Exports down, worries over trade in Europe, threats to minimum wages, and to British industry, ‘Black Friday’, and oh, yes, the mention of Danegeld. There seems to be nothing new under the sun, for a little over 90 years ago, in May, Britain went on strike.
Although industry in Britain was on the whole in decline during the inter-war period, it was principally the problems of the coal industry which were to lead to the General Strike of 1926.
Miners leaving at the end of a shift - painting by G Palmer
The long term decline in the coal industry was due to many factors. A small but not unimportant reason was that the use of oil and electricity was on the increase not only at home but abroad. At the same time, economies were being made in the use of coal in industry. Britain had suffered a loss of export markets during and after the war.
As a whole, the decline was slow except for periods of slump like 1921, and production fell gradually, from 287 millions tons in 1913, to 267 million tons in 1924 and to 222 millions tons in 1935.
The industry was out of date; it relied as in 1913 on cheap manpower. Output per man shift was only marginally better in 1927 than in 1914. Mechanisation compared with the Ruhr and Silesia had fallen back, and many mines were too old and bore thin, worn out seams.
Labour costs were much higher than those in Europe and since they formed the largest part of the costs in the industry, any increase in wages immediately priced British coal yet further out of the world market. Wages had gone up during the war, and now the owners tried to make pits competitive by forcing wages down instead of introducing new investment.
Coal had been in high demand during the war, and many of the best seams were now exhausted and the machinery run down.
In 1924 there were still 1400 separate mining companies, and royalties were still paid to 4,000 owners of the land.
The situation had been temporarily improved by the French occupation of the Ruhr but, as the French withdrew, the protected market vanished, leaving a fall in exports and unemployment rising.
There is some disagreement as to how much the return to the Gold Standard affected the industry. Economist JM Keynes placed the differential effect on exports at 10%, while later historians have placed it nearer 2 ½ %.
JM Keynes, pictured in 1933
The problems were hard to solve; the owners could not easily raise the price of coal, they lacked the weapon of protection and were competing against cheap German exports. The owners were determined to reduce wages or increase hours, and the miners saw a real threat to their national minimum wage, so hard won in 1921.
Stanley Baldwin, the (Conservative) Prime Minister at the time, had been aware of the peculiar conditions brought about by the occupation of the Ruhr, and while he would not concede a wage claim, he planned a general reorganisation, which brought him up against the owners.
The employers expected a Tory government to represent them, and resented any attempt to hold the balance in an industrial dispute.
Baldwin was an advocate of Social Welfare, but was becoming less and less sure of the value of direct intervention in the industrial process. He thought that Nationalisation was undesirable;. There was no satisfactory precedent and he felt that the Civil Service would not be able to take the risks that a businessman could, and would not show the same profit margins. He also pointed out that the State hitherto had been unable to break the cycle of strikes and industrial warfare. His policy was to let industry work itself out while the Government mediated, if necessary paying out subsidies, but only if they were genuinely productive. The standpoint of the owners however made it hard for him to preserve the balance.
Baldwin did not disguise the fact that he thought the coal owners inefficient and backward. It is not hard to understand why; the owners expected to compete with the Ruhr without any modernisation.
The miners looked back to 1918-19, to the promises of Lloyd George, to the principle of Nationalisation and the betrayal of Black Friday (when they were deserted by other unions in their industrial action.)
The inefficient pits would have to be closed down while the rest were fully mechanised, but this would mean unemployment. The owners stated bluntly that they could do nothing but reduce wages. The Miners’ Federation was unafraid of unemployment; the State would take care of those put out of work. But Baldwin was not prepared to force men out of work if there was an alternative and he would not consider the miners’ answer that high wages would close down all the inefficient pits. Baldwin believed that the answer in the form of a subsidy was inefficient and a burden on the taxpayer.
So the stance of all three sides was clearly defined, and the problems continued. In March 1924, wages had been raised by 33 ⅓ % above the standard. Within a year, exports fell, and profits were replaced by a loss which rose to over £1m a month in June 1925. The owners attempted to force a new wage agreement which implied the abolition of the national minimum wage. Much time and patience were to be exhausted by the failure of everybody to grasp the logic of the miners’ attitude with their cry of ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day'. Their demand was to be left as they were. Longer hours would mean more coal being pushed out onto an already glutted market which would mean more unemployment. The miners were not prepared to accept a cut in pay.
A joint enquiry was set up by the Government, but when the miners declared that neither hours nor wages must be touched, the owners issued an ultimatum: the new scale would come into force on July 30th, or the miners would be locked out.
Not surprisingly, the attitudes of the three parties concerned led to a deadlock. Baldwin held to his doctrine of non-intervention, and would not agree to a subsidy. Herbert Smith (for the miners) told Bridgeman, the Government Mediator, that his only constructive suggestion must be nationalisation. “Private Enterprise is your baby, which you must supply with milk.” Bridgeman was told that the miners would not meet the owners until the lock-out notices were withdrawn. A court of enquiry was set up by the Government, but the miners refused to accept it.
Tyldesley miners outside the Miners’ Hall during the strike
On 25th July, the General Council of the TUC (Trades Union Congress) intervened and agreed to enforce an embargo on the movement of coal after lock-out day.
The owners published new terms on 27th July and, on 29th, Baldwin met the miners whose main objection was the omission of a minimum for all grades of workers. Baldwin still insisted that there would be no subsidy. He met the owners and they conceded the principles of the minimum wage, but it would be low.
On the afternoon of July 30th, Baldwin repeated to Smith his determination not to grant a subsidy. By that evening, orders had gone out which would bring activity to a standstill at every railway station, dock and wharf. A hastily summoned Cabinet agreed to a subsidy, the lock-out notices were withdrawn, and ‘Red Friday’ went down in Trades Union history.
The Subsidised Mineowner—Poor Beggar! from the Trade Union Unity Magazine (1925)
The Tory press denounced the subsidy as ‘Danegeld’. The miners saw no positive achievement and even the General Council was uneasy about the forces it had unleashed. Even if the Samuel Commission found a formula, the Government would not capitulate a second time. There could be not doubt that the crisis would come again.
Over the next nine months, the Government prepared. Plans for emergency supply and transport organisation were updated under John Anderson. An emergency committee on supply and transport was set up. Special Civil Commissioners in each of five regions would be responsible for coal, finance and food. The object was to decentralise authority, and their powers were clearly intended to be unlimited. Citizens were enrolled who would be prepared to offer their labour in an emergency. These people were trained and while the OMS (the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies) appeared to be ‘jokers’ (CT Cramp, NUR), they were in the event to do quite a good job and the TUC never really counter-prepared.
The General Council had its own problems; the embargo had meant the forfeit of the element of surprise, and had aroused the hostility of the other unions, fearful of its show of strength.
Sir Herbert Samuel’s report offered the miners everything they wanted, short of nationalisation. The existing hours and the minimum wage must be kept, royalties were to be bought out, and the smaller pits were to be amalgamated.
Sir Herbert Samuel (third from left, seated next to Lloyd George)
But still there were the immediate problems. In February 1926, 72% of the collieries were being kept alive by the subsidy. Without nationalisation, they could not be run at a loss unless the subsidy was continued, or the miners accepted a lower wage while the improvements were carried through.
Once again, the intransigence of all sides prevented agreement. Smith remained adamant about the wage cuts, so once again the owners’ notices went up to terminate existing wage agreements. The Government stood by its decision that there would be no more subsidy, and that it would implement the Samuel Report if both sides would accept.
Both sides rejected; Smith would only accept lower wages after reorganisation was complete, while the owners’ offer was below Samuel’s recommendation, and included an eight hour day.
The owners’ offer, coming as it did five weeks after the Government had accepted the Samuel Report, was repugnant to the miners. The General Council was invested with the power to speak for all unions. Amid wrangling between the TUC and the miners, the nine day strike began.
It is difficult to see how the General Strike could have been averted. The problems facing the coal industry were very real. The solutions involved three main parties, none of whom was prepared to give an inch. The miners considered their wages to be low enough as it was, and would fight to keep them at all costs. Reorganisation and re-equipment was their answer, but it fell on the deaf ears of the coal owners. The miners could not bargain; as Smith put it, “We have nowt to give.”
Foraging for coal during the strike
Baldwin, forced to give way once over the question of the subsidy, would not be seen to do so on a second occasion. He had been proved right after ‘Red Friday’, that a subsidy was not the answer. As has been seen, no amount of mediation and consultation would have had any effect. The problems facing the coals industry had turned into a battle of self-interest, where-in no side was prepared to concede.
The General Strike - GA Phillips Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Baldwin - K Middlemass & J Barnes ditto
Britain's Locust Years 1918-1940 - W McElwee Faber & Faber
(all above images are in the public domain)
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