Next year marks 90 years since the General Strike, a pivotal moment in the history of the British trade union movement. But the year running up to the strike, not only saw the miners nearly out on strike, only averted by a nine-month subsidy to the mines from the government, buying time to prepare for the strike, but also strikes amongst sailors and across the wool & worsted textile industry.
Iain Dalton (Leeds Socialist Party)
Whilst Lancashire was known for its cotton, the West Riding of Yorkshire was the heartland of the Wool & Worsted manufacturing (both types of wool – worsted being used for tailoring, whilst ‘woollen’ wool was used in knitting).
During the recessionary period in the early 1920s, the employers had pushed through a 5% cut in base wages. By early 1925 workers had become fed up of falling living standards and demanded the restoration of the cut, with the National Union of Textile Workers executive supporting that demand and the changing of the cost of living adjustment every month rather than yearly.
However, a large section of the employers sensed an opportunity to boost their profits by driving down wages even further. In an attempt to combat the decline of Britain as a world power, successive government aimed to reintroduce the gold standard and achieve parity for the pound with the dollar. This introduced severe deflation into the economy as the government ‘balanced’ the budget with huge cuts.
Similar moves were prepared in the mining industry which had only been returned to private ownership in 1921. On June 30th, the mine owners decided to tear-up the national wages agreement they had only signed the previous year – a move rejected by a conference of the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) a few days later.
In this context the Wool Employers Federation saw an opportunity to act in a similar way and encouraged its members to post notices of a reduction of wages by 5% from July 25th, several days before the mine owners own deadline. As NUTW leader Ben Turner commented at a pre-strike rally that these two groups of workers were selected for the first attack, and if they ‘went down’ other sections would follow.
This created a powerful impetus towards co-ordinated action amongst trade unionists. The General Council of the TUC was pushed from below into supporting the miners, with threats of a TUC embargo on coal imports; and same subcommittee dealing with this question had its remit expanded to deal with the Wool dispute as well.
In the run up to the strike mass meetings were held, with between 5-6,000 attending in Bradford and a meeting of over 1,500 in Milnsbridge, near Huddersfield, needed an overflow venue. A central council of action was organised in Bradford with others in Dewsbury, Batley, Huddersfield, Keighley, Halifax and Yeadon.
On the day the strike officially began, the headline in the local Conservative paper, the Yorkshire Post, read “Wool Textile Stoppage Almost Complete”. The Central Council of Action estimated 135,000 workers were out on strike, over 2/3rds in Yorkshire with several thousand out in Lancashire, Scotland and the West of England, many workers having come out a day or two earlier.
Yet there was not unamimous support for this course of action on the employers side. The Liberal prospective candidate for Penistone and mill owner, Ashley Mitchell, considered the reductions ‘”ill-advised” commenting in an interview that “The reduction asked for… was far outweighed by the fall (in cost) in raw material.” A number of mill owners like Mitchell either didn’t post the reduction notices or repudiated them shortly after the strike began.
The confused strategy of the textile union leaders was summed up in its leading figure Ben Turner. Himself from a poor background in the area, he had helped build up trade unionism in the Wool & Worsted trades whilst working as a journalist. He was involved in New Unionism in the 1890s, taking part in the ‘riot’ that ended the Leeds Gasworkers strike succesfully, however he hid in a nearby houses whilst the fighting to prevent scabs reaching the gas works was ongoing.
This drive to stand alongside workers, whilst at the same time not being prepared to do what was necessary for victory also summed up his approach to this dispute. For the duration of the strike he, and other union officials, only took the same pay as was given out in strike pay (they took the male rate, lower rates were paid out for women & children).
Yet at the same time, he sought compromises with the employers. Turner conceived of the strike battle not “…between the employers of the trade and the workpeople, but between the Trades Congress and the Federation of British Industries.” Of course, the latter was the case too, but in taking that view he failed to see that the mill owners had their own reasons for forcing through the reductions.
Turner’s viewpoint played out in a strategy of trying to split the employers into two camps. Those who would pay the old rates would remain open through the strike. This linked to his wider view that industrial disputes should be settled via conciliation mechanisms and partnership with progressive employers. This is something he actively emarked on during the Mond-Turner talks when he was President of the TUC in 1928.
However, Turner’s strategy left the strikers confused, hadn’t their initial demand been for restoration of the 1921 cuts rather than retaining the 1925 pay levels. Workers gathered during the early days of the strike to picket companies still working, many being on the old rates and sanctioned by the Council of Action. 2,000 gathered outside City Mills in Morley on July 27th, for example.
When the Employers Federation proved unable to break the strike immediately, other considerations came to the fore, particularly the possibility of a wider strike movement breaking out that the government and the wider capitalist class weren’t prepared for at this stage.
Summing up this viewpoint, the Lord Mayor of Bradford talked about the stoppage would “…bring in train consequences that will be more serious than either side seems to realise.” Just like Tory prime minister Ted Heath infamously commented on the 1974 miners strike, a dispute involving the whole of the TUC would pose questions about “Who ran the country”.
In this situation, the Tory government stepped in. From, on the morning on July 30th, refusing to give a subsidy to the coal mines, so the old rates would be paid, Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had done a 180-turn by the evening and granted a nine month subsidy.
When a few days after this had happened, the mills in the Batley & Dewsbury came back from a two-week annual holiday and the vast majority of the workforce stayed out, picketed by 2,000 workers, this further swung the pendulum away from the employers. Delegates to the council of action demanded an escalation of the strike, to include all firms including those retaining the old rates.
In this context the government sent the Minister of Labour, Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, to reign the employers in, allowing for a return to work at the old wage rates and a Court of Investigation to determine wage rates in the industry. That body reported favouring a status quo, clearly not wanting to provoke disturbances whilst the government prepared for future conflicts.
In the Leeds Labour Party’s weekly paper a reporter summed up that the situation “…will lead to further victories if the movement remains united and isn’t lured into a false sense of security by its recent success.
Unfortunately the latter proved to be the case. Whilst the government prepared its strike-breaking forces to be ready for a renewed conflict in 1926, the TUC leaders failed to take the same course and despite the heroic sacrifices of workers during the general strike, went on to perpetuate one of the biggest betrayals of the working class in Britain.