In May 1926, nearly 2 million workers all over Britain joined a General strike, called in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per
cent, after the ending of a Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike, but were pushed into it, afraid that large numbers of workers would take action themselves.
Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.
The TUC General Council’s policy, of hesitation, lack of preparedness and capitulation, doomed the General Strike to defeat – a defeat that left long echoes. Most immediately, many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages and worse conditions; union activists were victimised; workplace agreements and union recognition were badly hit by a boss class on the up. The miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.
A national struggle; reflected, of course, in thousands of local areas, small scale battles and differing conditions on the ground. Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike. Union branches and workplace militants quickly organised picketing, attempting to assert control over food distribution, and transport, to try to paralyse the state.
To take just one locality as an example: in Camberwell, then a metropolitan borough in South London.
Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs, eg nerighbouring Bermondsey, where a left-wing Labour local Council supported the Strike and refused to co-operate with the Government.
Camberwell Trades Council organized the Strike locally. A letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party, reveals some of the activities of the Trades Council as the dispute began. He explains that at a local Labour Party meeting on May 3rd, the first day of the General Strike, it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication [of leaflets etc] arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”
According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council: “only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:
(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.
(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.
(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organised and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”
The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.
Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.
The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”
In the Borough of Camberwell as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted in court of selling the Peckham Labour Bulletin. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. [A feeling of fear among scabs, possibly?] Inspector Hider also saw copies of the Camberwell Strike Bulletin also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’.
There were huge public meetings in support of the strike at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. An eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.
There was street fighting in Camberwell between police and strikers and their supporters virtually every day of the strike. On May 5th, strikers halted commercial vehicles in the streets & trashed them. Trams, a vital form of transport in London, were in the main kept off the roads, despite a huge effort to run them by the OMS, the government’s anti-strike corps, manned by middle class volunteers, & backed by police .
Altogether there were 12 attempts to run trams from Camberwell Tram Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running. Newspaper reports that women pickets stopped trams running by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be rightwing propaganda spread at the time (by the South London Press, which was resolutely opposed to the Strike) – there is no evidence for it! Not that the South London Press is still producing rightwing propaganda 90 years later. (Oh wait.. it is!)
Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday 8th May, which despite being the weekend was a day of strike mass activity all over London. Mass meetings were held in many areas, (though in some areas frustrated – as in Victoria Park, occupied by the military to prevent meetings there). In Wandsworth the left wing Councillor Andrews, a member of the Council of Action, was arrested after addressing a meeting at the Prince’s Head pub, Falcon Road. (When the local Council of Action tried to organise a meeting there the following day, the police banned it). On the 8th Strikers were also baton charged by police in Battersea and Paddington; fought the police in Deptford Broadway, (which was ‘rendered impassable by a dense crowd’) and in Lambeth, Sidcup and numerous other areas. There was also fighting in Camden Town in the evening.
Camberwell Borough Guardians (the local bigwigs then responsible for any distribution of benefits) also took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any relief (the dole).
After the TUC General Council called off the strike, there was confusion in the area, as almost everywhere, people couldn’t believe that some form of victory hadn’t been achieved. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Many wanted to continue the Strike and the TUC General Council were widely denounced.
At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.
As the scale of the sellout became clear, employers took advantage of the capitulation to drive back against union activists and strip away gains won over years of struggle. Many workers had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages before being allowed back to work. Some never got their jobs back at all.
Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils. Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.
Since the defeat of the General Strike the events of May 1926 have entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain, most notably the selling out of the miners by a TUC General Council desperate to prevent the Strike from moving out of their control. However, more fundamental problems with the way the strike was run at grassroots level in fact doomed it to end in a government victory. More than simply being a conscious betrayal by the union leadership, the Strike was hamstrung from the start by the nature and structure of the trades councils and union branches, the dedication to the miners’ cause and to the ideal of class solidarity notwithstanding, and by workers’ willingness to remain within these structures.
For a more detailed discussion of how the Strike was lost, and a round-up of local action in London during the Strike, check out Everywhere and Nowhere.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.