The General Strike 1926

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Background Causes

  • Support for the idea of the General Strike went back much further than 1926. There was a feeling that the weapon of the GS was powerful and effective- allowing workers to defend their living standards . The TU membership had grown rapidly since 1900- quadrupling from 2m in 1900 to 8 m in 1920. There had been talk of a GS before 1914 but after 1918 there were examples of successes - e.g. defeating the Kapp Putsch in Berlin and in 1921 the threat of a GS forced the British Govt. to end intervention in the Russian Civil War. Morever, Working Class living standards seemed under threat in the early 1920's with the Post War slump, the emerging problem of mass, long term unemployment in the old industrial regions, Govt. cutbacks at the expense of social reform. There was a general feeling amongst Organised Labour that the threat of a GS might prove a necessary and successful weapon in a Capitalist Society to defend the living standards of the working class as a whole.
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The General Strike.

  • Lasted nine days. Techincally, it began as a 'lock-out' of the miners by the coal owners and it never involved all the workers only about 2.5 million whom the TUC called out. Really it was a great stoppage in sympathy with the miners.
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Problems of the Coalfields

  • However, it was the coalmining industry not the TUC which began the events which led to the GS. The coalmines had big problems in the 1920's on the demand side foreign competition was under-cutting British coal; whilst on the supply side most pits were old and uneconomic. The Govt. had failed to restructure and reinvest before returning them to private ownership and the main way the owners tried to protect their profits was by cutting wages. This had already led to trouble in 1919 and 1925. Working conditions were often bad - 1:25 miners were injured, 1:50 killed, living conditions were poor and this resulted in hostile industrial relations between miners and owners. There was already a long history of strikes and lock-outs in the mining industry well before 1926 which had led to the miners allying with the railmen and dockers as early as 1913 as a means of self-defence. 
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1925-1926 crisis in the coalfields

  • In 1925, this situation worsened partly as a result of Baldwin's Govt. returning to the Gold standard at too high a parity and making British coal exports even less competitive. The owners demanded big cuts in miners wages- between 13% and 48% and also long hours. When the miners rejected this the owners threatened a lock-out and the miners appealed to the railmen and dockers for support. A major stoppage therefore, threatened in 1925 well before the TUC got involved. Baldwin brought this off by a temporary subsidy of miners wages whilst the Samuel Commission reported on the future of the mines. Unfortnatly, the Report was an inconclusive compromise and both sides dug in. The owners would not withdraw their demands, the Miners slogan 'Not a penny off the pay not a minute on the day', expressed their view. Baldwin ended the subsidy in April 1926 , the owners declared a 'lock-out', the miners appealed to the TUC for the support of the Trade Unions.
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Baldwin's Role

  • In several ways Baldwin worsened the situation and not only created miners support for a fight but pushed the TUC in feeling that it had to ask other workers to support them. Had Baldwin pressed the owners to drop their demand for longer hours- which Samuel pointed out was foolish since it would only create a surplus of coal and lower prices/profits further - then the TUC might have got the miners to compromise on wage cuts. Baldwin might have continued the subsidy longer whilst an acceptable compromise was worked out- instead he ended it and precipitated the lock-out and general stoppage. Baldwin's Cabinet gave the impression of wanting a fight with the Trade Union Movement e.g. quickly declaring a 'State of Emergency 'under the Special Powers Act. Badwin and his hawks in his cabinet used the excuse of an unofficial strike of print workers to call off negotiations with the TUC and then when the TUC settled the strike they refused to renew them. This finallu decided the General council of the TUC that - reluctantly- they must call for support of the miners. Overall, Baldwin gave the impression that his Govt. favoured the owners against the miners and was not even handed.
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General Council of the TUC's role

  • Persuaded the miners to trust it with negotiating for them and running any general support which was needed. It was therefore the TUC which asked the TU's to come out in support of the miners, issued orders for the conduct of the GS and eventually called it off. The TUC felt that there was more at stake than just wages of the miners- they saw the owners demands as an attack upon the living standards of the whole working class and as setting a dangerous precedent. Hence their willingness to support the miners and ask other workers to do so. But the TUC had not prepared properly for a GS it was rather caught out by the situation and was divided about its wisdom from the beginning.
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The Miners

  • Were very determined to fight their employers- they stayed out for 6 months after the GS was called off. Some of their leaders e.g. A.J.Cook stirred up fear in the Govt. and intransigence (inflexibilty) amongst the owners by their fiery, revolutionary speeches. Herbert Smith the miners leader was difficult to deal with - his reply to most requests for compromise was 'nowt doin'. Most miners lived in the North and West in  pit villages, with little contact with the Govt. Class divisions were wide and deep in 1926 and both Govt. and Unions had little understandig of each other.
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