist was extended generally and many workers never regained their former employment and had to accept any type of work they could find.
The miners had now been abandoned, albeit reluctantly by the workers in other industries. Now it was every worker for themselves. No working class job was secure now this capitulation by the leadership had taken place. The miners held out for another four months before hardship began to create a sporadic drift back to work – on any terms the employers would offer. A breakaway miners union was formed in the midlands to co-ordinate this and speed it up. Eventually those miners who were accepted back at their pits had to agree to longer hours and lower pay. At the national level, the government later introduced the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927. This Act declared sympathy strikes and assertive picketing illegal, it made future political levies subject to voluntary contributions and severed the civil service unions and associations from links with the TUC.
This whole history and that preceding it during the 1918-1921 period of class struggle, reveals the extent of the forces those engaged in general strike are taking on. For this reason the period deserves serious study. It also demonstrates that the simplistic slogan ‘unity is strength’ in practice, is nothing more than a useless abstraction. Strength depends upon what kind of unity is achieved. The top-down form of trade union unity allows ’leaders’ to direct, misdirect, undermine, restrict or even totally betray working class struggles. Trade union based unity has proved more often than not, to be a weakness rather than a strength.
Indeed, essentially the same pattern is currently being played out in Europe, particularly Greece. It will continue to do so in the US and the UK, whenever such large-scale actions occur. Governments, trade union officials and political parties of the ‘left’ and those calling themselves ‘socialist’ in the 21st century will do what they did in the 20th. In any social uprisings and challenges to the capitalist system they will ally themselves with bourgeois-liberal elements and betray the struggles of workers and oppressed. This is because they are a structural part of the ‘system’ they believe in and are a permanent part of the problem. Socialism for these people is nothing more than capitalism with a few paltry benefits – welfare capitalism for a privileged few.
The only kind of unity worth having is that built on solidarity between and among the working and oppressed themselves. And even here, the form of solidarity and unity needs to be developmentally appropriate to the varying purposes intended and the results required. Superficially, it may seem that a country-wide unity organised from a command type centre is the most appropriate form. However, idealised assumptions such as these – as we have seen – rarely materialise as imagined. The vast majority of workers and oppressed in such struggles are therefore rendered dependant upon the centre and charismatic leaders – both of which can easily be corrupted or removed.
Given the depth and breadth of the crisis capitalism is currently undergoing the unity needed is that based on the self-activity and self-governance of the working and oppressed. In the struggle for such solidarity there is a need to constantly assert and explain to those in struggle the systemic bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production and the sterility of trying to reform it. In addition the case needs to be made for the potential and necessity of a post-capitalist perspective guided by a revolutionary-humanist outlook.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2013.)