(Another) General Strike?

Talk of another General Strike does bring to mind the parallels with the last one in May 1926, eighty seven years ago this month.


Like today, a new General Secretary of the TUC with much to prove, Walter Citrine, had just arrived at their pokey office in Eccleston Square, Victoria. On the sudden death of the General Secretary, Fred Bramley, he was called back from a delegation to the Soviet Union to become Acting General Secretary – would  the TUC opening diplomatic relations with what was still viewed widely as the ‘first workers’ state’? 


Like today, there was a right-wing Conservative government which had bowed to Treasury, Bank of England and City financial orthodoxy and tied Britain once again to ‘the Gold Standard’, so depressing wages generally and making British exports, especially coal exports, uncompetitive. Keynes’ pamphlet, ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill’ (the Chancellor), exposing this stealthy impact, had a major influence on the union leaders, particularly Citrine. The miners were seen as the ‘shock troops’ to defend against a general employers’ offensive on wages. They had a fiery left-wing General Secretary, Arthur J. Cook, General Secretary of the Miners Federation – Arthur Scargill’s hero – and the TUC General Council fell in behind them.


In fact, the TUC did its best to avert that General Strike by intervening in the coal dispute negotiations, with the blessing of the Mineworkers Federation, its 800,000-strong largest affiliate.  With the threat of a repeat of the wholly successful 1925 solidarity action by the rail and road transport unions (‘Red Friday’), they tried to pressurise the government into reining in the mine-owners who were ‘gung ho’ to lock-out the miners, cut their pay and increase their hours of work. They also tried to get the government to continue the coal subsidy and re-organise the industry.  Citrine, who was involved in all the negotiations, thought they were close to doing so.


Two things prevented a settlement. First, the inflexibility of the miners leaders, who felt bound to their rank-and-file pit opinion ( ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’). The TUC had not insisted on them giving full authority in writing to conduct and conclude it, before involving themselves in the fraught coal industry dispute. The other reason was that the hawks in the Cabinet, led by Churchill, (smarting from what they saw as the humiliating government retreat of ‘Red Friday”), wanted to ‘teach the unions a lesson’. They persuaded the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to break off the negotiations using the pretext of a Daily Mail compositor’s refusal to set a clearly provocative anti-union front page.


So, on 4th May, the General Strike started in response to that government ultimatum to call off the General Strike. This followed a conference of 1300 union delegates at the Memorial Hall, Faraday Street, as each union roll-called their decisions after rousing speeches and songs.  Amazingly, over 1.5 million workers walked out in support of the 1million miners already locked-out. Never before had so many British workers been out on strike together. The transport system in the cities ground to a halt (especially in London), as hardly any buses, trams or underground trains ran. The railways closed. The docks, furnaces, iron and steel, heavy chemical and power industries became as silent as the pits. One writer described it as a ‘strange and even eery experience’.


Amazingly, by the second week, it was still solid, with the engineering and other manufacturing workers coming out. Most European General Strikes only lasted days, despite their much more syndicalist traditions. Even the government realised that they were in uncharted waters, despite their middle class ‘Volunteers’, despite the propaganda of the BBC, their ‘British Gazette’, The Mail and The Times and their best efforts to undermine the will of the strikers.  Surprisingly, there was hardly any disorder (many strikers played football with the police) and it was lovely sunny May weather.


However, the General Council leaders were becoming anxious as to where it was all going. They had never intended it as a political challenge to the government, but clearly that’s what it had developed into. You can’t close down the country (food was exempt), without any government intervention, and troops were being placed on standby in their barracks. At Wellington barracks, Citrine ‘saw troops drawn up on the parade ground. Some were practising with machine guns; others had gas masks on, while some were in full marching kit.’ Some, like Jimmy Thomas of the NUR had worried from the start that they would all be arrested and some even shot! His 455,000 rail workers had been solid from the start even though they faced legal challenges and for some, loss of pension. But he was also an MP (and had been  a Minister in the 1924 Labour government), with contacts all round Westminster. He was close to the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who was now also worried.


Even tough strike leaders like Ernest Bevin, whose dockers would have stayed out as long as the miners, was also perturbed by the miners’ intransigence and unwillingness to consider the wider movement. They had tried to restart negotiations but they broke down again as the miners’ leaders would not budge. This really exasperated Citrine and the negotiating committee, as the Miners Federation had, supposedly, put the negotiations in the TUC’s hands. In the circumstances, Citrine gauged the mood of the General Council generally now as being to call it off, and retreat in an orderly fashion.


This was not to be. It is not clear from Citrine’s account – though he kept a daily diary and notes of all the key meetings – why they capitulated without a ‘return to work’ agreement, which would have safeguarded the strikers from victimisation. They only had ‘warm words’ from the Prime Minister and the King. The impression is that Baldwin issued the TUC with an ultimatum to call it off ‘forthwith’ or face the consequences – the use of police and troops to break the strike, and the General Council feared that this would have meant bloodshed. So, on the night of Tuesday 11th May, Citrine received a phone call from Downing Street saying ‘the Prime Minister wants to know whether you have any news for him. He [and the Cabinet] had been sitting up for you’. The General Council were waiting for the Miners’ leaders to tell them if they would compromise. On being told no, Citrine and the TUC President, Arthur Pugh of the Iron & Steel workers, and Thomas went into the Cabinet room to give a ‘haggard and drawn’ Baldwin and other Ministers their decision.  When Pugh announced the calling-off of the strike, Baldwin replied, ‘I thank God for your decision’. It was back from the brink.


Hardly surprisingly, Citrine and the TUC leaders took a lot of ‘stick’ from the miners (who stayed out for another six months!), the Left and those later victimised – though most workers were relieved. A ‘post-mortem’ conference of all the unions  in January 1927, overwhelmingly accepted their account. It rejected Arthur Cook and Herbert Smith’s Minerworker’s Federation version of things, though Citrine acknowledged that it had been ill-prepared and called off without consultation with them.  He regarded it as ‘a protest against the degradation of the standards of life of millions of good trade unionists’. I’m sure that Len McCluskey would say the same today with much justification! But would he accept Citrine’s view that ‘the theory of the General Strike had never been thought out ‘ and that a stoppage on such a scale for any length of time, would inevitably be taken as ‘a challenge to the Constitution’?


Looking back in 1964, Citrine still didn’t resile from his long-held view – ‘I did not regard the General Strike as a failure’:
      “We have had our General Strike. Imperfect as it has been…it was the most
        magnificent effort of rank-and-file solidarity that the British movement has
        ever displayed”. 
The general employers’ offensive on pay did not happen.


Citrine was elected General Secretary at the September 1926 annual Congress, with the support of the Miners’ leaders, Cook and Smith, who respected his conduct during the whole coal dispute. He would serve with distinction – he became Lord Citrine of Wembley – for another twenty years in some of the most eventful decades of the twentieth century. He (and Bevin) would take the TUC in a different, less confrontational direction altogether after the strike, with considerable success (after the Great Depression 1928-34). By WW2 the TUC and the union movement were being described as another ‘estate of the realm’. But that is another story.


So, the story of the General Strike is many dimensional. It could not be repeated today. Talk of General Strikes, from a movement that is so much weaker, seem ‘cloud cuckoo’ stuff, though many of the same issues are around again to justify such a nation-wide protest.  So, it is not enough for our ‘One Nation’ Labour theorists to simply reject the notion of such protests – Occupy, Uncut etc and Len McCluskey, are expressions of the desperation again setting in. They must also come up with alternative policies which are not based on Treasury, Bank of England and City orthodoxy in government economic policy.  Who will write and act on,  ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne’?


Source: Walter Citrine, ‘Men and Work’ (1964), Volume 1 of his very interesting autobiography.

Did we make Thatcher?

While one part of the nation mourns the death of Baroness Thatcher, the rest of us are left ‘spitting tacks’, ‘dancing on her grave’ and bemoaning what she did to us – or are we?  It seems to me that its all too late for that.  The understandable anger of the mining and manufacturing communities and northern cities has come through the fog of biased reporting from the right-wing media  and establishment. However, I searched in vain  for a coherent, convincing analysis or thought-piece which put this right-wing icon into a perspective which I could come to grips with as a union and Labour person. Nor have I seen one either from union or Labour commentators.


As a young T&GWU negotiator on occupational pensions, I was introduced to her in 1983 and had a brief conversation/banter with her about the upcoming general election. I was brash enough to opine that she wouldn’t last and that Michael Foot would soon see her off! With surprising good humour, she said, ‘Oh, no,no,no – I’m here for some time yet’! I was also struck by her appearance – she was then quite a diminutive figure, not the high-powered media creation which she developed into.


I’ve reflected on that exchange many times over the years,  (it isn’t often you get to have one with someone so important) – both on my naiveté and on her being proved so right.  Having served as a national official and a Labour activist throughout her ‘reign’, I have formed the conclusion that it was we, both wings of the labour movement, which created the monster of Thatcherism. I mean this literally. If we hadn’t frustrated the efforts of one Labour government and a second Conservative, but by no means anti-union, Prime Minister (Ted Heath in 1974), in their efforts to reform our relationships, she would never have emerged as Tory Leader in 1975. Nor would she have become Prime Minister in 1979, after another debacle  – ‘The Winter of Discontent’ -  with such an anti-union manifesto.


That is not to say that those governments’ proposals were exactly right – though some of us might give ‘our back teeth’ for the mild ‘In Place of Strife’ or Industrial Relations Act 1971 framework of industrial relations law today. No, they were far from perfect and the accompanying incomes policies were also deficient in those inflationary times.  It was our stupid, ‘over our dead bodies’, response which did for us. In our brash overconfidence, we saw it as ‘audacity’ that even an elected  government could require us to change our ways. It was this which made ‘union power’ such a negative issue for Thatcher to exploit so skilfully. She did so, even with our own members, as the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and even as late as 1992, proved. And we can’t blame just Arthur Scargill for that obdurate stance.


The rest, as they say, is history. Even her toppling by her Conservative colleagues in 1990, did not change the climate she had created. By the time the pendulum had swung back to Labour, the unions had lost most of their power base.  – the huge loss of membership and collective bargaining coverage due to the Thatcherite switch to a service economy and global finance.  We in the unions, as well as the Labour Party were desperate to get back into ‘the game.’ As a result, we did not look too closely at the slick ‘New’ Labour prospectus from 1994 onwards. Some of it was clearly necessary, but I now deeply regret that we didn’t chew it more, as it proved a ‘thin gruel’ for thirteen years in government.


I think that we do now have another chance, as Ed Miliband is proving to be a much deeper Labour thinker than we’ve had as Leader for some time.  He has many of the characteristics which made Thatcher so formidable – courage, determination and a distinctive philosophical outlook, but one that is in tune with Labour values and people. Hopefully, he will seek to restore a shared outlook and philosophy for the two wings of the labour movement.  We are strongest together and a new-found social democratic unity would be the best reaction to Thatcher’s death.

The Time We Work

There have been arguments about the length of the working day since the building of the pyramids, when the first union is recorded on behalf of the bricklayers! From the Factories Acts of the early nineteenth century until the recent European Directive on Working Time, trade unionists around the world have persuaded society that there should be limits to the hours their members are required to work. An eight hour day or forty eight hour week is now considered the most anybody should have to labour generally. Yet if you listen to David Cameron and his ilk, this European law of maximum working time of 48 hours (in fact, easily exceeded with the worker’s consent), is what makes the EU objectionable to all free-thinking Brits.


So, what are we to make of the NUT’s recent demand for a four hour daily teaching time limit? Nice, if you can get it, was my first reaction, but how realistic would a 20 (teaching): 10 (preparing):  5 (other duties) hour week be?  As a school governor in a primary and a secondary school, I can see that with the increasing pressures on all their conditions from government and Ofsted inspections, that teachers might have a case about the actual hours they have to teach in what can be a high-pressured job.


But how should their unions – ATL, NUSAWT and NUT – handle it?  One thing is sure, they must get more people on their side. Any proposals to change school teaching hours would receive a better hearing if it could be shown objectively that over-worked and stressed teachers can not give their best in the classroom. Anecdotal evidence of untypical cases are unlikely to do it.


The history of the last thirty years in education if one of successive governments winning round after round against the teacher unions for the changes they wanted. This is largely because they succeeded in portraying teachers as having a ‘producer’ interest. Teacher unionism was also seen as being detrimental to their professional standing as educationalists. Grossly unfair, but they seem to have got it across to a large section of the population that teacher actions were inimical to parent and school aspirations for their kids. Actions which cost teachers no or little loss of pay, but which send the kids home early, will not evoke public sympathy, however justified. But good teachers leave a lasting impression on pupils for the rest of their lives as parents, councillors, journalists (and even politicians sometimes). Why not tap into that widespread appreciation instead?


Remember what is happening ‘out there’ to many parents during this recession. The recent 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey found that the proportion of firms with agency workers on zero-hours contracts, rose from 11% in 2004 to 23% in 2011. How would you get people like this on the teachers’ side for wanting to teach only four hours out of a seven hour day? Although this may be an extreme demand thrown up at the fag end of an Easter conference, it does highlight the sort of tough challenges that all modern unions face. In my view, many need ‘to go up a gear’ to crack them.

You can get it if you really try

Unions spend a lot of money on PR these days – rightly so. But why don’t we produce classics like ‘Made in Dagenham’? ( – the BBC-made film by Nigel Cole  – shown on TV again recently)


‘Dagenham’ captured the spirit of the Ford women machinists’ struggle for equal pay in the late 1960s. Sadly, the all-male union cast, came out badly from Cole’s rather stereotypical portrayal, but it need not have and the micro-battle in the O’Grady union family home, came out far better. Read More…

What is the use of history if union policy-makers ignore the lessons?

At a recent History & Policy seminar I attended on this topic, we heard the views of a panel of distinguished historians and former policy-makers, which as you might expect nearly all talked of the value of a historical perspective for different purposes. It was a brilliant discipline; admirable brains deployed on sifting, collating and organising the vast data from old records of what ‘really’ happened; useful to challenge fixed mindsets and self-identities which countries and organisation all had of themselves,  and so on.


True, but I was more than a little taken by the guy from the BBC (Paddy O’Connell, one of their top broadcasters), who provocatively took the Henry Ford approach that, ‘history is bunk’. He argued that policy-makers by and large ignored the lessons of history. He asked, why else were they repeating the failed policies of the past. He cited recent examples, such as governments borrowing and printing money excessively, which ignored the works of economic historians;  allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer though everyone knew where that would end. He felt that  there was more interest in the history of the natural world than of society.


He has a point. We could add to his list loads of cases in union history where we have blithely ignored the lessons of recent history without a backward glance. My favourite is the ‘anti-union laws’ which we have added to our litany of oppression going back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  But isn’t it worth asking why these, admittedly most restrictive laws, remain substantially in place, despite three terms of Labour government? ‘Blairism’ and ‘New Labour’  may be part of the answer, but we’ve also got to ask why Thatcherism was able to replace the previous freedoms which unions enjoyed since 1906 (or even from the 1870s)? That is where sympathetic historians come in. We need a more balanced take on our history to persuade policy-makers that we have learned from our mistakes and deserve a fairer framework of industrial relations law.


PS In a conversation afterwards with one of the eminent speakers, Lord Wilson of Hinton, who was Cabinet Secretary during the Thatcher era, he told me that on his retirement, his First Division Association gave him a copy of a book about the Tolpuddle Martyrs! How appropriate.

My idea for a ‘One Nation’ policy on unfair dismissal

The removal of lay Tribunal members from deciding unfair dismissal cases may well prove more serious for workers’ rights than the coalition government’s other measures to choke demand, such as fees, deposits and cost awards. This move by Minister Cable (who didn’t even reply to our ET Members’ Association protest), is undoubtedly most reactionary. It has sent a signal to bad managers that the days of reasonable disciplinary standards are over. Workers can be sacked with even less ‘comeback’ – the ‘Alan Sugar’ school of management is again firmly in the saddle. Read More…

Union political funding will be the same in another hundred years – or will it?

The old saying that nothing much changes, certainly applies to union political funding,which was first established in law by the Trade Union Act 1913. It still remains the bedrock legislation, though it was last changed in 1984, when balloting of members every 10 years became a requirement for unions who wished to make a levy of members subs and to have a political fund.


The background to the Act was an intense controversy culminating in a famous House of Lords case, ‘the Osborne Judgement’ of 1909. A Walthamstow branch secretary of the railworkers’ union (RMT today), Walter Osborne, took the union to court over its decision to introduce a political levy and donate most of the funds to the infant Labour Party.


Osborne was a Liberal Party member and an extreme libertarian, who, despite a Conference decision and positive ballot of members on the issue, objected to having to pay into a fund which he regarded as going to the then ‘revolutionary’ and ‘extreme left’ Labour Party. So, he insisted on going to the courts and pursuing it all the way to the Lords. The Liberal Party then had a significant record in securing major union legislation – the bedrock Trade Disputes Act 1906, which restored union immunities, being the latest. The Miners Union, with a string of sponsored MPs, remained affiliated to the Liberal Party until 1911.


He had some backing in his own and in other unions, whose individual donations, he said, paid for his campaign. At the same time, there was more than a little suspicion that he was also funded by secret Liberal or Tory-supporter funds. The Times certainly gave his appeal for funds plenty publicity. To everyone’s surprise, the Lords – who had a definite anti-union attitude after the passage of the 1906 Act – ruled in his favour. The unions could no longer raise a lawful levy (or keep a political fund), but they found other ways! This unbalanced judgement became a major union campaign – the first payment of MPs (£400 pa) in 1911, was a first instalment. Finally, the Liberal government, dependent on Labour and Irish Nationalist MP support, legislated to restore unions’ power to levy and have a political fund in 1913. For a fuller account see my article in the History & Policy Trade Union Forum website.


There were two main ‘strings’ attached in the Act. Unions had to ballot their members to approve the political fund, but only once. They also had to allow an ‘opt-out’ conscience clause for those like Osborne, who objected in principle. In 1927, the Conservatives changed this to an ‘opt-in’ principle and the apathy factor severely reduced union funds, until it was changed back in 1946 (‘opt in’ still remains in Northern Ireland).


Guys like Osborne, who is a villain in our history, are a ‘pain in the butt’, but our collective tradition and procedures should be secure enough to be able to respect, tolerate and deal with dissidence openly and fairly (as most well-run branches are). Had the railworkers’ union handled Osborne and the political levy issue better, way back, it might never have come to law. [see my article for a fuller account].


But change is again in the air and the Coalition parties have it on their agenda. Discussions between the parties in the last Parliament stalemated. Unions were able to stiffen Labour’s resistance to what in effect were ‘opt-in’ individual member-type proposals. However, with the concentration of union political funds in so few major unions, this last major union power must be seen to be representative of unions’ legitimate collective rights to influence the Westminster scene.


It must also be exercised transparently and fully accountably. We must be ‘squeaky clean’, and seen to be, as the best means of defence. As a former union political officer, I have had some experience of how we do things – usually to the highest standards of probity and accountability. But one of the lessons of the last 30 years is that we should not resist change just because we don’t like to or resent ‘outside’ interference. In a case like this, how can we avoid it?


We’re not powerless…yet

It did not come as a great surprise that the poll by Survaton for the Fair Work Commission found that employers have more power than workers. However, it was surely right to ask this generation whether they think so. What is revealing is that despite over four decades of  employment protection legislation – since the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974, the Employment Protection Act 1975, Pensions Act 1975 and countless others since, including a raft of European Union Directives -  more than 1 in 10 employees feel they have no power and therefore rights, at all!


So, was it all a waste of time and effort by unions and the TUC since the late 1980s, in plugging this line of ‘positive’ individual legal rights, almost as an alternative to the traditional ‘voluntarist’ focus on industrial relations? Of course not. Many of those legal rights have significantly improved things for millions of workers who would otherwise not have anything. But there has been a tendency to rely too much on perfecting such ‘paper’ rights at the expense of up-dating traditional, but more difficult collective forms of protection.


However, the fact is that in today’s ‘flexible’ and ever contracting labour markets, employees are still extremely vulnerable, despite having some legal rights. Unions 21 are to be congratulated for its many imaginative initiatives to stir the collective imagination of workers to find other solutions again – at the workplace and wherever they operate. That seems to me to be the way forward.

Let’s learn the ABC of union history

One of the classics which all serious union branch and other officers  will have studied is Citrine’s ‘ABC of Chairmanship’. It is the ‘bible’ on how to conduct a meeting and how to intervene effectively to promote or oppose a policy being hotly debated at union gatherings.


Yet, the person who devised this essential guide, one Walter Citrine (1887-1983), is hardly known about.  A Liverpool electrician, who left school at age 12, he wrote the first short version in 1917 for his own union, the Electrical Trades Union (ETU),’to explain in simple language the general procedure relating to meetings’. He produced an expanded version for all unions and Labour & Cooperative movement activists in 1921, which soon became the standard for the future. Read More…

Our movement’s history is a powerful organising tool

IF you go into any good bookshop these days, the huge magazine section especially, you’ll find at least six devoted to history. Family history is especially popular. Lots of the stories and photos are from work situations in the past, but few bring out the union dimension, which was then everywhere.


Unlike today, ‘join the union, lad’, was most Dad’s advice to their sons then – less so, sadly, to their daughters! But recent research by our H&P Trade Union Forum, found that history, including about the unions, is becoming increasingly popular with younger (i.e. under 30 year-old) members. Read More…