The main causes of the General Strike were to do with the mining industry. During WW1, coal mines were nationalised and miners were given high status as essential workers. They were also kept safe and paid high wages.
Immediately after the war, the government, ignoring calls to nationalise the mining industry, returned control of the mines to their owners. Faced with increased foreign competition, the owners immediately drew up plans to cut wages and increase working hours. The miners’ response was best summed up in the 1925 slogan; “not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay.”
When the miners, transport workers and railwaymen joined to form the Triple Industrial Alliance (TIA) a major powerbase was created. When the miners went on strike in 1921, the TIA agreed to support them. However, when the leader of the railway union (J.H. Thomas) withdrew support at the last minute, the strike failed with this event being known as “Black Friday.”
In 1925, the threat of another TIA strike forced the government to offer a nine-month subsidy to the mine owners to prevent wage cuts. This event was known as “Red Friday.”
Although the Samuel Commission was set up to investigate the problems of the mining industry, the employers made it clear that, once the subsidy came to an end, wages would be reduced by 10% and the miners’ working day increased from seven to eight hours.
After mine owners closed pits as a means to forcing miners into accepting new conditions, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) called a general strike in support of the miners for 4 May 1926.
The Conservative government, mindful of the introduction of communism to Russia following the revolution of 1917, were determined that workers would not be allowed to take power away from the state. Likewise, large sections of the media viewed the strike as a threat to parliamentary democracy.
Although many miners took the subsidies of “Red Friday” as a sign that the government were on their side, many Conservatives saw the nine month period as time to prepare for a strike they felt was inevitable. This was an important tactic and from “Red Friday” onwards, they put together the following mechanisms to deal with a general strike.
The country was divided into regions, in order that reactions to local events would be faster and easier to co-ordinate.
Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, set up a volunteer force to act as strike-breakers. He also edited, The British Gazette, an anti-union newspaper.
Control of the media was organised, so that the government could control what the public heard about the strike.
The Police were given special powers to deal with the strike, whilst plans were made for the armed forces to fight against the strikers, if required.
Unlike the government, the TUC did not use its time to plan the General Strike properly. Although the strike was very successful, with millions taking part on the first day, it could not be said to have achieved any of its aims. Whilst there were 5,000 arrests and some clashes between strikers and the police, it was mainly peaceful.
After just nine days, the TUC, who were keen not to be seen to be challenging the elected parliament and hadn’t wanted the strike in the first place, called it off. Essentially, the TUC felt a general strike would be far too big to control and that the miners were not being realistic about the post-war economic situation.
Left on their own, the miners were forced back to work in November 1926 by poverty and hunger.
By 1930, trade union membership had fallen to 4 million; almost half the 1919 figure of 7.9 million.