SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 227 April 2019

Miners’ strikes 1919

Reform, Revolution and Direct Action amongst the British Miners: the struggle for the charter in 1919

By Martyn Ives

Published by Haymarket Books, 2018, £24.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

Martyn Ives sheds a light on a stormy period of British labour history as throughout the course of 1919 miners took widespread official and unofficial local action, and the possibility of a national strike hung in the air. The backdrop to the tumultuous events was the end of the first world war. During the conflict the Labour Party and trade union leaderships had given their backing to the war aims of British imperialism, abandoning an independent class position – echoing the betrayals of European social democracy.

Their reward in the ‘khaki election’ of November 1918 was a huge depletion of Labour MPs. Leading figures of the previous period, such as Keir Hardie, had died. Others failed to be re-elected (Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, and Arthur Henderson). The new leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was William Anderson, a bureaucrat in the Fife miners’ union. A delegate to the 1919 Labour Party conference observed – and understated – that the PLP "was not acting as the leader of working-class opinion in the House of Commons".

The end of the war brought demands for demobilisation from soldiers – with protests and mutinies when this did not happen. Then the rapid demobilisation brought about by their action threw up challenges across industry, as troops returned to their pre-war jobs that were being done by other workers.

Most of the trade union leaderships had attempted to impose ‘civil peace’ during the war and break strikes. With little official leadership being given, in stepped those inspired by the Russian revolution of 1917, many of whom were adherents of the pre-war syndicalist movement. Ives points to the role of the Daily Herald newspaper under George Lansbury as a leading influence at the time, with a circulation of 300,000 – a snowy fundraising demonstration for it in March 1919 was attended by 100,000 supporters.

The strikes broke out at different times and on immediate issues. Armed forces mutinied, particularly at the start of 1919. Engineers struck in Glasgow, Belfast and other cities. The second police strike took place in early August 1919, and railway workers struck in September. These were just a few of the larger disputes.

A similar picture was presented by the miners. In early January, Nottinghamshire miners went on strike against the ‘butty’ subcontracting system. In late January, it was the turn of the Fife miners – against the initial proposals of the Sankey commission into coal industry management – followed by South Wales in late March. Lanarkshire miners took solidarity action with the 40-hours strike by engineers in Glasgow. An official strike over working hours also took place in Yorkshire in late July.

While these were on different immediate issues, the unofficial Miners’ Reform Committees (MRC), which had been pushing for wider demands, were behind most of them. A charter had been campaigned for by the Herald and included the following demands: no conscription; discharge not demobilisation; full maintenance for all unemployed; a 40-hour week with no loss of earnings; nationalisation, with workers’ control, of mines, rail and transport; full recognition of all trade unions, including those in the armed forces and the police; fulfilment of all government pledges for the restoration of trade union rights; amnesty to all political and military prisoners; no further use of the military in industrial disputes; hands off Russia.

However, just as the revolts had sprung up in an area-by-area fashion, the local trade union bureaucracies used their isolated nature to bring each to a close separately. In Fife, for example, union officials called a ballot on the original issue of surface-men’s shift times – even though the strike demands had expanded to include the six-hour day and a minimum wage – and won a narrow victory for a return to work.

Where the MRCs had stronger roots they were able, partially, to resist such measures, but they did not have roots in every coalfield. Ultimately, the officials were able to use the federal nature of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) against them, utilising their points of strength to present the MRCs with a fait accompli.

Part of this was due to the nature of the MFGB as a federal union, itself composed of smaller federations, such as South Wales. This reflected the organic way miners’ unions had developed, firstly on a local basis before later linking up. The federal structure of the MFGB allowed for collaboration without one section dominating others. By the post-war period, however, this had become a weakness, giving the conservative officialdom room to manoeuvre to resist the action demanded by the ranks.

This was highlighted when the MFGB leadership attempted to sell the Sankey report to the miners as the best that could be achieved. While the rank-and-file rebellion forced a defeat of the leadership at the first conference to discuss the report on 21 March 1919, they did not prevail at the recall conference five days later. At this time, around 100,000 miners were on strike in Nottinghamshire, South Wales, Staffordshire and Sheffield.

Ives comments: "Had there existed a national organisation linking up the rank-and-file movements in the various coalfields, it is surely possible that the unofficial strikes of late March might have been forged into an effective assault on the compromise agreed by the MFGB". However, "no more than tentative efforts had been made to establish a National Miners’ Reform Committee".

Ives points out the differences between the rank-and-file organisation among the miners and that of the engineers. The miners strove to secure changes to their union structures and improve its democracy, whereas the engineers were attempting to organise outside their union structures to compete with it. Ives suggests that this was because the miners’ lodges were organised on a pit/workplace basis with all workers in the same union. The engineers, on the other hand, still faced the craft divisions that were a legacy of the era before the industrial revolution.

Yet Ives seems to suggest that such a focus inevitably leads those challenging the union leadership to become bureaucratised themselves. On the situation in South Wales he writes: "There was an almost irresistible logic, if control over the EC was the objective, for them to seek election to the EC itself… for most that had the chance, the gravitational pull of office was too strong to overcome".

What stands out the most in 1919, however, was the absence of a revolutionary party that could pull the various threads of struggle together. An outline existed around John Maclean in and around Glasgow, where the struggles of engineers and miners were brought together. Such an approach would have helped militants in South Wales overcome Ives’s gravitational pull of the bureaucracy.

It is difficult to easily take in the sheer depth of action that took place across 1919. Despite their being no national miners’ strike, a fifth of all days lost to strike action were the result of localised miners’ disputes. The events of that year could have been much more, but the lack of a revolutionary party meant that those possibilities were never tested.

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