The Great Labour Unrest, rank and file movements and political change in the Durham Coalfield.
Lewis H Mates.
Publisher: Manchester University Press
The period of the ‘great labour unrest’ runs basically between 1910 and 1914, it is period when conflicting ideologies and organisational forms of struggle compete and overlap . This particular work focuses on this period as syndicalism’s finest hour certainly its most influential period in its challenge to parliamentary reformism and constitutional socialism. It is an ideological scrum in which Liberalism to which the working class in general and the northern miners in particular had roots and the newly emergent forms of independent Labourism and the Labour Party are locked into political body combat with dynamic Industrial Unionism, & revolutionary syndicalism.
Lewis Mates is a tutor in politics at Durham University with a deep interest and involvement in the Durham Miners both as a historical subject and ongoing working class social phenomena in the form of the miner’s banner groups and activities of the Durham Miners Association within the coalfield communities. A fellow Tyneside anarcho-syndicalist our fields of research and political presentations often overlap and complement.
The book is published by Manchester University Press, and as a university politics lecturer the author must first establish the veracity of class struggle perspectives to gain any headway in the prevailing winds of academic iconoclasms which everywhere now challenge class analysis. For people like myself born into a world in which one’s entire perspective and everything in society is premised and structured on class, class struggle, class identity, class history, the very notion that its existence can be challenged or debunked is mind blowing. Yet we cannot simply argue it is, just because it is, like some form of deistic belief rooted in faith. So the first and detailed chapters of the book are forced then to review the various ‘other’ theories of conflict, and in particular this period. The search for ‘something other’ than class as motivating push to action and outlook, identity politics, the search for ‘other communities’ the missing pixies under the mushrooms which the Marxists have overlooked. My review in this paper of Hester Barron’s The 1926 Miners Lock-out: meanings of community in the Durham Coalfield’ and her numerous ‘other than class’ strawmen she sets up and then by force of her own facts is forced to knock down, thus leaving the central proposition of the book demolished but the book itself still standing, had me pulling my hair out one might recall.
Aside from ceaseless academic searches for alternatives to class analysis comes the conflicting usually politically motived conflicts within socialist class analysis of what the movements meant, how they were motivated and directed. Anarcho-syndicalist, Leninist, or social democratic, all capable of accentuating the positives of whatever is deemed to be respectively positive while minimising the opposing negatives.
Of necessity the book makes central reference to the Durham Miners Association that giant powerful block of the mining proletariat, and the struggle to control it, struggles based around democratic controls, branch autonomy, workers job controls, centralising bureaucracies and the struggle for dominant political hegemony within it.
The book demonstrates the divisions of underground labour and their strategic and sometimes conflicting aims and strengths. In the process it exposes the unique and long standing areas of job controls, jealously guarded from management and owners. He also shows the conflicting social and cultural traditions which sometimes weighed against more revolutionary conclusions, like Methodism and the deeply entrenched allegiance to radical liberalism, that was to fight emergent Independent Labour organisation for every foot of ground.
The question of the 8-hour day and northern miners is one which has baffled labour historians and particularly left ones for some time. Indeed, myself and Lewis have argued over this question since he took up this field of research. It is an issue which prevented the Durham and Northumberland miners affiliating to the MFGB (the national miners’ union) since it was their hard wired policy commitment. The Northern miners by enlarge already worked LESS than an 8-hour day usually six or seven hours, or were in categories of young workers, putters and putter/hewers, who soon would be working less hours as they graduated onto full time face work. But is wasn’t simply the danger of longer hours which mitigated against affiliation to the MFGB and the national policy for the 8-hour day. Linked to these questions were dangerous inroads into those ancient areas of job control spoken of earlier. The northern miners short hewing shift, usually occurred once, at some pits twice a day, this in turn kept a tight grip on the amount of coal being produced, and stopped the market being flooded with cheaper coal, lowering the value of their wages. The 8-hour day demanded a three and sometimes four shift cycle. Ownership of the coal may have belonged to the owners, but control of the hewing space and who worked there, belonged to the miners directly and their ‘marraships’, hewers progressed to face work along long established routes from boyhood which management could not interfere with, the numbers of putters, the lads who hand trammed or pony put tubs back and forth to the face, and their progression was governed by the numbers of hewers, and the numbers of shifts to supply. The cavil system stopped management picking who worked where, the union did it by lottery, while spare places and headings, stone work and cross cuts were bid for by self-selecting pairs and groups of marra’s. The new 8-hour day legislation, threw all of this custom and practice and self-selection and control into the air. It opened the flood gates on unlimited coaling shifts. Importantly too, surface workers who worked the longest hours would gain nothing from the Act of parliament.
Lewis seems to learn in the process of exposition and changes position as different aspects reveal themselves. At first he seems to suggest the 8-hour day is the progressive flavour of the hour which the left and ILP take up as their cause celebre, along with membership of the MFGB which effectively makes the 8-hour day a condition of membership. On the other side, the folk who oppose it are the crusty old liberal reactionary leadership and the smaller old fashioned western pits who are opposed by the modern new eastern pits. Then as the issue rolls on it is clear it is bitterly opposed by the rank and file and along with it the MFGB by extension, and by men who were to the left of the ILP particular the syndicalist and Industrial unionist supporters. Subsequently he does make clear the reason for the ground swell of opposition, and the left and progressive credentials of some of those doing the opposing.
Of course the MFGB as a national organisation could and should have approached the issue by ring fencing those regions with terms and conditions in advance of the 8-hour demand, but its rational was one of a lowest common denominator, rounding both up and down in terms of hours.
The advanced job controls held in the Northern coalfields were not enjoyed in other coalfields, and it was these which ought to have been the standard not the acceptance of their absence or worse agreement to their dilution. For the ILP activists in the coalfield, arguing for the national MFGB and its 8-hour policy there seems to have been some naivety as to what it would mean in practice, and implicitly they appear to have believed that safeguards for the northern conditions would be negotiated but this isn’t certain or clear. Lewis expresses his surprise (pg. 87 last full para) that leading socialists in the coalfields opposed the 8-hour legislation, and had urged all Labour representatives in Parliament to oppose it, but by page 121 he concludes “the 8-hour imbroglio had profound outcomes for the DMA’s leadership. Their standing was undoubtedly damaged by the Agreement, particularly their failure to take the issue to DMA council before signing, and their subsequent inability, first to appreciate, then to mitigate any of its damaging consequences.” The book indicates in great detail how the issue of the 8-hour agreement opened up a floodgate to widespread industrial strife which raged through the coalfield for years and never really was resolved, instead it was moved off the agenda by the nationwide movement for the minimum wage.
Lewis comments “Significant though the 1910 Durham and South Wales disputes were they came too early for Syndicalism in Durham to capitalise on greatly. The Eight Hours Agreement strikes ended some months before the Cambrian Combine strike began and before Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist had been launched….More generally there seems to have been no relationship between the lodge revolt against the owners and their own agents and explicit syndicalist ideas.” (pg.136)
I would need to take to issue with this line of reasoning. Syndicalism wasn’t invented with the term ‘syndicalism’ any more than ‘anarchism’ was invented when someone chose to adopt that title for their political outlook. ‘Communist’ was neither invented by Karl Marx giving it a formal set of analysis and context nor people consciously identifying with that particular title. A rose by any other name must surely smell as sweet, and it is the substance of what perspectives and actions workers engaged in which mark their political and tactical direction and strategy, not the title someone later invents. The revolt of the miners in the 1830’s of course pre-dates the title ‘syndicalist’ but the press and owners of the period reported the miners were talking of seizing the pits from the owners, working them in common for themselves, and what’s more as popular industrial democratic lodges. That surely IS syndicalism. The rejection of the pomp and circumstance and grand rules and bureaucracy of the Durham Miners Association, in favour of rank and file direct action organised through democratic miner’s lodges, or sometimes even without formal Lodge sanction, the rejection of the courts and labour laws, were surely features of the age old miner’s direct democracy and rejection in action of more constitutional or parliamentary routes, syndicalist in everything but formal title. The radical unions and rank and file worker’s organisations which sided with Bakunin in the first international were defacto syndicalist formations. The Levellers practiced a form of agricultural ‘syndicalism’ in the middle-ages. These perceptions pre date the invention of formal organisational and programmatic labelling.
I appreciate of course Lewis is talking here of formal, self-identified explicitly labelled ‘Syndicalism’ as a conscious political current and alternative to other forms of worker’s movement, rather than in the ‘de-facto’ essential form I am using. But the tendency to look for form or self declared ‘leaders’ rather than essence manifests again in looking at the Durham Miners mass rejection of the settlement and vote to continue strike action. Lewis asks how influential was ‘syndicalism’ in terms of this mood of militancy and looks to the militant lodges which returned the highest votes. Many of these were the home base of the significant syndicalist activists of the region. Chopwell ,Will Lawther’s militant lodge, for example returned a 95% vote for ongoing action. Lewis discounts this though as Lawther was studying at CLC in London by then. George Harvey’s (who was an Industrial Unionist in contradistinction to ‘a syndicalist’) Handon Hold Lodge like wise had returned a 78.3% majority, South Pelaw where a Socialist Labour Party caucus operated returned a 94.8% vote. Lewis concludes there is no easily discernible relationship between Syndicalism as such and the militant support for continuing the strike. I tend to see the question the other way round, it wasn’t Lawther who had swung Chopwell behind Syndicalist ideas, or Harvey Handon Hold or Follonsby but the militant class combative culture of those lodges which influenced the leaders toward syndicalism and Industrial Unionism rather than the reverse. The ideas of formal ‘syndicalism’ would not have come as any surprise or novel suggestion to the rank and file miners of these Lodges who will have advocated for generations just such perceptions conclusions and methods of struggle.
Lewis actually unconsciously makes this point himself later in the book. Talking of the election of George Harvey to the prestigious post of checkweighman, a position he had applied for on an explicitly revolutionary platform. Concluding in his letter he was “strongly opposed to the kind of men we have so long kept at Durham and whom we in our ignorance, believe are tin Gods..If you want a gentle Jesus, Temperance preacher, for Gods sake don’t consider me as a likely suite.” (page 230/231) He was elected, Lewis notes it was quite some achievement given that Follonsby was as northernly as you get get in the coalfield and Harvey’s political and union work had been some distance away. He had no experience as a lodge official, and was standing in opposition to the political and union outlooks of the current DMA leadership against conciliation. He concludes the vote was an obvious endorsement of his politics and stance. But this demonstrates that Follonsby’s political culture (and that of the older Wardley to which it was connected) de-facto ‘syndicalist’ and industrial unionist predates the formal foundation of those political currents. In fact Wardley had been denounced by a High Court judge in the 1880’s as the worse behaved colliery in the county.
Where this book excels is in the detailed description of the struggle for the minimum wage, and the campaign in Durham to secure support for the demand, and national strike. It is truly ground-breaking following the complex of arguments on who should be able to claim it, and at what level it should start. It follows the controversy over the exclusion of the lowest paid men from the agreement, thus crippling the demand from the start. His coverage of the strike vote, which brought about the largest ever strike for a single industry in the world, with over 1 million miners downing tools and stopping the coalfields and much else through knock on effects. Lewis is able to trace the attitudes of the Durham Lodges, along with the changing national and county pulse as the government steps in to pre-empt the strike and collective bargaining by bringing in the Eight Hours Act. The Act specifies no details of grades or sums of money and refers everything back to District Bargaining which negated the main purpose of the strike, a national common pay structure. The MFGB (the miner’s national federation) then conducts a second national ballot on whether to defy parliament and the law, to force the original demands through. Lewis masterfully traces the changed reactions pro-and con among the Durham Lodges and national regions to the new ballot. As far as I know no other work has remotely looked at this period in such minute and fascinating detail. As it turned out the Durham miners voted by the two thirds majority to reject the parliamentary ‘solution’ and continue the strike. Nationally however the MFGB only achieved 54.8% margin of the two thirds it required.
Lewis sees the ‘high tide’ of Syndicalism in Durham as starting in Autumn of 1912 with the founding of the Durham Unofficial Reform Movement and the Miners Next Step Committee. Contrasting the relative failure of both wings of syndicalism to make any lasting gains or build itself into the miners’ union structure with that of the young militants of the ILP he cites the emergence of their Durham Forward Movement in April 1912. This had soon developed a parallel Durham Miners ‘council meeting’ with more than half of the whole Counties Lodges represented, discussing issues and tactics and constitutional changes. This was to impact heavily over the coming years within the political and cultural nature of the DMA. Lewis believes the ILP militants in fact stole the syndicalist’s clothes, adopted their rhetoric, and slogans and postures and radical enthusiasms but also had an extra string to their bow in the form of party and electoral strategies, the whole Minimum Wage issue for example which the Syndicalist had blown into flames of resistance, was ultimately being fought out in Parliament, a platform to which Syndicalism couldn’t address. They also had a plan to take over structures and positions within the DMA itself which anarcho-syndicalist principles had debarred its leading advocates from doing. (The Industrial Unionists softened their principles on this matter and George Harvey for example did run).
This is a masterly work of scholarship, passionately researched and referenced, which address’s a key moment in the history of the miners in General but in particular the mighty institution of the Durham Miners Association. Not for the last time would the mood of the generally conservative DMA set the pace and swing the tide for national action. The book currently is only available in hard back but we are hopeful a paperback version, perhaps with an academically toned down first couple of chapters, wlll make it more accessible to the miners themselves. Durham veterans I know will consume this book with relish. Understanding the history of the Durham miners without reading this book will in the future become damn nie impossible. Highly recommended