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Build-up to the General Strike

Cartoon from the Rufford Star

[cartoon from the 'Rufford Star', news sheet produced by the Rufford Pit Communist Group, 13 February 1926]

Not a penny off the pay! Not a minute on the day!"

The Rufford Star, no.10, January 1926

1914-1924:

  • 1914: Formation of 'Triple Alliance' of trade unions representing dockers, transport workers and miners. Outbreak of First World War.
  • 1916: The government takes control of coal mines from private owners as a wartime measure. The Liberal Party politician David Lloyd George becomes Prime Minister of the wartime coalition government.
  • 1918: End of the First World War. Coalition government headed by Lloyd George re-elected.
  • 1919: Following threat of united action by the Triple Alliance, the government sets up a Royal Commission on the mining industry, chaired by Mr Justice Sankey. The majority report of the Sankey Commission is in favour of nationalisation (state ownership) of the mines. With the exception of proposals to introduce a shorter (7 hour) working day, the government does not act on the recommendations of the report.
  • 1921: Serious trade depression and slump in coal exports. The government formally returns the coal mines to private ownership on 31 March 1921. The mineowners demand wage cuts, and in response the Miners' Federation of Great Britain calls on the Triple Alliance to engage in strike action and halt the movement of coal. On 15 April (Black Friday) the miners' strike is not supported by the other parties in the 'Triple Alliance', and the Alliance collapses. The miners fight on alone until July, when they return to work defeated.
  • 1922: Herbert Smith replaces Robert Smillie as President of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The coalition government falls, David Lloyd George is replaced as Prime Minister by Andrew Bonar Law, who wins the general election for Conservatives.
  • 1923: The government revives its Supply and Transport Committee as an anti-strike organisation. Andrew Bonar Law dies and is succeeded as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister by Stanley Baldwin, who loses the resulting general election.
  • 1924: The first minority Labour government is formed in January, and James Ramsay MacDonald becomes Prime Minister. Arthur James (A.J.) Cook replaces Frank Hodges as General Secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The Buckmaster Court of Inquiry into mining supports the miners’ claims, and the Labour government persuades mineowners to give a 13% pay rise. In October the Conservatives, under Stanley Baldwin, win the general election.


1925:

  • April: Britain returns to the Gold Standard, which results in a reduction of coal exports. Heavy losses in mining as owners propose 13% pay cuts. The Macmillan Inquiry into mining favours the miners' side. Walter Citrine becomes General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
  • 30 June: Coalowners give notice of the termination of the national agreement with the miners which had been in force since 1924, and of reductions in wages and the end of the guaranteed minimum wage. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain recommends rejection of the proposals.
  • 10 July: The miners' representatives put their case to the Trades Union Congress General Council. The General Council pledges support.
  • 29 July: Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin states that the government will not grant a subsidy to maintain the level of wages in the mining industry.
  • 31 July (“Red Friday”): The government climbs down and offers a 9 month subsidy to the coal industry, on condition that coalowners withdraw notices of wage reductions. Announced that another Royal Commission will be appointed to inquire into the coal industry.
  • 5 September: Royal Warrant issued for a Commission on the Coal Industry under chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel. The Commission visits coal mines during late September and early October and holds its first public sitting on 15 October.
  • 7-12 September: The Trades Union Congress meets at Scarborough and passes a resolution empowering the TUC to call a general strike.
  • 25 September: Formation of the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) announced - a volunteer organisation which intended to maintain supplies and services in the event of a strike.
  • 29 September: Labour Party Annual Conference resolves to expel Communists from the Labour Party.
  • October: Police raid the headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain in London. 12 Communist leaders are arrested, put on trial and sentenced to from 6 to 12 months’ imprisonment (23 October 1925) under the 1797 Incitement to Mutiny Act, for giving publications to members of the armed forces.
  • December: Government organises special local conferences on transport and police. A comprehensive plan of action is laid down.

1926:

  • 14 January: Last public sitting of the Samuel Commission on the Coal Industry.
  • March: Report of the Samuel Commission signed and presented to the King on 6 March (published on 11 March). It recommends reorganisation of the industry (but rejects nationalisation), no continuation of the subsidy and reductions in wages. The report is discussed in meetings between the Mining Association and Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The government promises legislation if agreement can be reached. Coalowners demand a change from national to district agreements, 13% pay cuts and 8 hour day starting from 1 May.
  • April: Conferences between the government, coalowners, miners' representatives and the Trades Union Congress - no agreement reached. The coalowners post lockout notices to expire on 30 April, when the subsidy ends - this means that if the miners don't accept the new terms of employment, they will be locked out of their places of work.
  • 27 April: Trades Union Congress sets up Ways and Means Committee to organise strike preparations (renamed the Powers and Orders Committee on 1 May).
  • 29 April: The miners' representatives give the Trades Union Congress full power to conduct the dispute.
  • 30 April: Government coal subsidy ends. Owners post final terms. At midnight more than one million miners are locked out.
  • 1 May (Saturday): May Day parades in London and elsewhere. A special conference of trade union executives votes overwhelmingly to approve the Trades Union Congress General Council’s proposals for a general strike in support of the miners, to begin on midnight on Monday 3 May, and votes to give the TUC supreme authority to manage the dispute. The government refuses the TUC General Council's offer to collaborate in order to maintain essential services during a strike and proclaims a State of Emergency by Royal Proclamation - this gives the government authority to take emergency measures to control food supplies, transport and public order. At 9pm the TUC and the Prime Minister resume negotiations.
  • 2 May (Sunday): The TUC and Prime Minister continue to negotiate. Without the knowledge of the TUC, the printers of the Daily Mail refuse to print a leading article in the newspaper denouncing the general strike.
  • 3 May (Monday): Stating that the actions of the Daily Mail printers form a challenge to the constitution and are the beginning of the General Strike, at 1.05am the government announces that negotiations have broken down and refuses appeals from the Trades Union Congress to reopen negotiations. Both sides make preparations for the actual start of the General Strike at midnight.

Selected sources:

  • 'The origins of the crisis', leaflet issued by Coal Industry Publications as part of their 'Coal and the Taxpayer' series, September 1925?
  • 'More Churchill!!': leaflet outlining some of the problems for the coal industry caused by the restoration of the Gold Standard in 1925, issued by the Oxford University Labour Club, May 1926
  • 'The miners have been locked out', leaflet about the lock-out of miners by the mineowners, issued by the Trades Union Congress, July 1925
  • 'Underground in the dark', leaflet about miners' working conditions and the proposals of the mineowners, issued by the Trades Union Congress, July 1925
  • 'Must the miners starve?', leaflet about the proposed pay cut, issued by the Trades Union Congress, July 1925
  • 'The "living wage"', leaflet about the proposed pay cut, issued by Coal Industry Publications as part of their 'Coal Industry Leaflets' series, 21 August 1925
  • 'Nationalization and the Red conspiracy', leaflet issued by Coal Industry Publications as part of their 'Coal Industry Leaflets' series, 8 September 1925
  • 'The British General Strike from the inside', description of the breakdown in negotiations between the government and the Trades Union Congress on 3 May 1926, written on 11 May 1926 by a member of the TUC
  • 'What about the Daily Mail??': leaflet about the incident at the Daily Mail which led to the breakdown of negotiations, issued by the Oxford University Labour Club, May 1926
  • 'An appeal to university men not to blackleg', leaflet issued on behalf of the Oxford Trades & Labour Council (Council of Action), 3 May 1926

See all digitised sources from the build-up to the strike