1c: Change and challenge in the workplace: Changing industrial relations, 1918-39

Reasons for industrial change

  • Much of British industry after WW1 was overwhelmingly heavy industry, which was now often antiquated with old machinery, old methods of production, underinvestment & inability to compete w/ foreign investors such as the USA.
  • Contemporary observers & historians have often spoken of 'two Englands' in the interwar years - cotton, mining & ship building each lost 1/3 of their workforce while other industries increased theirs:
  • Workforce making electrical appliances increased by 250%
  • Workforce in the building industry increased by 33%
  • Service industries like hotels & holiday camps increased their workforce by 40% during 1930s - reflection on the fact that more people could take holidays (in 1939, 11.5m people awarded holiday pay for the first time)
  • However, most people still worked in the older industries where industrial relations could be a significant problem.
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Red Clydeside

  • In response to growing unemployment in the depressed former ship-building industry, the Glasgow Trades Council proposed to reduce the working week from 54 hours to 40 - intended to give surplus hours to unemployed men.
  • 31 Jan 1919 - 90,000 demonstrators filled George Square demanding the 40-hour week, raising the socialist red flag - seen as an incendiary act at a time when govs across the Western world were nervous about the possibility of revolution breaking out.
  • By the end of the day pitched battles had taken place between protestors & police, w/ tanks & soldiers being quickly transported from England to Glasgow & other parts of Scotland to put down any organised revolutionary violence.
  • The scale of violence shocked union leaders, who called on protestors to stop the rioting.
  • 40-hour week never obtained by the workers.
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Industrial relations, 1918-21

  • By 1918, the relationship between the gov & workers was deteriorating - following the armistice, there was an enormous wave of unrest across the country as workers, soldiers & police went on strike as resentments & perceived injustices that had developed during the war were unleashed at the end of the conflict.
  • No. of strikes declined as factories took on large numbers of men & new jobs satisfied unionised British workers.
  • In 1919 there were 32m days lost to strikes but in 2020 this had fallen to 25m, yet in 1921 this grew to 84m as unemployment increased & wages decreased.
  • Many of the grievances of the strikers were based around repressed wages, rising prices & food shortages, but a minority of strikers had more political & ideological grievances.
  • Gov was able to contain the strikes by offering concessions - suggests that there was not much chance of a revolution occurring in Britain.
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The miners' strike, 1921

  • Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) had over 900,000 members.
  • Wartime gov control of the mines was popular w/ miners who saw pit owners as lazy & greedy, so when this ended in March 1921 & they were returned to private industry, wages were cut & hours were lengthened in order to compete w/ foreign coal imports.
  • High levels of unemployment in 1921 enabled mine owners to reduce wages, knowing that the miners didn't have other work to go to if they quit.
  • The MFGB, the NTWF & the NUR had discussed the possibility of a united strike action to protect wages if a post-economic slump occurred - a miners' strike could easily be broken by importing foreign coal, but if dock workers refused to unload it & rail workers refused to transport it the strike could be potentially crippling.
  • When union leaders refused to accept pay cuts, mine owners locked workers out on 1 April & the gov used the Emergency Powers Act to send troops to South Wales in anticipation of unrest & violence.
  • 15 April (Black Friday) - NUR & NTWF both decided not to strike in solidarity w/ the miners - miners' leaders had made a crucial error in asking for support from the other unions but not allowing them to be part of the negotiations, making members reluctant to strike & union leaders wary of the political consequences of being involved.
  • Miners went on strike between 15 April - 28 June, but were forced to end the walkout, realising they couldn't beat the mine owners alone & were forced to accept pay cuts of 20%.
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The general strike, 1926

  • Gov established an enquiry into miners' conditions & offered a subsidy to mine owners that would maintain miners' pay until 1 May 1926.
  • 1 May 1926, 1m miners across Britain were locked out of their workplaces for refusing to accept new, lower wages.
  • TUC announced that a general strike would begin on 3 May, knowing that abandoning the miners again would be catastrophic both for them & for a future Labour gov.
  • Gov knew the strike was coming & was far better organised than TUC - published its own propaganda paper (British Gazette) & used the BBC to broadcast radio messages in support of the gov position.
  • Labour distanced themselves from the strikers & the TUC only authorised unions to strike who could claim to have common interests w/ the miners to strike e.g. railwaymen, dockers, etc.
  • The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies was an anti-union group of volunteers & was founded to do the work that the strikers refused to - members manned buses, trains & telephone exchanges during the strike.
  • Strike collapsed when it transpired that the 1906 Trades Disputes Act gave unions legal immunity from damages claims for loss of profits from businesses would not apply union members began to return to work & TUC appealed to the gov not to victimise the strikers
  • Baldwin told the unions he couldn't guarantee the rights of workers who returned to work & the miners' wages were slashed & the industry lost 30% of its jobs - strike was a huge failure.
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Changing industrial relations, 1929-39

  • Union activity throughout the 1930s was significantly weakened by the aftermath of the General Strike - the Great Depression & mass unemployment meant that union revenues were depleted & membership declined from 8m in 1922 to 4.5m in 1932.
  • The communist-backed NUWM grew in size during the depression but was still small compared to unions like the MFGB.
  • By just before WW2, most of Britain had seen economic recovery however the heavy industrial heartlands in terminal decline were the most poverty-stricken & deprived parts of Britain.
  • Union action had been unable to alleviate the conditions in the Clyde, South Wales, Yorkshire, Tyneside or Merseyside.
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