This radical history of the trade union movement in Britain runs from 1919 to 1964. You can read Part 1 here, which describes the British trade union movement from the 1700s to 1918. The summary is based on “In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism” by Rob Sewell, which you can read here.
On the Brink of Revolution 1919-1920
I identified in a previous post that 1919 was one of the most revolutionary years of British history. In January 1919, nearly 50 mutinies took places in the British armed forces. This included 3,000 troops marching to Parliament demanding to be demobbed. They were forced to surrender when surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets. The government wanted to use the army against industrial disputes in Britain so requested weekly reports from Commanding Officers on the discipline in their units. Sewell describes the “tragedy of the revolutionary moment in the armed forces was the abject failure of the leaders of the labour movement to give any support or political direction.” This is understandable because industrial workers were engaged in significant struggles with their employers. Industrial unrest was taking places among shipyard and engineering workers in Belfast and also in Clydeside (Glasgow).
At the end of January 1919, the Clyde Workers’ Committee led a strike of engineering workers, shipyard workers and others for a 40-hour week. It has the significance of a general strike in Glasgow. The government sent in 10,000 soldiers from outside Glasgow and armoured tanks were stationed in central Glasgow. The radical local union leaders were isolated and disciplined by national trade union officials so the strike came to an end in two weeks.
Also in early 1919, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) demanded a 30% wage increase, a six-hour working day, and the nationalisation of the mines under workers’ control. A strike ballot was issued and a majority vote for industrial action. Coal stocks at that time were very low. The Triple Alliance of miners, rail workers, transport unions, were also pushing for their own demands. Prime Minister Lloyd George needed to avoid a general strike. He knew that British industry needed to reduce costs, especially wage costs. And he also knew that because of the revolutionary mood of the working-class that he would need to be careful to defuse the industrial situation and play for time. Sewell describes the use of a carrot and stick approach. He threatened the union leadership with force against the strikes. He also set up a Royal Commission, which Sewell describes as being used many times to trick the working-class into inaction. The Commission rushed its report in 17 days and recommended higher wages and a seven-hour day, with the prospect of a six-hour day to follow. The question of the ownership of the industry was left to later report. The miners were convinced to take the offer, much to the government’s relief. The second report recommended nationalisation and the miners some control of the industry. But Lloyd George reneged on his promise and rejected nationalising the coal industry. By this point, the miners had lost their initiative and didn’t challenge the decision.
The government set up the National Industrial Conference, for employers and trade unions to work out a ‘common goal’, as Sewell describes “true class-collaborationist fashion”. The Triple Alliance and engineering unions boycotted the Conference but it limited those union leaders that did attend and “helped to defuse the increasingly heated industrial climate”.
In June 1919, 300,000 Lancashire cotton workers went on strike and gained a 48-hour week and a 30% wage increase. In July the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) called a second strike. The government was better prepared so there was limited support for the strike and also from other industries. To ensure the police did not strike again, the government increased pay and conditions and outlawed the NUPPO.
In 1919, rail workers won the eight-hour day. After the coal crisis was over the government demanded a rail workers wage cut. The National Union of Railwaymen called a strike. The government withheld pay and aimed to starve them back to work. The army and ‘Citizen’s Guard’ were called in. In response, 400,000 miners and others stopped work. The huge national support paralysed the country as transport ceased to function. Lloyd George identified the unfavourable balance of forces for the government and retreated. The existing wages were maintained and no workers were victimised.
In 1919 Lloyd George met the leaders of unions in the Triple Alliance. He admitted the power of the Triple Alliance and explaining that if they continued then they would need to replace the government and take over running the country. This was enough to get the Triple Alliance union leaders to back down and admit defeat.
Sewell explained that throughout this period the capitalist class were perfecting class war and the trade union leaders were learning how to avoid it. Lloyd George admitted that capitalism can’t function without the support of the Labour and trade union leaders. But these leaders have shown that they have no interest or faith in changing society. The union leaders had the opportunity in 1919 and 1926 to take over the government and run the country but in both cases submitted.
Sewell gives an example of the right-wing leader of the rail union forced to lead the 1919 strike but with no interest in the strike or its success. Instead, he worked to maintain control over the union rank and file and to avoid revolution. By August 1920, the lack of progress on miners’ wages resulted in a vote for strike action. The miners’ leaders called on the Triple Alliance for support but the rail and transport leaders failed to show their support and the miners had to make a temporary agreement until March 1921. This gave the government time to broaden its powers and introduced the Emergency Power Act. The government now could maintain ‘essential services’, when it deemed necessary. The ruling class were preparing for civil war, unlike the right-wing union leaders.
Sewell describes an active defence of the Russian Revolution by the British Labour movement. The 1919 Labour Party conference carried a motion calling for the end of military intervention in Russia. He describes dockers in 1920 refusing to load munitions onto ships going to Russia. When the government threatened to go to war against Russia, the TUC and Labour Party met and put out a statement against this, and a general strike would be called if necessary. Under this pressure, the government withdrew its threats and cancelled its plans for military invasion.
Black Friday 1920-1924
Sewell describes the militant mood in the trade union movement in 1920. The TUC Parliamentary Committee was transformed into the Trades Union General Council, a central body to represent the whole trade union movement. The National Council of Labour also formed, with members from the General Council and Labour’s Executive Committee. In 1920, the Independent Labour Party voted to disaffiliate from the Second International but the vote was lost to affiliate to the Third International or Communist International (Comintern).
The most militant sections of the working class formed the Community Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920 with about 2,000-3,000 members. CPGB focused their activities on workplaces and the mass organisations such as the trade unions. They worked to change the unions from within. There was a controversial debate in the CPGB about affiliating to the Labour Party. It was eventually agreed but the wording of the affiliation application meant it was easily rejected by the Labour Party. CPGB members worked as individuals in the trade unions and Labour Party. Many were thrown out of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) so the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) was set up. The CPGB launched a ‘Back to the Unions’ campaign that was taken up by the TUC.
In early 1921 the coal mine owners announced a large wage reduction. Nearly 1 million miners rejected the deal and were locked out of the mines. The MFGB called on their Triple Alliance partners. In response, Lloyd George used the new Emergency Power Act to bring in a state of emergency. The army and volunteers were called to replace the miners and protect the mines. The railway and transport unions called a strike in April with strong support from the rank and file. The Triple Alliance leadership were not as committed and managed to find an excuse to withdraw their support, leaving the miners to fight alone. This day in April 1921 is known as ‘Black Friday‘. The employers took this opportunity to reduce wages and conditions. The miners fought on but were defeated by June 1921.
There was also a recession in 1920-21 that saw national industrial production drop by a quarter and unemployment rose from 2% to 18% across the workforce. The worst-hit sectors were mining, railways, metals, vehicles and cotton. The employers continued their offensive on the workers, with wage cuts forced on 6 million workers by the end of 1921.
In 1922, hundreds of thousands of workers in the engineering industry were locked out nationally. This weakened the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) financially and resulted in the Shop Stewards’ Movement breaking up. Unemployment, reduced wages and conditions resulted in mass disillusionment and inactivity resulting in affiliations to the TUC dropping from about 6.5 million to 4.5 million by 1923.
Sewell describes how the focus of the working-class shifted from the industrial front to the political front. At the 1922 General Election the Labour Party got over 4 million votes and 142 seats. The economic crisis deepened and unemployment continued to rise so the Tory government called another General Election in 1923. The Labour Party increased its MPs to 191 and the Tories lost seats so no longer had a majority. The Liberal leader gave the Labour Party the opportunity to form a minority government with Liberal support. Due to this Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour government had limited power because they needed Liberal Party support to pass any government legislation, so tried to dampen expectations in the country. They had to carry out capitalist policies: submitting to the City of London, arguing against strikes, Initially, there were high hopes from the working-class but this soon turned into disappointment.
Another General Election was held in 1924 and the Tories won a large majority. Labour increased its vote to over 5 million and got 151 seats. The Liberals were reduced to 40 seats.
Bayonets don’t cut coal 1924-1926
Following the withdrawal of French troops from German industrial areas in 1925, demand for coal exports from Britain dropped significantly. In response, coal miner owners decreased wages by 10-25%. The British government also decided to return to the Gold Standard at pre-First World War rates so the City of London could maintain its position as the world financial centre. This made exports unprofitable so costs needed to be cut, especially wages.
Left-wing trade unionists were elected to President of the TUC and onto its General Council. A left-winger was also elected secretary of the miners union. The Community Party and several other groups set up a United Front so groups with different ideologies could ‘march separately, and strike together’. This led to the formation of the National Minority Movement (NMM), which was the first initiative to bring together trade unionists with a revolutionary objective. The aim was to work through the existing trade unions and become a ‘Majority’. The NMM recruited engineers, transport and railway workers, with the majority of members being miners.
Sewell describes how in 1925 the Tory Prime Minster Baldwin and other members of the ruling class started stating publicly that all workers would need to take wage reductions to help get industry and the economy healthy again and get past the capitalist crisis. In June 1925, the coal owners gave a month’s notice that they were cancelling current contracts, to reduce wages. In response, the TUC met with the leadership of the railway and transport unions and agreed that if there was a miners lockout, then all movements of coal would stop. This was the first step in the planning of the coming General Strike. Sewell describes how Prime Minster Baldwin and Tory strategists assessed the situation and decided that the balance of forces was not in their favour so needed to play for time until they were confident they could take on the labour movement and win. They agreed to a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry to support wages and a Royal Commission to investigate the industry’s problems.
Sewell describes how many in the trade union movement celebrated this result. But the leadership of the miners union understood that this was only a pause in the struggle and was setting things up for a large confrontation on May 1st 1926. He describes how many Tories, the right-wing press and the right-wing Labour Party leaders protested the government’s retreat. Many wanted a confrontation at that point. They all agreed about attacking the working class but disagreed over timing. Sewell explains how at this point, the real issue was the conservative leaders of the railway and transport unions.
The government prepared for the confrontation by dividing England and Wales into 11 divisions, each with a Civil Commissioner able to use the Emergency Power Act. Scotland had its own organisation arrangements. These were all reporting to senior members of the ruling class. The government forces could take control of emergency administration and maintain essential supplies. A volunteer strike-breaking organisation was also set up, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. In October 1925, the government also arrested 12 leaders of the Community Party of Great Britain on charges of seditious libel and incitement to mutiny. They received sentences ranging from 6-12 months and this kept them out of the way of the coming confrontation. The 1925 Battle of Ammanford saw strikes, lockouts and riots between miners and police, resulting in many arrests.
Sewell explains how the trade union movement failed to prepare for the May 1st 1926 confrontations. He describes how many trade union leaders seemed to put their hopes with the Royal Commission. The Samuel Commission report came out in March 1926 and recommended reorganisation of the industry through wage reductions and longer hours. It caused a large amount of division and confusion in the labour movement. The miners stuck to their demands of no wage reductions or longer working hours. That same month the National Minority Movement met to discuss the coming fight and how to support the miners.
In April 1926, negations between the TUC and the government were deadlocked. The TUC’s General Council only called its first meeting on April 27th, 3 days before the end of the subsidy. The right-wingers in the TUC won out and agreed to support the Royal Commission report. The miners and government refused to compromise. A vote was held on May 1st and there was an overwhelming majority in support of the General Council running the strike. Sewell describes how the trade union leaders managed to get a strike they did not want.
Nine days that shook the world 1926
For Sewell, the General Strike of May 1926 as a ‘struggle of epic proportions. It shows the fighting spirit of the British working class, which is an inspiration. He also describes it as the greatest tragedy in working-class history, that had long-term consequences.
The TUC General Council informed Prime Minster Baldwin that they were representing the miners. The Tories refused to compromise. The Labour Party leadership were against the strike. The TUC leadership saw the General Strike as a negotiating tactic, that would never need to be used. But their bluff was called so they were forced to go through with it. Sewell describes how the union leaders called for caution and the ruling class screamed class war.
All attempts at finding a compromise ended when on May 2nd worker at the Daily Mail went on an unofficial strike in response to an anti-union editorial. Baldwin told the union leaders to get the Daily Mail workers back to work and withdraw the General Strike announcement. The union leaders went to meet Baldwin, late on May 3rd but he had gone to bed.
On May 4, the response by the working class far exceeded the expectations of the union leaders. The miners were locked out of the pits, railways and public services completely stopped. A few buses operated in London but that was it. A large number of unorganised workers also joined the strike.
The only union that did not join the General Strike was the National Sailors’ and Fireman’s Union. A few branches of this union did strike but were forced back to work. The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) did mobilise some scab workers, students and middle-class professionals but they had little effect give the scale of the strike and could not keep services going.
Sewell describes how several trade Councils formed Councils of Action to organise things on the ground and created working-class institutions of self-government. Read more here. With the working class starting to run society, this terrified the ruling class and the union leaders. Sewell stresses that the General Strike shows the enormous power of the working-class if it chooses to use it.
As the strike continued the working class became more confident and more workers joined in. There were ongoing clashes between strikers and the polices resulting in thousands of arrests. In response, the government sent battleships to Liverpool, Glasgow, Swansea and Cardiff. Army and navy leave was cancelled and Hyde Park in London became an army camp. It continued to denounce the strike as a revolutionary challenge to the Constitution and Parliament.
The print workers brought newspaper production to a halt. In response, the capitalists brought out their own propaganda news-sheet called the ‘British Gazette’, edited by Winston Churchill. The government also took over the BBC, unconcerned about supposed impartiality. The TUC brought out its own publication the ‘British Worker’ to counter the government’s propaganda. It first came out on May 5, the second day of the strike.
The union leadership wrote in the British Worker that the General Strike was an industrial dispute. Sewell describes how this was not the case “a general strike by its very nature goes far beyond the boundaries of an ordinary industrial dispute. It necessarily has a political character because it brings out sharply the fundamental class division in society and challenges the bosses’ right to rule. Baldwin and Churchill were therefore quite right to present it as a declaration of war. The difference was that, whereas they showed great determination to lead their armies into battle, the officers of the Labour movement were desperate to surrender without firing a shot.”
Three days into the strike the TUC General Council started secret negotiations with the government. They were desperate to end the strike, even if it meant sacrificing the miners. The General Council never considered using the most powerful sections of the working class, those responsible for power and electricity. On Monday 10 May, the day before the strike was called off, the General Council were still telling the labour movement to stand firm.
The leader of the miners union realised that the TUC was going to end the strike and accept the Royal Commission report. On May 12 the Miners’ Federation issued a statement stating it did not support calling off the strike. This was suppressed by the TUC and not printed in the British Workers so the labour movement did not know this until after the strike was called off.
The TUC leader met with Baldwin on May 12 and gave their unconditional surrender to end the strike. The general strike was still growing in size at this point. And even after it had been called off, on the day after the numbers of strikers increased by 100,000. Sewell describes the details of how local Councils of Action were operating, read here.
The working class were shocked by the capitulation of the TUC leadership. And also confused by the British Worker claims that the miners would get a fair deal and that the TUC leadership had acted with courage to end the strike. They then had to admit there were no assurances from the government. The governments British Gazette and Daily Mail claimed victory.
Sewell describes how this was caused by the failure of the TUC leaders on the right and left and their lack of confidence in themselves and the working class. He describes them as
“left and right reformism. Both tendencies accept the capitalist system. The left reformists would like the capitalists to behave more humanely and give concessions to the workers… Sometimes, in a period of economic upswing, the capitalists are prepared to make concessions. But in a period of economic crisis they are implacable. Reforms in such periods can only be achieved as the by-product of an all-out revolutionary struggle.
In the last analysis the ‘Lefts’ will unite with the right wing because they have no perspective of a fundamental change in society, and fear the independent movement of the workers. We have seen this many times in the history of the movement. Therefore, while it is necessary to support the Left trade union leaders against the right wing, it is necessary to keep them under firm control, to support them only when they defend correct policies and to consistently criticise their vacillations and mistakes. One must also distinguish between words and deeds. ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’, the proverb states, and ‘left’ speeches are no use unless they lead to action. Therefore, our support for the left reformists must be of a highly critical nature, and never unconditional. This was the big mistake made by the young and inexperienced Communist Party of Britain in 1926.”
Sewell is critical of the Communist Party for creating false illusions in the Lefts on the TUC. He describes how the British working class could have taken power in 1926 and replaced the government. But to do this there would have been needed a revolutionary trade union leadership. The workers felt completely let down by their own leaders and many sectors kept up the strike for several more days but the back of the General Strike had been broken.
There were 5.5 million trade unionists in 1926 and nearly 4 million joined the strike. The rest weren’t asked to strike. It was a ruling class victory but it also showed significant class solidarity considering the attacks by the government and capitalist class. Sewell describes how “the General Strike was an experience that transformed the outlook of many workers activists. The General Strike showed the enormous potential of the working class: its innate capacity for solidarity, initiative, creativity and self-sacrifice.”
Sewell also states that “the lessons of the 1926 General Strike are some of the most important in the history of the British working class and need to be digested by the new generation of worker activists and youth. In the titanic class battles that lie ahead, the general strike will once again be on the order of the day. Those who have no confidence in the working class will scoff at such a thought. However, the development of a general strike is not determined by the subjective will of individuals, as 1926 proved, but is born out of the class contradictions and dynamics of society. There have been many general strikes in the history of post-war Europe – in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Above all, the marvellous general strike in May 1968 in France shows what can happen in the next period in Britain and other countries. Let us not forget that most people thought that a general strike was not possible in France – before it happened. But then, it is always the fate of sceptics to be wise after the event.”
Never again 1926-1929
The defeat of the 1926 General Strike resulted in the miners being completely isolated. They fought on for several more months but in the end, were literally starved back to work on the owners’ terms. The betrayal was an awful blow to the morale of the British working-class. The TUC General Council attempted to deflect the anger of workers by making false claims about wage agreements and then blaming the miners union leadership. Churchill’s ‘British Gazette’ was clear about the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the TUC, which removed any confusion or illusions. Baldwin appealed to the employers for compassion with the workers but was ignored and owners reduced wages and conditions. There was also heavy victimisation of rank-and-file trade unionists, with many being forced to renounce their union to keep their job, many others simply losing their job.
Once the miners were forced back to work, wages were cut and the government repealed the Seven-Hour Act of 1919. This was the start of years of coal miner owner attacks on trade unionist miners with victimisation and unemployment in mining areas. This resulted in a long-lasting scar of resentment that was well remembered by the striking miners in 1972, 1974 and 1984-5.
At the 1926 TUC conference, it had been agreed not to discuss the General Strike in public. A member of the TUC General Council went against this and informed the media that the failure was the miners’ fault. The miners protested for an hour in response, holding up the meeting. They then marched out singing the ‘Red Flag’. The chairman then banned any discussion of the strike at the TUC conference. An inquest was held into the General Strike in January 1927 and the TUC General Council absolved themselves and blamed the miners. The report stated that militancy had failed and a new sensible and moderate approach was needed. Sewell describes in some detail how the General Strike showed that the working class wanted to change society but were held back by the reformist TUC leadership.
Baldwin and the Tory government then introduced the Trade Dispute and Trade Union Act 1927, with eight clauses and a new class of ‘illegal’ strikes. This reactionary new law took things back to the ‘Master and Servant’ laws that were abolished in 1875.
1) All sympathetic strikes were to be made illegal, confining the right to strike solely to the trade or industry concerned. A general strike was deemed illegal.
2) All strike-breakers would be protected under the law.
3) The right to picket was severely curtailed.
4) Political funds were attacked. Those paying the political levy had now to substitute “contracting in” for “contracting out”.
5) All civil servants were banned from joining or remaining in a union that had political objectives or was linked to other unions (i.e. the Labour Party and TUC).
6) All local and public authorities had to abandon all employment closed shops.
7) The Attorney General had the right to restrain a union from using its funds in an illegal strike.
8) It was an offence for any worker to refuse employment “under a common understanding”, when offered during an illegal strike.
The was widespread demoralisation in the labour movement and the number of strikes collapses. Between 1922-26 400,000 and 600,000 workers were striking each year. In 1927 and 1928 this dropped to 100,000. The number of trade union members dropped below 5 million for the first time since 1916. This resulted in the Labour Party losing over a quarter of its income due to the drop in trade union affiliate membership.
Following the 1926 TUC Congress, the General Council instructed Trade Council and unions to discontinue their affiliation to the Minority Movement and a number did. This resulted in the Minority Movement going into decline. The Labour Party had banned members of the Communist Party from being members in 1925 and following the General Strike defeat, this became more intense. Labour Party headquarters disaffiliated several local parties for not following through on this.
In response, a Left-Wing Movement formed in the Labour Party. In 1929 the Community Party took an ultra-left policy and denounced the Labour Party as a capitalist party. It instructed its members to leave the Left-Wing Movement so it collapsed.
Following 1926 the British trade union leaders wanted open class collaboration with the capitalist class. In January 1928 there was the first meeting between industrialists and the General Council. This lead to the National Industrial Council, with employers and worker representation. Sewell describes how this was quickly ignored by the capitalists as they were not interested in collaboration but “in the merciless subjection of the working class to the rule of capital”.
The Wall Street Crash happened in late 1929 resulting in mass unemployment and a large drop in production. “Between 1929 and 1932 industrial production in the United States fell by 54 per cent; in Germany, it fell by 42 per cent; in Britain, the fall was 17 per cent. This resulted in unemployment reaching 14 million in the USA, six million in Germany and nearly three million in Britain.”
Road to Wigan Pier 1920s-1930s
Sewell describes how the General Strike defeat and betrayal entrenched the position of the trade union bureaucracy, with the leadership becoming further separated from its working-class base. It changed the course of the unions and the whole balance of British Industrial relations in favour of the capitalist class. For the union leaders, this marked a dividing line between unions using force and militant struggle or ‘taking their rightful constitutional pace in modern society’ and becoming ‘an arm of the state’. They now saw themselves as ‘arbitrators’ and ‘mediators’ in the struggle between labour and capital.
The number of strikes dropped from 40 million working days lost every year from 1918-1926, with over 162 million working days lost in 1926. For the seven years after General Strike, this number dropped to 4 million a year. In the years before the Second World War, this number dropped to 2 million per year. Most of these strikes and lockouts were settled quickly, 10 days on average. Sewell describes how the trade union bureaucracy did everything possible to avoid strikes. This was also caused by the mass unemployment following the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Trade union membership dropped to 3.3 million in 1934. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that national action was sanctioned by a major trade union. Unemployment was at 22% in 1933, improving to 10% by 1937. Hunger marches were ongoing as well as the struggles of the National Unemployment Workers’ Movement.
Sewell gives some history of the biggest strikes wave in American history, read more here.
The General Strike defeat resulted in the working class turning their focus on the political front. At the 1929 General Election, the Labour Party got over 8 million votes and elected 289 Labour MPs. The Labour Party formed a minority government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, with support from the Liberal Party. Sewell describes how following the Wall Street Crash the ruling class put pressure on MacDonald to put the interests of capital first and balance the budget. The burden of the crisis was put on the shoulders of the working class in the form of tax increases and cuts in unemployment benefits. Sewell describes this in more details here.
There was a lot of resistance from the labour movement and in the Labour government cabinet so in August 1931 MacDonald gave his resignation to the King and backed the call for a cross-party government of national interest. MacDonald and a number of the Labour MPs formed this National Government with Tory and Liberal support. At the 1931 General Election, the National Government won over 14 million votes and Labour got over 6.5 million. Labour only won 52 seats.
This resulted in the Labour Party moving to the left, with many radical policies. Sewell describes how many right-wing MPs staying the Labour Party as a tactic to ensure it remained in ‘safe hands’. In 1932 the Independent Labour Party split from the Labour Party.
The National Unemployment Workers’ Movement organised several local struggles against the cuts to unemployment benefits including demonstrations and marches. The government proposed wage cuts resulted in a mutiny in the Naval Fleet at Invergordon. The government backed down with some sailers jailed or discharged from the navy.
There were several hunger marches to London in 1922-3, 1927, 1929, 1930, with the largest hunger march in 1932. There was unrest in Liverpool and Belfast in 1932 when people demonstrating about the lack of work and benefits fought with the police. Sewell describes how all this resulted in the government granting concessions to put an end to the movement.
Sewell explains how by 1934 the depression began to ease and trade union membership was increasing again. Since the early 1920s, employers had run workplaces as they wanted. Many workers were hired and sacked on the same day. The number of unofficial strikes started to increase at this point at Venesta Plywood Factory, Ford’s new Dagenham plant, Firestone Tyre Factory in Brentford, Pressed Steel Works in Oxford. There were also several strikes in the British coalfields, including several successful strikes against the scab Spencer union. Scabs are workers that replace workers that are on strike. After the threat of a national strike, this scab union was dissolved.
In 1935 The Comintern adopted the Popular Front, the alliance of workers and ‘progressive’ capitalist parties to fight against fascism. For Sewell, this is the opposite of the United Front, which was proposed by Lenin as an alliance of workers’ organisations. Sewell describes how Popular Front governments in France and Spain came down heavily on workers taking independent strike action. The Communist Party of Great Britain launched a campaign for a Popular Front government and had some success. The trade union leaders responded by instructing Trade Councils and unions to ban communists.
At the 1935 General Election, Labour got over 8 million votes and 154 seats. The Conservatives and National Liberals commanded a majority of 420. The Liberals got 21 seats. Clement Attlee became the leader of the Labour Party.
In 1936 the Spanish Civil War started. European states took a non-interventionist position. The TUC backed this but the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party supported the Spanish Republic and sent anti-fascist volunteers. Many did not return or were injured.
Sewell describes how the trade union leadership attacks and exclusion of the Communist Party, Socialists League and Labour League of Youth, London Busman’s Rank and File Movement continued through the late 1930s. The was a wave of strikes in 1937 by apprentices’ in engineering factories in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and London. In the 1930s many predicted another war so the capitalist class was focused on maintaining control of the labour movement and trade union leaders.
Labour in the War 1939-1945
In 1939 Germany invaded Poland resulting in Britain declaring war on Germany. Sewell describes how up until that point members of the ruling class had openly admired Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy for defeating socialist revolutions. After the war started they switched to being anti-fascist and the war was framed as a patriotic ‘war against fascism’.
Sewell explains that once the war had started then the Labour and trade union leaders offered their assistance to the Tory Prime Minister Chamberlain but did not enter the National government. TUC officers joined several wartime government committees and inspectorates. The trade unions become completely integrated with the state and industry. Strikes were prevented at all costs.
From September 1939 conscription to the army for those aged 18 to 41 began. This led to skill shortages which resulted in changes to work practices and the introduction of machinery. The militarisation of labour meant that employers could “transfer workers at the drop of a hat to ‘essential’ war jobs on lower rates of pay.” Strikes and employer lockouts were made illegal and Sewell describes how lockouts were including to hide the attack on organised labour. In the first few months of the war, there were 900 strikes but few workers were prosecuted.
The engineering industry had a huge expansion so the AEU membership rose to 825,000 by 1943. from 1941 women were conscripted into the industry and by 1942 the AEU had 139,000 women members.
Sewell describes how the bosses continued to maximise their profits by reducing wages and taking advantage of workers willing to work longer hours on the same pay for the war effort. But given the shortage of skilled labour, workers refused to accept this. They challenged the divine right of management by questioning unreasonable decisions and bad conditions.
The Chamberlain government collapsed in May 1940, following the German offensive in Scandinavia. Churchill formed a new Coalition government and brought in the Labour Party Leader and Deputy Leader, and trade union leaders into the Cabinet. It was seen as vital to secure the ‘Home Front’. Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the T&GWU was brought into the Cabinet as Minister of Labour. He called a meeting on 150 union leaders to get their cooperation with the war effort, which he got.
There was some resistance from the Shop Stewards’ Movement but this was coopted into the new-established Joint Production Committees, including workers and employers. Those opposing the war include the Independent Labour Party, the Community Party and small groups of Trotskyists mostly the Workers International League. Sewell explains the Communist Party’s confusion as it attempted to follow Stalin and the Russian government. First, it was pro-war, then when Stalin became an ally of Hitler, the CP switched to being anti-war. In 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the CP switched back to being pro-war. The ILP opposed the war on pacifist grounds. The Trotskyist opposition was based on revolutionary opposition to imperialism and a ‘defencist’ approach outlook – struggling for workers interests. Sewell describes the war as a continuation of the Imperialist First World War but this was hidden by the ruling class by framing it as a ‘war against fascism’.
By 1942 there was increasing worker disillusionment with the war effort. There was a strike at the Royal Ordinance Factory in Nottingham. Another at the Tyneside shipyards and after 18 days the bosses gave into demands. By 1944 strikes across all industries had reached the level of 1932 and two-thirds were in the coal industry. The working conditions were terrible creating large discontent. Thousands of miners were imprisoned and fined for illegal strikes across the country. There was a widespread apprentice strike in 1944 in Tyneside, Wear and Tees, Clyde and Huddersfield. The number of working days lost to strikes increased from 1.5 million in 1942 to 3.7 million in 1944. More men were on strike than at any time since 1926. In response ‘incitement to strike’ was made illegal.
The war in Europe ended in 1944 with Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt dividing up Europe into spheres of influence. Sewell describes how the end of the war saw a large radicalisation of the working class resulting in the Labour Party winning the 1945 General Election on a wave of hope and optimism. They won 393 seats. Trade union membership had increased from 6 million in 1938 to 7.8 million in 1945. The number of female trade unionists doubled between 1938 to 1944 to 1.8 million. Sewell argued that the Labour leaders had an opportunity to radically transform society but instead tinkered and threw British capitalism a lifeline.
Post War Dreams 1945-1951
The 1944 TUC Congress supported a radical programme of post-war reconstruction, including the nationalisation of basic industries. The Labour Party followed on from this with its programme ‘Let Us Face the Future’, which aimed to establish a Socialist Commonwealth. Unlike the previous two Labour government, this one had a huge majority so did not have to rely on the Liberals. It also did not have to deal with a recession as the end of the war resulted in a world economic upswing and full employment. Instead of counter-reforms, radical reforms were possible. The Welfare State was created with the National Health Service (NHS) providing free healthcare at the point of use. The Bank of England, coal industry, railways, road haulage, electricity, gas and steel were brought into public ownership. About 20 per cent was nationalised, leaving 80 per cent in the private sector. The Labour government repealed the hated Trades Dispute Act of 1927. The civil service unions could now affiliate to the TUC and Labour Party, helping both of their finances.
Sewell describes the high levels of enthusiasm for a Labour government carrying out radical policies in the interests of ordinary people. He’s critical of the Labour government working inside capitalism and trying to bring in socialism slowly. In terms of state nationalisation, the government only took over the unprofitable and bankrupt sectors to not upset big business or the bankers. He lists the large amounts that the owners of the industries received in compensation for the business that the state took over. This meant the capitalist opposition to nationalisation was limited. The state then modernised these industries which benefited big business through cheap coal, electricity, gas and transport. Sewell explains that although these industries had been nationalised, they were not run by workers, but by former managers, ex-generals, top civil servants, and right-wing trade union officials. The miners celebrated the nationalisation but still had to fight the bureaucrats running the National Coal Board.
There were several dock strikes in 1945. Before the General Election, Prime Minister Churchill had used troops against dock strikes in Glasgow, Grimsby and Swansea. He also had troops on standby to unload ships in the Surrey docks. Once Labour took power it was faced with an ongoing ten-week national dock strike over wage reductions. In London, 1,500 workers had already been suspended for working to rule. The new Labour government ordered troops to unload the ships at Surrey. This use of the army to break the strike surprised many and resulted in many unofficial worker committees at docks around the country. There was an unofficial dock strike in the Autumn of 1945 with 43,000 on strike at its height. It was caused by low wages, poor conditions and a right-wing union bureaucracy.
Sewell describes the different labour circumstances after the war. With a strong economy and full employment, the employers could not return to the pre-war casual labour system, with poor pay and conditions. This meant that “the dockers were in a strong position at last to improve their terms and conditions, and the employers were forced to recognised this new balance of forces.” In response, the government brought in the Dock Workers (Regulations of Employment) Scheme in 1947. This led to the creation of the Dock Labour Board, managed by employers and union representatives. Employers hired workers in the same way as before, those not hired were paid by the Dock Labour Board.
The Second World War put Britain in a lot of debt internationally. The Labour government responded to the 1947 fuel crisis by introducing some austerity measures around wages. Pressure was put on the unions to avoid militancy and the war legislation making strikes illegal was maintained. At the time there was an ongoing bus and dock industrial action. In 1949, the government devalued Britain’s currency and introduced a wage freeze. The working class were shocked by this and it resulted in industrial unrest for the remained of the Attlee government until 1951. There was unofficial union action on the docks nationally from 1947-51. In 1951 1,500 lorry drivers came out on strike over wages. Later in 1950, gasworkers struck, and the government eventually sent in troops to break the deadlock. Sewell explains that Attlee used the army to break strikes 14 times between 1945 and 1951.
Following the Second World War, the Cold War developed between the US/Western Europe and the Soviet Union and its allies. The Community Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was weak politically but had a lot of influence in the trade unions and was campaigning against wage restraint. From 1948 the TUC was calling on unions to remove all CPGB members from key positions and from attending union conferences. From the early 1950s, there was a witchhunt against left-wing members of the Labour Party, the Tribune supporters and Bevanites.
In 1951, the Labour government was having a balance of payments crisis so introduced austerity measures such as reducing the NHS budget by £25 million. The 1951 General Election resulted in the defeat of the Labour Party. The Labour Party got more votes than the Tories 48.8 per cent to 48 per cent but the Tories formed a new government due to uneven parliamentary boundaries and the benefits of the First Past the Post electoral system. Churchill was Prime Minister again. The long economic upswing of the 1950s and the close relations between the union leaders and the Tories governments meant that there was social peace (low levels of union militancy and strikes).
Business (Unionism) as usual 1951-1964
The Tories were in power from 1951 to 1964, helped by the post-war economic boom. Sewell describes how the mass unemployment of the 1930s was replaced with general rising prosperity. Many believed that capitalism had changed and that it could provide for everyone. It strengthened the right-wing union Labour Party leaders, who advocated ‘conciliation and class harmony’.
International trade barriers had been lowered so there was a dramatic increase in world trade, which further increased global production. British capitalists were keen to expand production to reach new markets and maintain their share of world trade. The ruling class also collaborated with the trade union leaders and the TUC, as long as they kept workers under control in terms of stable wages, and low militancy so productivity and profits could increase. Sewell describes how the Labour Party and trade union leaders were controlled by the right-wing sections.
The economic boom and increasing profits for the capitalists meant they could give small wage increases linked to increases in profitability. With the skilled labour shortage, they preferred to negotiate agreements and avoid strikes, which disrupted production. There was social peace between the working class and the capitalist class. One of the few strikes was an unofficial strike by oil tanker drivers in London in 1953. The army was used to break the strike.
Sewell describes how the right-wing leaders of the unions limited union democracy and the voices of rank-and-file trade unionists. By the mid-1950s strikes started to increase on the docks. The dockers were a militant group due to the harsh work conditions. In response to their own union, the TGWU right-wing leaders attacks on the rank-and-file resulted in unofficial strikes and many decided to leave their union and join the smaller more democratic National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers Union (NASD). The TGWU fought back by used TUC rules that banned the stealing of members to attack the NASD. The NASD ran a successful strike in Liverpool to stop members from losing their jobs. Following this, the NASD demanded union recognition at the north ports but the employers refused. The NASD was expelled from the TUC in 1959 for refusing to hand back former TGWU members. Sewell explains that splits like this are disastrous for the movement and members need to stay and fight within existing unions. That leaving the union only strengthens the right-wing hold over the union. The result of all this was many workers not being in a union, which benefited the employers.
The Tories won the 1955 General Election and increased their majority to 100. Attlee stood down as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Hugh Gaitskell. Gaitskell distanced the party of ‘old style’ nationalisation and ‘broadened’ its appeal to the more affluent middles classes.
From the mid-1950s, strikes began to increase. In 1957 there were strikes in the engineering and shipbuilding industries. The was a national bus strike in 1957. In 1958, there was a six-week London busworkers strike. The TUC attempted to intervene and mediate between the workers and employers and the strike was defeated. There were several miners unofficial strikes between 1947 – 1957 over wages. From the mid-1950s strikes in the car manufacturing industry increased to become the sector with the most workdays lost to strike due to difficult conditions and ruthless management pressure to increase production.
Between 1955-66 there were on average 2,458 strikes per years, an increase of 40% from 1945-54. The mining industry accounted for half of these until 1962. There was a significant coal pit closure programme in the late 1950s. Out of the total number of strikes, miner strikes fell from 77 per cent in 1958 to 31 per cent in 1965, and less than 1 per cent in 1970. Between 1960-64, nearly 60 per cent of the strikes were unofficial which shows the right-wing domination of the unions.
1956 was the year that the crimes of Stalinism came to light – purge trials, labour camps and murders. Also in October 1956, the Hungarian Uprising was put down by Russian troops. This resulted in a third of the membership of the Community Party of Great Britain resigning. This led to to a struggle for the control of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and a public confrontation between the capitalist press, the TUC and the Community Party. A new right-wing leadership of the ETU was elected and the left was weakened. He goes into quite a lot of detail, which you can read here.
By the late 1950s changes in the leadership of the TUC and TGWU started a slipping of control by the right-wing and shift to the left. The Tories won another term in office under Prime Minister MacMillan – who Sewell describes as “a very clever and astute bourgeois politician – one of the last in a long line of Tory patricians – who greatly valued ‘compromise’ and ‘manoeuvre’ as diplomatic weapons in the class struggle. In his book, The Middle Way, he expressed the astute belief that ‘if capitalism had been conducted all along as if the theory of private enterprise were a matter of principle’, and all intervention by the state had been resisted, ‘we should have had civil war long ago.’ With the decline of British capitalism, this breed of Tory leader became increasingly scarce. The Tories of today have more in common with the grocer’s daughter, the narrow-minded get-rich-quick parvenu than the likes of Harold MacMillian.” He was referring to Thatcher and neoliberalism here.
In response to the Labour Party losing a third time, Gaitskell wanted to move even further to the right, dropping nationalisation, change the Party’s name and break the links with the trade unions. The right-wing leadership believed the Labour Party had become too “identified with ‘class’ interests” and rejected its ‘outdated Marxist baggage’. There was an attempt to remove Clause Four but this was stopped by a rank-and-file revolt.
In 1960 there was a Merchant Navy strike over terrible conditions, lack of basic rights, low pay and “dissatisfaction with their right-wing union leaders.” The unofficial National Seaman’s Reform Movement attempted to continue the strike but didn’t go anywhere. This did result in positive changes in the National Union of Seamen and set things up for the successful 1966 official strike.
Sewell describes how in the early 1960s the national trade union leaders were determined to continue collaborating with the Tory government. In that year the Tories and introduced a nine-month pay ‘pause’ that was unpopular. The trade union leader still agreed to join the new government National Economic Development Council, to “co-operate in the long-term development of the British economy.” Sewell describes that while the Tory government was sweet-talking the union leaders in ‘committee rooms’, it was attacking workers in nationalised industries, especially coal and rail. In 1963 Richard Beeching became the chairman of newly formed British Rail, with the job of making it financially break even, resulting in him closing a fifth of the national rail network. This is known as the Beeching cuts “3,600 miles of track were closed, including stations, yards and depots, resulting in widespread job losses. But the right-wing leaders of the NUR put up little resistance to this ‘restructuring’.”
The Profumo scandal caused a crisis for the Tory government resulting in MacMillian resigning and being replaced by Alec Douglas Home as Prime Minister. Also, Labour Party leader Gaitskell died and was replaced by formed Bevanite Harold Wilson. The 1964 General Election saw the Labour Party win after 13 years in opposition. “Wilson promised a new vision that would harness ‘the white heat of the scientific and technological revolution’ and develop an economic National Plan that would transform Britain. Once again, the working class looked with hope to the political front to solve its problems.”