Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

MAY 3rd  

On this day in history in 1926, the General Strike commenced.

The General Strike was, as the name suggests, a total stoppage of work in which the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called out on strike every trade union member in the country.  

The strike began in 1925 with a dispute in the coal industry. The First World War had depleted the national coal resources, the richer seams of coal having been exhausted in a desperate effort to produce the armaments for victory. After the war, it was inevitable that, with the plentiful seams depleted, productivity per man would fall. In addition to this, the return to the gold standard in 1925 had fixed Sterling to the price of gold, which meant that the pound became too strong for competitive exporting.  

Faced with low productivity and difficulty in marketing, the employers announced a pay cut and an increase in hours. This suggestion was solidly opposed by the miners’ union, who formulated the pithy slogan “Not a penny off the pay: Not a minute on the day.” and threatened strike action.  The TUC promised to support the miners in any industrial action but the strike was forestalled by the intervention of the government with the promise of a wage subsidy and a Royal Commission to investigate the matter.  

The subsequent Commission under Sir Herbert Samuel recommended that the subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners’ pay cut in order to restore the industry’s viability. The owners immediately announced an extension of the working day and pay cuts of between 10% and 25%, depending on the circumstances. At this, the TUC declared that a General Strike would begin on 3rd May 1926. Negotiations between the government, the TUC and the employers failed to come to a compromise and the strike became effective as promised. 

The government had used the time that the Royal Commission had been deliberating to make contingency plans for the strike. The armed forces were called in to perform vital tasks such as the delivery of food and essential supplies. Volunteers took over other jobs and non-union labour carried on working. In all about three million workers took part in the strike. The strike was characterised by good-humoured badinage between the strikers and the volunteers. The volunteers’ efforts often ended in calamity. Volunteer drivers failed to control vehicles to the amusement of the strikers. Student volunteers were notorious for crashing lorries and delivering goods to the wrong places. There were isolated incidents of violent clashes between the strikers and volunteers but there were no serious confrontations.  

After nine days, the government persuaded the mine owners to offer a compromise. The TUC considered the new terms reasonable and called off the strike. The miners however, would not accept the new conditions and remained on strike for another five months before finally conceding defeat.

In 1927, Parliament passed the Trade Disputes and Trades Union Act, which banned the calling of a further General Strike. It also banned Civil Service unions from affiliating to the TUC and made mass picketing illegal. Between 1926 and 1939, the mining industry went into decline, shedding over a million mining jobs, and only recovered when the Second World War started.

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