Issue 197 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Nine days in May

Judith Orr

The roots of the strike began in the summer of 1925 when Stanley Baldwin's government announced that the coal industry would no longer receive any subsidy and that 'it must stand on its own economic foundations'. This was part of a wholesale plan to cut costs and bring down wages across the economy. The government and employers saw this as a decisive battle which they had to win. On 30 June the mine owners stated that they would be ending current wage agreements four weeks later and that unless the miners' union accepted a wage cut then the workforce would be locked out. The TUC reacted by promising a complete embargo on any movement of coal if the miners were locked out. At this point the government backed down, deciding that it wasn't ready for a mass confrontation with the unions. It set up the Samuel Commission to conduct an inquiry into the industry and wage proposals, to report in nine months time. These nine months were crucial to the eventual outcome of the strike. For the government and the ruling class made good use of the time, setting up strike breaking plans across the country and stockpiling resources. The government arranged to have full control of all broadcasting facilities. Volunteers were recruited to the scab Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. By February the government felt confident that everything was in place, with the home secretary saying that 'little remained to be done'.

The trade union leaders in contrast displayed a criminal lack of preparation for a strike and seemed to pin all their hopes on the Samuel Commission Report being acceptable to the miners so making a strike unnecessary. The union leader Ernest Bevin said after the strike, 'I do not want anyone to go away from this conference under the impression that the general council had any particular plan to run the movement. In fact the general council did not sit down to draft the plans until they were called together on 27 April.' When the Samuel Commission Report was published on 10 March it came down in favour of wage cuts. Attempts were made by the TUC leadership to dress this up as in some way acceptable to the miners but its bluff was finally called when the mine owners announced a lockout. The TUC general council were forced to call for a 'national strike'. The strike began. Tuesday 4 May saw the railway system completely shut down, bus services across the country at a standstill and the London Underground stopped. Reports describe a strange silence as the transport system ground to a halt and the power that workers had in their hands became a reality. Strikers also included workers in the printing, building and chemical industries, iron and steel and the power stations. The response was fantastic as workers up and down the country responded to the call for solidarity with the miners. The TUC planned to keep certain sections of industry at work and bring them out in the second week, but many joined the strike regardless. As the TUC admitted, 'The general council's difficulty has been to keep men at work in the trades that are in the second line of defence.' Crowds filled the streets of London to stop any scab buses and to join pickets.

In the following days workers were involved in street battles with the police and thousands of newly recruited special constables. Strikers faced baton charges, while armed soldiers protected scabbing buses driven by 'volunteers'. The TUC paper made much of the discipline and peaceful nature of the dispute and were keen to keep it under their control - hence the strategy of not bringing out all workers together. The Communist Party, despite its relatively small size, played a significant role in building the strike - a high percentage of those arrested were party members - but did not challenge the right of the TUC general council to have complete control of the dispute. This tactic proved disastrous. From the first day the TUC leadership had made it clear that it was unwilling to see the strike escalate, emphasising that it was merely a trade dispute and not a challenge to the government. Statements were made throughout the nine days the strike lasted reiterating the TUC's desire to negotiate with the government for 'an honourable settlement'. The left trade union leaders, in whom the CP had placed such faith, had no different strategy and accepted the same policies as the right wing, refusing to rock the boat.

Behind the scenes union leaders tried to persuade the miners to negotiate, and continued dialogue with the government took place throughout the dispute, while all the time organisation on the ground was improving and the strike continued to grow. When it was announced on 12 May that the TUC had decided to call the strike off, many simply didn't believe it.

The ending of the strike was a complete betrayal of the miners yet the TUC still tried to get across the message that the miners 'will now get a fair deal'. Workers in many areas refused to return to work without guarantees about victimisations, and reports show that there were more people on strike after the strike was called off than before. Despite the fine words of the union leadership the miners had gained nothing and were left to struggle alone until their defeat six months later. The defeat of the strike was unnecessary and had a terrible effect on the working class movement for years. It was only when the struggle rose again in the 1930s that the union activists began to recover their confidence and organisation for the new battles ahead.


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