Defeat of syndicalism
David Douglass reviews Ian Wright's "God’s beautiful sunshine: the 1921 miners’ lockout in the Forest of Dean"
Next year marks the centenary of the great coal lockout of 1921. Refusing to accept a cut in wages, over one million miners were locked out of their work.
This book provides a rare focus on the struggles of the miners of the Forest of Dean - 6,000 of them - and their extraordinary resilience. It traces the expansion of the coal industry in the 30 years before the start of World War I - one of the greatest catastrophes ever to hit humanity and the consequence of inter-imperialist rivalries. Coal had been the cornerstone of British industrial and imperial dominance worldwide.
The miners meantime had become increasingly aware of their lack of benefit from this, and their own social and industrial conditions, when contrasted to other industries. With coal had grown the organised power of the miners in the form of the Miners Federation of Great Britain - by 1912 over a million miners belonged to it. The aspirations of the miners were to an extent conceded by the virtual nationalisation of the mines to fuel the war effort. Many of the blatant injustices heaped on the miners were removed and a less brutal form of mine management ensued for a time. The unions had at least to be listened to.
The promise of a ‘world fit for heroes’ and the superhuman effort made on the battlefield and within industry, not least down the mines, had raised expectations beyond anything the government was contemplating. Indeed, the end of the war brought a sharp dip in demand for coal, and - most controversially - control was handed back to the grossly inefficient 1,500 different coal companies operating some 3,000 mines. This was particularly true of the Forest of Dean, where 11 deep mines were operated by eight separate companies.
On the issue of women in the coalfields - a feature which was widely ignored, but is now crucial to any study - the book demonstrates their role in the community protecting collective values, tin-panning wife-beaters and blacklegs, and joining picket lines, as they have throughout our history. But they also organised politically in the Women’s Labour League.
Working conditions in the Forest pits were said to be the worst in the country, yet boys left school at 13 and started at the pit, ending up underground by the time they were a year older. They were engaged in ‘hodding’ - a primitive transport method, which involved being harnessed to a tub with sledge runners rather than wheels, which were dragged and pushed through the narrow tunnels. Hodders, we are told, were still employed by the 1940s.
Like those in South Wales and the northern coalfields, from 1910 through the war and into the great lockouts of the 20s, Forest miners were greatly influenced by syndicalism, and also moved from the traditional miners support for the Liberals first to the newly emerging Independent Labour Party and then the Labour Party itself. This was a period in British labour movement history when the world of ideas was up for grabs: syndicalism, Bolshevism, Labourism. Outlooks on conciliation and direct action clashed and overlapped, and few workers would have been unaware of the competing trends.
The Triple Alliance was formed in 1914, bringing together the most powerful unions in the country - miners, transport and railworkers - united to take mutual solidarity action and watch each other’s backs, since all to one extent or another overlapped in their labour and strategic positions. All three centres had been strongly influenced by industrial unionist and syndicalist visions of ‘One union, one industry’. The power potential in such an alliance was neutered at birth by World War I, as workers of all sorts flocked off to follow the colours and defeat the kaiser. But there were deep and contradictory trends, and union membership soared - from 3 million in 1912 to 8.25 million in 1920. In 1915 the leaders of the unions met to confirm their pledge for mutual support in industrial disputes.
Ian shows us how the potential power in this alliance was starting to test the mettle of the leaders, at a time when the end of the war had inflated the expectations and demands of the working class in an economy now tottering on the brink.
Following the end of the war, the miners were on a collision course with the government. They had gained concessions owing to the mines having de facto been brought under state control. While the government now wanted to return them to the coal owners, the miners demanded nationalisation. The shortage of coal was now impacting on the country and on the promise of ‘a land fit for heroes’ - especially so for miners returning to the coalfields after being demobbed. The miners demanded re-employment on full wages and a reduction in hours.
This was only one of a range of problems facing the government at this time - not least the war of independence in Ireland. The army was on the brink of widespread mutiny - there were marches and strikes across the country. At Folkestone 10,000 soldiers marched, formed a Soldiers Union and took control of the demobilisation unit - within 24 hours they had demobilised the entire base! 20,000 troops were involved in such protests, joining action by striking French railway workers, while sections of the navy refused to move against Soviet Russia.
Fife and Lanarkshire miners launched an unofficial strike, joining with the general strike in Glasgow. The miners’ action was led by an unofficial syndicalist union, which not only defied the official Scottish Miners Association, but marched to their offices to hoist the red flag.
The government was keen to avoid any general miners’ strike in such an unprecedented situation. Lloyd George promised a royal commission into the running of the whole industry on condition the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called off any threat of strike action.
In December 1919 Winston Churchill, the secretary of state for war and air, announced that he supported the nationalisation of the railways. Although a bill was passed, enabling the government to take control of all transport, it was clear that the majority on the government wanted to go in the other direction, with an end to all wartime controls and regulations. Confrontation with the rail unions seemed inevitable.
In August the government declared against nationalisation and confirmed the mining industry would be given back to the coal owners. The miners then sought to implement the pledge of joint action through the Triple Alliance. In early 1920 government ministers discussed the use of military force to put down strikes, while the miners sought solidarity from the Triple Alliance and the TUC for a general strike to win the nationalisation of the mines.
In June the TUC rejected this call, but despite this failure there was unity on stopping any military intervention against Soviet Russia via a general strike. Churchill was livid, admitting that the labour movement had stopped such an intervention in its tracks. He resolved instead to go onto the offensive. In August the government, using the wartime Emergency Powers Act, declared the threat of a national miners’ strike as equivalent to a “state of war”.
But after some false starts one million miners struck in October 1920, and the Forest of Dean was solid. After some faltering, the National Union of Railwaymen agreed that, unless negotiations reopened on the miners’ demands, a national strike of rail unions would follow. The threat of a triple alliance general strike threw the government into a state of panic and it agreed to reopen negotiations with the miners. This resulted in the drawing up of a temporary agreement, pending the creation of a national wages board in 1921.
What needs to be highlighted, although it is not covered in this book, is the fact that Churchill was facing crises on a number of fronts. In March 1920, he let loose the murderous Black and Tans and their terrorist campaign in Ireland, while also preparing for action against the miners and possibly rail and transport workers in Britain.
My own opinion is that Michael Collins and the Irish rebels did not understand the weakness the British state was facing. Churchill claimed he was holding all the cards, although in reality it was a busted flush. But immediately after the signing of the hated Anglo-Irish treaty in October 1921 tens of thousands of British troops were withdrawn from Ireland and moved into the coalfields, where they set up machine gun posts and barbed-wire entanglements.
The government bought more time by introducing a temporary subsidy on coal to offset reductions in miners’ wages, but most pits were only working two or three days per week, as coal sales had slumped - Germany was paying off swingeing war reparations with coal exports to Britain.
In March 1921 a bill for decontrol of the coal industry was passed by 277 votes to 72. Notices were issued to every colliery in the country, cancelling all existing contracts and agreements between the men and the masters. Wages, which were barely above starvation level as it was, were to be cut by 50% and any man refusing the new rate would be sacked. Through the bitter months of struggle the union was adamant that, whatever else happened, the national wage structure it had won in 1912, against the owner’s insistence on district agreements, would be maintained.
On March 31, a million miners were locked out and the National Transport Workers Federation resolved to give the miners all assistance, including solidarity strike action. The cabinet drew up plans for the use of all available troops and reserves, while 80,000 strike busters called “special constables” were to be recruited. Machine gun posts were planned for pitheads. As the date for solidarity strike action approached some of the NTWF leaders started to get cold feet and put the date back. NUR general secretary Jimmy Thomas had warned that a strike such as this posed a challenge to the state and had revolutionary implications - which it did, of course, but he and some of the others were not up for the political challenge.
The government was also aware of this revolutionary challenge in the climate of rebellion and revolution across Europe, and they met with Triple Alliance leaders without the miners - Lloyd George later admitted he viewed Thomas as the weak link in the chain. He told them that, while flexibility on wages in some districts could be managed, there could be no movement on the ending of national agreements.
It was claimed that Frank Hodges, the MFGB general secretary, was prepared to go for an agreement based on district settlements. This gave the green light to Robert Williams of the National Federation of Transport Workers to withdraw their offer of support. No wonder the names of Williams and Hodges stink in the nose of generations of miners and their families - not to mention Churchill: that was the history we grew up with.
But the NUR did resolve it would not move imported or blackleg coal under any circumstances. This then started a war of victimisation by the railway companies. The docks were now manned by an army of blackleg volunteers, coal was moving and by the end of May rail and transport unions lifted their blacking of coal and blacklegged themselves (with notable exceptions, such as on the Glasgow docks). The situation was not helped by the instruction of the MFGB itself not to picket blackleg labour, which many saw as a licence to scab and a failure of solidarity.
In the end, desperate to find a solution, the MFGB leadership decided to put the owners’ final offer of another temporary subsidy to the members without making any recommendation. The turnout was overwhelming, with 180,724 in favour of settling, but 435,614 for sticking it out. In the Forest of Dean the margin was even greater: 5,222 for fighting on, with only 659 wanting to accept the offer. At 88.79% it was the highest rejection vote in any region on a 98% turnout.
Incredibly the national officers of the union argued that they had not achieved a national two-thirds majority and therefore had no alternative but to call off the strike. It was a wilful and blatant betrayal: according to the rules, although two thirds was required to call the strike, only acceptance of the offer by a majority vote could nullify that decision, so the strike decision remained valid, but on June 27 the MFGB NEC recommended a return to work on the basis of district agreements.
The history of the miners has been something of a tragic ‘Groundhog Day’ - we keep visiting and revisiting the same scenario. Just as the defeat of the 1984-85 strike had a cataclysmic impact on the whole labour movement, the wretched, almost self-imposed, defeat of 1921 was devastating. Trade union membership collapsed from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million in 1922.
I agree with Ian’s conclusion: the defeat of the miners knocked the radical victories of 1912 and the syndicalist visions of the working class sideways. It led to the growth of Labourism and parliamentary and constitutional methods as softer options for redressing injustice. Bad enough, but this process was to be gone through with even more blatant treachery five years later, with many of same key players in place.
This is a thoroughly well and extensively researched book, which gives us both the local and regional aspect of the struggle, as well as a comprehensive overview of the national action. It demonstrates the dramatic history of the miners of the Forest of Dean - not the family-based ‘free miners’, but a crack unit in the army of a million, with their trials at work in difficult seams and the divisive ‘butty system’; and in action in their union in what initially was clearly a potentially revolutionary situation.
That it was defeated was not due to any failure of syndicalism, but to the lack of vision and backbone of leaders, including those of the miners - the rank and file and their allies had been brave and determined to the last.