TUC meets to agree on a General Strike
The 1st of May 1926 AD
The Baldwin Conservative government had seen a decline in productivity in the British coal mining industry, and what it perceived as a rise in militancy. Profit margins for the mine owners had declined with productivity, plus the combined forces of cheaper foreign coal – Poland and Germany in particular had built up this sector – the strong pound on the back of Churchill’s beloved gold standard making exports difficult, and the piecemeal organisation of the industry in Britain, with a wide range of owners and little economy of scale in support services and management.
Thus in 1925 the mine owners declared they would reduce the wages of the miners to address this problem. Not unnaturally the miners and their union rejected such suggestions out of hand. Sir Herbert Samuel was asked to head a Royal Commission on the problem, a move that bought time for the government and the mine owners to prepare for any industrial action. While the report was being produced a subsidy was paid to the mines to maintain workers’ wages.
Depending on your view of history, the subsidy was either an honourable attempt to give a breathing space while problems were explored, or a screen that allowed Churchill as Chancellor and the British establishment to make their preparations for a major strike. Supplies were built up, plans made. There is evidence that Churchill wished to bring the matter to a head, and have a major strike to allow the unions to be attacked and their power reduced.
When Samuel’s report was published it supported the government and owners, suggesting some reorganisation, but not nationalisation, and advocating the ending of the subsidy. The owners announced they were to reduce the wages of miners by up to 25 per cent, and that when they could working hours would be extended beyond the legally enforceable nine hour limit. An ultimatum was given by the owners: the workforce must accept the conditions by May 1, or be locked out.
The TUC met on May 1 1926 to agree a reaction to the ultimatum and the Samuel Report. There seemed no alternative to industrial conflict, and it was agreed that a General Strike would begin as of May 3 in defence of the rights of mine workers. Britain was about to face perhaps its most significant industrial struggle, a brief period when at times it seemed as if the country could tip towards violence and revolution.
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