British Workers Launch General Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite the support of most major labor unions, the General Strike failed to win concessions for miners in their dispute with mine owners.

Summary of Event

The General Strike of 1926 in Great Britain was the largest effort up until that time to win more favorable contract terms for workers through the support of sympathy strikes. Its object was to put pressure on the government to support the wage demands of the miners against the owners, if necessary by the promise of a government subsidy for the industry. Failure of the strike ensured that collective bargaining would take place only between management and labor, with government providing mediation services at most. It led ultimately, however, to the nationalization of the mining industry when the Labour Party won political dominance after World War II. [kw]British Workers Launch General Strike (May 3-12, 1926) [kw]Workers Launch General Strike, British (May 3-12, 1926) [kw]General Strike, British Workers Launch (May 3-12, 1926) [kw]Strike, British Workers Launch General (May 3-12, 1926) Labor strikes;General Strike (1926) General Strike (1926) Miners’ Federation of Great Britain[Miners Federation of Great Britain] National Union of Railwaymen Transport and General Workers’ Union [g]England;May 3-12, 1926: British Workers Launch General Strike[06630] [c]Business and labor;May 3-12, 1926: British Workers Launch General Strike[06630] [c]Government and politics;May 3-12, 1926: British Workers Launch General Strike[06630] [c]Social issues and reform;May 3-12, 1926: British Workers Launch General Strike[06630] Baldwin, Stanley Smith, Herbert Bevin, Ernest Samuel, Herbert

Prior to World War I, the British coal mining industry had experienced steady growth in output and profitability. The island nation produced nearly as much coal as did the United States, but much of the market for the coal lay outside Great Britain. There was a widespread tendency throughout Europe to regard the conditions prevailing before the war as “normalcy.” It was believed that once the fighting came to an end, things would return to normal and the British coal mining industry would continue on its upward trend of profits and wages. Coal mining;Great Britain

Many of these expectations were reinforced by the war. The pressing need for coal, as bunker fuel for cargo and naval vessels and as power for the munitions industry, led the government to support nearly all the wage demands made by miners through their union, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). The justification advanced for a steady increase in wages was the inflation that occurred during the war, with the cost of living doubling between 1914 and 1918. In 1917, in order to avert continued wage conflicts, the government took control of the industry, guaranteeing the owners a minimum level of profits. During this period, the government subsidized the industry in order to keep the domestic price of coal down for the benefit of consumers.

After the war, the government decided that it wished to withdraw from the operation of the coal mining industry and return the management, including responsibility for profits and wages, to the owners. In the immediate postwar period, this posed no great problem, because the British industry was able to export large quantities of coal to Europe, and profits remained substantial. Beginning with the postwar depression of 1920, however, the export market for British coal began to decline. It continued on a downward path, with brief intermissions when political developments interrupted European coal production, throughout the interwar period. Profits declined dramatically, and owners of the mines maintained that only with a sharp reduction in wages could costs be brought sufficiently under control that the industry as a whole could operate at a profit.

Meanwhile, the British organized labor movement had won increasing support from workers, so that by the 1920’s the unions were a force to be reckoned with. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain had grown from about 600,000 members in 1910 to nearly a million in 1920. It had long since won the right to negotiate wage agreements with the mine owners and during the war had won a long-sought goal, the right to negotiate national minimum wages. Most wage agreements took the form of a specified percentage above the minimum wage.

By 1921, the market for British coal in Europe had declined drastically. The government wished to withdraw definitively from control of the industry. The owners’ position was that, in view of the weak export market, the industry could be profitable only if a drastic reduction in wages took place. Meanwhile, the miners’ union, the MFGB, had concluded a “triple alliance” with the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). The three unions agreed to strike together should one of them be faced with a refusal of management to concede to labor’s terms. Labor unions;Great Britain

When the government announced that it would terminate its control of the coal mining industry on March 31, 1921, mine owners and miners began their battle. The owners offered wages drastically below the level the miners had been earning, in some cases as much as 50 percent lower. They insisted that henceforth wage agreements be negotiated on a regional basis. The MFGB refused these terms, insisting on a national minimum wage. The owners announced that unless an agreement was reached, they would lock out the miners on April 1, 1921. The miners called for help from their allies in the triple alliance, and the two other unions promised to strike in sympathy. Intervention by the government, offering a limited renewal of the subsidy, was used as justification by the two other unions, the NUR and the TGWU, to withdraw their strike threat. The withdrawal occurred on Friday, April 15, a day that came to be remembered with much bitterness in labor ranks as Black Friday.

The miners continued their strike until July, when they were forced to settle. A limited government subsidy was provided, profits from the sale of coal were pooled so as to provide support for unprofitable mines, and a relatively short-lived recovery in the European coal market brought relative peace back to the mining districts.

By 1925, however, conditions in the European export market had worsened again. A threat of a strike in the summer of 1925, and the renewed possibility of a sympathy strike, led to another government intervention. The government promised a temporary subsidy until May 1, 1926, and in the meantime to sponsor another investigation into conditions in the industry. The miners viewed the government concession as a victory. It was announced on Friday, July 31, which became known as Red Friday. The investigation was headed by Sir Herbert Samuel, and its report was known as the Samuel Report. The Samuel Report Samuel Report acknowledged the need for some wage reductions but in addition urged extensive consolidation of the large number of firms in the industry as a means of reducing costs.

The owners as well as the miners rejected the Samuel Report. The owners refused to consider consolidation, especially if forced by governmental action; the miners refused to accept any wage reduction, on the grounds that the existing wage was not a “living wage.” The owners announced that if there were no wage agreements in place on May 1, they would institute a lockout.

Meanwhile, anticipating a deadlock, the miners’ leaders had turned to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, Trades Union Congress (Great Britain) Labor organizations;Great Britain the executive organ of the federation of almost all the unions of Great Britain. Organization of a sympathy strike fell to the General Council and to various working groups within it. Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the TGWU, was the chief organizer. The miners, maintaining that they would never consent to a wage reduction or enter into negotiations based on the Samuel Report, which envisaged some reduction, began their strike on May 1. Although Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made repeated efforts to find some basis for negotiation before the lockout and strike began, he failed.

On May 3, the General Strike itself began. Railway workers and transport workers went out on strike. The General Council believed that the cessation of transport would be a weapon that would compel the government to intervene and jump-start negotiations, if necessary with a renewal of the subsidy. Successively, other unions were called on to join the strike. Electrical workers, engineers, and printers followed transport workers. Streetcars, railroads, and heavy truck traffic were affected. The greatest concern of the government was that food shipments should not be so curtailed that anyone went hungry.

Although initially the strike appeared to be a success, as time wore on it became apparent that it was likely to fail in its objective, which was to force the government once again to intervene, as it had done in 1925. Sir Herbert Samuel attempted to mediate, but with little effect. The miners steadfastly refused even to negotiate unless their prime demand was conceded at the outset, namely, that there would be no reduction in wages. Meanwhile, an emergency effort by the government kept basic supplies moving. The government astutely had begun planning for such an emergency in 1925. Prime Minister Baldwin effectively used radio broadcasts to ensure that the public remained calm.

The General Council of the Trades Union Congress, realizing that neither government nor the mine owners would concede the miners’ condition for negotiation of no reduction in wages, desperately sought a way out. The council agreed to call off the strike on May 12 if the government would force the owners to negotiate on the terms provided in the Samuel Report. By withdrawing the support of the other unions, the General Council in effect forced the miners to negotiate on the basis of the Samuel Report.

Although workers in other fields returned to their jobs, the miners continued to strike. They did not return to work until November, 1926, and then substantially on the owners’ terms.

Significance

A general strike had always been the threat the labor movement held in reserve, to be applied only when conditions of work became intolerable. The concept came out of the syndicalist movement, which saw a general strike as the revolutionary event that would overthrow capitalism because if all workers refused to work, society would come to a halt. The General Strike as applied in Great Britain in 1926, however, differed in important respects from the syndicalist notion.

First of all, the General Strike was not truly a general strike. The General Council referred to it as the “national strike,” and it involved only a portion of the organized labor movement. The motives of the General Council in organizing the strike were several. The experience of Red Friday, when the mere threat of a general strike had forced the government to renew the subsidy to the coal mining industry, gave the General Council hope for a quick victory. The council also feared reproach from the workers on the line if it gave in, as had happened in 1921 on Black Friday. The council was certainly pushed by the intransigence of Herbert Smith, leader of the miners, who continued to maintain that any reduction would bring miners’ wages down to a level at which no man could live.

Nevertheless, the men who made up the General Council, the leaders of the trade union movement, had serious doubts about the potential of the General Strike as it developed. First, it depended entirely on feelings of solidarity with the miners. No other worker had anything at stake in the disagreement between the miners and mine owners. Second, resources were simply not at hand to support a prolonged strike. If the strike did not achieve its aims within a week, it was unlikely to achieve them at all. In fact, after a week, men were beginning to drift back to work. Even though the miners were protected from legal action by the mine owners—they had, after all, been locked out for refusing to agree to reduced wages on May 1—the other unions had no such excuse and were therefore at risk for suits for breach of their own contracts. As the terms of settlement were worked out, one of the main concerns of the union leaders was to avoid retribution from the government or from management.

In an important sense, the concept behind the General Strike of 1926 was flawed. It assumed that society would not be able to function if the railways did not run and if shipments of food at the docks were not unloaded, and that these things would happen if the existing work forces in those industries refused to work. The government, however, had been anticipating just such a stoppage as occurred. Since the Conservatives had returned to power in 1925, they had been organizing emergency response teams to keep essential services going. Most trains did not run, but some did. The electrical power stations continued to operate with emergency personnel. An army of trucks was enlisted so that goods that could not move by rail could move by road.

The existence of a substantial number of unemployed workers enabled the government to recruit unskilled labor for the movement of supplies. The determination of the government not to be blackmailed in 1926 as it had been in 1925 was a major factor in the defeat of the strike. Although there were some clashes between picketers and those who came in to fill the places of the striking workers, on the whole violence was kept to a minimum.

The miners’ strike was eventually settled largely along the lines of the Samuel Report. The structural problem of the industry, overproduction, was gradually addressed in the years following the strike as uneconomic mines were closed. Unfortunately for the miners, however, they were working in an industry that was to a substantial degree obsolete. Gas and oil were gradually replacing coal as the fuel of choice.

Nevertheless, the General Strike left a residue of bitter feeling on both sides that was to have long-range effects. The miners and leaders of the trade union movement realized that collective action in pursuit of purely industrial ends would not work. What would work, they realized, was political organization, with labor eventually strong enough politically to take over the government. The result of this realization was the extensive nationalization of industry when the Labour Party achieved victory at the polls in 1945.

Although the mine owners believed that they had defended capitalism and the right of management to operate without government interference, it was a Pyrrhic victory. The inescapable consequences of worldwide overproduction of coal forced many mines to close in the years following the General Strike; many that did not close voluntarily were forced to do so under government pressure. Instead of competition, mine owners tried cooperation, in the form of a variety of cooperative marketing schemes. The decline of coal as a source of power in the end defeated the owners. Labor strikes;General Strike (1926) General Strike (1926) Miners’ Federation of Great Britain[Miners Federation of Great Britain] National Union of Railwaymen Transport and General Workers’ Union

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, Robert. British Capitalism at the Crossroads, 1919-1932. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Provides excellent background on the economic policies leading up to and following the General Strike, along with a perceptive analysis of the strike itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farman, Christopher. The General Strike, May 1926. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1972. Straightforward and readable account of the strike attempts to tell the story without ideological bias. Focuses on personalities and the political conflict involved. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Florey, R. A. The General Strike of 1926: The Economic, Political, and Social Causes of That Class War. New York: Riverrun Press, 1987. Presents in-depth analysis of the strike from the perspective of the working class.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graves, Robert, and Alan Hodge. The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939. 1940. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Fascinating account of daily social life in Great Britain between the world wars. Focuses on fads, controversies of the day, fashions, entertainment, sports, and other activities that ordinary people think important but that historians sometimes miss. Chapter on the General Strike emphasizes how the events affected people’s daily lives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirby, M. W. The British Coalmining Industry, 1870-1946. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977. Scholarly and impartial account is essential background to an understanding of the industry and why the problems of the miners were so intractable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Margaret. The General Strike. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1976. Comprehensive treatment of the General Strike examines its causes, main events, and significance and provides numerous details of the strike’s local effects. Written with much sympathy for the striking workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noel, Gerard. The Great Lock-Out of 1926. London: Constable, 1976. Account focuses on the social issues underlying the strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, G. A. The General Strike. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. Broad-based and impartial account provides a wealth of details. Includes a list of the important figures in the strike as well as a brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pugh, Martin. The Making of Modern British Politics, 1867-1945. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2002. Sophisticated account of British political history from the 1860’s to the outbreak of World War II. Includes discussion of the General Strike and its impacts on British politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. State and Society: A Social and Political History of Britain 1870-1997. 2d ed. London: Arnold, 2000. Analyzes social policy and political developments in Great Britain from the last part of the nineteenth century onward. Features illustrations, figures, tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Renshaw, Patrick. Nine Days That Shook Britain: The 1926 General Strike. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. Readable survey of the General Strike’s background, course, and consequences, placed in the context of the history of coal mining. Includes a chronology of events and a comprehensive and useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Julian. The General Strike: A Historical Portrait. 1957. Reprint. Thirsk, North Yorkshire, England: House of Stratus, 2001. Landmark study, written as narrative history, captures the spirit of the strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, A. J. P. English History, 1914-1945. 1965. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Indispensable source of background information on the period in which the General Strike took place. Deals with social and economic developments as well as with political history. Includes bibliography, list of cabinets, and maps.

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