The First Day. May 3rd.
MONDAY, May 3rd, was a memorable day. Excitement grew hourly. A thrill had gone through the whole of the working class movement when Saturday’s decision was flashed throughout the country. The May Day demonstrations were inspired with the enthusiasm generated by the feeling that the solidarity of the workers was a reality that would now make itself felt as never before. There was no questioning of the wisdom of the decision of the Trades Union Conference. Was it not a conference of the most conservative of trade union bodies, the trade union executives? Were not the movers of the resolutions for action Mr. Bevin, Mr. Thomas, Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Smith and Mr. Bromley Was it not Mr. Pugh, most prominent of industrial pacifists, who had taken the vote?
Here was no conference of “hot-heads.” Here were no “revolutionaries intent on setting the Thames on fire.” The only spokesman who might be accused of being tainted with revolutionary sympathies was Bromley, and he had evidently been put on to show that the rivalry between Thomas and Bromley was dropped for the strike. No one could say this time that the trade unions had been jockeyed by the “Reds.” As a matter of fact the Communist Party itself was caught by surprise. It had not expected so great a decision from such a conference; although it had agitated for the fullest possible support and common action on the part of the unions, it had expected at the most, at this stage, a repetition of the July 1925 decision. In a manifesto sent to the press on the Friday and published in the “Sunday Worker,” May 2nd, it said:
“The General Council's request for power to call out every industry will not move the Government unless accompanied by action. Such action can only be an immediate embargo on transport of coal or blacklegs and a stoppage of the lying capitalist press.”
I was in the Sheffield Labour Party's office when the news was received of the General Strike decision. There were present most of the leaders of the local Trades and Labour Council, chairman, secretary, executive members, organisers, and one and all said “Splendid!” And then first one and then another remarked “I was afraid that they would drag on these conversations too long.” Workers walking along the streets were saying, “Wonderful! They mean to wipe out Black Friday this time.”
They did not know of the arguments about the word “initiate.” They did not know that at the very moment they were springing into action and renewing a confidence in some of the leaders, conversations were on once again and the Negotiating Committee were acting without the miners in efforts to find a formula which would get the miners committed to a reduction of wages. They did not know that Thomas and. MacDonald were “grovelling” to get out of the responsibilities of their call to action. They did not understand that “Black Friday” had already been put across prior to the General Strike decision, that the Government was well aware that they had got the General Council Negotiating Committee well in hand and could use it more and more to defeat the strike the moment it desired. They looked upon the decision as an expression of the will to fight the boss, to fight against reductions in wages, “crude” or otherwise, and not as a piece of bluff that the Government had determined to explode. Thinking thus, they with an unanimity unparallelled in British Labour history began on May 3rd packing their tools and moving into the streets.
Monday was a day of preparations everywhere. Just as the General Council had failed to prepare so also the whole of the trade union movement. It was a case of improvisation all along the line, and the beginning of a general discovery of the inadequacy of the decisions and instructions of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and Union Executives. The first blunder that made itself apparent lay in the multiplicity of orders that were pouring into the districts. In spite of the decision that all power lay in the hands of the General Council, the latter body sent out its instructions through the separate union executives with the result that each union in the districts was at first acting on its own, and the Trades Councils had to face an immense problem of co-ordination with many trade union officials simply refusing to recognise any instructions which did not come direct from their union executives.
Had it not been for the prompt line of action taken by the Left Wing forces and the Communist Party the utmost confusion would have been maintained for days. But the continuous propaganda of these bodies for the transformation of the Trades Councils into Councils of Action co-ordinating all the forces in the struggle, for the formation of Workers’ Defence Corps, for the establishment of the closest working arrangements between the Councils and the Co-operative movement, now came into its own. The Communist Party and the Minority Movement issued particular instructions to their members as to how to apply themselves to the immediate situation. The “Sunday Worker” played its part on May 2nd in the same direction. On, May 3rd the Communist Party issued the “Workers’ Daily” containing these instructions in a considered statement which read, after outlining the forces with which the workers would have to contend:
“The Trades and Labour Council in each town should summon a special meeting to erect the Council of Action. No Labour organisation can be barred from representation. It should be representative of all working class political, industrial, co-operative and unemployed organisations.
“Committees and sub-committees should be elected to take over the various duties. The Council itself should be the central directing body controlling the strike locally.
“One thing the Council of Action should not do it should not take over the duties which ordinarily belong to the trade unions. Councils are organs of control and direction. They co-ordinate all activities and, therefore, receive reports from, and always work in the closest collaboration with the local union executives.
“Local press and propaganda committees should be elected to counteract the poisonous and pernicious propaganda of the Government and the employers’ organisations.
“The Council should control through a sub-committee the assignment of workers to take care of the essential services. Not one worker must be allowed to aid the Government or the O. M. S.
“Through its Co-operative and Commissariat sub-committee the Council of Action should take a register of all possible food supplies and decide upon the localities in which food centres can be set up.
“Defence Corps should be organised under the control of the Council of Action, and it is vital that the sub-committee in charge of this should consist of responsible trade union officials who know the best trade union members of good character to be selected for defence work.
“A sub-committee should be appointed to deal with relations between the strikers and the Forces and the best possible relations should be maintained with the workers of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
“There should be a sub-committee to organise and outline picket duties in order that no important place will be open to blacklegs.”
The value of these instructions, which became the recommendations of the Left Wing forces in all the Councils and in all the committees, was immense. They fitted so well into the requirements of the situation that they helped enormously to overcome the weaknesses created by the lack of preparation on the part of the General Council.
Especially was this the case in the large centres where the “Left Wing” and the Communist Party were in force. The experiences of our Party in Sheffield can be confirmed in many other centres. On the 3rd of May the Trades and Labour Council held its first meeting with representatives of the District Committees of the unions; it had not a scrap of organisation for the conduct of a strike. To this meeting the Communist Party offered its services and two representatives, offering also half of the strike bulletin which the District Committee of the Party had already prepared. The offers were turned down. The meeting ended and there was still no collective organisation. The N.U.R. had its own picket committee, the Transport Workers their own picket committee, and many unions had no pickets whatever. So unprepared were they that the following morning the Secretary of the Trades Council asked for the assistance of the Communist Party, for messengers, speakers, teams of workers to chalk the streets announcing meetings, and even for salesmen for the Council’s strike bulletin! In spite of the way in which we had been turned down the previous evening, the Party responded and played no small part in the building of the strike apparatus and the conduct of the struggle.
But if Monday was the day of organisation for the localities, it was the same for the General Council headquarters. With eyes frequently looking for “the open door” and the “ray of hope,” while Thomas and MacDonald “grovelled” in Parliament, they began to organise means of communication. Wonderful leaders are these who never gave a thought as to how they were going to communicate with the districts when the workers were on strike! But worse still, it had got no newspaper. In its desire to be impartial and not to give the idea of class war any support, its strike order had closed down the “Daily Herald” and the whole Labour press as well as the press of the other side. Of course nothing of this is really surprising, for had they not already repudiated the printers who had struck against the vileness of the “Daily Mail”? This was to be a “gentlemanly” fight, and naturally having closed down the capitalist press how could they do anything other than close down their own? Only after the Government had announced its intention to issue the “British Gazette” did the General Council decide to issue, not the “Daily Herald” but a new paper “The British Worker.”
And what a paper too! A “splendid little paper” as Mr. Hamilton Fyfe, the editor of the “Daily Herald,” would say. It worked with four censors to make sure that nobody would accuse the General Council or the Labour Party leaders of anything but the best intentions towards everything that capitalism holds dear.
Every issue is wet with tears of expostulation:
“THE GENERAL COUNCIL DOES NOT CHALLENGE THE CONSTITUTION.
IT IS NOT SEEKING TO SUBSTITUTE UNCONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT.
NOR IS IT DESIROUS OF UNDERMINING OUR PARLIAMENTARY INSTITUTIONS.
THE SOLE AIM OF THE COUNCIL IS TO SECURE FOR THE MINERS A DECENT STANDARD OF LIFE.
THE COUNCIL IS ENGAGED IN AN INDUSTRIAL DISPUTE.
THERE IS NO CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS.”
—as if the workers cared a damn whether there was a constitutional crisis or not so long as they were fighting against reductions in wages!
But this echoed what had been taking place in the House of Commons on May 3rd. The General Council had not only decided to close down its own press but had to close down the Labour Party too, with the exception of the spokesmen MacDonald and Henderson, who were pledged along the above line of policy. In fact it was their line as much as that of the General Council. They were not even decent parliamentarians. They were so overwhelmingly affected by every criticism and every challenge of the Tories (and then anxious too for the defeat of the General Strike) that they refused to see the political implications of their own actions and to use their position in Parliament in the interests of the strike. Instead of answering the challenges of the Government boldly right from the beginning of the dispute they cringed before the Government, uttered denials, gave every assurance that their motives were of the best capitalist brand. Having incited the conference of Trades Union Executives to go ahead with the strike they left the strike to drift whilst they coninued their efforts to secure the betrayal of the miners and the General Strike. Had they, instead of denying the challenge to the constitution and spending their time explaining their good intentions, turned to the attack upon the Government in the House of Commons and on the public platform, accused it and proved it to be a provocateurs’ government as well as a forgers’ government; had they demanded a general election on the grounds that it had forfeited public confidence, they would have done more to prove their constitutionalism than all their weeping denials.
There was and is an overwhelming case against the Government as the provokers of the General Strike, as we have already shown, and had the Labour leaders been bold politicians and real leaders of the Labour movement they would have developed the General Strike as a political weapon and used their parliamentary position to destroy the illusions in the minds of the middle classes, especially illusions which were fostered by the Government challenge to civil war. The neglect of this line of action left the Government with a free hand to mobilise the middle class forces behind it and to keep its forces intact. The middle classes saw the effect of the strike and were roused by the intense civil war propaganda of the Government. They were afraid that it might be true. The one remarkable feature of the strike is that practically all the blacklegging was done by middle class men and women. But had the Labour Party boldly declared that it was prepared to submit its case and the conduct of the Government to the constitutional procedure of a general election it would have been done more to undermine the confidence of the middle classes in the Government than any other course they could have pursued. They were afraid that they might not get a majority if the Government accepted the challenge, just as they were afraid to develop the strike because they had faith neither in the strike nor in the workers.
But whatever hesitation there might be in the ranks of the leaders there was none in the ranks of the Government. Promptly on the declaration of a “state of emergency” all the long prepared machinery began to move. The country had been divided into about nine divisions for the purpose of maintaining services according to government instructions, with a central controller of supplies in charge of all the divisions. This apparatus was semi-military in character. In each division was a military liaison officer who attended to the supply of whatever military forces were necessary. These began to move at once. The soldiers were confined to barracks to await orders. And orders began to operate. The principal parks in London were commandeered. Hyde Park became a great military centre and food depot. It presented the appearance of an armed camp. Tanks, armoured cars, masses of soldiers in full military equipment marched in thousands. The police were mobilised and all the special constables called up. A week before the strike began the police of the whole country had received orders to be ready for eventualities, and in the event of quietness reigning in particular districts then they had to be prepared to go to another on call. The enrolment of more special constables began. Recruiting stations were opened and every attempt was made to re-enact the scenes of 1914 on the outbreak of the imperialist war.
The Home Secretary made an appeal for “volunteers” better known as blacklegs and scabs. He set Scotland Yard in motion and on Wednesday evening the Special Branch raided the press which had printed the “Workers’ Daily,” the Communist paper. They took away the vital parts of the machinery, and this combined with the strike of printers completely closed down the newspaper possibilities of the Party.
But if Monday was a day of preparations and the beginning of much organisational confusion, the first full day of the General Strike was the day of days. The flood tide had set in. Three and a half to four million men left their work as one man. It was magnificent. They flowed to the centre of the towns and cities and the great murmur began. It was not a murmur against the strike but against the limited character of the strike and the contradictory positions into which large numbers of the workers were thrust. Especially was this the case in the engineering and shipbuilding industry and the metal trades. For example, moulders were at work in the same firms where engineers were called out. Pattern makers remained at work. Charge hands who were members of the Engineers’ Union were permitted to work. So were the apprentices where adult workers in the same union were out on strike. In some cases so absurd were the instructions that non-unionists had joined in the sympathetic strike while loyal union men were at work. In the distributive trades the situation was almost as bad. Orders were given to the members to leave work although they were employed by the cooperative societies—an order which if applied would have handed the Co-ops. over into the hands of the Government. Indeed the union leaders had not even urged the strikers to come to any arrangements with the Co-ops., but on the contrary had offered to co-operate with the Government in maintaining food supplies.
Mr. Bevin had declared on Saturday morning to the Trades Union Conference: “We have deliberately determined to arrange for a voluntary service, notwithstanding that we are stopping vital services, such as transport and staple industries, to ensure the feeding of the people. Neither the General Council nor the miners have any quarrel with the people.”
The workers were annoyed with all this confusion, and union officials and strike committees were everwhere bombarded with questions, with deputations, with requests that something be done and done promptly. The local officials and committees were annoyed too. Messages poured into the General Council from all over the country, reporting the wonderful response to the strike call. But before the day was over delegations from the strike committees were trekking to London too to get the instructions cleared up and, some definite decision concerning an all-out policy.
The most remarkable thing of the day however was the completeness of the stoppage of the press. It was amazing that the most conservative of unions should be right in the front line of the General Strike. It was amazing, but it was splendid too.
The Government and the employers were busy also. The Government monopolised the British wireless apparatus and began broadcasting its propaganda and appealing for volunteers.
The Liberals with one accord, led by Lord Oxford, came to the support of the Government. “He did not see how it was possible for any Government not to take up the challenge of the General Strike, which was a blow at the civilised course of the domestic and social life of the whole community, of which the Government were the trustees. He supported the Government in their contention that the General Strike must be unconditionally called off before there can be any further negotiations.”
On this day the full measure of the stoppage could be taken. More workers were out than on the day previous, and the improvisations of both sides had begun to work. The unions had got to work organising their pickets. The transport workers and the railway workers were quickly on the job, and throughout the country carried the brunt of this work except in the distinctly mining areas where the miners flung themselves into the work with their usual thoroughness. The other side were busy too, and made their first experiments in blackleg traffic, beginning on the trams and buses. Immediately there was trouble. In London an attempt was made both with buses and trams. At Camberwell the London County Council tried to get six trams manned by “volunteers.” Police officers stood side by side with the drivers and conductors. But the crowd went for them and smashed the tram windows with stones. The crowd went for the drivers too, and the police used their truncheons. Seen persons were injured and received attention at the hospital. The trams returned to their depot.
At Hammersmith and Chiswick, the opposite side of London, the crowd gave the blacklegs on the buses a rough time, damaged the engines and cut the petrol pipes. Similar stormy scenes marked the day in Glasgow. The police charged the crowds time and again. Windows of cars and buses were shattered, police and civilians were injured. Excitement reigned supreme in various districts of Glasgow. Buses were overturned. Blacklegs were attacked by the crowds and severely mauled. The district of Hamilton was completely isolated by road and rail; even the people who got on commercial vehicles for a lift were compelled by the striking workers to alight. Similar scenes were witnessed in the streets of Edinburgh. Crowds let themselves go at blacklegs in the centre of Leeds, and attempts to run motor buses between Mansfield and Sheffield met with a hot reception from the miners. The attempts of the authorities to get transport service in Barnsley met with similar results. In almost all these places arrests were made and workers were sent to prison.
On this day Saklatvala was sent to prison for two months on account of his May Day speech in Hyde Park. From this moment the Scotland Yard authorities were let loose on the Communists. The Communist Party office in King Street, London, was raided almost daily in search of the “Workers’ Bulletin” which had been issued in spite of the suppression of the “Workers’ Daily.” An amazing thing happened. While the Government issued its “British Gazette” and the General Council replied with its “British Worker,” all the locals and district committees of the Communist Party set to work replacing the suppressed paper by local strike bulletins. These were typewritten sheets manifolded. The efforts that had been made by the locals to create factory papers around the workshop and factory groups was now turned to good account. In many places the Communists placed their machines at the disposal of the Councils of Action and Strike Committees, and helped them to produce the strike bulletins emanating from these bodies. Thousands of copies were issued every day in all the important districts, and they proved a valuable means of conveying news of the strike and inspiring the workers. The police made a definite line for these bulletins and the machines that produced them, wherever they got the slightest chance. They raided house and offices, social clubs and dance rooms and arrested Communists on the slighest pretence. In spite of all their efforts and the number of machines they confiscated, the Communists continued to outwit them and appear with a fresh bulletin the following day.
The Government was going full steam ahead. It ignored the offers of the General Council re the transport of food supplies and went forward with its own plans, using every possible means of securing recruits for the “voluntary services” and mobilising its army and navy to man the docks. The “British Gazette” appeared screaming about civil war, the challenge to the constitution and the great parliamentary system. It called for recruits, developing full-blooded patriotism in the name of King and Country. Whose King and whose country it is, they made transparently clear.
In the House of Commons the Emergency Powers came under discussion, and the Home Secretary declared that the Government would use and continue to use their utmost endeavours to protect those who wanted to work. It sounded so much like the voice of MacDonald that it is no surprise to read that he quoted the declaration of the Labour Prime Minister during the period of the Labour Government, “Any Government, all Governments must give Protection to those engaged in their legal occupation.”
In the evening appeared the “British Worker” telling of the wonderful response all over the country. It gave many items of news telling of the exhortations from the workers of every land. It told of how the University students were being mobilised for the “Volunteer service” by means of social pressure and promises. But when all this is granted, the main purpose of every leading statement and much of its news was deliberately calculated to smother the initiative of the workers and to lead them like lambs under the gentle guardianship of the authorities. For example it quoted with approval the co-operation of the unions with the Mayor and police of Nottingham in the maintenance of order and the distribution of food. What prize lambs the leaders are! Is it not as clear as daylight that this was simply handing over the food supplies to the Government and the O.M.S., and that they who control the food control the whole situation in a strike of this kind? Excuse has been made by some people for the actions of the General Council and Labour Party, on the ground that they were not revolutionary leaders. There is no need to judge them on this basis; just ordinary commonsense and manliness should have prevented them clinging to the skirts of the Government with pathetic assurances that they never have been naughty and never will be.
The Government had no regard for them in the least. Indeed they seemed to have nothing but contempt for their whole outfit the very same evening the first issue was held up for seven hours, due to a raid on the “Daily Herald” office. Mounted police had cleared the street and then a score or more of police led by Scotland Yard men rushed into the building, stopped the press and took away copies of the “British Worker” for submission to the City Commissioner. With his approval the paper came out and then it worked with FOUR censors! Is it surprising that there was no further interference? It was well calculated to chloroform the workers. In effect it said “You have done splendidly, but keep quiet, keep quiet, keep quiet; fold your arms, stand still, or go to bed. Take a holiday. Do only that which is emphatically legal. Don’t develop the struggle. Have patience. Trust us, we will get you out of this as quickly as possible—with honour of course.” And the Government accused the General Council of “revolutionary intentions.” What cheek!
On Thursday May 6th the Government forces began to manifest an increased activity. A public promise was made to all strikers who returned to work. The Government would take efficient measures to protect them, and prevent victimisation by the trade unions of the men who remained or might return to work. Then the lawyers were turned on to the job of intimidation. Sir John Simon expounded the illegal nature of the General Strike, and propounded “that every man was personally liable to be sued for damages; every trade union leader who had advised or prompted that course of action was liable in damages to the uttermost farthing of his personal possessions.” This was a preliminary hint which was followed a few days later by Judge Astbury in a case provided by a trade union official. He laid it down that a general strike was illegal and contrary to law and these inciting persons to it were not protected by the Trades Dispute Act. Members of unions could not lose benefits by refusing to obey illegal orders; and trade union funds could not be legally used for, or depleted by, paying strike pay to those strikers who obeyed illegal orders. Whatever the effect of these declarations and rulings upon the leaders they had not the slightest effect upon the workers.
But the Government was making headway with its strikebreaking organisation. It was succeeding in its efforts, in London at any rate, in getting buses on to the streets and a blackleg service of tube trains running. The buses were staffed by police and blacklegs three at the front, three at the back, while in many instances windows were either boarded up or covered with wire netting and the bonnets covering the engines were strapped with barbed wire. But they made little headway in the provinces in the development of independent blackleg services. In spite of all the propaganda by wireless and by press (which also began to overcome a little of the strike effects), about the thousands of trains running and so on, I saw little evidence of their successes in the provinces apart from that which was carried through by the consent of the General Council itself. Even so late as the ninth day of the strike, when I journeyed with a comrade in the side car of his motor cycle from Sheffield to London, and passed Derby, Leicester and the important towns en route, we saw only six motor buses on the road, no trams except labelled for the conveying of food, and only two trains with hardly any passengers—and this in a journey of 166 miles.
The worst areas I visited during the strike were the textile areas. Here there was no General Strike. The tramwaymen, busmen, and railwaymen were bearing the brunt of a wretched situation. It was remarkable that they held so well with the attempts to run the textile factories as usual. It intensified the discontent in every section. Coupled with the growling of the engineering workers, who were divided against themselves by the confused and limited orders, was the actual incitement of the authorities to make special efforts to break the transport workers’ efforts in order, to cope with their normal business. I addressed meetings in Dewsbury, Bradford, Keighley, Shipley, and Normanton, and everywhere the trouble in the ranks of the workers was the same. Unions acting separately, and the local officials (where there was not a strong Left Wing movement) carrying out orders to the letter in the most formal manner, damping down the initiative of the workers, echoing the “go to bed theory” of the national leaders.
Where there was a strong Leftward movement, especially where there was a good representation of the Communists and supporters of the Minority Movement, even the Right Wing officials were thoroughly dissatisfied, with the state of affairs and desired an all-out policy. As the strike proceeded the workers pushed ahead in many places and forced a solution upon the committees. In Glasgow, for example, the Scottish Trades Union Congress wished to prohibit publications entirely and stop all meetings. The leaders sent for J. R. Campbell and A. Ferguson, and told them that the Communists must stop their meetings and their bulletins. Naturally they got a polite reply. They wanted also to stop all efforts of mass picketing. The whole organisaion of the pickets was at sixes and sevens, until the pressure of the Left Wing forced upon them a change of policy. Indeed it was the lack of proper organisation and systematic efforts to lead the workers that made possible many of the melees with the police in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Crowds naturally gathered in the streets, but they were unorganised crowds who resented the sight of blacklegging efforts and let themselves go. Had there been properly, well organised picketing with the pickets well guarded with Workers’ Defence Corps there would have been much better results for the workers. Instead it can be safely said that to the extent that real organisation of the pickets was undertaken there was a progressive decline of blackleg traffic in the streets of Glasgow. It was on the initiative of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement who formed a joint committee that the strike committees and the Councils of Action got down to their work.
At the centre the Communist Party and the Minority Movement headquarters had of quickly to work, and were issuing leading bulletins in thousands of copies every day in spite of all the efforts of the police to discover the machines and the comrades who were doing the work. The Communist Party issued the following manifesto and distributed 100,000 copies, besides having it reprinted in the local bulletins.
Workers of Britain!
You have begun a General Strike of vast extent in defence of the miners’ standard of living, knowing full well that further degradation for the miners means immediate attacks on the wages and hours of other workers. The General Strike is not only a magnificent act of brotherly support to the miners, it is an act of self-defence on the part of the working class, who, with their families, constitute the vast majority of the people.
The first watchwords of the General Strike, therefore, have been and remain: “All Together Behind the Miners Not a Penny off the Pay. Not a Second on the Day.”
But now that the struggle has begun, the workers have it in their power to put an end once and for all to this continual menace to their living standards and working conditions. Simply to beat off the employers’ present offensive means that they will return to the attack later on, just as they did after Red Friday last year. The only guarantee against the ravenous and soulless greed of the coalowners is to break their economic power.
THEREFORE LET THE WORKERS ANSWER THE BOSSES’ CHALLENGE WITH A CHALLENGE OF THEIR OWN: “NATIONALISATION OF THE MINES, WITHOUT COMPENSATION FOR THE COALOWNERS, UNDER WORKERS’ CONTROL, THROUGH PIT COMMITTEES.”
The Government in this struggle has dropped the pretence of being above all classes. It made no objection to the coalowners’ decision to hold the community to ransom by their attack on wages: but it delivered an insolent and provocative ultimatum when the Trades Union Congress decided, in the exercise of its undoubted rights, to defend the miners against starvation wages and slave conditions. Ever since the strike began, the Government has welcomed the aid of the capitalist strike-breaking organisations, the O.M.S. and Fascisti but it issued an insulting rejection of the trade union offer to maintain essential services without blacklegs. Troops, aeroplanes and battleships are being used to overawe the workers, if possible, and to crush the General Strike. If the strike ends, though it be with the defeat of the coalowners, but with the Government’s power unshaken, the capitalists will still have hopes of renewing their attack.
Therefore, the third essential slogan of the General Strike must be: “RESIGNATION OF THE FORGERY GOVERNMENT! FORMATION OF A LABOUR GOVERNENT!”
The Communist Party continues to instruct its members and to urge the workers to take every practical step necessary to consolidate our positions against the capitalist attack. Such essential steps are: to form a Council of Action immediately: to organise able-bodied trade unionists in a Workers’ Defence Corps against the O.M.S. and Fascisti: to set up feeding arrangements with the Co-operative Societies, to hold mass meetings and issue strike bulletins, and to make their case known to the soldiers.
But the Communist Party warns the workers against the attempts being made to limit the struggle to its previous character of self-defence against the capitalist offensive. Once the battle has been joined, the only way to victory is to push ahead and hit hard. And the way to hit the capitalist hardest is for the Councils of Action to throw out the clear watchwords
NOT A PENNY OFF THE PAY: NOT A SECOND ON THE DAY!
NATIONALISE THE MINES WITHOUT COMPENSATION, UNDER WORKERS’ CONTROL FORMATION OF A LABOUR GOVERNMENT!
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
This clay is notable for the fact that the General Council had begun to feel the draught, following up the childish offer to co-operate with the Government to run the strike on Pleasant Sunday Afternoon lines. It decided to review all permits that had been granted for the transport of food. The Government had ignored their fraternal offer, and so they announced they were compelled to take action.
Then, came the call of the Churches. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York proposed
(1) The cancellation on the part of the T.U.C. of the General Strike.
(2) Renewal by the Government of its offer of assistance to the coal industry for a short period.
(3) The withdrawal on the part of the mineowners of the new wage scales recently issued.
The Society of Friends also joined in an appeal to let nothing stop in the way of renewal of negotiations.
The Government boycotted these news items and went on with its propaganda about “the country being nearer to civil war than it has been for centuries.” And then the “British Worker” bleated “Is it fair?” The General Council, without endorsing the terms of this Concordat, called the attention of the public to the grave significance of the Government’s attitude to such peace efforts. And yet the reports from every part of the country showed a magnificent determination for the simple demand that there shall be no reductions in wages!
To-day the real reason of the alarm of the General Council with regard to food supplies becomes apparent. Warships, and submarines had been taken to the docks. The army had been on the march in large battalions. Now the first of the great convoys of motor cars of 140 flour and other food lorries was taken from the London Docks to Hyde Park under an escort of sixteen armoured cars, many cavalry and mounted police. It was, and was intended to be a demonstration of armed force—to inspire confidence in the supporters of the Government and fear in the minds of the workers. The Prime Minister followed the demonstration with a broadcast address as to his peaceful intentions, the intensity of his longing for “peace,” and his determination not to surrender the safety and security of the British Constitution. The General Strike must be unconditionally called off.
Then another organisation was started called the Civil Constabulary Reserve, to be a supplementary force to the police and special constabulary. It was to be paid and recruited from the Territorial Army and ex-military men. It was to be equipped with armlets, truncheons and steel helmets. Here was something for the workers and General Council to reflect upon, especially the latter who were responsible leaders. Evidence was accumulating that the Government was establishing an alternative organisation of transport, that it had got a complete grip of the food supplies, and had at its command an overwhelming supply of police, soldiers and sailors and an increasing number of middle class blacklegs.
The state of mind of the Council can be best indicated in the note appearing in the “British Worker” on this date, with reference to the offer of financial assistance from the Russian Trade Unions.
“The Council has informed the Russian Trade Unions, in a courteous communication, that they are unable to accept the offer and the cheque has been returned.”
You bourgeois gentlemen! You, in charge of a general strike! Ugh!
On this day, too, Sir Herbert Samuel, the Chairman of the Coal Commission, returned to England. Who sent for him I don’t know, but I am informed that Thomas was the first of the negotiating committee to see him and that afterwards Thomas went to see the King. This was the beginning of conversations in which Thomas was playing his usual role of counsel in favour of wage reductions. Cook says, and others confirm his statement, that “fear spread over the General Council with few exceptions.” But whatever the internal incidents may have been in detail, it is evident that Thomas and the rest of the Right-wing leaders had been leaving no stone unturned for the purpose of carrying out their consistent policy of betraying the General Strike. They had betrayed the General Strike in all its preparatory stages They had presented a “Black Friday” betrayal to the Government before the General Strike was called. They helped to call it into action with a movement lacking elementary preparations for so great a decision, an hen proceeded to stab it in the back, when the workers were on the street, by private conversations with people who had no authority to decide. anything and were obviously the tools of the Government.
“The day of rest!” But as Mr. Fyfe says: “Herbert Samuel saw some more of the General Council to-day, and they had what seems to have been a useful talk. . . Samuel knows a lot about coal, and is “quick on the uptake!” Good progress made . . . The General Council are sworn to secrecy . . . .”
Meanwhile, in every city, town and village where the workers are on strike or locked-out, this day is the day of mass meetings; the spirit of the workers was undimmed. Rather was there an increase in the demand for the extension of the strike. The confusion created by the attempted cooperation with the authorities on the questions of food and electric light and power supplies, along with the partial actions of a number of unions, was aggravating the workers everywhere. “Why the devil doesn’t the General Council act and act promptly? Let us know who are really blacklegs and who are not,” they said. Resolutions upon resolutions were passed demanding an all out policy. The women in every district had thrown themselves into organising work, too, and were as keen upon the issues of the struggle as ever the men could be. They were on the Councils of Action and working committees, collecting funds, distributing literature and bulletins everywhere. Such I found in all the districts I visited during the strike. And the workers did not know of the “conversations.”
But the General Council seemed to make things worse instead of better. After failing to tackle the question of food supplies at the beginning of the dispute, they now proceeded with an endeavour to tighten up permits without making any allowances for Co-operative Societies. These were not only to be dealt with in the same way as private traders, i.e., permitted only to dispose of bread and milk, but nearly all the co-operative employees were called out. The effect on the Northern counties was exceedingly bad. While the Co-op-Union national committee is a conservative and reactionary body, the same cannot be said of all the local cooperative societies, many of which were anxious to co-operate with the strike committees and the Councils of Action. For example, the local co-operative societies in Northumberland and Durham include so many workers and have such an extensive hold in the districts that they could have easily come to terms to take complete control of feeding arrangements for the workers of the districts. Joint strike committees received deputations from forty-five co-operative societies. When the permits were stopped for everything but milk and bread on May 9th, they looked helplessly at each other.
In other districts, however, the instruction was simply, over-ruled on the initiative of the workers. In Doncaster, for example, the Council of Action combined with the Cooperative Societies and determined on an effort to control all the food supplies and transport in the hands of the Council and Co-ops. Mass pickets were organised to hold up all transport that had not a workers’ permit. It was the effort of the workers to carry out the plan that led to the conflict with the police in this district, when the latter batoned many of the workers, and over 70 were arrested and sent to prison. Mass pickets without well-organised Workers’ Defence Corps are bound to get hurt. But the General Council had left organisation to be “improvised.”
In other districts modifications of this policy were adopted in order to avoid handing over the resources of the Co-ops to the O.M.S. Had the employees all done as they were instructed and left their jobs, the Co-ops would have inevitably passed into the hands of the O.M.S. The General Council had its eyes only on London when it made the order concerning food and milk distribution, and equalled the cooperative union leaders themselves in stupidity when faced with a struggle of this character.
Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury preached a “very good sermon” and made a “moving appeal” about carrying on to the bitter end. “It was wicked.” Cardinal Bourne of the Catholic Church put God behind the Government and in the Government; in fact God was the Government. The Government went on developing its weapons. It announced that any action which “the armed forces of the Crown may find it necessary to take in an honest endeavour to aid the civil power, both now and afterwards will receive the full support of the Government.”
It kept, up its propaganda about civil war and “challenges to the constitution” and everywhere there was an increasing interference with pickets and arrests of Communists on the slightest pretext.
And behind the scenes, according to “Lansbury’s Weekly” and the “New Leader” all kinds of plans were being prepared for “arresting the leaders, seizing the funds of the unions, rushing a bill through the House of Commons altering trade union law,” and so on. Thomas saw “rivers of blood” and the nerves of the General Council went to pieces. Samuel was having an easy time. Having been got “on the run,” these Labour leaders turned on the miners to bully them into stating what reduction they would take.
The “British Worker” came out on this day with a message from the General Council to trade union members:
“We are entering upon the second week of the general stoppage in support of the mineworkers against the attack upon their standard of life by the coalowners.
“Nothing could be more wonderful than the magnificent response of the millions of workers to the call of their leaders.
“From every town and city in the country reports are pouring into the General Council headquarters stating that all ranks are solid, that the working men and women are resolute in their determination to resist the unjust attacks upon the mining community.
“The General Council desire to express their keen appreciation of the loyalty of the trade union members to whom the call was issued and by whom such a splendid response has been made.
“They are especially desirous of commending the workers on their strict obedience to the instruction to avoid all conflict and to conduct themselves in an orderly manner. Their behaviour during the first week of the stoppage is a great example to the whole world.
“The General Council’s message at the opening of the second week is ‘Stand firm. Be loyal to instructions and trust your leaders.’”
The “British Worker” of this date also says that the “talk of revolution trick” had failed and marks a new note in the editorials of the papers and the speeches of the capitalist leaders. Is it any wonder that the Government was changing its tone when it had already got the trade union negotiators so well in hand? The editor of the “British Worker” who was obviously helping the “bluffers” says in “Behind the Scenes of the Great Strike”
“During the last twenty-four hours the seven negotiators appointed by the General Council to discuss with Sir Herbert Samuel terms of peace have satisfied themselves that they can accept the general assurances which have been given to them.”
Is there any wonder that the Government changes its tone? The Labour leaders had done this without taking the miners into consultation, and from this time onward the inner story of the General Council is the story of endeavours to bully the miners into an agreement with what they had done. Fyfe says there is no truth in the rumours about the threatened arrests, and that the General Council was not rattled by them. It may be so. It matters little, and in any case why on earth should the Government arrest these people, who had got no grit in them to begin with and were doing nothing more than trying to hold back the forces they had called into action? What is unquestionably true stands out clearly. Behind the backs of the workers, at the very moment they were calling upon the workers to “trust their leaders,” the “conversations” had begun with one man and finished with the whole General Council accepting a memorandum which they tried to force the miners to accept, although they had not been consulted. They were doing this while the masses were pressing upon them to extend the strike. Due to this pressure of the workers, who could see clearly that unless the front was extended the ruling class would continue to increase its grip of the situation, notice was sent out that from May 11th there would be an extension of the strike in the engineering and shipbuilding trades, but not in any Government dockyards.
came and the order to the engineers was to operate from the end of the day shift. The “British Worker” says: “The men have waited for the instructions impatiently, and all over the country they received their marching orders with enthusiasm and a sense of relief.” Oh, that is true enough; but what damned hypocrisy to carry on “secret diplomacy” with such splendid men and women risking everything they Possessed!
And so things moved rapidly towards the fatal day.
The Government had slackened nothing of its organisational forces. It was steadily increasing its grip with every weakening of the General Council. The press was now growing. The Government rag, the “British Gazette” had everything in its favour ever since the Government monopolised paper supplies; it was appearing daily in increasing numbers. They had little to worry about from the leaders. The one thing which amazed them and continues to amaze them is the spirit of the workers. The unemployed workers had played an heroic part. Through their organisation, “The Unemployed Workers’ Committees” they had thrown, their lot in with the strikers and kept the number of workers among the blacklegs remarkably small.
And the General Council was in uproar. Herbert Smith had done some plain talking. The General Council had come to an unanimous decision without the miners, and were going to call off the General Strike. A deputation waited on the Miners’ Executive. It was led by Kevin and Purcell, who begged and pleaded to their everlasting shame that the miners would accept the Samuel Memorandum. There was nothing doing. By 12 o’clock noon, the General Strike was called off and the miners left in the lurch. It was called off unconditionally, without the slightest reference to the pledge of the Trades Union Conference concerning “all returning together on the terms upon which they came out.” If there ever was an action which can be described as “panicky” it was this.
On the strength of conversations with Samuel, which he himself described as entirely unofficial, and the public utterances of Baldwin that he would renew negotiations immediately the General Strike was called off, the General Council and Messrs. MacDonald and Henderson slunk along to 10, Downing Street, and unconditionally called off the strike.
Telegrams were sent out all over the country ordering the strikers to return to work, and the Council proceeded to publish the text of the correspondence between Samuel and the Council along with the Samuel Memorandum. Here is the full text:
May 12, 1926.
Dear Mr. Pugh.—As the outcome of the conversations which I have had with your Committee, I attach a memorandum embodying the conclusions that have been reached.
I have made it clear to your Committee from the outset that I have been acting entirely on my own initiative, have received no authority from the Government, and can give no assurances on their behalf.
I am of opinion that the proposals embodied in the Memorandum are suitable for adoption and are likely to promote a settlement of the differences in the Coal Industry.
I shall strongly recommend their acceptance by the Government when the negotiations are renewed.—Yours, etc.,
A. Pugh, Esq.,
President, General Council
Trades Union Congress.
The reply of the Trades Union Congress General Council was in the following terms:
Sir Herbert Samuel,
May 12, 1926.
Dear Sir,—The General Council having carefully considered your letter of to-day and the memorandum attached to it, concurred in your opinion that it offers a basis on which the negotiations upon the conditions in the Coal Industry can be renewed.
They are taking the necessary measures to terminate the General Strike, relying upon the public assurances of the Prime Minister as to the steps that would follow. They assume that during the resumed negotiations the subsidy will be renewed and that the lock-out notices to the miners will be immediately withdrawn.—Yours faithfully,
WALTER M. CITRINE,
The text of Sir Herbert Samuel’s memorandum is as follows:
1. The negotiations upon the conditions of the coal industry should be resumed, the subsidy being renewed for such reasonable period as may be required for that purpose.
2. Any negotiations are unlikely to be successful unless they provide for means of settling disputes in the industry other than conferences between the mineowners and the miners alone. A National Wages Board should, therefore, be established which would include representatives of those two parties with a neutral element and an independent chairman. The proposals in this direction tentatively made in the Report of the Royal Commission should be pressed and the powers of the proposed Board enlarged.
3. The parties to the Board should be entitled to raise before it any points they consider relevant to the issue under discussion, and the Board should be required to take such points into consideration.
4. There should be no revision of the previous wage rates unless there are sufficient assurances that the measures of re-organisation proposed by the Commission will be effectively adopted. A Committee should be established, as proposed by the Prime Minister, on which representatives of the men should be included, whose duty it should be to cooperate with the Government in the preparation of the legislative and administrative measures that are required. The same Committee, or alternatively, the National Wages Board, should assure itself that the necessary steps, so far as they relate to matters within the industry, are not being neglected or unduly postponed.
5. After these points have been agreed and the Mines National Wages Board has considered every practicable means of meeting such immediate financial difficulties as exist, it may, if that course is found to be absolutely necessary, proceed to the preparation of a wage agreement.
6. Any such agreement should—
(i) If practicable, be on simpler lines than those hitherto followed.
(ii) Not adversely affect in any way the wages of the lowest paid men.
(iii) Fix reasonable figures below which the wage of no class of labour, for a normal customary week’s work, should be reduced in any circumstances.
(iv) In the event of any new adjustments being made should provide for the revision of such adjustments by the Wages Board from time to time if the facts warrant that course.
7. Measures should be adopted to prevent the recruitment of new workers, over the age of 18 years, into the industry if unemployed miners are available.
8. Workers who are displaced as a consequence of the closing of uneconomic collieries should be provided for by—
(a) The transfer of such men as may be mobile, with the Government assistance that may be required, as recommended in the Report of he Royal Commission.
(b) The maintenance, for such period as may be fixed, of those who cannot be so transferred and for whom alternative employment cannot be found; this maintenance to comprise an addition to the existing rate of unemployment pay under the Unemployed Insurance Act, of such amount as may be agreed. A contribution should be made by the Treasury to cover the additional sums so disbursed.
(c) The rapid construction of new houses to accommodate transferred workers. The Trades Union Congress will facilitate this by consultation and co-operation with all those who are concerned.
There is not the slightest indication anywhere in this that the General Council or anybody else had discussed this correspondence and memorandum with the Prime Minster. But there is the statement in the first letter that Samuel was acting entirely on his own and without the authority of any other person than himself. This in itself is monstrous. But had there been the fullest possible discussion, there still remains the fact that the General Council, after having pledged itself time and time again against any attempt to reduce the miners’ wages, had now become the ally of the mineowners endeavouring to foist upon the miners reduction of wages and compulsory arbitration.
When the strike was called off the workers knew nothing of all this. In fact, they thought there must have been a climb-down on the part of the Government. They thought it incredible that on the very morning the Council had called large bodies of men on strike, the same body should call the strike off, unless there had been a victory. Victory meetings were organised in the provincial towns, but by the time of the meetings. they were changed into meetings of “explanation” and bitter chagrin.
Black Friday, 1921 was bad enough. Then, however, the leaders had not called three to four million men on to the streets. This time they had called them. The men had answered nobly—and been left to stew in the juice created by treachery, incompetence and cowardice.
Next: V. The Isolation of the Miners