UK General Strike 1926

The UK General Strike of 1926 lasted nine days, from 3 May to 12 May, 1926, and was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an unsuccessful attempt to force the government to act to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for coal miners.

The British mining industry suffered an economic crisis in 1925, largely caused by three factors:

  • World War I - The heavy usage of coal in World War I domestically meant that rich seams were depleted during this time, and that Britain exported less coal in this time than it would have done in times of peace, allowing other countries to fill the gap left by Britain. Inparticular the USA, Poland and Germany benefitted from this.
  • The fall in prices resulting from the import of free coal from Germany sent as reparations in the aftermath of World War I.
  • The reintroduction of the Gold Standard in 1925 by Winston Churchill - this made the pound too strong for effective exporting to take place from Britain, and also (because of the economic processes involved in maintaining a strong currency) raised interest rates, hurting all businesses whether they exported or not.

Mine owners therefore announced their intention to reduce miners' wages, and the TUC responded to this news by promising to support the miners in their dispute. The Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin decided to intervene, declaring that they would provide a nine-month subsidy to maintain the miners' wages and that a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel would look into the problems of the mining industry. This decision became known as "Red Friday" because it was seen as a victory for working-class solidarity. In practice, the subsidy gave the mine owners and the Government time to prepare for a major labour dispute.

The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926: it recognised that the industry needed to be reorganised but rejected the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and that the miners' wages should be reduced in order to save the industry's profitability.

Following publication of the report, the mine owners then published new terms of employment for all miners. These included an extension of the seven-hour working day, district wage-agreements, and a reduction in the wages. Depending on a number of factors, the wages would be cut by between 10% and 25%. The mine owners declared that if the miners did not accept the new terms then from the first day of May they would be locked out of the pits.

A Conference of the TUC met on the 1 May 1926, and subsequently announced that a general strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours" was to begin on the 3rd of May. The leaders of the Labour Party were terrified by the revolutionary elements within the union movement and were unhappy about the proposed General Strike. During the next two days frantic efforts were made to reach an agreement with the Government and the mine owners. However these efforts failed.

The TUC feared that an all-out general strike would bring revolutionary elements to the fore. They decided to bring out workers only in the key industries, such as railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers and iron and steel workers.

The Government had prepared for the strike over the nine months in which it had provided a subsidy, creating organisations such as the organisation for the maintenance of supplies, and did whatever it could to keep the country moving. It rallied support by emphasising the revolutionary nature of the strikers. The armed forces and volunteer workers helped maintain basic services.

On the 7 May, the TUC met with Sir Herbert Samuel and worked out a set of proposals designed to end the dispute. The Miners Federation rejected the proposals. On the 12 May, the TUC General Council visited 10 Downing Street to announce their decision to call off the strike, provided that the proposals worked out by the Samuel Commission were adhered to and that the Government offered a guarantee that there would be no victimisation of strikers. The government stated that it had "no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike." Thus the TUC agreed to end the dispute without such an agreement.

For several months the miners continued to maintain resistance, but by October 1926 hardship forced many men back. By the end of November most miners were back at work. However, many were victimised and remained unemployed for many years. Those that were employed were forced to accept longer hours, lower wages, and district wage agreements.

In 1927, the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, and ensured that trade union members had to voluntarily "contract in" to pay the political levy. It also forbade Civil Service unions from affiliating with the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal.

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