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Nine For The Days Of The General Strike

On 1st May 1926, over one million coal miners were 'locked out' of their jobs refusing to work under the imposition by the coal owners, of longer hours and reductions in wages. The miners were a huge chunk of the entire British labour force, they had been through much in over a century of slaughter in the mines and social deprivation in their communities. The opening years of the 1920's had seen two great clashes with the miners over attempts to reduce their earnings even further. In 1921 the miners had gone down to defeat after the transport workers and railworkers had abandoned the Triple Alliance and left the miners to fight on alone. They had struggled hard and suffered badly in the resultant strike, which had seen them return to worse terms and conditions.

They had scarcely regained their breath when 1925 saw another concerted effort by the wealthy and aristocratic coal owners to reduce their poverty conditions even further. On this occasion the Government saved the day by stepping in with a temporary subsidy. It was a ploy, it bought the government time to draw up emergency powers and plan for a sustained miners stoppage, it gave industry and the owners time to build up stocks. The miners had sought copper bottomed assurances of real support from their allies in the TUC and had been led to believe this would be forthcoming.

The British working class during this period was a highly politicised force, ideas of Communism, and anarcho-syndicalism, and Industrial Unionism were rife particularly among the mass ranks of the industrial proletariat in general and the coal miners in particular. The British Communist Party greatly enamoured with the recent soviet revolution had over a million members and still entertained ideas of a socialist revolution.

Churchill in the Home Office considered the miners and their leaders to be the spearhead of a syndicalist force and the social force who for over a century had been most likely to spark a British workers revolution. The lofty leaders of the TUC were no less fearful of those same forces but felt obliged to try and control the process by appearing to take charge of it, for want of losing control to the rank and file and their uncompromising leaders. Days after the miners lock-out began the TUC declared in favour of a general strike in their support. Despite Councils Of Action being established in every city to try and wrest control of the strike from the TUC leadership the tactics had been badly crippled from the start by the disastrous slogan of the CPGB 'All Power The TUC General Council'. Not the TUC itself, never mind the rank and file workers branches and Trade Councils and Councils of Action, but the TUC General Council. It vested all authority in their treacherous hands.

At first the TUC started to call out key strategic sections of the class, slowly closing down the country, and rolling the strike on to greater levels of strangulation of the country and economy. Churchill and government mobilised the armed forces, sent tanks and armoured cars on the streets to seize the docks and food supplies, sent gunboats and armed marines up the major industrial cities in the way in which they had done in Dublin just nine years earlier, when the Irish rebels launched their rebellion and they had responded with navel bombardments of the city. There is no doubt many workers felt that the moment for a revolutionary seizure of power by the workers, through their unions was fast approaching. So did the Government and they called in the General Council as a whole, to meet the Cabinet. Stanley Baldwin, asked the TUC leadership if they had prepared their revolutionary government? They responded with genuine shock, that this was a simple economic trade dispute with no political content.

Baldwin assured them, that this was a challenge to the constitution, the legal authority of the government and very political system they lived in. He must have been fairly confident that the General Council wase not going to accept his resignation and ask him to vacate power. He was right of course, and the General Council went into secret negotiations with the owners to negotiate a deal behind the back of the miners, not consulting them until the deal had agreed a reduction in wages for the miners and an increase in hours. They then called off the strike and announced a victory for the miners. The miners themselves rejected the settlement, and the rank and file of the Trade Unions reacted with fury when the news of the sell out came through. Indeed more workers joined the strike after it was officially called off than when it was officially on. In part too, this was due to the fact that the unconditional surrender by the General Council had meant hundreds of workers in other major industries were now victimised by their employers, sacked and blacklisted. Still others went on the offensive and now imposed longer hours and lower wages on their workers too.

The miners continued their strike, bitterly isolated, sustained by the efforts of the workers of the world, through donations and soup kitchens. The workers of the USSR donated more than 50% of the relief, something which the miners never forgot. Battles raged through the mining districts and villages against police and soldiers, and near the end of the strike a blackleg organisation led by Spenser from Nottingham led a major break in the ranks of the miners and took the bulk of them back to work, and into an anti union scab organisation, again something which the miners nationwide never forgot, and ironically was to revisit us in 1984/85.

At length, and literally starving, the miners called off strike in the November of 1926. From days of hope, we descended into a decade of extreme poverty with the coal owners with a whip hand and the blacklist, and ruthless conditions in the mines themselves. My Dad told me he didn't think they were actually much better off at work than they had been scratching a living on strike, although now they were run ragged by the owners.

1926 left an indelible scar on the collective memory of the miners and their communities; TUC General Council was a name we grew up with associated with loathing and betrayal along with that Churchill and Spenser.

Dave Douglass 2006


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