THERE has hardly been a moment since 1921 when the question of the miners’ conditions has not been to the forefront in the Labour movement. Promptly after the defeat of that year, the Communist Party and the Red International of Labour Unions initiated a campaign to revive the unions, to work for the ending of the ending of the “Black Friday” agreement, for a new wages agreement and the nationalisation of the mines, etc. On the initiative of the R.I.L.U. bureau, A. J. Cook (now secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain), S. O. Davies, Noah Ablett and a few other leaders of the South Wales Miners began the organisation of a Miners’ Minority Movement to campaign on the above lines. It me with increasing sympathy throughout the coalfields. By 1924, through the combined efforts of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, A. J. Cook was elected secretary of the Miners in place of F. Hodges. This development was taking place amidst a general revival of Labour activity.
The advent of the Labour Government gave an impetus to it, and produced some startling changes in the trade union leadership. A number of the Labour leaders who became members of the Government were also trade union leaders. Thomas of the Railwaymen, Clynes of the General Workers, Hodges of the Miners, Shaw of the Textile Workers, Bondfield of the General Workers, all of them “Right Wing” leaders, had to leave their trade union offices for “higher orders.” The effect on the trade unions was most marked. The leadership of the Trades Union Congress passed into the control of the “Left Wing”: Swales of the Engineers, Purcell of the Furnishing Trades, Hicks, of the Building Workers, Tillett of the Transport Workers. The political line of the Labour Government involved the “recognition” of Soviet Russia and naturally gave an impetus to fraternal relations between the British trade unions and the Russian trade unions, paving the way for the remarkable Hull Trades Union Congress which had considerable influence in revitalising the British trade unions. The National Minority Movement had just held its first national conference with 271 delegates representing 200,000 workers.
The Labour Government drove the trade unions back. upon their own resources by its continuation of the policy adopted by previous governments in relation to trade disputes. It made the same declarations about the “defence of the constitution” against strikes, and prepared the same kind of preparations for “a state of emergency” whilst expecting and calling for patience and toleration because it was a minority government. Under its influence, and the economic effects of the invasion of the Ruhr by the French military, the miners secured a temporary agreement embodying a slight increase of wages through an increase of what are known as the “percentage rates.” But the end of the Labour Government, after the signing of the Dawes Report and a modification of the Ruhr situation, saw the mineowners again on the warpath, preparing another offensive for the return to the eight hour day and the cutting of wages.
In order to disarm all opposition in the ranks of Labour as well as all other parties against any strike action the miners might be forced to take, they (the miners) urged and secured the action of the Labour Party in the House of Commons on behalf of a Miners’ Minimum Wage Bill. It was defeated by 208 Votes to 143. The only defence of the miners now depended, upon the forces outside Parliament-a fact which strengthened the efforts of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, both of whom were pushing ahead with a powerful campaign for an All-in Conference to prepare for general action against the oncoming wage reduction offensive of the employers. It was this campaign, taking the form of a series of local conferences, that paved the way for the Quadruple Alliance. Led by A. J. Cook and Herbert Smith (the president of the Miners’ Federation) they now made strenuous efforts to build a “quadruple Alliance” of Miners, Transport Workers, Railwaymen and Engineers. In this work, Bevin, the Leader of the Transport Workers, played a leading part; indeed he is credited with having drafted the scheme of the Alliance. To this plan of action the Communist Party and the Minority Movement gave immense support, while warning the workers against any rivalry between the new body and the Trades Union Congress and its General Council and keeping up its campaign for All-in Conferences. A Conference of the union executives was called for July 14th to consider the scheme. This conference in itself was an important innovation destined to play an important role in the future of the unions. The notorious Right Wing element, Thomas, Clynes and Brownlie of the Engineers, determined to place every obstacle in the way of the development of this alliance. They succeeded in preventing the scheme coming to fruition before the crisis came to a head, but the actual preparations and propaganda for the alliance helped to pave the way to the support of the whole trade union movement for the miners.
On June the 30th the mineowners gave one months’ notice to terminate the agreement and proposed the reduction of wages varying, from district to district, between 13.4 Per cent, and 47.9 per cent. on the basic rates. They also proposed the abolition of the national minimum and the establishment of new district minimum rates dependent upon the conditions in the various districts, and the provision of a guaranteed profit without relation to a guaranteed wage. These terms were promptly turned down by the Miners’ Executive, a body by no means revolutionary but bound by the emphatic decisions of repeated National Conferences. Another national conference was called, and this endorsed their attitude to the new proposals and the measures that had been taken to secure the support of the other trade unions. In quick succession came the conferences and the decisions. The Trades Union Congress gave support. The Executives of the unions gave support. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress issued a manifesto pledging full support. The Government appointed a “committee of inquiry” which gave very little support to the mineowners. Jix saw the revolution coming. And finally the following call to action was issued from the Trades Union Congress headquarters.
Official instructions to all Railway and Transport Workers, as agreed unanimously by a joint Conference of the N.U.R., A.S.L.E, and F., Railway Clerks Association and the Transport and General Workers’ Union Executives, and approved by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
1. Wagons containing coal must not be attached to any trains after midnight, Friday, July 31st, and after this time wagons must not be supplied to any industrial or commercial concerns, or be put on the tip roads at the docks for the coaling of ships.
2. All coal en route at midnight on Friday to be worked forward to the next siding suitable for storing it.
3. Any coal either in wagons or stock at a depot may be utilised at that depot for the purpose of coaling engines for passenger and goods trains but must not be moved from that depot to another.
1. All tippers and trimmers will cease work at the end of the second shift on July 31st.
2. On no account may import coal be handled from July 31st.
3. A general stoppage of men handling coal on other classes of tonnage on Friday midnight.
All men on canals, waterways, etc., engaged in carrying coal will cease Friday midnight, with the exception of men who have coal en route, who will be allowed to take it to their destination and tie up. Safety men for pumping will be permitted to work for safety purposes only.
All men engaged in delivering coal to commercial and industrial concerns will cease Friday night, July 31st. Men delivering for domestic purposes will cease at 12 noon, Saturday, August 1st.
For the purpose of carrying out these instructions the members of the organisations herein concerned shall, from each district establish small sub-committees so as to co-ordinate policy in giving effect to the same.
T.U.C. Special Committee,
GEORGE HICKS (President).
A.S.L.E. and F.,
O. W. SKINNER.
T. and G. W. U.,
T.U.C. General Council,
A. B. SWALES (Chairman).
W. M. CITRINE (Assistant Sec.).
J. BROMLEY (Sec.).
D. S. HUMPHRYS (Pres.).
W. DOBBIE (Pres.).
J. H. THOMAS (Pol. See.).
C. T. CRAMP (Ind. Sec.).
T. GILL (Pres. ).
A. G. WALKDEN (See.).
June, 29th, 1925
Here was “Red Friday” indeed!
For months and, months the Communist Party and the Minority Movement had been hammering away at the job of getting all the forces of the movement behind the miners. They had organised All-in Conferences in the districts, agitated for the Quadruple Alliance, demanded more power , to the General Council, urged the affiliation of the Trades Councils to the Trades Union Congress, called for the unions to table their demands simultaneously, for the formation of Workers’ Defence Corps, for the preservation of the seven hour day for the miners, for nationalisation of the mines and minerals without compensation to the owners, for workers’ control of the mines, for an alliance of the unions and the Co-operative Union—and here we were witness to the whole union movement travelling along the same route! At the same time every phase of the propaganda we had conducted was finding confirmation every hour. We had warned the workers that the attack on the miners was the beginning of a general attack and Mr. Baldwin on the day of the issue of the above orders conducted the following conversation with the miners.
Miners: “But what you propose means a reduction of wages.”
Mr. Baldwin: “Yes. All the workers of this country have got to face a reduction of wages.”
Miners: “What do you mean?”
Mr. Baldwin: “I mean all the workers of this country have got to face a reduction of wages to put industry on its feet.”
That the trade union leaders knew the implications of their decision there is not the slightest doubt. Mr. Cramp, Chairman of the Labour Party and Industrial Secretary of the N.U.R. said, on July 2:
“This will be the nearest approach to a general industrial upheaval and no man can say what will be the ultimate outcome. . . If men refuse to handle coal on our instructions and are suspended or dismissed we shall naturally protect them. If the railway companies were to take that action it would mean. only one thing—the whole of the railwaymen would be embroiled.”
All the leaders were busy making similar statements with few exceptions. Of course Mr. Thomas was still looking, for an “open door” and Mr. MacDonald was on the look out for a “silver lining.” They did not like the way things were going, naturally.
But more shocking still was a further action taken by the trade union members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. For some time the Communist Party had been agitating for the Parliamentary Labour Party to obstruct the business of the House of Commons until action should be taken to relieve the position of the unemployed. When lo, this section of the Parliamentary Labour Party sent a delegation to Mr. MacDonald to say:
“That it was the unanimous opinion of the group that if a stoppage occurs, the Labour Party should take organised and effective action in the House of Commons, as from Monday, to hold up all Parliamentary business other than discussion of the industrial situation.”
MacDonald promised to lay the matter before the Executive of the Parliamentary Party, but how his soul must have revolted at this violation of his sacred democratic formalism!
All this however was not to be put to the test as yet. The Government called a truce. Mr. Baldwin slipped the subsidy card on the table at the last moment: £20,000,000 for the mineowners, continuation of the existing wages and hours for the miners, a special enquiry by an impartial commission. The die-bards, led by Sir William Joynson-Hicks, were thoroughly annoyed. They wanted to call the bluff of the Congress at once. The mineowners were annoyed, or at least pretended to be. The Labour Movement was jubilant at the “bloodless victory.” Thus began
The ferment which followed was tremendous. The capitalist class in general was really vexed, and so were Mr. MacDonald and a number of other parliamentarians, in spite of the fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party passed a resolution unanimously congratulating the General Council and the miners. Of course there were good grounds for annoyance. Was it not generally recognised that the miners and the General Council and the Parliamentary group had been pursuing the Communist policy? Indeed Mr. MacDonald was very angry with the Government. He declared:
“The Conservative Government came into office because it was supposed to be a law and order government. It had yielded. It had come to a conclusion that was sound, but by a way that was abominably bad. It had increased the power, the reputation, and the prestige of everyone of those elements that did not believe in political action at all.
“It has simply handed over the appearance of victory to the very forces that sane, well considered, thoroughly well-examined Socialism feels to be probably its greatest enemy and the biggest chance that reaction had got in this country now.... The Tory Government in its foreign policy, its attitude to Russia, its attitude at home, the methods that it had adopted to bring this temporary settlement into being, has sided with the wildest Bolshevik, if not in words, certainly in fact and in substance.”
He was compelled to issue an “explanation” later to say that he did not mean the Bolsheviks on the General Council, but the Communist Party.
But the Communist Party had no illusions on the matter. It stated clearly at once that the intention behind the truce was to prepare for a real smashing attack and that the workers must at once take advantage of the agreement to prepare for May 1st, 1926. Every issue of the “Workers’ Weekly” from that date numbered off the weeks as they went by, and asked what was being done, while putting forward the measures that should be taken. The capitalist class made no mistake on the question. Mr. Baldwin promptly said that, in the event of united strike action on the part of the unions, he would use all the powers of the State to defeat them. Lord Londonderry declared “that whatever it may cost in blood and treasure” in the circumstances foreshadowed by Mr. Baldwin and threatened by the unions “they would smash the unions from top to bottom.”
Immediately it became generally agreed that it was a truce. But did that mean that the union leaders, the Labour Party leaders, the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Party were going to discuss thoroughly the lessons of the crisis and make effective preparations? Let us see. For just about a month the “Daily Herald” gave publicity to these statements and opened its columns to a number of trade union and Labour leaders who swelled the chorus “Prepare.” Mr. Wheatley, a leader of the I.L.P. and a late member of the Labour Cabinet, went further than the rest of them and said:
“That we were rapidly moving towards a revolutionary crisis, when the fate of the working class would depend upon whether their working class brothers in the Army and Navy would shoot them or line up with them.”
Mr. Bevin took him to task and wanted to know more definitely what he meant. He declared for folded arms and pacifism! Right in the midst of this the Communist Party addressed a letter to the Labour Party Executive and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in which we said that we agreed with the warning note that was being raised concerning the rôle of the army and navy in the event of the unity that had been established being called into action, and suggested that it would be a wise policy on the part of the Labour movement to tell the soldiers and sailors the truth about the situation.
With one accord the Labour press with the exception of the “Herald” bowled at the Communist Party. The “Herald” was struck dumb. Mr. Citrine, the acting secretary of the Trades Union Congress tumbled over himself to assure everybody that the Trades Union Congress would take no notice of us. In short the capitalist class was assured that so far as these gentlemen were concerned their army was as sound as a bell and secure from any “interference.” The soundness of the “Unity” at once unfolded itself. The Communist Party thus called the bluff long before the Tory Government ended the truce. The simple request of the Communist Party to the Labour leaders to take the next logical step in the preparations for May 1st punctured the balloon of “Unity.” The discussion about these preparations ceased, so far as they were concerned, with the exception of those openly identified with the Minority Movement, such as A. J. Cook, and a few leaders associated with “Lansbury’s Labour Weekly.”
That we were not shrinking from the issue the Communist Press will bear witness. In the “Communist Review” for September, 1925, I wrote:
“Immediately the Government had begun to move its Fascisti forces to blackleg, and the Army to protect the blacklegs, its Navy to man the pumps, and its special constables to assist the ordinary police force, there would undoubtedly, judging from recent utterances, have been such a hurrying and scurrying amongst the leaders as marked the days around Black Friday, 1921.
“. . . . let us be clear on what the General Strike means. It can only mean the throwing down of the gauntlet to the capitalist State, and all the powers at its disposal. Either that challenge is only a gesture, in which case the capitalist class need not worry about it, or it must develop its challenge into an actual fight for power, in which case we land into civil war. Any leaders who talk about a General Strike without facing those obvious facts are bluffing both themselves and the workers.”
But time waits for no one. The Trades Union Congress came in October and from its decisions it was clear that changes were taking place within it that pointed clearly the way the wind was blowing. And it was not in the direction of preparations’ for struggle. A number of important resolutions were passed that had been pioneered by the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. These thoroughly annoyed the capitalist press and the supporters of MacDonald and Thomas. The Congress denounced Imperialism in unqualified terms, condemned the Dawes Plan and pledged itself anew to International T.U. Unity. But it postponed decision on the question of power to the General Council, through the combined manuvres of the Right Wing elements and Mr. Bevin. Then it elected Thomas again, along with Miss Bondfield, on to the General Council. Later Mr. Pugh of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation became chairman and the Council was once more dominated by the reactionaries.
Immediately afterwards the Labour Party met in annual Conference at Liverpool. It adopted resolutions the opposite of the Scarborough resolutions, and whereas the Miners’ Federation had voted against compensation to the royalty owners, the Labour Conference voted in favour of compensation. In addition the whole Right Wing of the Labour Party mustered its full forces to expel the Communists and denounce the class war. Forgetting all its experience, how that three times already, in flat contradiction to its theories, it had been party, to actions openly acknowledged as leading to the General Strike, a distinctly class war weapon, it rhapsodied about what it would do when it had secured a Labour Government with a majority. Its pledges to the miners were forgotten and not the slightest indication of what it would do in the coming crisis of May, 1926, emanated from the Conference. Apart from the Communists in the Conference, not a single Speaker dealt with any of the realities of the class war.
After the Conference it proceeded to wait for the Report of the Coal Commission. But not so the Government. Taking the Labour Party decisions against the Communist Party as an open invitation to suppress the latter, the Government proceeded to arrest twelve leaders of the Party in the hope of so weakening its activity that the Party would die. Mr. Thomas had written in the “Weekly Dispatch” “Smash them or they will smash us.” The Government at least tried to oblige. It also proceeded to patronise the organisation pioneered by leading members of the Conservative Party who were ready to do what Lord Londonderry (a mineowner) had declared they would do in the event of a general strike. This organisation was known as the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies and professed to aim at the defence of the “Community” against the effects of a general strike. Magistrates acted leniently towards the Fascisti and advised them to join the O.M.S. and police forces. The Home Secretary gave special attention to the police forces. Others gave attention especially to the army and navy and air force. In short the whole forces of the State were thoroughly overhauled, and the nearer we came to May 1st the closer came the auxiliary forces “O.M.S.,” special constables, etc., to the Government. Finally leaders of the Fascisti left their organisation declaring that the O.M.S. sufficed for all that they intended.
Meanwhile the Labour Party waited for the-Coal Commission’s Report. The I.L.P. waited for the Coal Commission’s Report. All in the hope that “peace” would be preserved. They busily denounced the efforts of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. They said the formation of Workers’ Defence Corps was “provoking the other side to make preparations,” as if the ruling class had not already a powerful police force, army and navy and air force, long, long before the miners’ crisis, and had used them too long before the Communist Party had come into existence.
There is only need to add the statement of a leading member of the I.L.P., in the “New Leader” of May 21, 26. Mr. H. N. Brailsford writes after the event:
“When the General Council, after the July crisis, faced the probability that it would recur in May, it failed to realise the need for cool preparation and clear thinking. The creation of the O.M.S. was enough to remind it of that duty. A sub-committee was, indeed, set up: plans for maintaining supplies and creating a Defence Corps were discussed, but in the end it reported to the effect that preparation was impossible, and that plans could be improvised when the emergency arrived.”
So much for the General Council’s preparations. On the General Council are a number of members of the I.L.P. They said nothing. The I.L.P. had had its conference and it said nothing. The same writer only a fortnight before the General Strike wrote in the same paper dated April 16th, 1925:
“Is it merely a stiffly argued dialogue to which we are listening, or is it the prelude to, a violent melodrama of action? . . . All of us have been waiting for the protagonists to speak. Silence within the Labour Movement has become a test of loyalty. This reserve was inevitable and within limits it was proper. It is not for outsiders to incite the miners to fight: still less is it their business to remind them of the risks they run.”
Later he says that if the mineowners force a fight the whole Labour movement will render support to the miners, but this attitude of a political party being “an outsider,” a spectator, characterised the whole I.L.P., and no preparations came from them. Indeed it did worse than nothing. When both the Labour Party and the I.L.P. were invited to make a united front with the Communist Party on the following issues both parties refused. The issues were:
1. Nationalisation of the Mines.
2. A living wage for the miners based on the cost of living.
3. 100 per cent. trade unionism.
4. Workers’ Self-defence against the O.M.S.
The letters to both parties were sent early in March, 1926.
During the whole of this period the Communist Party and the Minority Movement were alone in striving for adequate preparations to be made. With few exceptions even the miners’ leaders were content to drift with the rest of the trade unions. The lines advocated by Communists and the Minority Movement, while the rest were waiting for the Coal Commission’s Report and another trump card to slip from Mr. Baldwin’s sleeve, were definite and clear. An Executive Committee meeting of the Communist Party held on January 9th and 10th, 1926, issued the following programme of action and all its succeeding actions were devoted to carrying it through.
The present industrial situation and the crisis looming ahead fully justify the Communist Party’s warning to the workers that the capitalist class is determined to return to the offensive, on an even more gigantic scale than last July.
The miners, after the breathing space bought for the owners by the means of a subsidy, and the sham impartiality of the Coal Commission, are now threatened with an open attack on the seven-hour day, on the Miners’ Federation and on wages.
The owners have thrown disguise to the winds.
The attack on the miners is the most violent and unashamed: but workers in most of the industries are faced with similar attacks.
The railwaymen are threatened with wage cuts; the engineers with longer hours; the builders with abolition of craft control won by years of sacrifice.
Coupled with this, nearly two million workers remain unemployed. By artificial and brutal administrative restrictions, thousands have been struck off the register, and refused unemployment benefit. They have become completely dependent on the Poor Law authorities, and the crushing burden of maintaining this huge army of reserve workers against possible strikes or lock-outs falls entirely upon local taxation.
These facts, taken together with the steady, if unobtrusive organisation of the O.M.S., point to a definite determination on the part of the British capitalists to prevent a repetition of Red Friday, to challenge the organised Labour movement and smash it, and to drive the workers down to coolie conditions. By this means they hope to achieve the impossible task of stabilising their system, undermined by war, ruin of foreign markets, chaos in production, and hideous exploitation of colonial workers.
The struggle now opening is of a magnitude hitherto unknown. But this enlarged meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party believes that the workers can meet the capitalist attack and smash it, as on Red Friday.
More: we believe that the British workers can turn their defensive into an offensive, and present a common demand for better conditions which will be the prelude to a complete victory over the capitalists.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party declares that the following steps are urgently necessary in order to ensure that the workers’ forces are properly organised against the capitalist attack, and instructs all Party members to regard a campaign for those measures as their main and immediate tasks in their respective trade unions:
1. Summoning by the General Council of a Conference of Trade Union E.C.’s in accordance with Scarborough decisions, to give wider power to the G.C. to lead the whole workers’ industrial army.
2. In addition to the campaign for granting full E.C. powers to the G.C., the completion of the Workers’ Industrial Alliance, to reinforce the workers’ defensive preparations against the coming crisis, and in particular the inclusion of the N.U.R., A.E.U., Boilermakers’ and General Workers, etc.
3. A working agreement between the G.C. and the C.W.S., to ensure provisioning the workers, and a policy of mutual support between the two National centres of the T.U. and Co-operative movements, the T.U.C. and the Co-operative Union.
4. Formation of Factory Committees elected by all workers irrespective of craft or sex, in accordance with the Scarborough resolution, to ensure unity of the workers from the bottom, and the calling by the Trades Councils and District Committees of conferences to ensure union support for these committees.
5. A national campaign for 100 per cent. trade unionism, including a National Show Cards week. Special attention to be paid to bringing all young workers, including apprentices, into the unions.
6. Organisation of Workers’ Defence Corps, composed of trade unionists, and controlled by Trades Councils, to protect trade union liberties against the Fascisti, and calling upon the General Council to take steps to place the workers’ case before the workers in the Army, Navy and Air Forces.
7. Formulation of a common Programme for the whole movement (£4 a week for 44 hours), supplementary to the special demand’s of each industry (Railway All-Grades Programme, Miners’ Cost-of-living Scale, Engineers 20s. demand, etc.).
8. The strengthening of the relations between the G. C. and N.U.W-.C.M. in order to secure the realisation of the unemployed demands, as a counter to the capitalist attempt to force the unemployed into blacklegging.
The Central Committee instructs the Political Bureau to pursue this policy, to strength its support of the N.U.W.C.M. and the Minority Movement, and to direct the efforts of the Party members throughout the Labour Movement, in such a manner as to ensure the most complete unity of all working class forces in resisting the latest attack of the employers, and in transforming each resistance into an irresistible advance which shall help completely to shatter the power of capitalism.
In particular this Enlarged Executive declares that the Industrial Crisis emphasises the correctness of the Party Policy, in insisting upon the transformation of the Party on to a factory group basis, by the formation of militant Party groups in every factory, pit and workshop, and upon greater attention being paid to the functioning and extension of our Party fractions in trade unions and Trades Councils. The Political Bureau should strengthen its work among women.
To the miners it set forth a minimum programme which it urged them to place not only before the Coal Commission but to make it the basis of their immediate struggle.
1. No lengthening of hours.
2. No District Agreements, which means the smashing of the M.F.G.B.
3. No reductions in wages.
4. Wages on cost of living basis.
Then it threw its energies into the efforts of the Minority Movement to organise the special National Conference of Action for March 2zst, 1926. In spite of the rebuffs of the I.L.P. and the Labour Party the efforts of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement were an unbounded success. 883 delegates, representing 547 organisations, inclusive of fifty-two Trades Councils, were present. These represented, all told, approximately one million workers. Following the lead of the Communist Party it passed a comprehensive resolution which reads:
The preparations for the capitalist offensive assume ever larger dimensions. The present industrial position is full of menace and the attack threatens to be the most colossal in the history of the working class movement.
Just as last July, so to-day it is imperative that all the forces of the working class movement should be mobilised under one central leadership to repel the attack and to secure the demands of every section of the workers.
Once again the General Council must take the lead: once again the entire movement must be gathered together for the fight.
This Conference of Action, therefore, calls upon all supporters of the Minority Movement and the workers generally to:
(1) Urge each Trades Council to constitute itself a Council of Action by mobilising all the forces of the working class movement in its locality: (the trade union branches, the organised unemployed, the Co-operative Guilds, and the workers’ political organisations); by organising 100 per cent. trade unionism; special attention to be paid to the organisation of young workers and a campaign be commenced to organise the unorganised women workers; building up workshop organisation; by calling special conferences of affiliated members; by holding continuous mass demonstrations in support of the sections attacked; by bringing pressure to bear on the local authorities to secure relief for those rendered destitute during the struggles; by establishing as far as means permit a commissariat department in conjunction with the local co-operatives; by using every means to bring all the workers, men and women, organised and unorganised into the struggle.
(2) Urge the General Council immediately to convene a National Congress of Action, at which plans shall be prepared for:
(a) The complete scientific utilisation of the whole trade union movement in the struggle.
(b) Securing the co-operation of the co-operative organisations.
(c) Securing the active participation of the Parliamentary and National Labour Parties in the organisation of the struggle by placing themselves at the disposal of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
(d) Urging the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to take steps to ensure the full support of the international Trade Union Movement for the struggle of the British working class.
Meanwhile the Coal Commission sat and it reported. Who are the Coal Commission, do you ask? I beg to introduce the gentlemen of the Coal Commission, selected for their acumen as bankers and economists. (That was to ensure their “impartiality.”)
Right Honourable Sir Herbert Samuel, P.C., G.B.E. Educated Balliol College, Oxford. Postmaster-General, 1910-1914; late High Commissioner of Palestine. Brother of Sir Stuart Montagu Samuel, Baronet, of the banking firm of Samuel Montagu and Co.
General Hon. Sir H. Lawrence. Retired from Army, 1922. Managing partner of Glyn, Mills and Co., bankers. Director of Vickers, Ltd., London, Midland and Scottish Railway, Electric Holdings, Limited, seven other companies, including three foreign banks.
Sir William Beveridge, K.C.B. Educated Balliol College, Oxford. Formerly leader writer for the “Morning Post.” Later in Board of Trade. Invented Labour Exchanges, now Director of London School of Economics.
Kenneth Lee, Esq., textile capitalist. Chairman of Tootal, Broadhurst, Lee and Co., Ltd., and of the District Bank.
This august body held 33 public sittings for the taking of evidence and examined 76 witnesses. They also “caused to be inspected on our behalf 42 mines, in various parts of the country, selected by the Miners’ Federation as offering special grounds for complaint, on account of hindrances to output clue to inefficient management or other causes.” They also visited 25 mines in Lancashire, Scotland, Yorkshire and South Wales and inspected parts of the underground workings of several of these. Out of this mass of evidence and experience they presented their report.
Whatever else may be said about the Commission it could be guaranteed in advance against any socialistic recommendations. Besides the current problems of the industry it was faced with the necessity of undoing the work of the Sankey Commission. The latter had already asserted that the condition of the mining industry warranted the Government of the day taking action to nationalise the mines. If there was one recommendation more than another which the Samuel Commission could be guaranteed in advance not to endorse it was that of nationalisation. But it could be guaranteed to examine thoroughly the economics of the industry and bring forward such recommendations as would be in accord with the interests of the banks and big industry.
What was the problem they had to tackle? In a previous chapter I have already shown the basis of the conflict between the mineowners and the miners in terms of wages and profits and hours of labour. But the incidence of the struggle remains to be explained. Two things were noticeable in the figures given. First that the total profits of the industry were lucrative, and the mineowners had done exceedingly well over a number of years. Whatever the difficulties of the industry they had succeeded in transferring them on to the backs of the miners. How they had transferred them is revealed in the variable district rates of wages.
The fact that there are district rates of wages at once brings us to the peculiarities of the industry which distinguish it from other industries. The coalfields themselves vary in many ways—in the kind of coal, serviceable for import or export, in the geological difficulties attending its exploitation, in the age of the mining operations, etc., and the multitude of owners with varying capital at their disposal. The total number of separate collieries is about 3,150 owned by abort 1,500 separate concerns, who endeavour to run the pits as separate entities governed by their own peculiar conditions. The only thing about which there appears to be any unanimity on a national scale is their common determination to maintain their “own business” and keep the miners in subjection.
The businesses vary in size and equipment, age and methods of work. According to evidence of the M.F.G.B. to the Commission, 154 of the more important collieries, having an output of 300,000 tons or over, have 852 directors’ seats which were actually held by 587 separate individuals. Of the 587 individuals, 361 were not only concerned in colliery companies, but were also directors of 869 other companies. The actual dead weight of cramping conservatism weighing upon the industry can therefore be well appreciated. Each concern struggles against absorption by the others, yet when they combined together against the miners they, naturally sought to make terms which would keep the worst of them going at a profit, a process to which the better equipped did not object because it helped to guarantee bigger profits to them. Of all the industries of Britain it is questionable whether there is one where the contradictions are more numerous and the conservatism of the owners is stronger. And behind the present struggle is a century of struggle wherein the miners have steadily fought their way up against this conservatism to the point of national organisation, convinced that their only hope lies in the nationalisation of the mines.
The problems attendant on these struggles the Commission had to face and at the same time avoid. justifying the miners’ demand for nationalisation of the mines. It proceeded to examine the home and export trade on the principle of “seeing what the market demanded.” They came to the conclusion that the trouble did not lie in the home market, apart from the amount of coal used in the manufacture of pig iron which had fallen 7 per cent. as compared with 1913, and the amount used for ships’ bunkers which had fallen from 19.6 million tons annually in the pre-war years to 16.2 millions in 1925. The latter they attributed to the general fall in foreign coal trade and the increased use of oil for shipping.
“We may estimate the extent of the change by comparing the gross tonnage of vessels registered by Lloyds as being fitted for burning oil, which rose from 1½ millions before the war to 20½ millions in 1925. Meanwhile the corresponding figures for coal burning vessels fell from 44 to 42 millions.”
Nevertheless they were of the opinion that both the amount for bunkers and the amount for the iron and steel industry were affected by the “general depression.”
Then they had to face the question of the export trade. Here they came to the following conclusions:
1. “The depression in the British coal export trade (which had fallen from 88.7 million tons in 1913 to 68.9 million tons in 1925), is, in the main part of a general depression, affecting almost all European coal-producing countries: an excess of supply over demand caused partly by the impoverishment of customers, partly by the development of new coalfields and partly by the increased use of substitutes.
2. “To a lesser extent it is due to the competition of foreign countries with us in the coal export trade, especially that of Germany.”
The latter conclusion it fails to establish with any degree of satisfaction. For according to the Westminster Bank Review for September, 1925, the British proportion of total world coal exports was 50 per cent. in 1913, 60 per cent. in 1922 and 55 per cent. in 1924. There is no indication in these figures that there is a grave necessity to cut prices, unless it is the intention of the British coal exporters to set the pace in cut-throat competition. The Commission hides this fact in an array of figures showing that the British share of the world’s total coal consumption has fallen from 9.8 per cent. to 7 per cent. in ten years. The scare about German competition, if it means anything at all, is at bottom an outcry against the effects of reparations coal, which has heavily hit British coal exports to Italy and France. A further fact which is passed over without comment is that South Africa and Australia, two important sections of the Empire, have along with Japan swept British coal out of the Australasian and Far Eastern markets. Had the Commission had courage enough to tell the truth they would have said “The British Coal Industry is not only hampered by Conservative stupid coal owners, but it is now paying the price of victory in the war for the growth of important colonies into coal exporting countries and the intensification of the contradictions within capitalism which accompany its growth throughout the world.”
But the crisis they call “a depression,” the competition is accepted as a thing of divine creation which must not be tampered with, and uncomfortable facts concerning the Empire and the results of their own policy they gloss over as of little account. Then they proceed to unload themselves upon British industry to see what they can do to intensify the process that has brought them to the present state of affairs. To the coalowners they address themselves as “gentlemen of the family in trouble” and urge them to adopt more up-to-date methods of exploitation and competition. Supporting big business as true bankers usually do they urge the swallowing of the little concerns, the trustification of the industry and the transformation of royalty owners into bond holders. They prove with a mass of figures that large industry is superior to small industry, take the employers to task (gently of course) for not having taken a deeper interest in research work, and tell them all about what is being done in other countries.
Turning their attention to the miners they discuss learnedly the differences in wage rates, go through the schedules in detail and elaborate the peculiarities of the industry which I have already mentioned, and whilst talking of a national settlement weight the scales in the direction of district settlements. They discuss the question of the hours of labour and whilst saying they do not recommend a lengthening of hours proceed to elaborate the need for a reshuffling of hours, changes in the shift system, etc., that would in effect lead inevitably to the longer working day. Finally after juggling with the wage scales, toying with the question of family allowances, talking about pit-head baths and cooperative selling and other nice things that have gone the rounds of Labour and Socialist circles for years, they come regretfully but firmly to the conclusion that the subsidy must come to an end and wages must be reduced.
Equally emphatic was its rejection of the Labour Party’s proposals, placed before the Commission in the name of the Miners’ Federation, the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party. These were founded on the basis of nationalisation and ran as follows:—
“We suggest that the coal industry should become an organisation for mining coal, manufacturing electrical power on a very large scale, making both coke and smokeless fuel, oils, ammonium compounds, chemical base materials from tars and other by-products.
“We propose that this transformed industry should be nationally owned.”—“The Labour Magazine,” Feb. 1926.
On the basis of this plan they erected a kind of Guild Socialist plan, ranging from commissions answerable to the Board of Trade, national councils, and provincial councils, to pit and works committees and so on. In fact quite a delightful utopia. But I must not forget to mention the scheme included transforming royalty owners into bond holders and the State finally having the royalties.
The Commission directed itself mainly to the question of nationalisation. It used evidence submitted by the M.F.G.B. and gave a reply which should be pondered over by the workers and all those who think of the mechanical development of capitalism through nationalisation to Socialism. The evidence of the miners said:
“It appears that the typical coal mining concern is becoming more and more a complex unit. In some cases it is becoming a unit which so far transcends ordinary industrial divisions that it can only be described as a heavy industry unit.”
The Commission said: “We concur in this analysis. We believe that in the future coal mining will be found to have become an integral part of the great industrial complex, which will comprise also electricity, smokeless fuel, gas, oil, chemical products, blast furnaces, and possibly other activities.” Then it went on:
“But the scheme suggested does not propose to nationalise at this stage or for an indefinite time in the future, any part of the vast combination which is being gradually evolved, except the mines themselves and those coking plants which are situated at the collieries. . . . By removing these mines into State ownership, the very sections of industry which already approach the standards that are likely to prevail in the future would be the most injured. Existing combinations would be disintegrated, and a serious obstacle would be raised against further integrations.”
This says plainly that the problem of nationalisation of any large industry raises at once the whole question of class power, which the Labour Party and the Trade Union leaders as yet refuse to face.
The Commission turned down nationalisation. Naturally. That is one of the things it came into existence to do. But it presented a report which toyed so much with the trimmings of the Labour Party schemes that had not the mineowners been stupid bunglers or parties to the Government plan to get a General Strike they could have had the Labour movement divided against itself to such an extent that the miners would never have got the unanimous support which they did get, and the General Strike would have been impossible.
When the Report was issued Mr. Baldwin adopted a hush hush policy, begging that before anybody ventured to say anything further they would read this lengthy document, and study it in detail. The General Council and the Miners’ leaders together begged that there should be silence pending the study of the document and the publishing of an official statement. Mr. MacDonald said:
“The report is a conspicuous landmark in the history of political thought, and is indeed one of the strongest indictments of private enterprise that has ever been issued as an official paper. . . . The stars in their courses are fighting for us. . . . The miners’ leaders have very wisely advised that tongues should be silent for the time being. . . .”—“Forward,” March 19th, 1926.
Six weeks from May 1st!
Mr. Henderson, Secretary of the Labour Party said:
“That provided that any further degradation of the standard of life of those who produced coal under great risk and exceptional trying conditions was avoided, he believed that within the limits of the report something could be done to restore the prosperity of the industry.”
Mr. Cramp, Chairman of the Labour Party and Industrial Secretary of the N.U.R. addressed himself to the railways side of the Report and said:
“National problems had to be faced more in the spirit of national efficiency. . . . ”—(Edinburgh, March 12th, 1926.)
The I.L.P. organ “The New Leader” said on March 12th, 1926:
“The reading of the Coal Commission’s Report has affected us as no printed words have affected us since Sir Edward Grey addressed the House of Commons on that fatal Monday in August, 1914. Its tone, like his, is judicial. It holds the balance between the contending sides. . . Each side must make its reckoning. The miners know the risks of resistance when the market is fatally against them and their war chest is empty. But they also know that the railwaymen were with difficulty turned back from a strike the other day, and that the engineers are also challenged. The strike if it comes, cannot fail to be bitter, and general and revolutionary in its character. The opposing forces reckon on a victory won by starvation of the workers and violence of their semi-Fascist organisations. . . .
“Our own view is, that while it prepares with all its courage and steadfastness for a decisive struggle, the Labour Movement should address itself first of all to the good sense and the corporate conscience of the nation. For the sake of a sister people, in peril, this nation shouldered in 1914, a colossal burden. It loaded itself with debt. It taxed itself with stern severity. A subsidy means that it should recognise for a time the claims of men who are its kith and kin, part of itself, the very source of its life and power. To aid them through the period of re-organisation means at the worst a trifling addition to income-tax or super-tax. Will it accept the duty of solidarity or will it call for industrial war?”
Some preparation for a revolutionary struggle!
The answer of the Communist Party was: “The report of the Coal Commission is a political document of first-class importance. The contentions of the Communist Party have been, once again, vindicated. Their contention that the Commission was only a subterfuge to cloak the preparations for an attack on the wages and conditions of the miners is amply borne out by this report.
“Ever since the tremendous and magnificent display of solidarity by the workers on Red Friday, 1925, the employing class have used every device to split the working class into isolated sections. They were particularly successful in creating friction between the engineers and the building trades over the question of steel houses. They attempted the separation of the railwaymen by the Award of the National Wages Board. Their ultimatum to the engineering trades over the question of Hoe’s is yet another incident revealing the strategy of the capitalist class.
“In each of these partial conflicts the workers have lost ground. In the case of steel houses the wage standards of the building trades are threatened. In the case of the railwaymen two grades of workers will be doing equal work for unequal pay. In the case of the engineers, after two years’ negotiations, for an improved standard, they are threatened with the lock-out and extended hours of labour.
“And now the miners are faced definitely with reductions of wage scales which are already much below subsistence level.
“Reduction of wages-that is the cardinal point of the Report, which lays bare the full class character of the struggle and demons rates that there is no alternative which does not involve either an attack on wages and hours or an attack on existing capitalist ownership.
“The Commission’s Report is a declaration of war against the miners and the whole working class movement by the capitalist class, with the full power of the State machine’ mobilised at their back.
“The Commission’s proposal to withdraw the subsidy will mean an almost total cessation of the export trade with the .closing of pits and unemployment resulting.
“The subsidy has served its purpose well; it not only staved off the clash of forces last July. It was even more useful to the capitalist class in regaining European markets, giving them and their European colleagues a level by which to drive down still further the conditions of the European workers—who in turn they hope to use as a lever to worsen the conditions of the British workers. Finally, it gave them a breathing space in which to mobilise all their forces for an open struggle against the workers.
“To maintain their export trade without the subsidy will entail a far greater reduction of working costs than the proposed reduction from 33 per cent. to 20 per cent. over the basic rates. The proposed reduction of the higher rated men to assist in maintaining the’ wages of the lower paid workers would result in reducing wages to the pre-war level, or even lower.
“The sop of the proposed nationalisation of mining, royalties (estimated as it is to cost £100,000,000) will only mean the alteration of rent receivers into interest receivers. It will operate for some time to come only in those areas which are at present undeveloped. It falls into the same category as the proposed municipal retailing of coal, the suggested family endowment, and the pithead baths, etc. All are attempts at bribing various sections who have been advocating these reforms and so detaching them from any united action of the working class against the capitalist offensive.
“The miners are faced with two dangers to-day.
“In the first place there is the direct offensive of the capitalist class, who mean to abolish the last remnants of the national minimum and national agreements, to set district against district, collier against surface worker, so that a decadent system of private enterprise may continue to draw life from the living bodies of miners, their wives and children.
“The second danger comes from the existence of Labour leaders who are obsessed with the idea of uniting all classes and speaking of the interests of the community as a whole’ that they fail to defend the workers they represent. Around them will be gathered all the doctrinnaire intellectuals, with their utopian theories, who have been attracted to the Labour movement. With them, too, will be all the vacillating elements on the fringe of the working class movement. All these will make their appeals and address their little questions and votes of censure to the capitalist class and bid the workers be reasonable.
“From these elements the working class can expect every hindrance and little or no help.
“The question which has to be faced by the working class can only be answered by the working class. It is the question of power.
“That there is power in the hands of the working class if they care to take it was demonstrated last July. To-day the need for a united front of the whole working class under the direction of the General Council of the T.U.C. is apparent. For six years the Labour Movement talked about united support for the miners. Only on one day, Red Friday, July 31st, has that unity been translated into unity of action, and then in a few hours it compelled the Government to retreat.
“To-day we need no phrases about unity, but united action. The Communist Party calls on all organised workers, miners, engineers, railwaymen and others to use the weapon of their fighting strength, the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, and through the united front of all workers press forward the minimum claims of all workers as a direct counter challenge to this latest move in the capitalist offensive.”
With this declaration it went ahead with a campaign of exposure and preparation for the struggle with the aid of the Minority Movement along the lines indicated in the Minority, conference decisions already mentioned. Meanwhile during the same week the General Council of the Trades Union Congress sent out a communication dealing with the resolution submitted to it by the Scarborough Congress which proposed that the General Council be granted powers to:
“(1) Levy all affiliated members.
(2) Call for a stoppage of work by any affiliated organisation to assist a union defending vital trade union principles.
(3) Arrange with the Co-operative Wholesale Society for the distribution of food, etc., in time of strike.”
It thought “that events at some future time might render it necessary . . . . to apply for additional powers . . . . but the Council is of the opinion that the powers already invested in them with regard to intervention in disputes are as effective as can be reasonably exercised at the present time.”
Six weeks from a General Strike!
The miners waited for something to turn up. The Trades Union Congress waited for something to turn up. The Labour Party waited; the I.L.P. which leads the Labour Party waited. The Government left them all waiting with the cryptic comment that if both sides could agree to accept the Coal Commission Report then the Government would adopt it. The Government thus kept its hands free and its departments busy preparing for the General Strike. By his non-committal attitude Mr. Baldwin, whilst playing the rôle of errand boy to the mineowners, gave the impression that he had some card up his sleeve ready to play when the others failed. He had, but not the one the Labour Leaders were looking for or prepared for.
The miners kept up the campaign of no reductions of wages, no lengthening of working hours and no district settlements but hitched their claims on to the Coal Commission’s statement, which said:
“Before any sacrifices were asked from those engaged in the industry it should be definitely agreed between them that all practicable means for improving the organisation of the industry and increasing its efficiency should be adopted as speedily as the circumstances allow.”
The continual reference to this paragraph was a mistake for it permitted. MacDonald, Thomas and others of the General Council to infer that at some point the miners were prepared to consider a reduction in wages. This should have never been permitted and the consequences we shall see later. But whether we approach the question of wages, of hours or of the forms of agreement we find everyone approaching the question and the developing crisis as simple out-of-date unionists who did not appreciate the magnitude of the weapons they had forged and were forging or the implications of their use, or the necessary preparations which logically followed. This is the most generous of interpretations of their failures. It is impossible to apply it to all and especially the political leaders who were participating. MacDonald knew what was developing. So did Thomas, Bevin, Hicks, Purcell, Bromley, Pugh, Tillett, Henderson, Smith and Cook. Indeed it is difficult to make a single exception of the leaders who were in the midst of negotiations and actually invested with the responsibilities of the situation. Yet from amongst them all we can only point to Cook who incessantly agitated for preparations to be made for the revolutionary implications of the struggle. Although the General Council met on March 25th and endorsed the attitude of the miners to the Coal Commission’s Report and the questions already mentioned, and again endorsed the miners after the Federation had met on April 18th, 1926, and although lock-out notices were posted against the miners on April 15th, 1926, the following extracts of speeches will indicate the line pursued by those holding leading positions.
Remember when reading these speeches that with the posting of the lock-out notices the mineowners had also posted up the following terms of re-employment.
The following figures are taken from the statement of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. Similar reductions were demanded in other districts.
It will be seen at once that the mineowners meant business and why they were so keen on district settlements. Here was a deliberate effort to divide off export areas from the others and to play one district against another. But let the leaders say their say. Mr. Thomas speaking in Monmouthshire on April 18th, said:
“To talk at this stage as if in a few days all the workers of the country are to be called out is not only letting loose passions that it will be difficult to control, but it is not rendering the best service to the miners or anyone else. Therefore, instead of organising, mobilising, and encouraging the feeling that war is inevitable, let us concentrate on finding a solution honourable and satisfactory to all sides. There can be no doubt of the gravity of the situation, there can be no doubt of the consequences that would follow a stoppage, and because of the seriousness of it, it is in the interests of all to work for peace.”
Mr. MacDonald speaking at Maesteg, South Wales, on April 23rd, 1926, said:
“The owners as well as the men know that a reduction in wages, a crude, unscientific reduction in wages, will not solve the mining problem. . . (Presumably a ‘Scientific reduction’ would—J.T.M.). He went on to say both sides should come together and then the presiding individual should say ‘Now we have the facts, will you two sides come to an agreement with me as to how that situation could be handled, and I am going to see that the national interests alone are considered and not sectional interests.’”
Seven days before the Strike!
And these are characteristic of the manner in which the leaders led up to the General Strike situation. But the miners have also an international organisation and the international secretary is Mr. Frank Hodges, who has had many “adventures as a Labour leader,” including that of being the Secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.. It was now on the boards that the British miners would look to the Miners’ International for help at the coming meeting called for April 16th. So listen to Mr. Hodges, speaking at a luncheon of the Nottingham City Business Club on April 9th:
“The recommendations of the Commission were good in, the main. They looked upon the industry in the right perspective. . . . Leadership of trade unionism was not necessarily confined to finding strategical means of getting improved wages or better conditions. The main object of a leader should be to see that his industry was so ordered that it would yield automatically better wages and conditions. . . . If it were put to him as to whether he would accept a reduction in wages or a temporary readjustment of the working day he would accept the latter . . . . Everyone of the Commission’s recommendations breathes the possibility of prosperity and it must be our clear duty not to wreck the industry now at this critical period so long as there is the possibility of prosperity before us in the future. . . .”
So the days flitted by with no preparations for the stoppage other than the conduct of ordinary trade union routine. Employers and Government toyed first with district settlements, then with the hours question, then with the wages again, but never getting anywhere near a “settlement,” and the leaders danced incessant attendance upon the Government and the Owners always feeling they were on the verge of a discovery of a formula under Mr. Baldwin’s hat. Even Cook went to the extent of contrasting Baldwin with “Jiz,” as if both were not members of a single cabinet pursuing a definite policy.
The Miners’ International met at Brussels and agreed to support the British Miners in the event of a stoppage. The Transport Workers’ International met on the 14th April and agreed to render assistance by enforcing an embargo on the export of coal to Britain in the event of a stoppage. The Red International of Labour Unions sent the following letter to the Amsterdam International with a view to mustering the maximum of forces behind the British miners.
April 24, 1926.
“Dear Comrades,—As you are aware, the R.I.L.U. has proposed to the International Federation of Trade Unions that joint assistance and support be organised for the mine workers of Britain, on the grounds that the forthcoming struggle would definitely be of an International character and importance.
“In reply to this proposal, the R.I.L.U. received the following answer: ‘The I.F.T.U. is already collaborating with the Trades Union Congress one of its affiliated centres, on the mining crisis.’ This reply rejects the proposal made in all good faith to unify all forces to assist the British miners in their fight against the mineowners.
“Their reply was not based upon the interests of the British miners, and may do much harm, not only to the British workers, but to the proletariat of the world.
“The R.I.L.U. has called on all its affiliated sections to render wholehearted support to the British miners. The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions has already informed you that it will carry out its duty of international solidarity. The Russian miners, the miners of Czecho-Slovakia, and France, who are all supporters of the R.I.L.U., and the transport workers of various countries, have already signified their readiness to do everything possible to further the victory of the British miners.
“As a body representing the British Trade Union Movement, the General Council undoubtedly recognises the sincere desire of workers of all schools of thought to render assistance to the British miners, and to see that assistance practically and systematically organised.
“The Executive Bureau of the R.I.L.U., therefore, makes the following proposal to the General Council:
“The General Council, as the body interested in the British miners beating back the coalowners’ attacks on the wages and working day, shall take the initiative in whatever manner it considers advisable, in convening an International Conference of all trade union organisations desirous of rendering assistance to the miners. This conference will be for the purpose of co-ordinating and most expeditiously arranging international support for the British miners.
“The British miners once again are facing a serious battle. Let us remember how during the miners’ lock-out in 1921 the proposal of the R.I.L.U. to the Amsterdam International regarding a joint effort to assist the miners was turned down. The miners were defeated. This sad experience should have served as a lesson, yet the I.F.T.U. is repeating its action of 1921, subordinating the interests of the proletariat to what are plainly side issues.
“We are confident the British trade unions and the General Council, having taken the initiative in trying to establish world trade union unity, will view with disapproval the rejection of united action in a case of such importance to the working class.
“In view of the extreme importance and urgency of this question, and the tremendous responsibility which the approaching miners’ struggle places on every working-class organisation, the Executive Bureau of the R.I.L.U. awaits a favourable answer to the above proposal.
“With fraternal greetings,
“Executive Bureau, Red International of Labour Unions,
This help was declined in the same way that the request for the united campaign made by the Communist Party ire Britain bad been declined. The Russian Co-operatives sent a resolution urging the International Co-operative Alliance to make efforts to render a united front of the trade unions and the Co-operatives’ organisations behind the miners. This was declined because the Co-ops. were “neutral” in strugglers of this kind. But there was no escape. The crisis deepened and Mr. Baldwin continued to run and to talk but never making a variation on the question of reducing wages.
April 29th arrived and with it the Special Conference of Executives of 200 unions, a proceeding similar to that of the preceding July, 1925, crisis. The miners’ delegates were in national conference, too. They re-affirmed their attitude on wages, etc., but never faced up to the question of what to do in the event of other unions coming into the struggle. To them it would only be an extended trade union dispute. The special conference of the Trade Unions unanimousely passed a resolution moved by Thomas:
“This conference of Executives of Trade Unions affiliated, to the Trades Union Congress endorses the efforts of the General Council to secure an honourable settlement of the differences in the coal mining industry.
“It further instructs the industrial Committee of the General Council to continue its efforts and declares its readiness for the negotiations to continue provided that the impending lock-out notices of the mineworkers are not enforced.
“That this conference hereby adjourns until to-morrow (Friday) and agrees to remain in London to enable the General Council to consult, report and take instructions.”
The conference itself was quiet enough. It did not want to talk about a General Strike. It got angry when anybody mentioned it. It prayed for “peace,” but it could not get away from its declarations re the wages of the miners. It sang songs. It listened to funny stories between reports. It sang “head, Kindly Light.” The Communist Party had tried to give it light in a special appeal to the Conferences, besides its constant efforts to get the trade unions to clear their decks for action. But it wasn’t this kind of light they wanted. The Conference wanted some kind of intervention that would save them from any actions beyond another demonstration like that of July last year. So they just relied on their declarations of support to the miners and hoped for “something to turn up.” If ever there was a body of people who were the victims of circumstance it was this drifting conference that was suddenly to be galvanised to take a decision as far beyond its capacity to see through to its logical conclusion as anything could be.
The “Daily Herald” cried “No threats!” At first sight of the paper I thought Joynson-Hicks had been letting off steam once more and the “Daily Herald” was telling him that Labour would have none of it. But, oh dear no! Nothing of the sort. It was feeling very satisfied because Mr. Thomas had urged “no excitement” and had spoken like a real statesman, and Mr. Bevin had done likewise. It was pleased with the soft pedal and the assurances to the Government that whoever may be wicked enough to want to hit it, those associated with the “Herald” did not belong to this crowd. Mr. Pugh still regarded the position as “Hopeful.”
Here began a series of incidents developing out of this atmosphere and unwillingness to struggle that rapidly paved the way to the betrayal of the workers even before the strike had begun. When the workers did strike they believed they were striking against the imposition of any reductions in wages. The slogan “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day,” was the issue in the minds of the workers. But not so the leaders of the General Council and the Labour Party. Mr. MacDonald did not want a “crude reduction in wages.” Mr. Thomas wanted the miners to “face the economic facts of the industry,” and sought to get the Government and the miners to agree to reorganisation of the industry “which might involve reductions of wages” but not to make the reductions preliminary to reorganisation. But as soon as the reorganisation was “initiated” then the wage reductions were to be considered. His stand therefore was not against wage reductions but the particular moment at which it was advisable to introduce them. In short it was the old game of manuvring the workers into a position where the leaders could face them with plea for “temporary sacrifices in the interests of the nation.” Seizing upon the statement of Herbert Smith “that we will agree to discuss the Report page by page from end to end, even involving a reduction in wages, but we refuse, and still refuse, to say in advance that we will accept a reduction,” he interpreted this to mean that there was a point at which the miners would accept a reduction and it was his business and that of his colleagues to get that point made clear, or at least the miners set on the track where they would be thoroughly compromised into accepting reductions.
This was the line the negotiators of the General Council and Labour Party were pursuing when the negotiations broke down—a line which opened the way for an early collapse of any strike movement that might be developed. Having pursued the line of looking for a compromise solution, they made the calling off. of the strike contingent upon the re-opening of the negotiations and not upon the defence of the workers’ wages. A Back Friday therefore was in actual operation before the General Strike was declared, and the latter would not have been declared at all but for the determination of the Government to provoke it. These developments and conclusions are revealed in the events of this day, Friday, April 30th, 1926.
On this day, the mineowners tabled their final demands. They were “a uniform national minimum of 20 per cent. over 1914 standard (i.e., 13 per cent. reduction) on a uniform eight-hour day (i.e., increase of one hour per day) “Mr. Baldwin added that these terms were temporary and that the 1919 (Seven Hours Act) would remain on the Statute Book and there would be no legislation prepared for the working of the additional hours if the miners accepted the “offer.” The Government also “would set up a commission not later than December 31st, 1929, to advise whether, as a result of reorganisation or better trade, or both, the condition of the coal industry had improved to the extent that makes reversion to the standard hours justifiable.” These “offers” were bound up with the putting into operation of the reorganisation proposals of the Coal Commission.
The miners replied to the Prime Minister:
30th April, 1926.
“Dear Mr. Prime Minister.—The proposals of the coal owners delivered by messenger this afternoon (April 30th) have been considered by our Executive Committee, and also by the conference which, as you are aware, has been in London since Wednesday, to which we are empowered to send the following reply:
“The miners note with regret that although the report of the Coal Commission was issued on the 6th March, 1926, the mineowners have only submitted a proposal for a National Wage Agreement and a national uniform minimum. percentage so late as April 30th, at 6.15 p.m., when at least two-thirds of the mineworkers in the coalfield are already locked-out by the coalowners.
“The proposals, stated briefly, provide for a reversion to the minimum percentage of 1921, i.e., 20 per cent. on 1914 standard wages, which means a uniform reduction of 133 per cent. of the standard wages of the miners, and, further is conditional upon the extension of the working day for over three years, such an adjustment to be reviewed after December, 1929.
“The reply of the miners, after considering the proposals in the light of the present situations, is, therefore, as, follows:
“They are unanimously of the opinion that the proposals cannot be accepted, but, on the other hand, feel that the statement of proposals submitted (as enclosed) of the Trades Union Congress affords a reasonable basis for negotiations and settlement.
“Our views on the question of extended hours are well known to you, and it is only necessary to say that the present hours,
(a) Are long enough to supply all the coal for which a market can be found;
(b) Are as long as men should be expected to pursue such a dangerous and arduous calling; and
(c) That to extend hours in present circumstances is simply to swell the ranks of the unemployed;
(d) That to increase hours is to invite similar measures on the part of our foreign competitors;
(e) That such a proposal is contrary to the findings of the Royal Commission.
“As to counter proposals, we can only say that we will co-operate to the fullest extent with the Government and the owners in instituting such re-organisation as is recommended by the Commission. Until such re-organisation brings greater prosperity to the industry, the miners should not be called upon to surrender any of their present inadequate wages and conditions.
“On behalf of the Miners’ Federation, yours faithfully,
(Signed) HERBERT SMITH, President.
(Signed) T. RICHARDS, Vice-President,
(Signed) W. P. RICHARDSON, Treasurer.
(Signed) A. J. COOK, Secretary.”
This letter was presented to the Prime Minister by the miners and the Negotiating Committee of the Trades Union Congress.
The apparent steadfastness of the miners against reductions and even against any proposals of reductions before “reorganisation brings greater prosperity” (when there would be no need for reductions), called forth questions from the Government as to whether the miners were prepared to accept the Coal Commission’s recommendation in the interim of reorganisation. The Negotiation Committee secured the following reply from the miners:
“The miners are not prepared to accept a reduction of wages as a preliminary to re-organisation of the industry, but they reiterate that they will be prepared to give full consideration to all the difficulties connected with the industry when the schemes for such re-organisation will have been initiated by the Government.”
I have underlined the word initiated for if the word means anything at all, it paeans that the miners had been tricked into a compromising position by the Negotiating Committee, and had the Government not been intent on a much bigger thing than defeating the miners they would have accepted this formula at once. A Black Friday was placed in the Government’s hands and they refused it because they were intent on reducing the trade union movement to impotence as completely as they had reduced the Labour opposition in the House of Commons.
No wonder the Trades Union Congress negotiators were angry with the Government. Had that statement been accepted at its face value they would have returned to the Trades Union Conference and declared that the day was won, the Government had climbed down, there would be no immediate reductions pending the initiation of the reorganisation of the mining industry, the concern of the miners for the “welfare of the industry and the nation” would have been stressed and their statements re “considering even a reduction in wages” after reorganisaton, would have been used to illustrate their willingness to make a sacrifice in the national interests. Then immediately the Government had set up its first committees for reorganisation, and had called the attention of the miners and the Trades Union Congress to the final reply of the unions to the Government, stress would have been laid on the word initiate, and what could the unions have said in view of this commitment? If the word initiate means anything at all it means to begin and once the Government could show the slightest evidence that they had begun, the unions perforce would again be compelled to consider the question of wages with the balance weighted against them by their own pledge to consider the difficulties of the industry. What chance under these circumstances would the miners have had either of a straight fight on the question, or of mustering the support of other unions manned by men who also did not want to fight?
It was the Government, intent on bigger game, which saved the miners’ leaders from this course by immediately provoking the discussion on the meaning of the word “initiate” and the obvious shifting from the declared position of the Miners’ Conference embodied in their letter to the Prime Minister. What did the miners mean? asked the Government, were they only seeking more definite assurances on re-following temporary reductions, or did they mean they would accept no reductions until reorganisation had shown results? Herbert Smith, on behalf of the miners, of course, could not accept immediate reductions, and apparently had not thought that the statement implied that. The Black Friday deal was shattered. The Negotiating Committee appealed for a fortnight’s suspension of the lock-out notices, pending further discussion. But there was nothing doing. Negotiations broke down. The delegations went back to the Conference at 11.30 p.m. Mr. Pugh told the Conference that negotiations had broken down on a “quibble over a mere phrase.” Mr. Thomas said:
“Do you ask me at this stage what is the real meaning of the breakdown? I would say we have broken down on a phrase, nothing more nor less, a mere attempt to boggle with words after supreme efforts have been made. . . .”
Yes, on a phrase, but a phrase which meant of the defeat of the miners.
The Conference adjourned. It re-assembled on Saturday morning, May 1st. The first business was initiated by Mr. Pugh. He called the roll of the unions, asking the secretaries whether their Executives were agreed on placing full Powers in the hands of the General Council and carrying out the Council’s instructions both regarding the conduct of the dispute and financial assistance. The answer was an almost unanimous decision of the Conference in favour, and six weeks ago the General Council had repudiated the necessity for this decision with May 1st staring them in the face!
Then followed Mr. Bevin. Mr. Bromley, Mr. Smith and Mr. MacDonald also addressed the Conference. Mr. Bevin outlined the organisational plans of the General Council, the limit of the “first line of defence.” He declared that the war had been forced upon them and stressed how little inconvenience they really intended to the “community.” Mr. MacDonald came down from star-gazing to criminology. “It is a crime against society” he cried, “this decision of the Government to fight against the standard of life of our people.” He appealed for a renewal of negotiations and promised to “raise the matter on the floor of the House of Commons;” the miners should be supported “until right and justice have been done.”
Then Mr. Pugh put to the meeting “Was the action of the General Council approved?” The Conference shouted “Aye” “To the contrary?” There was no answer. And that finished the Conference proceedings. There had been no discussion of the plan of action. There was no discussion as to what should be the conditions of the termination of the strike. The union leaders simply fell back on the ordinary union routine to carry out mechanically the instructions which came along and left the whole conduct of the negotiations, terms of negotiations, terms of strike settlement, the duration and development of the strike entirely to the Black Friday gang who were bluffing the Conference as to their real, line.
There was, however, one decision taken though which is worth placing on record in view of subsequent developments. It read:
“That in the event of . . . trade union agreements being placed in jeopardy it be definitely agreed that there will be no general resumption of work until those agreements are fully recognised.”
Was there ever conference in the history of the workers anywhere, faced with such momentous questions so utterly unprepared, so damned muddle-headed, so early tickled with sentimental gush, so completely blind to the realities of the situation? Never! Nor did they dream of the magnitude of the effect of their decisions upon the great mass of workers which were to answer to the call they put out. Even when they had taken the decision they hardy believed they would be called upon to operate it in spite of the fact that the Government had already anticipated them and declared “a State of Emergency” by King’s Proclamation two hours before.
The General Council issued a manifesto disclaiming responsibility for the threatened stoppage and urging renewal of negotiations. It issued its detailed instructions, explaining the definite limits of the first call to action. The railways, sea and road transport, and all dock, wharf, harbour and canal services, work on air transport and in railway repair shops, iron and steel production, part of the engineering works, part of the building trades, all the printing trades, had to cease on Monday night. Besides work in hospital clinics or work connected therewith, convalescent homes, sanatoria, etc., etc., the textile industries were to continue at work, electrical workers, many engineering workers, etc., were left as the second or third “line of defence.”
But there were yet two days to elapse. “Hearts beat high” in the evening when the Negotiating Committee got into touch with the Government once more. It was evident that there was to be last minute “boggling” on the word “initiate” or its equivalent, an attempt to get out of the difficulty. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress had sent the following letter to the Prime Minister, although Herbert Smith had said to the Miners’ Conference on Friday “We have got a clear understanding with the General Council that although we are handing this matter over to them, we must function with them from time to time. Any negotiations must be joint negotiations and any advice from either side must be considered jointly.”
The letter to the Prime Minister reads:
1st May, 1926
The Rt. Hon. Stanley Baldwin, M.P.,
10, Downing Street, Whitehall, S.W.1.
“I have to advise you that the Executive Committees of the Trade Unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress including the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, have decided to hand over to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, the conduct of the dispute, and the negotiations in connection therewith will be undertaken by the General Council.
“I am instructed to say that the General Council will hold themselves available at any moment should the Government desire to discuss the matter further.
WALTER M. CITRINE.”
Hence the meetings once again. In the midst of them the Government, who never showed the slightest intention of coming to an agreement or they would have snatched at the “initiative” conversations with both hands, seized upon an incident to knock the bottom out of the conversations. The printers of the “Daily Mail,” to their everlasting credit, took exception to a violent leading article directed against the workers and went on strike. The General Council negotiators knew nothing of it at the time, but the Government framed up a case on the basis of the incident to cut off all negotiations, and until there was an unconditional calling off of the General Strike order they would have nothing to do with the trade union leaders. Although they had already opened negotiations since the general strike decision, the Government made this farcical declaration, and accused the trade unions of challenging the constitution, of subversive acts, etc. There was no escape for the Labour leaders. The Government had determined to call their bluff and they had called it. The strike was on.
Next: IV. The General Strike Launched