For four years, from 1914 to 1918,working class men and women made enormous sacrifices in World War One. During this time they were lied to by pro-big business politicians such as Tory Winston Churchill and Liberal David Lloyd George, who said that the war would lead to a land “fit for heroes to live in”.
But post-war Britain was a society scarred by massive poverty and huge social injustice, where the bosses were determined to maintain the upper hand. Following the war the miners, in particular, felt cheated.
Their industry was at the heart of British capitalism, employing 10% of the entire workforce, roughly 550,000 men. The war had graphically demonstrated the lies of the supporters of capitalism.
The free market was not enough to provide adequate supplies to fight in a world war. In the hands of the profiteer mine owners, coal production was unreliable. During the war, the ruling class was forced to accept the coal industry being taken into public ownership. This had the full support of the miners and their trade union, the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), who hoped it would be a permanent measure.
But as the war drew to a conclusion the coal owners began to agitate for the return of ‘their’ industry to private ownership, confident of the support of the Liberal-Tory coalition headed by Lloyd George. This was fiercely opposed by the MFGB who feared the return of the industry to private ownership would lead to an attack on their wages. They threatened strike action.
Lloyd George saw no possibility of compromise in the situation and tried to kick the ball into touch with the establishment of a Royal Commission into the coal industry headed by Sir John Sankey.
Expecting one of their own to do what they wanted, the ruling class and their Liberal-Tory allies were horrified when the final report of the Commission expressed a lot of sympathy with the miners’ position and recommended that the industry remain in public ownership.
But that was the last anybody heard of Sankey and his Commission as the government contemptuously rejected his recommendations. Then the miners learned exactly whose side the Liberals and Tories were on.
However, the working class at this time was anything but docile.
The 1917 Russian Revolution inspired a wave of movements across the world as workers, coming out of the hell of World War One, sought an end to the exploitation and inequality of the war-ridden capitalist system. In Britain workers scaled heights of industrial militancy previously thought impossible. A short-lived post-war industrial boom meant that unemployment was relatively low. This, combined with rising living costs, provided the backdrop to the increased struggle.
On average, for every day in 1919, 100,000 workers were on strike. The ruling class was rocked by this wave of workers’ action, which even involved soldiers returning from the war and the police.
In 1914 an important alliance had been forged between the unions representing the miners, railway workers and transport workers. This Triple Alliance, of one and a quarter million workers, was potentially a powerful weapon against the bosses. During that immediate post-war period of struggle the importance of the Triple Alliance rose again. Lloyd George understood the potential strength of the Alliance and in 1919 summoned the leaders to a meeting.
Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader gave an account of the meeting with Lloyd George to left Labour leader Aneurin Bevan, quoted in his book In Place of Fear. Lloyd George told them: “Gentlemen you have fashioned in the Triple Alliance of unions represented by you a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has already occurred in a number of camps.
We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances if you carry out your threatened strike you will defeat us.
“But if you do so, have you weighed up the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance.
“For, if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state.
“Gentlemen’, asked the Prime Minister quietly, ‘have you considered and if you have are you ready?'”
Since the union leaders had no intention of taking power, Lloyd George had them by the goolies.
“From that moment on”, said Bob Smillie, “we were beaten and we knew we were.”
In spite of defeatism among the workers’ leaders, the movement did not go to sleep. This was demonstrated in 1920, when the British government threatened to support Polish capitalists in the conflict against the Russian workers’ state. In the ranks of the labour movement there was a determination to prevent the ruling class wiping out the gains of the 1917 revolution. Councils of Action developed rapidly, where rank and file trade unionists committed to strike action in the event of British imperialism declaring war on Russia.
In 1920, London dockers heroically refused to load arms on to ‘the Jolly George’, a ship destined for Poland. But in early 1921 the post-war growth was well and truly over and industrial slump had set in.
The mines were handed back to the coal owners who declared that the miners would pay the price of the industry’s crisis. They proposed cuts in miners’ pay ranging from 10% to 49%. Any miner refusing to accept these draconian cuts would be refused entry to work. From 1 April that year the owners began a lock-out.
Immediately transport and rail workers rallied to the miners’ side. The leadership of the Triple Alliance was forced by the members to call a strike in support of the miners from 15 April 1921.
But the coal owners were determined to crush the miners and destroy the MFGB. Lloyd George’s Liberal-Tory coalition had no problem in placing all state resources against the miners.
Following a declaration of a state of emergency the government established a special Defence Corps to confront striking workers, posted machine guns at most pit heads and despatched large numbers of troops to the main working class areas.
However, faced with the brutal class politics of the employers and their political representatives, the leaders of the Triple Alliance never went beyond cowardice.
On the eve of the strike Frank Hodges, the right-wing president of the MFGB, proposed local negotiations on wage cuts, instead of a national agreement, which was one of the miners’ main demands. This appalling position was immediately repudiated by the MFGB executive but was music to the ears of the coal owners and to James Thomas, the notorious right-wing leader of the railway workers.
On Black Friday, 15 April 1921, the leaders of the Triple Alliance called off the proposed strike in support of the miners. Thomas played a particularly pernicious role.
This left the miners in a very dangerous situation. In certain areas, notably South Wales, individual trade union activists like AJ Cook did all that they could in a hopeless position. But after two months of fighting in isolation the miners returned to work on the mine owners’ terms. Emboldened by the coal owners’ victory, other sections of the ruling class followed suit. Engineers, builders, sea farers and cotton operatives were all forced to accept big wage cuts.
In March 1922 the employers locked out members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), the largest engineering union, demanding big wage cuts. Scandalously the AEU leadership agreed to most of the employers’ demands.
In the immediate aftermath of Black Friday trade union membership in Britain slumped dramatically from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million in 1922. Such a decline prompts comparisons with a similar decline in Tory Britain in the 1980s.
Then, as in the 1920s, rising unemployment took its toll on membership. But in the 1920s tens of thousands of trade unionists left the movement in protest at the weak policies of the right wing, cynically describing the Triple Alliance as the ‘Cripple Alliance’.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online