History Coursework- Sophie Garrod 5MCG
Why did the General Strike of 1926 take place?
The General Strike took place as a result of short and long-term problems. Long term factors such as the increase in Trade Union members, the change of ownership in the mines, and the threat of Communism were all starting points. The price of coal fluctuating along with economic instability in Britain, the US and Germany and the adherence to the Gold Standard also contributed to the timing of the General Strike. The growth of the Labour Party and the threat of nationalisation made private mine owners feel insecure. The First World War had seen the mines put into government hands. This meant national wage schemes and a seven-hour day guaranteed. However, at the end of the war the Sankey Report failed to report back uncammanly for nationalisation and Lloyd George did not enforce it. This meant workers found themselves back to regional pay scales and longer hours.
Firstly, after World War One, the British citizens were expecting a change in lifestyle, and after losing many family members; they were expecting what the Prime Minister had promised them ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’. The standard of life during the war was considerably bad, as the government abandoned the need of food and supplies, and concentrated on military and war associated requirements. This meant that many imports and exports were lost for several reasons for example cotton from India and supplies from Japan, older industries such as coal; shipbuilding and steel were becoming extremely overpriced. Unemployment became high at 10% and falling prices were the beginning of a long struggle in the economy. Expectations were high in Britain at the time. So Winston Churchill decided to put Britain back on the Gold Standard to bring the economy back up, Britain had been taken off of the Gold Standard in 1914 and because the pound was no longer backed by gold anymore, it dropped in value quickly, worth only $3.20 after the war, rather than the $4.86 it was worth before the war. This meant that British goods where cheaper to buy overseas and fuelled the export decrease until 1920. However, the pound rapidly grew stronger, and by 1925 it recovered its pre-war value.
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Once the Ruhr had regained its freedom from France, the coal from the Ruhr became a competition to Britain when it entered the market. This meant that the price of coal was increased so that the mine-owners made a profit. However, between 1923 and 1924, there was a shortage of coal particularly in the United States and the Ruhr. This meant that the price of coal increased in Britain and the wages were cut. However, in 1925 when the Ruhr crisis happened, the price of coal went considerably low. The government did take action though, by giving a subsidy to maintain existing wage levels for the miners. Additionally, in March 1926, The Samuel Report was introduced which re-organised the coal industry by eventually nationalising the mines. The railwaymen and transport workers did not share the strikers opinions, and decided on the 15th April that they would not strike, this was formally named as ‘Black Friday’ by the miners.
The working conditions were improved but the wages were redused to make the mine owners gain a big profit. This report however, was not accepted by the mine-owners, and in retaliation, lockout notices were placed on the mine’s doors. This concluded with the Trade Union Committee (TUC) agreeing to support the miners, however not until 31st July 1925, which was later named as ‘Red Friday’. This committee included transport, mining and train workers.
The long-term problems were big factors adding to the strike, the conditions for the miners were extremely dangerous; in just three years (from 1922 till 1924) nearly six hundred thousand miners were injured. This figure does not; however include the amount of long-term illnesses several miners developed including silicosis and pneumoconiosis. Accidents such as the amount of gas produced in the mines and cave-ins were also frequent, and to compensate this, the miners argued that their wages should be sufficiently high. However, as the mine-owners had had the mines handed back to them, they were demanding a profit, so much so that the miners were only receiving fifty pence per day, and that was only the lucky ones.
In the United States and Germany, the miners were equipped with new machinery in the mines to make the job easier, but after the war, Britain owed much money to the US and could not afford to buy any luxuries for their own mines. The mines in Britain were old, and mining was a long and tiring job, as most of the coal was cut still by hand, and there was bad mechanism used. By 1923, the mining companies operated two thousand, four hundred and eighty-one mines.
Soon after, the mining workforce became unionised; one in ten of all male workers were employed which made it one of the largest workforces. Coal soon became the fuel for most factories, and the main export of Britain. Miner’s unions had been formed since the 1800’s and in 1889, the Miner’s Federation was formed which became one of the strongest ever unions. This union together with the Transport and Railwayman formed the Triple Alliance before the First World War.
The timing of the strike, was another major actor in the miners strike, by the end of the war, unions were very strong both the police and railwaymen held successful strikes in 1918 and 1919. By 1920 there were over eight million trade unionists. This made everyone wonder whether this new union would threaten the government. In 1922, there was huge increase in unemployment and in 1916, a huge decrease in wages for the working class people. Many British people began to blame the government and so, turned to a new party, The Labour Party. This party became very popular quickly due to how the working-class people and miners had been treated for a while. This however was not the only threat to both the Conservative Party and the mine owners, in 1917, there was a Communist revolt which meant that the Communists were a constant threat to Britain. Therefore, the Conservatives tried to show that the Labour Party and the Communists were very similar, they did this by forging a letter from the Russian leader Zinoviev that showed that both the Trade Union and the Labour Party were working with the Communists. So, in the 1920 election, the Conservatives did well, and again were in power. The mine-owners were very much to blame for the strike and they were regularly criticised in magazines and newspapers for being greedy. However, they were against difficult economic times, and the price of coal was changing frequently.
To conclude, the strike was caused by many long-term problems, some governmental and some due to other factors mentioned. The Ruhr Crisis and slight risk of Communism after the Russian Revolution in 1917 were also additions to the cause of the strike.