In May 1926 2 million workers joined the only General Strike Britain has ever seen. It lasted nine days, before being called off by the people who had called it – the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
The TUC leadership had unwillingly called the Strike, in support of a million miners who had been locked out of the pits until they accepted drastic wage cuts. The General Council had been forced into action by the overwhelming class feeling of the members of the unions, who both strongly supported the miners and believed a General Strike to be in their own interests in the face of an economic assault from the bosses and the government.
The Strike was in most cases rock solid: increasing numbers of workers were walking out, and towards its end it was spreading into other industries not officially on strike. But the government was very well prepared, having planned in advance – ensuring the amassing of coal stocks to make sure the miners could be defeated and industry could keep going, recruiting volunteer strike-breakers ahead of time, and setting up networks to organise nationally and locally.
On the ground, the strike was organized in each town or borough by Trades councils, local committees of trade union branches, some of which formed local Councils of Action to specifically co-ordinate activity, picketing etc. Through mass picketing, and refusal to cross picket lines, in many areas the Strike Committees gained total control of transport (trams, tubes etc in London), and shut down many industries. In some places they were issuing permits to travel or open to bosses. Local Strike Bulletins, and a national daily paper, the British Worker, attempted to keep information flowing to strikers and supporters. Although unions attempted to maintain order, there were regular clashes with the police, who were busy trying to protect scabs attempting to run public transport and break the strike in other industries…
But, afraid of the possibilities of workers escaping their control, and class warfare overflowing their very limited aims, the TUC bureaucrats tried hard to avoid the Strike, attempted to hamstring strikers on the ground from any autonomous action, negotiated throughout with the government and finally called the strike off, claiming they’d gained concessions, even though none had been won.
100,000 more workers came out on the day following the ending of the Strike than had previously been called out, and many were prepared to carry on the strike in defiance of the General Council. But very quickly most workers returned to work, either unsure of how to take things further, in the face of union structures that were hamstringing them, and facing the threat of the sack, worsening pay and conditions from employers made bold by the defeat. The retreat left the miners to fight alone for six months until they were forced to give in and accept wage reductions.
This sellout did leave a powerful legacy of bitterness. At the time, and ever since, the TUC leadership have been blamed for betraying the General Strike, and the miners. However, in reality, the local union structures on the ground also sought to restrict and control the strikers, to the point of acting as a brake on the possibility of victory. And the mass of workers themselves were neither prepared nor perhaps confident enough to break out of the bounds the unions operated in.
Read a brief analysis of some of the myths and reality in the events of May 1926, accounts of how the strike played out in London, and more here.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online