Friday, May 05, 2006

The General Strike (part two)

‘We are in danger. A united enemy is knocking at the gate...’

by Mal Howarth

Mal Howarth is a former branch delegate Blidworth Colliery NUM, area executive Nott’s Area NUM and vice president Nott’s NUM.

BEFORE we look at the strike in 1926, we must go back to 1925 because the key to understand it is in this year. When the first Labour government fell and the Tories took office in November 1924, the offensive against the living conditions of the working class was set for a head-on confrontation.
The miners were to take the brunt of the attack. In the Miners’ Federation AJ Cook replaced Frank Hodges. It was on the last day of June 1925 that the miners’ union received notice from the owners of the termination of the National Wages Agreement, which had been in force since 18th June 1924. The notice was to run for the month of July and terminate at midnight on Friday 31st July 1925.
They also wanted the miners to consider an extension of the seven-hour day; the owners stated that “the terms which can be offered under a seven-hour day are necessarily much less favourable than those which could be offered under an eight-hour day.” They wanted an immediate reduction in wages. But to add insult to injury they also wanted the guarantee of a minimum wage to go and in its place a guarantee of profits to take its place.
On Wednesday 29th July 1925 the Prime Minister, Baldwin, told the miners’ union definitely that “the Government would not grant any subsidy” and that “the coal industry must stand on its own economic foundations”.
On Thursday evening instructions were issued for the embargo on coal movements to be put into force. All unions were to comply with the said order and the effect was immediate.
The Prime Minister who had said “no subsidy” was now willing to offer a nine-month’s subsidy in return for which the mine owners would be willing to withdraw their notices and a full inquiry to be held.
The Government had yielded to the threat of an embargo on the movement of coal. It was a great day for the Labour Movement and it was named Red Friday.
The Baldwin government was not ready for an all-out fight with the British working class, that’s why he had offered a subsidy to hold up miners’ wages for nine months. At the time the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Winston Churchill, known for his anti-working class attitude. The capitalist class was preparing for a confrontation.
The warnings had been given from the militants in the labour movement as early as January 1925. AJ Cook’s message to the delegates at the National Minority Movement was: “We are in danger. A united enemy is knocking at the gate … my slogan is ‘be prepared’.”
The question posed at the time was: was it correct to give increased power to the General Council of the TUC that was preparing to use those powers against the interests of the working class?
Virtually no preparations were made for the impending struggle. Baldwin told delegates at the Tory party conference that action against the Communist Party was under consideration. On 12th October 12 leaders of the Communist Party, Minority Movement and Young Communist League had been arrested. This followed the Labour Party conference, whose main activity was to speed up the removal of communists from the Labour Party’s ranks.
Just before the arrests AJ Cook issued one more warning: “I warn the right-wing leaders of our movement to cease their attacks upon the left-wing. They are encouraging every effort of reaction in this country to destroy our militant fighters. If these are beaten, the path lies open for the propertied interest to smash those who call themselves moderate.”
On 25th September 1925 the newspapers announced the formation of a body called the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, known as OMS. This was to be used for organising those citizens who would be prepared to volunteer to maintain supplies and vital services in the event of a general strike.
During the General Strike many of the middle class had been thrown out of their jobs by the strike. They became Special Constables, paid at the rate of £2 6s 3d per week plus 2/6d-a-day for food. This was the pay for strike breaking. In Wales the pit labourer had been locked out because he refused to accept £1 11s 7½d-a-week. The Miners’ Federation first asked for a minimum wage in 1889 and obtained it by a strike; in 1911 the seven-hour day was won by a strike. Nationalisation of the mines was part of their programme in 1898.
The use of a general strike is to make class struggle obvious to those who deny or ignore it. Action is the one form of propaganda more effective than the press. It makes the worker as class conscious as the employer and it teaches him or her to distrust and rid him or herself of reformist socialist ideas and all trade union leaders who are not prepared for inevitable conflict. Employers who are refused the wages reductions they demand seldom go out of business; they solve their difficulties by means of improved efficiency.
The miners were called to wait for the report of the Royal Commission on the coal industry under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel on 5th September 1925. There were no representatives of organised labour, as in the other inquiries it was to be known as the Samuel Commission. The three other commissioners were General Sir Herbert Lawrence, Sir William Beveridge and Kenneth Lee.
Samuel had extensive family connections in finance; from 1919 he ruled Palestine as British High Commissioner. Beveridge, during the war of 1914-1918, was in the Ministry of Munitions; he was also Director of the London School of Economics.
Lawrence was a partner in a well-known banking house and was also on the board in several other important companies. Lee chaired the great cotton firm, Total, Broadhurst, Lee and Company; he also chaired the District Bank. Some of the concerns on which General Lawrence and Mr Lee sat belonged to the Federation of British Industries.
It is difficult to imagine any small body of persons more completely representative of capitalist interests and more completely trained in approaching matters from the capitalist standpoint.
This report put to the miners was a proposal for reorganising the mining industry, at some future date, together with proposals for a reduction in wages, to take effect at once.
On 13th April 1926 the owners’ and miners’ representatives came together. The owners said they would meet the miners’ district representatives to consider in each case the district minimum. The miners were opposed and it was full deadlock.
The owners in most districts posted notices in the pits to end existing contracts – employment on existing terms would cease on 30th April. It was a lockout; the owners had delivered their ultimatum.
The Conference of Executives at 12.30pm on Saturday 1st May placed before it, for the first time in British working class history, a proposal for a general strike. This was to take effect at midnight on Monday. It was overwhelmingly accepted.
On Monday evening Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Labour Party, had altered his way of thinking. He state: “As far as we can see we shall go on. I don’t like general strikes. I haven’t changed my opinion. I have said so in the House of Commons. I don’t like it but honestly, what can be done?”
The right-wing opposed preparations for the strike and when this failed they prepared the most rapid capitulation. On the following Monday morning (10th May) in the British Worker a message from the TUC General Council appeared: “All’s well”. In the second week it was: “Stand Firm. Be Loyal to instructions and trust your leaders”.
Then Sir Herbert Samuel put forward some proposals for a settlement, to be known as the Samuel Memorandum. The main points were that the General Strike should be called off; the subsidy to be renewed “for a reasonable time” while negotiations were reopened; a National Wages Board to be set up under an independent chair to seek a settlement, with no revision of wages unless there were assurances that the commission’s reorganising scheme would be adopted. The Miners’ Federation rejected this; Samuel submitted it to the General Council.
On Wednesday 12th May the noon bulletin from the BBC was: “General Strike ceases today”. What had happened to bring this about? The BBC announcer read a message from the King; the TUC General Council had decided to sue for peace and had asked the Prime Minister to meet them.
The General Council was claiming that an honourable understanding had been reached. But the Government stated that it would not compel employers to take back workers who had participated in the strike. It went on to say that dismissals of workers would be inevitable because of the loss of production and that also employers had an obligation to those who had supplied volunteer labour.
In other words blacklegs were to be looked after and trade unionists victimised. The General Council had unconditionally surrendered.
The miners had to face entirely new proposals – and it was not the Samuel proposals that the Prime Minister put forward now the General Strike was over – they were cast on one side. The lockout notices were not withdrawn; the offer of a subsidy was conditional on an immediate 10 per cent wage cut.
The lockout struggle was to last for over seven months. On Monday 29th November 1926 work was resumed in all important coalfields except South Wales, Yorkshire and Durham. The next day South Wales and Yorkshire went back. Durham had a ballot, which showed 49,217 for rejection of the terms and 40,583 in favour – a majority of 8,634 against. But in view of the two-thirds majority needed to reject the terms – which was not secured – Durham County Federation instructed the men to return to work.
We must remember that the future lies in the hands of those who are not disillusioned and our anger and venom must be directed not at individual betrayers, Prime Minister, trade union leaders and so on but against the real enemy: reformist theory and reformist ideas.
The system attracts people who are in any case of “moderate” disposition, and for those who are not, there is an immensely powerful pull towards the development of such a disposition. For those who resist it there is denunciation, often of great virulence from a multitude of sources.
We must also remember that if someone tells you they are on the side of the oppressed, that tells you next to nothing about their politics. If they tell you who they think are oppressed and how, they tell you a lot.
But Rosa Luxemburg put it in a nutshell when she stated: “I know I have to earn my epaulettes in the German movement but I intend to do it on the left-wing where the enemy is actually being engaged and not on the right where the enemy is being parleyed with.”