General Strike 1926

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In May 1926 much of Britain came to a halt. The coal, iron, steel, chemical and newspaper industries ceased production. In the docks ships were neither loaded nor unloaded. Railway trains, the London Underground and many bus services stopped running. The government sent soldiers and armoured cars to key places in London. Warships were sent into the rivers Clyde, Tyne and Mersey. World newspapers turned their attention to Britain anticipating the outbreak of violence and revolution. This event, the so-called 'General Strike', lasted nine days in May 1926.

The term 'General Strike' is somewhat controversial, for the lead up to the 'General Strike' began not with a strike by the workers but with the lockout of employers, and although 3 million workers were involved in the General Strike, this was only a fraction of the total workforce. Nevertheless, this 'Great Stoppage' caused bitter differences at the time. To the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, it was 'a challenge to parliament and a step on the road to ruin' (British Gazette, 6 March 1926). The General Council of the Trade Union Congress, or the TUC; however, saw it as being: 'no challenge to the constitution; the TUC is engaged in an industrial dispute' (British Worker, 11 May 1926).

Causes

The roots of the General Strike lay in the structural problems of the coal industry. Demand for British coal had fallen because of intense foreign competition and the growing use of subsitutes such as oil. Many British coal mines were old and ineffient, short of investment. Industrial relations had been bad for a long time and in 1913 the dockers, miners and railwaymen had formed a 'triple alliance' to support each other in any major dispute with employers. The minders wanted the coal industry to be nationalised but after the war it had been re-privatised and the owners had tried to combat falling prices by cutting miners' wages. The result was constant disputes with major strikes and lockouts 1919, 1920 and again in 1925.

In 1925, the situation in the coal industry was worsened by the government's decision to put Britain on back on the Gold Standard at the pre-1914 exchange rate. This made British coal exports more expensive. The owners called for further wage cuts and longer working hours, but the miners rejected these demands, leading the owners to threaten a lockout. When the miners called for support from the railwaymen and dockers, Baldwin's government intervened, offering financial support to subsides both miners' wages and the owners' profits for nine months. It also set up the Samuel Commission to investigate and report on the problems of the coal industry.

The unions saw this as a victory and nicknamed the day the subsidy was annouced 'Red Friday'. However, the Samuel Commission Report proved a disappoitment. It rejected nationalisation, although it did recommend that it the long  terms the mines should be reconstructed with government help and, whilst opposing longer hours, argued that wage cuts were essential to save jobs.

 Each side accepted…

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