Ninety years ago the British working class came out on a general strike. PETER FROST continues the story.
MAY 4, the first day of the 1926 general strike, saw nearly 1.75 million workers withdrawing their labour.
Rank-and-file demand and political pressure from the relatively newly formed Communist Party, along with much local militant action from local trades councils, gave the strike, called to support the locked-out miners, an unstoppable momentum.
The Communist Party and the National Minority Movement had both campaigned for the establishment and development of existing Councils of Action in preparation for the strike but it was not until the beginning of May that the labour movement really set about organising itself for battle.
Trades councils played a central role in this. Moribund trades councils were revived. Existing ones were broadened out and drew in delegates from the wider labour movement.
The right-wing labour movement bureaucracy and the ruling classes had good reason to fear and oppose the trades councils or strike committees which functioned as Councils of Action. These bodies ran the strike.
Centrally the TUC leadership, although it had officially called the strike in support of the miners, was already hedging its bets. It was clear the TUC was more interested in undermining the effects of the strike rather than organising for total victory.
Initially, the TUC general council set up six sub-committees. But on May 5, these were wound up and replaced by a strike organisation committee (SOC), run by TGWU general secretary Ernest Bevin and general council member Arthur Purcell.
Union militants attacked the SOC for “appearing to be chiefly concerned with finding excuses for keeping men at work.”
In contrast to the lack of TUC preparations, the response from the rank-and-file membership of the unions on the first day of the strike demonstrated their enthusiasm for a fight.
In Manchester, for example, the tramway system was shut down completely, and other transport workers were also solid from the start.
Work at the docks was at a standstill, and Manchester Ship Canal traffic was halted.
In Birmingham, nine out of 10 of bus, railway, tram and canal workers struck from midnight on May 3. Factories and mills too were solid for the strike.
Rather than accurate reporting, the Tory press concentrated on stories about the army of government-organised scabs and strike-breakers.
Members of the House of Lords were photographed printing newspapers. Titled debutantes posed peeling potatoes to make soup for other strike-breakers.
Every posh Tory ex-public schoolboy lived out his fantasies to drive a steam locomotive or take the wheel of a bus, tram or lorry.
Most universities showed their class basis, becoming an important source of scabs. However, at Glasgow University, where the Labour Club had campaigned against attempts to enrol strike-breakers, only 300 out of 5,000 students scabbed.
Hand in hand with organising the scabs went the government’s strengthening of the police force with auxiliaries. Special constables were recruited.
The scabs, the police and the police auxiliaries were backed up by the armed forces. Two battalions of Guards, with cavalry and armoured cars, occupied the London docks.
Battleships and destroyers took up position in the Clyde, the Thames and the Mersey. Half the power stations in and around London were being run by the navy.
The Councils of Action and the trades councils knew they needed to maintain strikers’ morale.
They organised entertainment and sports, but far more important was countering the government’s anti-strike propaganda.
Local strike bulletins were printed, often by local Communist Party branches. Nationally the Communist Party organised publication of The Worker and Workers’ Weekly until police arrested the entire staff.
The TUC produced its own mealy-mouthed strike newspaper The British Worker. Its purpose, according to the editors, was “not to publish anything that will frighten or demoralise the public.”
While the general council of the TUC adopted this approach, the government showed no such restraint in the use it made of its own strike paper, the British Gazette, and of the supposedly neutral BBC.
Winston Churchill wanted to commandeer the BBC. He didn’t need to as it did everything the government required of it anyway.
Pro-strike news was suppressed. No striker or even TUC or Labour Party leaders were allowed to broadcast. However the BBC did allow Cardinal Bourne on air to denounce the strike as “a sin against the obedience which we owe God.”
When the TUC general council called on trade unionists in the so-called second-line industries of engineering, shipbuilding and chemicals and cement to join the strike on May 12, 200,000 workers answered the call, but at midday on the same day the TUC general council threw in the towel and called off the strike. The betrayal was complete.
In the evening of May 11 the general council presented the settlement as an ultimatum to the miners’ leaders.
The miners still refused to accept it, but the TUC had had enough. The following day a general council deputation went to 10 Downing Street to announce their surrender.
On the day after the TUC called off the strike, there were 100,000 more workers on strike than there had been earlier.
Saddened, demoralised and disheartened by the betrayal of the TUC leadership, workers drifted back to work.
Appeals by the Communist Party for a continuation of the General Strike were unsuccessful. Victimisation was widespread as bosses settled old scores and rooted out militants.
Deserted by the TUC, the miners fought on for another seven months, faced by mine owners determined to break up their union organisation and push down pay.
By November they had been driven back to work on the worst possible terms: replacement of national settlements by district ones; wages cut back to 1921 or even 1914 levels; and abolition of the seven-hour day.
In 1927 the TUC organised an inquiry into what it called Communist disruption in trade unions, and a number of unions sought to ban communists from holding office.
May 1926 had seen Britain come to the edge of revolution. The ruling class and their tame right-wing lackeys in the trade unions and Labour Party had seen it didn’t happen. History shows us they would do all they could to see it would never happen again.
This article first appeared 9 May 2016.