By John Newsinger
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1926 General Strike—mass action and betrayal

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In the third column in a series on workers’ struggles, John Newsinger looks at the 1926 general strike
Issue 2824
A soldier and a cop protect a scab driving a tram during the general strike

A soldier and a cop protect a scab driving a tram during the general strike

The danger of revolution spreading to Britain had passed in the early 1920s. Now, the ruling class set about trying to roll back the improvements in pay and conditions the working class had gained. As Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it, quite openly, in July 1925, “All the workers in this country have got to face a reduction in wages”.

The government began preparing to crush the trade unions, starting with the miners. It set up a massive strike-breaking organisation, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, in September 1925. It began recruiting middle and upper class volunteers prepared to scab in the coming fight.

The Home Secretary at the time, William Joynson-Hicks, was a reactionary, affectionately known inside the Conservative Party as “Mussolini Minor”.

On 14 October 1925, he had 12 leaders of the Communist Party arrested and jailed. The following year Baldwin moved to confront the over one million coal miners. The mine owners made clear that workers had to accept a massive pay cut and longer hours as well as an end to national agreements. The miners refused and most were locked out on 1 May.

Very reluctantly the TUC General Council gave the miners its support. The union leaders did not want to fight. But they were afraid of mass unofficial action in support of the miners, with the revolutionary left taking the lead.

The TUC called a general strike from midnight on 3 May. From the very beginning they were concerned to try and limit the number of workers coming out and to prevent it from becoming too militant—a real general strike. To begin with the TUC did not call out engineering, shipbuilding and textile workers. But many walked out anyway, despite frantic efforts by union officials to get them back to work. They were not called out officially until 11 May.

Rail workers were the decisive force in the struggle with some 400,000 NUR and 60,000 Aslef union members striking. The government put enormous effort into trying to get the trains running, but failed miserably.

The problem on the railways was that the NUR leader, J H Thomas, was probably the worst and most contemptible union leader in British working class history. And there is a lot of competition for that.

While his members were on strike, Thomas was wining and dining with rich businessmen, including mine owners. He actually remarked on how proud it made him to be British when he saw members of the British upper class getting their hands dirty while scabbing. He even visited the King to assure him that his throne was not in any danger. Thomas was to become a senior minister in the 1929-1931 Labour government.

After nine days, the TUC called the General Strike off. But it was not beaten, it was betrayed. The strike was getting stronger by the day with councils of action taking control and workers’ defence organisations formed to protect against police attack. And when they ordered a return to work, it was without securing any agreement regarding victimisation.

What surprised many was that both left and right wing union leaders joined in betraying the general strike and their own members. They were scared of increasing militancy, indeed scared that militancy might actually win.

Workers, who the TUC had called out on strike, went back to work thinking they had won. But they were hit with pay cuts, union de-recognition and the victimisation of union activists. The response was fury, with more workers out the day after the General Strike was called off. Nothing better gives the lie to the claim it was beaten. Rail workers stayed out for two days after the strike was called off.  As for the miners, they were left to fight on for another six months before being effectively starved back to work. The capitalist class had won with the help of union leaders.

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