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
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.
‘Where there is discord, we will bring harmony.’ Yes, this was St Francis of Assisi! On 4 May 1979, Margaret Hilda Thatcher had the audacity to regurgitate this quotation at the beginning of dividing the nation in a way that had not been seen since the overthrow of Charles I.
Speaking for the nation as a whole entails understanding and feeling the pain, as well as understanding the aspiration of the different cultural, social and political make-up of the nation. That is Labour’s challenge today.
At the heart of our politics and as an expression of our values, rests an all-embracing yet simple philosophy of our humanity. Namely, that we have a mutual interdependence which springs from a bond of parent to child, and is writ large in different ways and through various cultures, from extended family and physical community to nation state and the desire for protection and security.
Reciprocity helps us balance the need for self-determination and creative individuality with mutual hope, and therefore what might be described as ‘solidarity’.
As we say, ‘we can achieve so much more together than we can divided’. Balancing the common good with the freedom and liberty to exercise that individuality has been and remains a challenge for those committed to democracy, while understanding that the Polis ensures our participation and therefore our citizenship.
At its crudest we need to understand where power lies, how it is exercised and by whom, and what can be achieved through coming together and working collectively to protect ourselves from exploitation, to promote the best interests of what has come to be known as ‘society’. The existence of which was bizarrely denied in that famous Woman’s Own interview with Margaret Thatcher!
The clash between capital and labour, between those seeking to maximise profit and those with only their toil to sell, was of course the driving force for the creation of the trade unions in the 19th century. Coupled as it was with the crusade to increase the franchise and enable people to have a political voice, we saw the development of an understanding of how people united together in a particular cause could give themselves some chance of being empowered, no matter how modestly.
The reshaping of Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Britain’ is an endeavour to articulate that belief, that what we do to others engineers the circumstances which benefit or damage ourselves and our family.
The ill-educated child is a drain on our economic prosperity, productivity and competitiveness, as well as a waste of talent and an immoral denial of the nurturing of every child.
At its crudest the ill-health of others is a drain on our taxes, even if, as a minority, people decide to buy themselves out of that service.
Few people can escape from the wider environment in which they live and work. Again, most crudely, unsafe, ill-lit and filthy streets can be avoided by the very rich for most of the time but for the majority of people only part of the time.
But ‘One Nation’ cannot and should never be simply the avoidance of the most obvious injustice or collective suicide. It has to be about a great deal more than politics built on grievance and the unhappiness of a resentful and selfish public sphere. More than putting right the playing-off of public sector workers against those in private enterprise. The retired versus the young, the migrant versus the resentful and excluded. Or, the badly housed versus the homeless.
In other words, replacing the politics of Conservative division with a morally more superior and a politically more cohesive engagement.
For if we are to pull the nations of Britain together, the inner city with the rural hinterland, the more affluent south-east with the once-powerful and prosperous economic engine room of the north, it is involvement and that mutual sense of purpose which will be so vital.
Bringing people together, for their own benefit but also to counterweight global economic forces and powerful vested interests, will not only bring material gain, it will also be educative, informative and empowering.
One simple example (which, ironically, the present government are assisting) is what has become known as the Big Switch. Bringing people together to use the power of collective bargaining to reduce energy bills. This example can be seen as an essential part of the purpose of modern local government, as well as reinforcing civil society.
What, therefore, if a radical incoming Labour government offered the opportunity of both influence and affluence by engaging the power of people in underpinning the macro action in the economic and social policy of the government. Government and people together.
To fail to pay even minimal taxes in major developed countries is a scandal, but one that does not have to be tolerated. Yes, of course government has to act (sensibly) in cooperation with like-minded representative democracies elsewhere. But it has also a common-sense duty to mobilise and support its own electorate.
Boycotts have been used effectively over the decades in different parts of the world to combat injustice. The ‘strike’ of the consumer can and should be effective. Governments cannot and should not do this for people, but there is no reason at all why they should not facilitate and support such action.
Equally, changing the way in which we deliver our public services (as opposed to simply slashing and burning) offers common cause as much in Berkshire or Bedfordshire as it does in Bury or Bolton.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal enterprise was the driving force for innovation and enterprise in creating not only availability of clean water, but gas and electricity. The Goose and Burial Clubs of EP Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was followed by the creation of the embryo welfare state – bottom up, not top down.
So ‘earned entitlement’, the balancing of rights and duties, an understanding of mutual responsibility based on self-reliance, are ingrained in the values of those who count themselves to be social democrats.
Above all, in a rapidly changing world where global forces determine so much of our lives, from the elbow room of our elected representatives even to the survival of our planet, rooting what we stand for in the sense of belonging, wellbeing of the people we call our ‘fellow citizens’ and the liberation of talent has to be both common sense and good politics.
Turning this into practical reality that touches the day-to-day lives of those people is the challenge for the politics of the moment.
Our Treasurer Chris Weavers is chairing a policy discussion with Rt Hon David Blunkett MP in Parliament tomorrow, to attend click here.
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.
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?
Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement in 2013
I first got involved when I was working for MSF and was asked to go along to a meeting by Roger Lyons. I had no idea what it was all about, but what I found was a lively group of people and a great idea; providing a space in which trade unionists could come together to think about the future of unions. In this, Unions21 was unique; there was nowhere else in the union movement where this type of conversation was taking place.
One of the other characteristics of Unions 21 was that it had no formal ‘position’ and therefore could not be captured by anyone for a particular purpose. So those who took part did so because they were interested in the debate and not because they thought they could achieve a particular outcome. There were so many things to talk about. How should we respond to a changing economy? What could be done to organise better in the new workplaces. How did unions need to change the way they operate? And we asked these and many other questions by publishing articles, encouraging discussion and holding meetings and conferences. Read More…
NOSTALGIA IN a film about the career of the Reuther brothers, directed by one of their grandsons and narrated by Martin Sheen, is not unexpected. Their story is, after all, one of a battle between good and evil, between the hungry working class and ruthless corporate bosses, and even between strikers and paid mobsters. It is a tale of three brothers who began organising Detroit auto-workers in the 1920s and 1930s, and who quickly rose up through the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and AFL-CIO. Read More…
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…
Attending both TUC and Labour conferences, these days as a visitor or ex-officio as a local councillor, I was struck by a certain buzz there again.
Having a right-wing coalition government hostile to all we, as unions, stand for, accounts for much of it. People are beginning to stir again and there seems to be a ferment going on. This is particularly noticeable on the fringe, but many of the debates in these conferences were also lively.
I would say that our own, ‘History & Policy Trade Union Forum‘ fringe at the TUC was the best! With Lord John Monks, Professor Keith Ewing, Sarah Veale and yours truly, we explored the history of collective bargaining and union rights generally since the Combination Acts were repealed in 1824!