As industrial strike action continues across Britain for most of the summer and autumn of 2022, many news articles have reached back to the ‘winter of discontent’ – a period of widespread trade union action in 1978/1979 which eventually led to a Conservative election victory which ushered in Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Far fewer people have made the link with the much more comprehensive strike action which took place nearly 100 years ago, across nine days in May 1926.
The General Strike, as it came to be known, was an expression of working-class discontent that had been steadily building up since the end of the First World War. The war’s devastation, as well as its upheaval of social norms, challenged the British class system. After the war finished, many working-class men who had fought side by side with men of higher social standing were unwilling to accept the pre-war inequalities. On top of that, returning troops faced mass unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. Socialism gained traction in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe.[i]
The direct cause of the General Strike was a pay dispute in the coal mining industry. The industry was privatised and to counteract declining profits, coal mine owners reduced wages by over a third in a seven year period. In March 1926, the government supported a recommendation that miners’ pay should be reduced further. In response, the Trade Union Council (TUC), an overarching body of trade unions, called a strike to start on 3 May. All TUC member unions were bound to participate in the strike action, which led to millions of workers stopping work.
From railway workers and bus drivers to newspaper printers and food delivery staff, the strike impacted many essential services in the country. To keep things going, some people in non-unionised sectors ‘volunteered’ to work in roles affected by the strike, driving buses and delivering milk. Upper class families also ‘volunteered’ – wealthy women, for example, helped to serve out food from communal kitchens in Hyde Park. The establishment encouraged reminisces of the war, likening the emergency provisions put in place during the strike to the type of volunteer work many had undertaken during the conflict.
Because the printers’ union participated in the strike, the newspaper industry was severely impacted by the strike. Some papers managed to produce emergency bulletins which were much shorter than regular papers, and printed on a much smaller format. Newspaper proprietors in the 1920s mostly had warm relationships with the Conservative party, allowing the Government to produce the British Gazette, a pro-government publication. The TUC responded by producing their own British Worker, but were unable to match the circulation of the Gazette.
The National Union of Journalists was not TUC-affiliated at the time of the strike. The NUJ leadership badly muddled its response to the TUC’s call for strike action, leaving some NUJ members frustrated by being told they should not join a strike with which they had solidarity; and others annoyed because they felt forced to declare their views on a matter which had, strictly speaking, nothing to do with the NUJ.
The Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin, took a hard line against the strikers. In the British Gazette, he likened the strikes to a coup on the government:
Constitutional Government is being attacked. Let all good citizens whose livelihood and labour have thus been put in peril bear with fortitude and patience the hardships with which they have been so suddenly confronted. Stand behind the Government, who are doing their part, confident that you will co-operate in the measures they have undertaken to preserve the liberties and privileges of the people of these islands.
The ‘liberties and privileges’ of the millions of strikers were clearly not under consideration. Contemporary newsreels similarly focused on the efforts of the ‘volunteers’ and the supposed relief of Londoners when the strike was called off after nine days, without showing the various violent clashes between police and strikers which also occurred during the strike period.
The strike was eventually called of on legal grounds – it was determined that only the miner strike was aligned with the 1906 Trade Dispute Act, meaning that all other strikers did not have any legal protection.[ii] Although the miners continued their resistance until the end of 1926, they did not obtain any wage increases.
The following year, Stanley Baldwin passed a new Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act which made it illegal for any unions to strike in sympathy with another union – in future, each union was only allowed to go on strike if the dispute in question directly affected them. According to labour historian Anthony Mason, ‘The defeat which the trade unions suffered at the hands of the Government successfully discredited the idea of widespread industrial action as a method of obtaining the demands of labour. It did much to ensure the relatively quiescent acceptance by Labour of the persistent unemployment of the thirties.’[iii] The impact of the General Strike, then, was felt much beyond the nine days it lasted in May 1926; arguably it has impacted labour relations in Britain into the 21st century.
[i] Dan S. White, ‘Reconsidering European Socialism in the 1920s’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1981), 251-272
[ii] Jessica Brain, ‘The General Strike 1926’, Historic UK, accessed online: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/General-Strike-1926/
[iii] Anthony Mason, ‘The Government and the General Strike, 1926,’ International Review of Social History, Vol. 14, no. 1 (1969), 1-21