Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Eighteen:
Controlling food supplies

ONE CRUCIAL AREA damaged most seriously by the bureaucratically-imposed passivity was control over food supplies. At the beginning of the strike the government’s Supply and Transport Committee reported sizeable food stocks:

  1. Wheat and Flour
    Stocks between two to three weeks. Over country as a whole a maximum of six weeks’ supply, including farm stocks, which are not readily made available.
  2. Meat
    ... no shortage, so far as the country as a whole is concerned, is to be anticipated in the immediate future.
  3. Provisions
    a) Butter: ... rather above the average.
    b) Cheese: 3-4,000 tons in London and about 1,500 distributed between Liverpool and Bristol.
    c) Bacon: Normal.
    d) Sugar: Supplies in London heavy. Liverpool a little short. Bristol normal. Adequate supplies of raw sugar, but coal may stop supplies. ‘Dealers’ stocks of sugar are approximately three days and panic orders have been received for increased supplies. Co-operative Societies and the multiple shops have generally one or two weeks’ extra supply on hand. London refiners were working all night on the night of 30 April/1 May on delivery and clearance of sugar.
    e) Tea: 4–8 weeks’ supply over the country.
    f) Canned Milk: Fair stock with retailers, importers and wholesalers somewhat short. [1]

With ample food supplies in stock, the key problem for the workers on strike was who should control the movement of food in the country: should it be the government agency or the strike committees? As the Northumberland and Durham General Council Joint Strike Committee clearly saw:

the problem of the general strike can be focussed down to one thing – the struggle for food control. Who feeds the people wins the strike! [2]

However for the unions to control the feeding of the people, they had to challenge the power of the state by mounting mass pickets. Without them control over food distribution was impossible.

The TUC wanted to avoid confronting the state at any cost. On 1 May Walter Citrine, acting secretary of the TUC, wrote to Baldwin:

Dear Sir – I am directed to inform you that in the event of the strike of unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress taking place in support of the miners who have been locked out, the General Council is prepared to enter into arrangements for the distribution of essential foodstuffs.

Should the government desire to discuss the matter with the General Council they are available for that purpose.

The General Council will be glad to learn your wishes in this respect.


Yours faithfully,
Walter M. Citrine [3]

The government naturally declined Citrine’s offer to collaborate in food distribution. To accept dual control would have amounted to accepting dual power. On 3 May Winston Churchill, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin government and editor of the British Gazette during the strike, told the House of Commons:

I readily recognise the offer which was made to convey food and necessaries by the Trade Union Committee ... It may have been a wise thing for the trade unions to have done, but ... what government in the world could enter into partnership with a rival government, against which it is endeavouring to defend itself and society, and allow that rival government to sit in judgment on every train that runs and on every lorry on the road? [4]

Perhaps not many strikers used the term ‘dual power’, but local strike committees saw the importance of the issue. From the beginning permits to move food under union auspices were issued by local and national strike bodies. And if the strike was to be solid no road transport other than that with special permission from strike committees could be allowed. The Northumberland and Durham Joint Strike Committee reported: ‘... the mere rumble of wheels was something that weakened the morale of our men, and correspondingly cheered the other side.’

In most towns, central strike committees set up their own permit committees and assumed the function of coordinating the policies of individual unions over the issuing of permits or exemptions. The General Council did not encourage this tendency and issued instructions limiting the issue of permits to individual unions or joint transport committees, but the natural way for unions to sort out conflicting decisions and avert chaos was to turn to the local Councils of Action or central strike committees for a ruling. [5]

Alas, too many abuses of the permit system took place.

... the government forces had begun to practise forgery and evasion on a large scale. Toy rocking horses, bedding for blacklegs, and even coal were labelled FOOD ONLY, and local strike committee permits were being imitated. ‘People are often found masquerading as loaves of bread,’ remarked the Westminster Worker. [6]

The Merseyside Council of Action Strike Bulletin of 5 May stated:

Permits issued are being abused and vans labelled ‘Food Only’ are being used to transport blacklegs, metal and machinery, etc. These abuses may compel council to withdraw permits already issued.

The Doncaster Council of Action Strike Bulletin of 11 May reported: ‘A large number of brewery wagons conveying this beverage and marked "FOOD ONLY" pass through our streets.’ [7]

The permit system was like a sieve. G.A. Phillips writes:

... in the early stage of the stoppage, the movement of foodstuffs (and sometimes other commodities) by road from wholesalers to retailers and thence to customers was approved almost everywhere – whether by transport unions acting on their own behalf or by joint strike committees and their satellites. This was the practice of militant Councils of Action at Sheffield, Coventry, Preston, Cowdenbeath and the ‘red village’ of Chopwell in County Durham, as well as of organisations of more moderate complexion at Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff. It seems probable that, at this juncture, local strike leaders in many centres hoped to demonstrate the impotence of the government’s emergency provisions ... But the real objective of ‘the struggle for food control’ was not simply to secure a symbolic victory; if the unions could indeed establish the supremacy of their own permit system they would thereby be in a position to prohibit the movement of all ‘inessential’ commodities, and ensure that the General Strike established a stranglehold upon the whole economy. [8]

In only very few cases indeed did the permit system work effectively. On 7 May the National Strike Organisation Committee was told that the government system of distribution had broken down in Newcastle, Plymouth and Salford, and that in all three places the authorities had sought help in maintaining supplies, [9] but these were rare exceptions.

One factor could have aided union control over food movement: a firm agreement with the Cooperative Movement. The Co-ops had grown up as a movement for workers’ self-help in the nineteenth century and retained links with the trade unions and Labour. However things were not encouraging. Discussions between the Industrial Committee of the TUC, the MFGB representatives and the Cooperative Union took place on 16 February 1926. The Cooperative representatives complained about their experience in the miners’ dispute of 1921 when heavy financial advances were made that were still not repaid. They also referred indignantly to a statement by A.J. Cook in December 1925 at a meeting in South Wales, in which he said:

In the coming struggle there would be a new trinity ... a linking up of the miners’ cause with the political, industrial and cooperative movements. The cooperative movement would be the victualling movement for the fighting forces of labour.

The secretary of the Cooperative Union immediately wrote the following letter to Walter Citrine:

It is a great pity that Mr Cook cannot be ‘muzzled’. See his statement again this week that an arrangement has been come to for the Co-operative Movement to deal with the question in case of a crisis. This is causing a lot of discussion in the Cooperative Movement, because no such arrangement has been come to, and I think he ought to be a little more guarded in his statements, as it is making our position more difficult every time statements like that appear in the press. [10]

Now the Cooperative Union’s representative refused to guarantee any assistance to the unions unless the assets of the whole trade union movement were pledged in advance. Neither the Industrial Committee nor the General Council had the authority to give such a pledge. [11]

As no agreement had been reached, the Cooperative Wholesale Society issued a circular on 23 April warning its member societies not to grant credit. The estrangement of the Cooperative Movement from the strike led to a deputation of its directors going to see Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, President of the Board of Trade, on 8 May to ask for the assistance of government agencies where necessary to maintain services. [12] On its side the TUC made no ruling to give the Cooperative Societies favourable treatment on the issue of permits.

Despite the mutual distrust at the top, local relations between strike committees and Cooperatives were often very good indeed. Half the trades councils that responded to the Labour Research Department survey collected by Emile Burns reported that local Cooperative stores gave help to the strikers, usually in the form of credit. [13]

On 6 May, in face of the abuses of the permit system, Ernest Bevin declared on behalf of the TUC that no permits were to be issued by any individual trade union or trades council. A Joint Transport Committee was to be set up in every district, and ‘all existing permits must be reviewed by the Transport Committee at once.’ [14] It was also announced that a National Committee operating from Unity House (NUR headquarters) would deal with the release of foodstuffs. This announcement produced a sharp reaction in the government’s British Gazette, which accused the TUC of trying to blackmail the nation by holding up food supplies:

The situation is becoming more intense and the climax is not yet reached. Orders have been sent by the leaders of the railway and transport trade unions to do their utmost to paralyse and break down the supply of food and the necessaries of life.

An organised attempt is being made to starve the people and to wreck the state, and the legal and constitutional aspects are entering upon a new phase. [15]

The alternatives facing the trade union movement were stark: either to impose its will on the movement of foodstuffs by effective mass picketing, preventing the movement of all vehicles without permits, or to give way. The trade union leaders tried after a couple of days to avoid making the choice.

What was the TUC’s answer to the accusation by the British Gazette that it was aiming ‘to starve the people and to wreck the state’? The General Council published in the British Worker a long statement denying the government’s accusation, and including the following significant sentence: ‘The General Council has done nothing to imperil the food supplies; on the contrary, its members were instructed to co-operate with the government in maintaining them.’ [16] What pathetic crawlers!

Next day, 10 May, the General Council announced that it was giving up the struggle over the control of food supplies:


The General Council offered to assist in the distribution of food supplies in a letter sent to the prime minister before the strike was decided, but this offer was ignored. ... several local [government] bodies made arrangements with local Strike Committees and permits were issued by the latter.

It has now to be reported that the government has ordered such permits to be withdrawn in many places. In order to avoid conflict between the authorities and men on strike, the Council has felt it necessary to withdraw its permits in these cases. [17]

This was a complete capitulation to the government, giving up any semblance of control over food movement.

If the General Council had been serious about winning the strike, its answer should have been a tightening of control over the movement of foodstuffs by organising effecting mass picketing. A glimpse of what was possible can be gleaned from what happened in the North East.

On 6 May Martin Connolly, Labour MP for Newcastle East, stated in the House of Commons

that the OMS has entirely broken down, that the authorities have approached the trade unions and asked them to take over the vital services, and that the trade unions have consented to do so on condition that all extra police, all troops, and the OMS services shall be withdrawn. This has been done, and the city is going on all right. [18]

This was later denied by the Attorney General. What are the known facts? The Account of the Proceedings of the Northumberland and Durham General Council Joint Strike Committee tells the story: On the evening of 5 May James Tarbit, of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and a prominent member of both the General Council and the joint strike committee, informed the latter body that OMS volunteers had been brought on the quayside in order to unload foodstuffs. As a consequence, trade union labour already employed there under permit refused to continue working. An additional irritant was the mooring in the Tyne of two destroyers and a submarine. Later on the same evening, the Northern Division’s Food Officer, General Sir R.A. Kerr Montgomery, telephoned a request from Sir Kingsley Wood, Civil Commissioner for the North East, that he would like a meeting with Tarbit. Following a second telephone call, a meeting was arranged between the Civil Commissioner and three representatives of the joint strike committee, C.R. Flynn, secretary of the joint strike committee, James White, its chairman, and James Tarbit.

After the meeting the three representatives reported back to the joint strike committee. A long extract from the minutes taken at the meeting with the Civil Commissioner is worth including.

Wood had stated that his duty was to see that food supplies are maintained. There would, he said, be no interference if the trade unionists would continue to do the work. Tarbit had explained why the men had withdrawn their labour, [because of the presence of the OMS] ... Tarbit raised the question of unloading ships, part of which only was foodstuffs, and stated that his men would equally object to working with the Emergency Organisation ... if these people unloaded the other parts of the cargo. Wood asked what our proposal was in such cases. We made the suggestion to him that the ships could either go to anchorage in the river with their non-food cargoes on board, waiting the end of the dispute for complete discharge, or return to their port of origin. It was further represented by us to him, with the utmost emphasis, that he should take steps to have the naval contingent, which had been berthed alongside the quay, in a most provocative manner, moved back to the usual naval anchorage at Jarrow, as it was impossible for us to agree that our men should be forced to work under the shadow of their guns. Wood stated that he had no control over the Admiralty in this matter, but appeared to indicate that a suggestion from him to the commanders of the vessels might have the desired effect.

The following day’s meeting was similarly reported:

Wood stated that they agreed to take steps to see that no outside people were brought in. He suggested that so far as the quay is concerned, the trade unions appoint an officer to work in conjunction with an officer appointed by him, Wood, to deal with any trouble which might arise and to supervise the work. Generally, they (Wood and co) agreed to the definition of foodstuffs as outlined by the TUC and felt that no disagreement could arise on this head. We asked what would be the position regarding non-unionists and blacklegs, as our men would only acknowledge permits issued to the trade unionists by the strike committee. Wood replied: ‘They would welcome any suggestions which we can make inside the government scheme, but any questions of trade union labour loading and unloading vessels should be obviated by dual control.’ We suggested that this could only be met by clearing off the quay altogether and leaving the men who usually did the work to carry on as usual. He replied that he could not abrogate his functions or act contrary to the instructions he had received. Montgomery stated that the full extent to which they would go, and they were anxious that this should operate, was that ‘all men now doing their ordinary work should continue to do so.’ Wood concurred and stated ‘he would take any steps in conjunction with the executive here to see that this is carried out.’ A general discussion then took place in reference to non-union labour, and Montgomery stated that they would go as far as to see that any chauffeur whose normal work is not to drive the lorries would be put off. [19]

So determined action by dockers had forced the government’s representatives to offer the strike committee a share in the maintenance of essential services in the district. Whatever the strenuous denials by the government, the evidence supports the joint strike committee’s statement.

The workers’ initiative was to have further repercussions. Because the local rank and file had had a taste of their own power they were ready to fight when the government’s representatives reneged on their deal. When workers battled to regain control of food movements in the Newcastle and Durham area the state faced its greatest difficulties and there was the highest level of arrests. We shall return to this subject shortly.

The events in Newcastle throw light on the real revolutionary potential inherent in the struggle for control of food supplies. Alas, with the tight bureaucratic control over every aspect of the General Strike, this opportunity was nipped in the bud. If the strike had continued for any length the government effort would have been in jeopardy, notwithstanding the generally half-hearted approach of union officials to control of food supplies. After the event, Colonel Strange, South Western Divisional Food Officer, admitted how close he had come to a major confrontation. He recorded that local food stocks ran very low and that the ‘huge problem’ of replacing rail by road-borne transport was never thoroughly tested. ‘Had the General Strike lasted another fortnight or even another week’, he warned, ‘a very different story would have had to be recorded.’ [20]

The idea of workers’ control must have terrified the capitalists and the government. As one historian wrote:

The sight of these [permits] posted on the windshields of cars and lorries was as maddening to the government’s supporters as it was heartening to the strikers. [21]

What an inspiration to workers was even the limited power of giving or withholding permits can be seen from a letter of an Ashton sheetmetal worker in his union journal:

Employers of labour were coming, cap in hand, begging for permission to do certain things, or, to be more correct, to allow their workers to return to perform certain customary operations. ‘Please can I move a quantity of coal from such and such a place’ or ‘please can my transport workers move certain foodstuffs in this or that direction ...’ Most of them turned empty away after a most humiliating experience, for one and all were put through a stern questioning, just to make them realise that we and not they were the salt of the earth.

I thought of the many occasions when I had been turned empty away from the door of some workshop in a weary struggle to get the means to purchase the essentials of life for self and dependants ... I thought of the many occasions I had been called upon to meet these people in the never-ending struggle to obtain decent conditions for those around me, and its consequent result in my joining the ranks of the unemployed; of the cheap sneers when members of my class had attempted to rouse consciousness as to the real facts of the struggle ... The only tactic practised by some of them was bullying, and that was no use in a situation such as this; some tried persuasion, referring to us as Mr Chairman and Gentlemen, but only a rigid examination of the stern facts of the case moved our actions. The cap-in-hand position reversed. [22]

Alas, the potential for workers’ control was never actively developed and remained in its latent form. Many a chrysalis dies without turning into a butterfly.


1. CAB 27/331, Supply and Transport Committee Daily Bulletin, no. 1, 3 May 1926.

2. Mason, p. 18.

3. Quoted in Cook, p. 9.

4. Hansard, 3 May 1926.

5. Morris, p. 59.

6. Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, p. 34.

7. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

8. Philips, pp. 198–9.

9. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

10. TUC General Council, Report of Proceedings at a Special Conference of Executives, 20 January 1927, p. 72.

11. Report of Special Conference, p. 43.

12. CAB 23/52 28 (26), 10 May 1926.

13. Burns, pp. 55-6.

14. British Worker, 6 May 1926.

15. British Gazette, 8 May 1926.

16. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

17. British Worker, 10 May 1926.

18. Hansard, 6 May 1926.

19. Mason, pp. 55–8.

20. Jefferys and Hennessy, pp. 125–6.

21. C.L. Mowat, Britain between the Wars 1918–1940 (London 1983), p. 314.

22. ‘B.W.’ in Sheetmetal Workers’ Quarterly, October 1926, quoted in Postgate, Horrabin and Wilkinson, pp. 34–5.

Last updated on 20 August 2014