Ninety years on, Vivian Honan discusses the 1926 general strike, and how faith in left-wing union officials produced a devastating setback
The 1926 general strike was one of the largest strikes in British history. It marked the end of an intense period of struggle beginning in 1910 and stretching through the First World War and its aftermath.
More than three million workers went out on strike for nine days. The coal owners and the Conservative Party government wanted the miners to work longer hours for less pay, and set out to break the power and militancy workers had built up in the previous 16 years.
The miners were locked out of the coalfields by the bosses. In response workers from all sectors across Britain came out on strike in support of the miners.
The strike, however, ended in defeat when the union officials sold out the membership and sent them back to work without any wins.
It was a bitter lesson for the Left of the costs of relying on even left-wing union officials, instead of orienting towards the rank-and-file union membership.
In the lead up to 1926 there had been growing militancy among the working class.
The period 1910-1914 became known as the Great Unrest. While profits were growing, real wages were falling. Millions of workers took strike action during this time to demand higher wages and union recognition.
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought a new level of struggle. Bosses tried to use the war to attack pay and conditions. The union officials were concerned industrial action would affect the war effort and tried to discourage it.
The membership was forced to take action independently of the union leadership in order to maintain conditions.
After the war, encouraged by a boom in the economy but high cost of living, hundreds of thousands of workers joined strikes to demand better wages and conditions.
However, in 1920 recession began to set in. In March 1921 the coal bosses tried to force through wage cuts, but the miners rejected this.
The bosses locked them out. Railway and transport workers initially came out on strike in support of the miners. But in April the union officials called the strike off.
This day of treachery became known as Black Friday. It left the miners isolated, and after three months they gave in.
Communists and officials
The Communist Party, newly founded in 1920, explained the betrayal in terms of “bad” union leaders who needed to be replaced by good leaders.
The Communist Party argued that they needed to either conquer the union leadership themselves, or at least find left bureaucrats to work with.
This position was influenced by the radical rhetoric that left-wing union officials were using at the time. Union leaders such as Purcell, Swales and Hicks talked of the need for revolt, destruction of wage slavery, and the establishment of a new society.
In 1924 the Communist Party established the Minority Movement. It was based on alliance and trust of these key left-wing union officials.
In 1925 the mining employers announced wage cuts and the abolition of national agreements. The trade union movement backed the miners and threatened united strike action. The Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin, backed off and announced they would subsidise the industry while a Royal Commission was held.
In the lead-up to the release of the report, the government prepared for a confrontation. They stockpiled coal and recruited some 100,000 volunteers ready to be used as scab labour. Police were given new powers and troops were mobilised.
The Trade Union Council (TUC), Britain’s equivalent of the ACTU, made no preparations.
On 10 March 1926, the Royal Commission report was released. It called for the government to end subsidies to the mining industry and for the workers’ wages to be cut.
The Labour Party and the union officials did not immediately launch a fight back.
Instead they began talking about the need for sacrifices. They began negotiations, but then on 16 April the coal owners declared they would lock out the miners from 1 May. The unions held a special meeting and agreed to call a general strike to begin on 4 May.
The union officials were hoping the threat of a strike would help in their negotiations, and they saw it as a way of controlling the movement that might launch strikes unofficially otherwise.
They did not call for all workers to come out together which would have been stronger, but instead called for “waves” where some sectors would come out for the first eight days, and then other sectors would join them.
This caused great confusion. Within workplaces some workers were called out in the first wave but others within the same workplace were held back because they were from different sectors.
There was such enthusiasm for the strike, however, that the officials struggled to hold workers back until the second wave. A report from the engineers in Dundee stated, “Here as elsewhere our greatest difficulty in the first week was in preventing men ceasing work before being called upon to do so.”
The union officials tried to limit the self-activity of the workers during the strike.
No other papers were allowed to be produced except the British Worker—the paper controlled by the union officials. The paper discouraged militancy, such as pickets.
It instead gave tips such as, “Do what you can to improve your health, a good walk every day will keep you fit. Do something. Hanging around and swapping rumours is bad in every way.”
The strikers were encouraged to let off steam by playing sport, and were even encouraged to set up friendly sporting matches with the police!
The union officials also strongly encouraged them to spend more time at church. These tactics were used by the union officials to stop workers from holding pickets, meetings and demonstrations.
So intent on avoiding conflict with the state were they that the union officials in the TUC even allowed the government to take over full control of the food supplies, which meant scab labour being used in transportation and delivery.
On 7 May the TUC and Labour Party began secret negotiations with the government and bosses. Following negotiations, they put forward a draft proposal for wage cuts.
The miners were outraged to learn of the secret negotiations and rejected the proposal.
On 11 May, the TUC called the strike off and told workers in all sectors to return to work.
Apart from opposition from the mining union, none of the supposedly left union officials raised a word of protest at this plan.
This led to criminal charges, sackings and victimisation of strikers and humiliating agreements that locked in wage cuts.
The miners remained locked out for another six months. Isolated, they eventually gave in to the wage cuts and returned to work.
After betraying them, the TUC still had the nerve to call the miners selfish. The mining union’s leadership was little better, agreeing not to criticise the TUC.
The Communist Party had been so convinced of the progressive role of the left union officials they had not seen the betrayal coming.
A Communist Party leader of the time, George Hardy, wrote in retrospect:
“Although we knew of what treachery the right-wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called ‘left’ in the union leadership. In the main they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the right wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for action must always be to develop a class-consciousness among the rank and file.”
Throughout this period the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky had argued for the Communist Party to not have illusions in the union bureaucracy.
Trotsky said, “Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.”
By encouraging trust in the union officials and calling for “All power to the General Council [of the TUC]”, the Communist Party were seen as implicit in the defeat.
Their membership and that of the unions plummeted and the working class sunk into apathy.
An understanding of the nature of the union bureaucracy is crucial for socialists in the union movement.
The union bureaucracy has a different class interest to the rank-and-file members. The wages of the officials are not dependent on the outcome of strikes, and they do not face the same pressures and working conditions of the membership.
Instead they become concerned with maintaining a relationship with the employers, as they see negotiations as the way of winning reforms.
There is no doubt that we can work with union officials at times, and that they can be crucial in mobilising and encouraging the activity of the rank-and-file.
But we should never forget their different interests, and their action should never be seen as a substitute for the action of the mass of workers themselves.
The Clyde workers in Britain who self-organised during the war years perhaps put it best when they wrote, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”