History - Trade Union Militancy, 1915-27 (Theme 7)


Background Information

  • The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893
  • The Labour Representation Committee was set up in 1900
  • The Labour Party was established in 1906
  • The famous (or infamous) Taff Vale trade union case and ruling of 1901 led to a great increase in the number of trade unions subscribing to the Labour Representative Committee
  • The Labour Party was originally not fully supportive of female suffrage, even though it did promote it fully from 1912, because the mains aim of their manifesto was to get working class men the vote
  • The Labour Party won 29 seats in the 1906 election and 57 in 1906
  • The first Labour Prime Minister, who led a minority government for just 9.5 months during 1924, was Ramsay MacDonald
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British Trade Unions, Pre-1914

  • 1799: Combination Act
  • 1824: Repeal of Combination Act
  • 1825: Reinstatement of Combination Act
  • 1831: Merthyr rising (first use of the red flag)
  • 1833-4: Case of 'Tolpuddle Martyrs'
  • 1868: Foundation of the Trade Union Congress (TUC)
  • 1900: Unions play major role in formation of LRC (Labour Party)
  • 1901: Taff Vale case
  • 1926: General Strike
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Impact of WW1

Trade & Industrial Demand and Supply:

1. Trade links with Europe were cut, leading to reductions in imports of foodstuffs and raw materials

2. Government demand for steel, shipbuilding, munitions (shells) etc. increased at a time when 5.5 million men had joined the armed forces

Result - 

  • Living standards deteriorated as workers crowded into shipbuilding areas such as Glasgow, forcing up rents. Prices of food & fuel increased. But, union bargaining power increased too
  • Desperate to avoid industrial unrest & maintain essential supplies & production, the government took direct control of railways & the coal industry & in 1915 established a Ministry of Munitions.

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Impact of WW1 (2)

Dilution of Labour & Long Hours:

1. With a fall in imports and a loss of manpower, workers were pushed even harder than usual in what were already tough and dangerous jobs

2. To make up the shortfall in labour, unskilled workers (including women) were recruited in increasingly large numbers during the war

Result - 

  • At the beginning of the war the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF) & National Union of Railwaymen formed the Triple Alliance
  • The government used the carrot & the stick. Trade Unionists such as Arthur Henderson (Labour) were brought into Cabinet & wages revised every 4 months, but ‘leaving certificates’ were introduced

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Impact of WW1 (3)

Increase in Trade Union Membership:

1. The nationalisation of industry reduced the threat posed by employers & brought trade unions into direct contact with government

2. Trade union membership increased from 4 million in 1914 to 6 million in 1918; it further increased to 8 million by 1920

Result -

  • The fact that an increasingly high proportion of workers belong to a trade union made the unions much more confident in its dealings with the government during the war
  • Under pressure from the unions in South Wales in 1915, the government, in 1916, compelled employers to make union membership a condition of employment for the duration of the war

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Impact of WW1 (4)

1915 Strike; Glasgow Rent Strike:

1. As workers moved into the shipbuilding areas of Glasgow, housing shortages were created and landlords increased the rent prices

2. From April 1915 many Glaswegian women, backed by their husbands, refused to pay rent and campaigned against evictions

Result - 

  • Glasgow was the centre of a more militant strand of the labour movement. In November 1915 the Clydeside Workers’ Committee threatened to call a general strike in support of the rent strike.
  • Keen to maintain production in this crucial shipbuilding area, in November 1915 the government passed the Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act, limiting rents to pre-war levels.
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Impact of WW1 (5)

1915 Strike; Glasgow 'Leaving Certificate Strike':

1. Leaving certificates had been introduced as part of the Munitions of War Act of 1915

2. Thismeant that workmen could not leave employment without a leaving certificate from their former employer

Result - 

  • In August 1915 a strike broke out at the Fairfield Yard on the Clyde, after two shipwrights had been dismissed and had adverse comments written on their leaving certificates.
  • In 1917 the government abolished leaving certificates
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Important Trade Union Figures

Jimmy Thomas

  • Head of the the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR)

Ernest Bevin

  • Head of the National Transport Workers' Federation (NTWF)

Manny Shinwell

  • Head of the British Seafarers' Union (BSU) untill it became part of the Amalgamated Marine Worker's Union (AMWU)

James Maxton

  • Part of the Clyde Worker's Committee
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Strands of Trade Unionism

Authur Henderson:

  • Arthur Henderson was leader of the Labour Party from 1908-10 and again from 1914-17
  • Henderson was also a leading figure in the Ironfounders’ Union

  • Henderson did not believe that strikes were helpful, preferring arbitration and conciliation

  • He and two other union leaders were members of Lloyd George’s cabinet from 1916, helping to smooth industrial relations

James Maxton:

  • Maxton was from Glasgow. Many prominent figures in the Labour movement were Scottish
  • Maxton was a teacher who converted to socialism when he witnessed the poverty of his students

  • He was opposed to the war and was actually imprisoned for sedition during 1916-17

  • During 1913-19 he was chairman of the Scottish Labour Party; from Oct. 1915 he was a key figure ion the Clyde Workers’ Committee

  • He helped organise strikes like that at Fairfield & proposed a general strike in support of the rent strike

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Problem's Caused by WW1 Ending

  • Unions campaign to reduce working hours from 53 or 47 to 40
  • Unions try to gain laws on national wage levels before any privatisation
  • Unions argue that modernisation of mines & railways is better alternative than wage cuts
  • Unions position themselves as key arbitrators in preventing mass unrest
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The 'Battle of George Square' Glasgow, 1919

  • A local general strike throughout Glasgow, originating in disputes within the engineering and shipbuilding industries (January 1919
  • Caused by an increase in unemployment due to the demobilisation of 4 million soldiers from the Western Front
  • The demand of the strikers was for a 40-hour week, the idea being that a reduction in hours from 53 or 47 would create more jobs
  • The most intense strikes were actually in Belfast, but the major incidents were in Glasgow. At a mass meeting in George Square on 31 January, a sudden police charge led to a riot
  • The government panicked, fearing a socialist revolution (at one point the red flag was raised on the municipal flagpole). Troops and tanks were dispatched to prevent further riots
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Judge John Sankey, Labour MP

  • A national coal strike was threatened around May 1919 but was temporarily averted. However, the issues leading to the threatened strike were not resolved and would re-emerge later
  • Caused by the looming threat of privatisation of the coal industry. Nationalisation of the industry since March 1917 had benefited workers; already in 1919 hours had been reduced from 8 to 7
  • The demand of the miners’ unions was for the continued nationalisation of the coal mines, as they felt sure that privatisation would lead to cuts in wages
  • There were no major episodes as the strike was actually averted, possibly because of the shock to the government of the strikes on Red Clydeside earlier in the year
  • The government appointed Judge John Sankey to head a commission into the mining industry. It recommended continued nationalisation but Lloyd George simply stalled until 1921
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Clerks Working as porters during Strike

  • In September 1919 the National Union of Railwaymen, led by J.H. (Jimmy) Thomas, called a strike
  • Caused by the threat of wage cuts. In March 1919 Thomas had secured a continuation of the wartime pay bonuses, but in September the government refused a permanent settlement
  • The demand of the NUR was for wages not to be cut at a time of rising prices and for a continuation of the wage-levels that had been established during wartime
  • The strike only lasted for nine days; soldiers dispatched to the stations seemed sympathetic and often fraternised with the pickets
  • The government deployed troops to Paddington and Woking stations in London but quickly backed down. Negotiations led the government to sustain wage levels for a further twelve months
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Harry Pollitt & the ** Jolly George

  • In May 1920 London dockworkers went on strike, refusing to load coal onto ships bound for Poland
  • Caused by the government’s intervention in Russo-Polish War. Many British workers were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution and did not want to export coal used to support the Poles
  • The demand was for government to suspend its involvement in the Russo-Polish War. This was part of the Hands off Russia! campaign that had been launched during 1919
  • Following the refusal to load the ships, in August Ernest Bevin (leader of the NTWF) took the lead in setting up a Council of Action to conduct further strikes if war broke out with Russia
  • The government did not escalate its involvement in Russia but actually de-escalated its involvement towards the end of 1920, thereby further strike action was not necessary
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Coal Miners & 1920 Strike

  • In October 1920 the coal miners (the MFGB) went on strike, supported by the railwaymen and transport workers in a renewal of the Triple Alliance first established in 1914
  • Caused by the government’s increasingly obvious disinclination to maintain nationalisation of the coal industry as the Sankey Commission had recommend and the likely cuts in wages
  • The demand was for higher wages in the coal industry
  • The decision of the railwaymen and transport workers to support the strike was the first significant combined action of the Triple Alliance and raised government concerns
  • The government rushed through an Emergency Powers Act on 29 October 1920 but actually the strike was halted by the government’s agreement to a six-month wages increase 
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1921 Miner's Strike

  • On 31 March 1921 the miners were locked out by the mine owners and therefore went on strike; the strike lasted for a total of ten weeks, much longer than most previous strikes
  • Caused by the decision of Lloyd George’s government to return the mines to private ownership in March 1921. This led to a fall of 30% in wages paid to coal miners
  • The demand was for the pay cuts to be halted at a time when the cost of living continued to rise. The miners were determined to retain the wage increases that had been won during the war
  • The lock-out had put the miners on the back foot but the major problem as that on Friday 15 April 1921 – ‘Black Friday’ – the leaders of the NUR & NTWF refused to strike in sympathy
  • The Emergency Powers Act was invoked by the government before Black Friday, with troops deployed in the areas of unrest, but ultimately it was hunger that forced the miners back to work  
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What Was Learnt from 1919-21


  • In 1919 the government set up the Strike Committee, which changed its name in October to the Supply and Transport Committee (STC)
  • A key figure on this was former railway manager Eric Geddes
  • The STC met 46 times during 1919-21. It developed plans to recruit volunteers to replace strikers, to stockpile resources such as coal and oil, and to halt coal exports with rapidity
  • The Emergency Powers of Act of Oct. 1920 added greater strength to the government’s cause
  • Disbanded in 1921, the STC was revived in 1923
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What Was Learnt from 1919-21 (2)

Trade Unions:

  • Black Friday was a major blow and suggested that the gains made during 1914-21 would be lost if the unions were not better organised
  • Amalgamation into larger unions was one response: in 1920 the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) was founded whilst in 1922 Ernest Bevin set up the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), which replaced the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF)
  • From 1921 a new General Council of the TUC worked to win the trust of the major unions, and by 1924 had secured the support of the NUR and MFGB
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Medium-Term Causes of GS, May 1926

The nationalisation of the railways and coal industries during World War One

The loss of traditional coal markets in Europe because of World War One

Government wage concessions after the railway strike of Sept. 1919 & the coal strike of Oct. 1920

The out-dated production techniques in British coal mines & the increasing use of oil instead of coal in ships

The privatisation of the mines in March 1921 & the 30% cut in pay to miners

Black Friday (April 1921) & the union amalgamations of 1920-2 

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Return to Gold Standard, May 1925

  • Before WW1 gold sterling had underpinned the global economy: the return to the gold standard was really an ill-judged vanity project to return to former glories
  • The over-valuation meant that British exports were too expensive and therefore uncompetitive. This placed further pressure on coal mining and other industries
  • The pound was set to the value of $4.86 dollars, the value it had been in 1914, but this was an over-valuation given British economic decline since then
  • The gold standard reduced currency in circulation, leading to a further reduction in wages and increases in unemployment, already 1 million by 1925
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Short-Term Causes of the GS

  • 1924: minimum wage agreement with miners: 87% of coal sales to go into wages, with owners to take profit from only the remaining 13%
  • May 1925: Britain returns to the Gold Standard, raising export prices
  • June 1925: Coalmine owners decide to cut wages by 10% thereby breaking the minimum wage agreement of 1924
  • 31 July 1925 (‘Red Friday’): To avoid a strike, PM Stanley Baldwin offers a nine-month government subsidy of £23 million to support miners’ wages. Baldwin also appoints the Samuel Commission (led by Herbert Samuel) to investigate the coal industry and provide a long-term solution
  • August 1925-March 1926: The government uses the time it has bought to prepare to counter a potential strike. The Supply and Transport Committee (STC) stockpile essential goods and materials whilst the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) recruit middle- and upper-class volunteers.  The unions are relatively inactive
  • March 1926: Report of the Samuel Commission, recommending reorganisation of the coal industry, the end of government subsidies, the maintenance of national wage agreements, & immediate wage reductions. No-one accepts the report
  • 29 April 1926: mine-owners lock out workers who refuse to accept wage reductions
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Positive During the General Strike

Trade Unions:

  • 1.5 million workers went on strike in addition to the 1 million miners already on strike, with just one day’s notice!
  • 98% of railwaymen remained on strike until it was called off on 12 May
  • Ernest Bevin used the Strike Organisation Committee to provide food & healthcare to the strikers
  • Ten agreements with power stations cut electricity supplies to London


  • Using the Emergency Powers Act of 1920, the government had been planning for a strike since 31 July 1925
  • 300,000-500,000 middle- and upper-class volunteers had been recruited
  • On 8 May a convoy of 100 lorries managed to take food from the docks to Hyde Park for further distribution
  • British Gazette portrayed the crisis as a political rather than an industrial dispute
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Negatives During the General Strike

Trade Unions:

  • There was still a lack of trust among the unions, especially towards Jimmy Thomas after Black Friday, 1921
  • Thomas was a leading figure on the General Council of the TUC & did not believe that wage levels could be kept
  • Due to mistrust, unions had only granted the General Council powers to coordinate the strike on 29 April
  • TUC propaganda was ineffective


  • Stanley Baldwin arguably had his hands tied as, following ‘Red Friday’, he could not be seen to be compromising with the unions in any way
  • Government propaganda, via the British Gazette and the BBC, that the strike was revolutionary and unconstitutional was largely unconvincing due to the lack of violence: e.g. only 1,760 arrests & no attack on institutions of gov’ment
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Trade Unions:

  • Thomas & the General Council hoped the Samuel Memorandum of 7 May would enable a compromise solution (wage cuts for 1 year & negotiations)
  • However, when both gov’t & MFGB rejected the memorandum, the TUC called off the strike anyway on 12 May


  • The government refused to make any compromises or concessions until the strike had been called off
  • In 1927 the government passed  the Trade Disputes Act, making general & sympathetic strikes illegal & banning the use of union funds for political activities
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Pros & Cons of the General Strike


  • The miners should be nationalised to cut out the profit-seeking mine-owners
  • “Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day!”
  • The government has been planning for a strike for months and has just been biding time
  • Government mistakes such as returning to the Gold Standard have caused the problems
  • The problem with the coal mines is lack of investment by the owners, not the workers
  • The strike is an industrial dispute, not an attack on Parliament or the constitution


  • The role of the government is to arbitrate between owners & workers not to control the mines
  • Government subsidised miners’ wages for 6 months in 1920 and 1925
  • The miners have refused to abide by the findings of the Samuel Commission
  • Maintaining miners’ wage levels will make British coal less competitive than it already was
  • The strikers are imperilling the well-being and security of the general public
  • The strikers are challenging the rule of law and the rule of Parliament
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