Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1926

This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1926

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On May 4, 1926, workers in the United Kingdom started a general strike to protest the terrible actions against the nation’s striking coal miners. 1.7 million workers walked off the job, shutting down the British economy. Unfortunately, the strike did not succeed, the middle class overwhelmingly opposed it, and the workers had to give up nine days later.

The British coal industry was in crisis by the 1920s. The nation had depleted a lot of the known coal seams to get it through World War I. The nation lost most of its export market and overall coal production declined. Then the Dawes Plan allowed Germany to reengage in the global economy, including exporting coal. That hurt the British coal industry even more. Winston Churchill’s love of the Gold Standard only made all of it worse. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, his return to the Gold Standard made the British pound so strong that exports from the nation became too expensive.

All of this pressed down on the workers. None of this meant that coal operators were going to accept lower profits. Of course not. So they took their economic hard times out on the miners, lowering pay rates. Over the seven years between 1918 and 1925, miners’ pay had been reduced by nearly half. Moreover, companies started demanding longer days in the mines. Finally, in 1925, when the mine owners decided on another set of takebacks from the workers, the unions had enough. The Miners Federation of Great Britain refused and came up with a great slogan: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

The Trades Union Congress almost immediately agreed to back up the miners. This caused the Tory government, led by Stanley Baldwin, to step back. It agreed to hold miners wages at the current level for nine months, with the government picking up what the mine owners said they could not pay, and establishing a commission to investigate the matter. This was a short-term victory for the workers.

On March 10, 1926, the commission issued its report. Now, it did call for such things as nationalizing the profits of the industry, somewhere down the line anyway. And it called for some other reforms. But it also said that a 13.5 percent reduction in miners’ wages was appropriate. The workers just were not going to accept this. They decided to strike. There were some continued negotiations over the last few days. Naturally, the miners sought to walk out on May 1, but agreed to delay to see if the talks went anywhere. They did not. On the evening of May 3, the miners had enough. They announced a strike for May 4.

The Labour Party did not approve of the strike. The party was trying to achieve respectability and did not want actions that would alienate the public. This is a frequent debate within leftist politics, between workers with a more radical edge and political figures who want more or less the same thing, but feel they have to work within the system to get it. But this was not about the Labour Party. It was about the workers. The Trades Union Council was also nervous. This was an old-time skilled trades federation that had moved to the left but was also relatively political moderate. Like the American Federation of Labor in the United States, the TUC had a lot of concerns of giving far-left elements any room to operate. Both worried that such people would discredit the entire movement. There were plenty of them among the miners and plenty throughout the rest of the labor movement too. A general strike would give a revolutionary patina to the strike. Whether that was good or not very much depended on where you fell in the labor movement.

The other thing that the nine-month delay did was give the government time to prepare and it did not waste that time. So the strike was huge. I can hardly imagine what 1.7 million striking workers would like in 2023, not to mention with 1926 population levels. This was an epic general strike. But the idea that the workers have enormous power in refusing to work is not always born out by reality. That can work–if you have proper building of solidarity across classes. But this extremely class-bound society was not set up that way. The middle class did not support the strike. The enormous outpouring of supporting among the working classes surprised both the government and the TUC, which really did not have any meaningful control over what was going on.

Transportation immediately shut down, but it didn’t last long. There were strikebreakers. Many of them were actually somewhat sympathetic with the strikers, but they were often cops and they had to do their job, or at least they did their job. The government also actually screened strikebreakers to keep far-right forces out as best it could, attempting to ensure that there wouldn’t be violence. Also, middle class people had access to cars, or knew people who did. The British Army protected lorries in London, but they also did not carry weapons, which upset Churchill, who was basically fine with killing workers. Moreover, the courts began to rule on the side of the employers and this made the unions not affiliated with coal nervous, as they were concerned about legal liability for a general strike.

So the strike basically failed. Workers started going back by May 10. The coal miners were strong, but the other workers often were not. The TUC went to the government and suggested a deal that would implement the commission’s suggestion, including the wage cut, if all coal strikers were guaranteed their jobs. The government refused to make that guarantee. The TUC pulled its workers off the strike anyway.

The coal miners did not go back. They mostly stayed out until the late summer, but they simply were so poor that the economic realities of their life meant they could not strike indefinitely. Many of the miners found they had no jobs to return to. The companies cut a lot of work entirely. There really wasn’t a need at this point for that many coal miners. The conditions of the Great Depression were beginning to appear as well. It would be a long time before anything like good times returned for British coal miners. Moreover, the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Act of 1927 effectively made general strikes illegal in the country.

Of course, the Tories always wanted to bust the coal unions and Margaret Thatcher managed the final blow in the late 1970s.

This is the 481st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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