The General Strike, 1926 Contents
Origins of Strike
The roots of the 1926 General Strike go back to before the 1914
- 1918 war. Over the years a struggle had been developing between;
on the one hand a growing militant working class and on the other
the employers and the state. The strike was initiated to defend
the living conditions of the miners. There was now a realisation
by the mass of the workers that joint action by the whole trade
union movement was needed to defend the wages and conditions of
the working class.
The miners in 1919 won the 7 hour day with a pay increase, while the shipbuilding and
engineering industry succeeded in getting their working week reduced from 54 hours to 47.
Any concessions won directly after the war were made in an attempt to halt rising working
class militancy. In 1922 the mines had been under government control, in early 1922 the
mine owners once more took control of the mines and immediately announced savage wage cuts;
lock-out notices were posted on all pits coming into force on March 31st. The Triple Industrial
Alliance, an alliance formed in 1914 by miners, transport workers and railwaymen, called for
a rail and transport strike to begin on April 12th 1922. The government called up the reservists
and declared a state of emergency. A proposed scheme for a temporary settlement of the wages
issue on a district basis was rejected by the miners Executive Council. The other parties of the
alliance called off the strike, declaring that the miners had rejected a chance of a settlement.
The miners resumed work on the mine owners terms. After this defeat of the miners employers
imposed wage cuts throughout most industries: heavy and light engineering, building, transport,
the cotton industry and others.
The 1924 Labour government returned to the Gold Standard, which in turn increased prices of
British goods on the export market. With the drop in coal exports the mine owners proposed a new
wage structure that would cut miners wages by between 10% and 25%. The mine owners, without further
discussion, imposed the new wage structure as from July 31st 1925. The TUC in agreement with the
rail and transport unions decided to operate an embargo on the movement of coal. The government
agreed to pay the mine owners a subsidy until 1st of May 1926, and the mine owners withdrew their
notices. On the 31st of July 1925 the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, stated "All the workers
of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help to put industry on its feet".
During the next nine months the government prepared for a showdown with the unions. On the
other hand, in spite of continual warnings from activist and from some left wing groups, the
TUC leadership made no preparations for the showdown that would inevitably follow the
end of the mining subsidy.
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On Thursday April 29th 1926 a special conference of the Executive Councils of the 200 unions
affiliated to the British TUC was called to consider the mining dispute. It unanimously
accepted the following resolution, "This conference of Executives of Trade Unions affiliated
to the Trades Union Congress endorse the efforts of the General Council to secure an honourable
settlement of the differences in the coal mining industry. It further instructs the Industrial
Committee of the General Council to continue its efforts and declares its readiness to continue
provided that the impending lock-out notices of the mine workers are not enforced. That this
conference hereby adjourns until tomorrow (Friday) and agrees to remain in London to enable the
General Council to consult, report and take instructions".
The conference was not a fire and thunder affair but rather timid. Whether they were either afraid of or had
tried to ignore the prospects of a general strike. Hoping that their declared support for the
miners would somehow produce a settlement without further action, the special conference was adjourned
until Friday; it resumed in the morning and then continued to adjourn and resume until 11:30 PM when
it received the Negotiating Committee's report - it had achieved nothing. No proposals had been made
by the Prime Minister, the cabinet or the mine owners that meant anything less than complete surrender
by the miners. It was now very clear, the mine owners and the miners were ready for a struggle.
The attitude of the Industrial Committee of the TUC was not at all clear.
On Friday April 30th 1926 the mine owners put forward their final
demands to the miners, "A uniform national minimum of 20% over 1914
standard wage on a uniform 8 hour day". For miners in Scotland that
meant a wage cut from a wage of 9/4 a day, to 7/6 a day for skilled
coalface workers and a wage cut from a wage of 6/8 a day to 6/-
a day for labourers, plus an extra hour on each daily shift. A special
miner's conference rejected the mine owners new terms.
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On May 1st 1926 the cabinet had refused to ask the mine owners to suspend the lock-out.
The previous day the King had signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency. Local
authorities were informed by a Ministry of Health circular that the measures previously arranged
should be taken to cope with a national stoppage. Civil Commissioners and their staff's names
were published. The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS), set up to keep supplies
moving in the event of a strike, put up notices asking for more volunteers. Troops were moved
to all industrial sites. All this was in place before any official call by the General Council
of the TUC for strike action. The Conference of Executives decided to accept the General
Council's recommendation to strike by 3,655,527 votes for and 49,911 against. The strike was
to begin on Monday May 3rd 1926 at 11:59PM.
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On the eve of the strike a May Day demonstration marched through
Bridgeton to Glasgow Green; there
was a tremendous feeling of solidarity, also a wide spread class
consciousness which in some degree was due to the selfless effort
of the great propagandist and political activist John
MacLean, who died in November 1923. It was obvious from the
mood of the demonstration that the people were ready with the miners
to face a showdown with the employers and the government. The mass
support for the miners was more a class instinct than a political
Glasgow, the industrial heartland of Scotland, was also the centre of the strike in Scotland.
Most militant areas formed Councils of Action, and industrial areas were organised by strike committees. Throughout North Lanarkshire and the Vale of Leven, two of the most militant
areas in the West of Scotland, Councils of Action were formed. Strike committees were formed
throughout North Ayrshire, the Stirlingshire Coalfields and East Renfrewshire. In Glasgow
it was the Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee of the Trades and Labour Council that took
control, this was set up at the last minute. There was an overwhelming response to the
first line call-out which included workers from railways, transport, building,
chemical, gas, print and steel.
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One of the problems facing the Glasgow Central Strike Committee was having to deal with a
Tory City Council. The City Council was very active in promoting the OMS. Also, the City Council
ran the City's tram service, and tried to keep it running with OMS volunteers, this caused frequent
and violent clashes between the police and strikers. Hundreds were arrested in these clashes.
The government was worried about what might happen in the great industrial cities like Glasgow
and sent 7 naval vessels to the Clyde in an attempt to overawe the strikers. Naval ratings were
used to protect OMS volunteers unloading goods at the Glasgow docks. The police and OMS volunteers
tried to run a tram service through Rutherglen. The first tram driven by university students
protected by police got as far as Rutherglen High Street where it was surrounded by hundreds of
strikers. The trolley was taken off the overhead wires, the students were manhandled, and the
police beat a hasty retreat. The tram stood in the High Street silent and still for the rest of
the strike. The tram service was the weakest link in the solidarity of the strike in Glasgow.
Crowds were inclined to gather in the streets, they were unorganised crowds who resented the
activities of blacklegs and tended to show their anger. Spontaneous mass picketing frequently
occurred throughout the strike, large numbers of men and women from a district would go out to
try and stop any strike breaking activity, putting themselves at risk to arrest and imprisonment.
The usual targets were buses, trams and lorries. On Tuesday the 4th of May, in the Eastend of the
City three buses were attacked and overturned. On Thursday the 6th of May a miners' picket marched
to Ruby Street tram depot, Ruby Street was a cul-de-sac with the tram depot gates at the top; as
the miners reached the tram depot gates the gates swung open and an army of police charged out
with batons drawn, a violent scene ensued with many arrests. On the same day in the Central
District of Glasgow attempts were made to stop buses, one being overturned and ten people arrested.
There were other violent clashes at Bridgeton with 64 arrests. There were riots on the Wednesday,
Thursday and Friday with 120 arrests. In Glasgow the solidarity of the strike and the spontaneous
mass picketing was an indication of the strength of feeling in support of the strike.
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On Monday May the 10th 100 people appeared before the Glasgow Sheriff Court, 22
were given from 1 - 3 months hard labour. On the same day at the Glasgow Police Courts
a further 100 cases were dealt with for minor offences.
There was widespread anger at the conduct of the police, more so the Specials and at
the severity of the sentences. Parliament passed regulations giving power to the police
to prohibit public meetings. Courts were being seen as instruments of class hatred and
vengeance. In one hearing a well dressed young man was charged with stone throwing in a
disturbance and given 3 months on the evidence of two policemen, contrary to several independent
witnesses. A woman charged with mobbing and rioting was arrested on Friday the 7th of May she was
refused bail and held in remand for two weeks in spite of the fact that she was the mother of 5
young children. On May the 14th the Labour group on the City Council called for a full inquiry
into the conduct of the police after receiving several complaints from uninvolved citizens about
unwarranted attacks on them, in particularly by the Specials. Tales of police and strikers playing
football together never happened in Glasgow. There were calls for workers to carry "walking sticks"
as a means of defending themselves, however instructions from the higher echelons instructed the
workers to be peaceful and law abiding even though this was proving almost
impossible due to the attitude of the police.
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The Scottish worker
The Minority Movement issued a daily "Worker's Press" until raided and closed down by the
police. The police prevented strikers from holding meetings, this was a serious barrier to
attempts to discuss and share news of the strike. There were instances of the police forcibly
breaking up strikers' meetings. The "Scottish Worker" was published on May the 10th and for
the next six days. On the first day of issue 25,000 copies sold in the first hour. The lack
of published material during the strike had been a difficulty, information being carried by
word of mouth round the area by walking, cycling, motorcycle or what ever was available.
Political divisions of the left that had been fiercely debated over the years had all been forgotten,
the main theme of all debate was to make the strike solid.
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How solid the strike was can be seen from the these figures: of the 2400 railway clerks in
Glasgow only less than 300 turn up for work, Glasgow Corporation had 1087 tramcars but less than
200 were able to run, none of them were running on the Eastend routes, but only on central routes.
A few buses were running between Glasgow and some places south and west of the city. The number of
trains that normally ran to and from Glasgow on a daily bases numbered about 14000, only 28
trains ran from Glasgow Central Station on Saturday. There were almost no blacklegs from the great
mass of unemployed in spite of their poverty and suffering.
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There were a large number of arrests in Glasgow during the nine days. By Monday morning
about 300 had been arrested, of which 120 had been arrested in the Eastend of the City
between Wednesday and Friday. The police violence and high number of arrests seemed to
have no effect on the morale of the strikers. Towards the end of the first week of the
strike there seems to have been unprovoked police violence. This may have been an attempt
to intimidate the people in the hope that they would abandon outdoor meetings and mass
picketing. Bridgeton seems to have seen some of the worst of this, following the mass picket
of the Ruby Street tram depot. During the day of Friday 7th the police attacked the
Bridgeton area, a busy, densely populated working class district, making 44 arrests.
The reason given was that youths were holding up bread vans and coal lorries. In the
evening crowds gathered in the streets around Bridgeton Cross, the police and mounted police
attacked the crowds with batons. The following day the Bridgeton Parish and Town Councillors
complained to the Superintendent of the Eastern Police Division of, "The molestation of
unoffending citizens by agitated policemen who were accused of unwarranted interference
with a number of persons."
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Sir Herbert Samuel
As the strikers all over the country were improving their organisational skills and
over coming the lack of preparation for the strike by the leaders of the TUC, events in
London were taking place that neither the strikers nor the miners leaders were aware of.
Chairman of the Coal Commission, Sir Herbert Samuel, whose proposals had been turned
down by the miners, returned to London from holidaying abroad and offered his services
as mediator. The government informed him that abandonment of the strike must precede any
official negotiations. On the 7th, 8th and 9th of May the BTUC negotiating committee
without the miners met Sir Samuel. He drafted a memorandum in which it was proposed that
no wage cuts should be made without some assurances that the reorganisation measures proposed
in the Samuel Commission Report would be effectively adopted. It was also proposed that a
Miners National Board should be set up to seek a final settlement. The Miners National Board
would prepare a simplified wage agreement which should not affect the wages of the lower
paid men and would fix reasonable figures below which the wage of no class of labour should
be reduced. These were a revamp of the Samuel Commission Report that the miners had already
rejected. The mine owners raised no functional objections to these proposals.
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Strike called off
Against the wishes of the miners, the General Council called off the strike on the basis
of the Samuel Memorandum and on May 12th they informed Baldwin that the strike was over. This
was done without any guarantees, with no terms, no written statement, it was unconditional
surrender. The militant shipyard and engineering second line of workers had just joined the
strike in force. It was obvious the workers were taking control of the strike, when the
surprised call-off was announced.
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The reaction by the vast majority of the Glasgow strikers to the end of the strike was
of: surprise, anger, betrayal and disgust. Tom Scollan stated "the reaction was disgust, absolute disgust
all over Glasgow, . the rank and file movement were still loyal, would have carried on".
Kerrigan wrote, "The overwhelming feeling was of anger, disgust and a feeling of having been
betrayed, . the rank and file would not only have carried on but would have sharpened the
struggle". The Partick Strike Committee held a mass meeting in a cinema with an overflow meeting
outside which resolved that, "We protest against and deplore the calling off of the general strike and,
furthermore, we call upon the Scottish TUC to issue an immediate call for the resumption of the strike
until such time as a definite basis for a settlement is forthcoming and an assurance given that there
will be no victimisation as a result of the general strike." The Glasgow Trades and Labour Council on the
14th of May passed the following motion moved by Kerrigan by 149 votes for and 36 against, "That the
Trades and Labour Council express to the TUC strong disapproval of the manner in which the general strike
was terminated." One strike official stated, "A victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemy" .
In spite of the depth of feeling, they made no attempt to continue the strike locally. Most commentators
agree that the strength of the strike came from the solidarity of the grass roots mass support and the weakness
from above by the limp hand of indecisive bureaucracy. The strikers shock and disgust at the call off was
only matched by the employers' and government's shock and surprise at their victory. At the BTUC Bournemouth
Congress, September 1926 Jack Tanner of the AEU asserted "The rank and file of all unions affiliated to
congress want to know the whole truth regarding the national strike".
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Return to work
It would appear that in Glasgow none of the strikers disobeyed the TUC's orders by continuing
the strike in support of the miners. However, victimisation of strikers was rife. On the railways,
tramways, at the Clyde Trust, at Singer's works in Clydebank and in the newspaper industry
strikes continued on terms of reinstatement, strikers eventually having to make concessions
to the employers. On the railways new conditions were inferior to those in place before the
strike. On the Glasgow tramways 188 T.& G.W.U. members lost their jobs. In the newspaper
industry in Glasgow the three main publishers, taking in the Glasgow Herald, the Evening
Times, the Bulletin, and the Evening Citizen, refused to negotiate with the unions and refused
to employ union labour. In many industries throughout Glasgow leading strike activists
were never reinstated to their jobs.
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The miners' struggle continued. The Glasgow Trades and Labour Council called upon the
General Council of the TUC to immediately reimpose a 5% levy on all organised workers in
employment in order to carry out its promise to support the miners in their struggle and to
ensure their final victory. The calling off of the general strike had been a betrayal of the
working class and a particularly brutal betrayal of the miners. The miners struggled on until
deprivation, poverty, starvation and shear desperation drove them back in November 1926 to
lower wages and worse conditions. In some coalfields wages were less than the 1926 unemployment benefit.
The historian A. J. P. Taylor commented on the general strike with
these words, "The response of the trade union members was fantastic,
all stopped work when called upon, and practically none returned
to work until the strike was over. These were the very men who had
rallied to the defence of Belgium in 1914, The voluntary recruitment
of the first world war and the general strike of 1926 were acts
of spontaneous generosity, without parallel in any country. The
first was whipped on by almost every organ of public opinion, the
second was undertaken despite their disapproval. Such nobility deserves
more than passing tribute. The strikers asked nothing for themselves.
They did not seek to challenge the government, still less to overthrow
the constitution. They merely wanted the miners to have a living
Next: Fight for free
speech on the Green
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