Jack Tanner

The Rank and File and the General Strike

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. VIII, July 1926, No. 7
Publisher: 162 Buckingham Palace Rd., London, SW1
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

IT is too soon yet to gauge or to understand fully what effect the General Strike will have upon the working-class movement. Much has been written already in the Labour Press on the subject. Books and pamphlets have been published outlining the history of it, the events that led to its taking place, and detailing progress from day to day. Articles have appeared analysing the factors that caused it, and that were responsible for its being called off.

Much more must be written and said, however, before a complete understanding of this great event can be obtained. All the facts are not yet known, and it is probable the rank and file of the Unions will never get to know the full story of what transpired in high places, or have an opportunity to appreciate all the elements, economic, historic, political, and personal, that influenced the General Council in its decisions. A complete survey of the general strike has yet to be made, and if all the factors can be collated, analysed, and their effects apportioned accurately, such a work will be of inestimable value to the working-class movement—a real Revolutionists’ handbook.

A summary of the effects it has had upon the workers will not he the least difficult or least important part of such a work. At the present time it is only possible to give a brief and cursory outline of the thoughts and feelings of the rank and file.

While the theoreticians are theorising, and Labour writers are filling pages, while Trade Union leaders are orating—or remaining silent, according to their responsibilities and understanding of loyalty to the General Council—the members of the unions, the men and women who were in the struggle, have thoughts, feelings and impressions of the strike, that become more concrete and definite every day. Whether those thoughts and impressions are correct and justified is not the question. They are there. Circumstances and experiences have created them, and that they are in the main unfavourable to the leaders is generally known.

It has been said that it is not a question of criticism of this or that individual leader; that abuse and condemnation of them will not help to a clearer understanding of the position. This is a cold and logical outlook; one needs to have a knowledge of most of the facts that operated, and be somewhat detached also, to see things from such a standpoint. But the workers have not the knowledge, nor can they detach themselves, they can only judge things from a casual viewpoint, and from the immediate and material results of any action, or the lack of them.

The average general feeling is not against any particular individuals; the whole General Council has been condemned. Its members, having apparently agreed among themselves to hang together, are being condemned together. That they have been condemned unheard is their own fault. If they choose to delay a full explanation indefinitely, they must not grumble if the workers form conclusions that may be wrong.

The general strike was called to assist the miners. This was clearly understood by all who took part in it. It was to prevent a reduction in wages, to prevent an increase in working hours, and interference with the principle of national agreements. The general strike did not achieve this, these issues are still unsettled. There has been no material or practical gain as a result of it. The splendid solidarity displayed, the sacrifices made seem to the average trade unionist to have been wasted. Nothing concrete or tangible has resulted.

Who is to blame for this “No decision” contest? Not the workers, for their actions exceeded all expectations. There was no weakening on their part.

Amongst the ordinary members of the rank and file, the good average trade unionists, the members who have no very definite political opinions, the bulk of the T.U. membership, the opinion is that the General Council is to blame.

Their feelings can be summed up in three words: disappointment, disillusion and disgust. Disappointment at the calling off of the strike, when they felt so strongly that success was near at hand.

They knew the whole-hearted response to the call in their own district, and they know now that that response was the same nationally. They knew that the full power of the unions had not been exercised, that the strike had not become really general, when it was called off. It was a sort of semi-private row, and not every trade unionist could join in.

The workers have been disillusioned as to the impartiality of the Government, a belief that still prevailed to a considerable extent. The use of the army and navy, the display of tanks, armoured cars, submarines, destroyers, tin hats and rifles, has given them a pretty clear indication of what they will have to face in future struggles. The operation of the Emergency Powers Act, the organisation of the upper. and middle classes in the O.M,S., special constabulary, &c., demonstrated to what extent the governing class will go when they think their position is threatened.

Whatever the General Council may have thought and said—and they did stress the point—that the general strike was not against Constitutional Government, the workers know perfectly well now that Constitutional Government was against the general strike. A certain degree of disgust is felt and expressed at the attitude of the leaders in giving up the fight, without adequate reasons. Whatever explanation may be given by the General Council in the future will not remove from the minds of the workers the belief that it was called off through fear of it developing into something that would force the General Council to declare their position much more definitely than they have done now.

Cynical comments are made in regard to the message of the General Council to all trade unionists, at the opening of the second week of the strike.

“Stand firm, be loyal to instructions, and trust your leaders.” They did this all the time the strike was on. They stood firm, and displayed unexpected and unexampled loyalty. They trusted their leaders.

There is a feeling now that it would have probably been better if they had “trussed” them.

The counter-attack of the employers after the termination of the strike was apparently never considered or expected. Thousands of good trade unionists are “on the stones” as a consequence. They are among the most class-conscious and active members of the unions. They have acted as shop stewards, members of councils of action, delegates on strike committees, &c. They have been the leaders in their shops and factories, the driving forces in their particular districts, always a dangerous position economically, always liable to be “sniped” for their activities. These men have felt the full blast of the counter-attack, and this has happened in spite of the splendid spirit of the workers, thousands of whom kept up the struggle for days after the strike was called of, acting on the slogan “All back or none” in an endeavour to prevent the victimisation of their more active fellow workers.

After the signing of the agreement by the railway unions, followed then by many others of a similar character, it was felt that the principle had been lost, and it became a matter of self-preservation. The spirit of “all for each and each for all” changed to one of each for himself.

Agreements and conditions that had taken years of struggle to obtain went by the board. Movements for better conditions that had been afoot long enough, and that were reaching a stage of development, now stand still. This applies particularly to the engineering workers’ claim for a 20s. per week increase.

Just previous to the general strike, the ballot vote for strike action to enforce the demand in the London District began among the members of the sixteen unions affiliated to the London Engineering Trades Committee. The vote was returnable at the end. of May, and many branches had not voted when the, general strike took place. Those that had, showed a good majority for strike action. Following the strike the returns are very poor, though showing a majority in favour. Many members have refused to vote, in a belief that the time is not now opportune to force the issue, particularly in view of the continuation of the miners’ struggle. Many of the big engineering firms are easing off production and discharging workers, due it is said to the lack of fuel and materials.

The engineering workers nationally were looking to London to strike the first real blow to obtain the 1 increase. They were prepared to give the fullest possible support to the London men, and would have been willing to face a national lock-out on the issue, given some assurance of support from the general T.U. Movement. But that assurance is not now likely to be forthcoming, for the miners’ case still fills the horizon. By better leadership, organisation, propaganda and publicity they have been able to obtain the official support of the T.U. Movement, and they will continue to get the fullest financial and moral support of the whole working class.

The Engineering Unions missed the tide, and it is now on the ebb. Preparations must now be made by intensive and extensive agitation and organisation to take advantage of the earliest opportunity to force the issue of the wage increase. It will not be long before the tide will again be at the flood, and London must be ready to move on it.

Some criticism has been made by the rank and file at the lack of anything like definite instructions from the T.U.C., or even from the respective E.C.’s of the unions involved in the general strike. This criticism is hardly justified in view of the difficulties of communication during the struggle. As a result of the failure to obtain a clear interpretation of the General Council’s instructions to the trades ceasing work, the local strike organisations took power unto themselves, which in the majority of cases was accepted without question, by the workers. Acting on the principle of “when in doubt, call all out,” the councils of action and strike committees drew out men who according to the General Council, were in the second and third line of defence, or attack. This was all to the good, so far as the actual strike was concerned, but probably resulted in more victimisation on resumption.

Though many of the unions were not in a position to pay full strike benefits, there has been comparatively little complaint by members of the financial loss incurred by them. Practically all the unions paid some benefit. The workers appreciated the position; they did not come out to get something for themselves. It was a matter of giving, and they showed they were prepared to make a sacrifice.

One of the most hopeful and surprising results of the call to action was the response of the non-unionists. In many factories with only a small minority of organised workers, all ceased work. On such an issue, with such an object, class feeling prevailed. Of course there was also a mass pyschology operating. This was the biggest thing the workers had known since August, 1914. They wanted to be in it, it was action, a change, something real and big.

There was also the uncertainty about it all. What would it lead to? How would it end? Who could remain in a workshop or factory, doing the ordinary every-day job, working at the bench or tending a machine, when millions of their fellows were on the streets, and when anything might happen? Being human, they could not help themselves, and left work holus-bolus, unionist or “non.” These non-unionists realise more than ever they did before the power of organisation and mass action. They know it was not that trade unionism was defeated, but that the towel was thrown in the ring. That the General Council did not want the strike to develop into anything like a revolutionary situation is saying what everyone knows and admits. This also applies to the attitude of the average worker at the beginning of the strike, who felt that all he was called upon to do was to help the miners.

But after the first week this outlook changed somewhat. They were in the fight and up against all employers and the State. They began to realise that, and were prepared to continue. The British workers have shown they can and will fight if given a lead, and are prepared to go further than they were taken by the General Council during the nine days.

Those nine days will have a tremendous effect upon the Labour Movement generally. It has had its biggest lesson yet in the class war; the experiences will not be wasted upon the workers. They have gained confidence in themselves and their organisations. The rank and file know they are greater than their present leaders. The general strike will mark the beginning of a different mental outlook for the rank and file in the trade unions. They will demand a greater, a more courageous and honest leadership. They will object to being preached at, instructed and led by men who have not these proven qualifications.

Let us hope the rank and file at the Trades Union Congress in September will put into operation some of the changes that the general strike has shown are so urgently needed.