Chapter 01: 1926 to the early 60s - The General Strike...Spencerism... ...A.J.Cook and the project of nationalisation...

Submitted by Red Marriott on July 1, 2009

[b] Chapter 1:
1926 to the early 60s
The General Strike...Spencerism...
...A.J.Cook and the project of nationalisation...World War II...
...Nationalisation...wildcats against the NUM...
...Industrial capital v. Finance capital... [/b]

In May 1926 the miners struggle against wage-cuts and increased hours sparked off the General Strike. The bosses, the Tory Government and the TUC combined to break the strike, aided to a certain extent by the miners allowing the Union (the Miners Federation) to isolate them and calm them down. Though it was a powerful strike - in some areas workers militias were formed, and improvised locally initiated Councils of Action were created - it was defeated primarily by a faith in Trade Unionism, and above all by a faith in leadership, which prevented the working class from seeing and extending what they'd already done. Namely, the fact that there were more workers on strike after the TUC had called off the General Strike than before, was not understood by the strikers as significant (perhaps most didn't even know about it) and the habit of looking to leaders meant that workers quickly returned to work. The essential reason for its defeat is also one of the essential reasons for the defeat of most subsequent struggles: the failure to go beyond the Trade Union hierarchical form, to consciously attack this form. J.R.Clynes, one of the Trade Union leaders at the time, said in his memoirs, "No General Strike was ever planned or seriously planned as an act of Trade Union policy. I told my union in April, that such a strike would be a national disaster...We were against the stoppage, not in favour of it". Despite this failure, the General Strike still had a significant effect on the working of capital: for example, nine days of just 1% of normal train services running "caused chaos on the railways for months afterwards. The breakdown was greater than that caused by the air-raids on London in 1940-41 and took much longer to repair." (Tom Brown, The Social General Strike ).

The miners themselves continued to strike for over 7 months after the General Strike but in almost total isolation. Due to lack of support, combined with poverty and starvation (though, as in the Great Strike almost 60 years later, soup and meals were provided, and there were collections through benefit concerts), the strikers were humiliated back to work.

The miners were led by the famous A.J.Cook, the "revolutionary" leader of the Miners Federation (the forerunner of the NUM), the first miners' Arthur, whose image is as much a legend as the King some people have treated him as. A.J. Cook was undoubtedly a good passionate speaker. Though he was paid as a Union official, he was never a full-time bureaucrat; he worked alongside the miners he represented - all of which is why he was uncritically supported by the vast majority of the miners of his time. But he was very much an expression of the weakness of the old workers movement, and believed, amongst other things, in professional paid leadership and whose idea of justice for miners was simply nationalisation. Moreover, he insisted that miners weren't lazy and that they were not saboteurs (see The Case For The Miners , written by Cook, pubd. 1924). It's very much part of the schizoid leadership role within this society, especially within trade unionism, to present a 'reasonable' (reformist) image to the general public, whilst rabble rousing to your followers. He was briefly a member of the CP, having left in 1921, probably because being a CP member would have prevented him from being elected as miners leader (according to Paul Foot, anyway). Certainly there was nothing particularly principled about his departure and, unlike for example Sylvia Pankhurst or Anton Pannekoek, he never incurred the wrath of the international or national CP, and indeed was praised after his death by Arthur Horner (the leading Stalinist miner's bureaucrat who insured that the miners buckled down to the State as boss of the new nationalised mining industry after World War ll). He remained a member of the ILP (one of the best of the old workers' movement parties), but was never one of the more independent-minded members.

As for nationalisation, in Britain at least, nationalisation was never considered a particularly socialist, let alone radical, idea. The Sankey Commission into the mining industry which published its findings in 1919, recommended "nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase and/or join control" . This Commission included a Tory member of the government – Andrew Bonar Law, who later became Prime Minister for a short time. Undoubtedly this recommendation came as a verbal sop to the workers movement which, in the wake of the October Revolution in Russia, was growing more confident. The Miners Federation accepted the Sankey Commission's findings without question, which shows how easily recuperated the British workers movement was at this moment. Of course, its findings weren't put into effect until almost 30 years later. Regardless of its words, in practice the British ruling class rarely makes concessions of any significance until well after the social pressures to make concessions have receded. It doesn't like to be seen to be giving in. Shortly before the General Strike, a different Royal Commission – the Samuel Commission – reported recommendations which were a retreat from the suggestion of full nationalisation, suggesting only that coal royalties be nationalised, recommending the continuation of private ownership with a few minor concessions thrown in – pit head baths, and improved government aid for research and distribution. Despite the fact that it suggested immediate consideration be given to the lowering of wages (some months into the miners strike, but after the defeat of the General Strike) the great radical A.J.Cook said the miners would accept its findings. But even then, the mine owners, the balance of class forces having been firmly tipped in their favour, refused to accept even its very minor concessions. Which just goes to show that, even on the level of ideas, to concede anything to the dominant powers will, rightly, be taken as a sign of weakness, and, as is the case when confronted with mad dogs, only encourages further attacks.

During this strike, George Spencer, a Labour M.P.[ 2], was instrumental in forming an openly scab union in Nottinghamshire which signed a local agreement which was rather like Franco's model of unions, which later on got some support in most other mining areas. Areas were picked off individually for lower wages because the owners knew that if there was a strike in one area, coal could still be mined in another. In the aftermath of the wildcat strikes after the TUC called off the official General Strike, the Tory government made wildcats illegal. In 1936, some Notts miners, despite being in the Spencerite scab union, were sent to prison for going on wildcat strike.

During the early 30s, parts of the left-wing of capital wanted the coal industry to be run by a "mining council" with 10 State-appointed members and 10 union-appointed ones, which had already been proposed by union bureaucrats from 1912 to the late 20s. Whilst in the Labour Party, Mosley, a Keynesian at this time, had put forward a Manifesto proposing temporary deficit financing for public works and protectionist imperialism, which was signed by 17 people - 16 Labour MPs and A.J.Cook. This was later demagogicly taken up by Mosley's fascists.

The temporary State management (not ownership) of the pits during World War ll didn't stop trouble at the pits despite strikes being made illegal (''without State permission''). State management during wartime meant a worsening of conditions: safety regulations were suspended, overtime was made compulsory and, with increasing amounts of miners being made unemployed, miners who were still employed were made to work harder. In 1942 there were wildcat strikes in Yorkshire and elsewhere. In Betteshanger, Kent, over a thousand miners appeared in court for striking contrary to wartime law. All were found guilty and fined, three being imprisoned (unlike Lady Mosley during the war, however, they were not allowed to have their butler in prison to cater to their every whim).

On January 1st 1947, the pits were nationalised with the post-war Labour government in power, who were conscious of the need to grant concessions for the securing of social peace in the wake of general increased expectations in the post-war era - and the National Coal Board (NCB) came into existence. Emmanuel Shinwell, a former radical jailed during "Red Clyde", the semi-revolutionary atmosphere in parts of Scotland after World War l, who later became Lord Shinwell, presided, as Minister of Fuel and Power, over the nauseating nationalistic ceremonies under the banner of the virtually Stalinist slogan, "The National Coal Board now owns and manages the industry on behalf of the people." [3] On the NCB of 9 men, 3 were ex-mine owners (amongst them, Lord Hyndley, former president of the Company of Mines) and 2 were high level Union bureaucrats - Ebby Edwards (in charge of labour relations) and Lord Citrine, an old enemy of the miners who, as acting General Secretary of the TUC in 1926, had sold them out. The National Union of Miners (NUM), born 2 years previously, pledged itself to "do everything possible to promote and maintain a spirit of self-discipline...and a readiness to carry out all reasonable orders given by management." It had no formal representation on the Board but the NCB labour department, the day-to-day cops of wage labour, was staffed largely by their own ex-officials. Many regional officers of the union took up jobs with the NCB but the NUM's rules forbade them to keep up their formal union membership. Miners themselves didn't seem to have many illusions in the new Board. As early as summer '47, a delegate at the annual NUM conference warned against "the terrible tendency to paint the face of the coal-owners over the face of the Coal Board."

After 1947, both the NCB and the NUM were finding it difficult to generate "the new responsibility" which Arthur Horner, the NUM General Secretary who was also a leading light in the Communist Party ., wished for. The National Reference Tribunal (mandatorily binding arbitration) was excitedly praised by the NCB who hoped "to infuse a new spirit into management and men, new partners" and by Horner, who thought it "would achieve the maximum results for our own forces with the least possible damage to them" . The NUM used all the influence it could muster to ensure restraint in wage negotiations. As Horner said, "If we asked for the moon, we could get it. Instead we have shown the highest sense of social responsiblity of any organisation in this country". Translated this means: "The miners have enormous potential power - but the NUM, as a capitalist organisation responsible to this society and the country/nation, has shown its ability to defuse that power."

After 7 months of nationalisation some of "the people" came into conflict with the organisation which acted on their behalf - a wildcat strike broke out at Grimethorpe which was described by one union leader as the most bitter he had ever seen. The NCB wanted a 5-day week, but wanted to reorganise shifts so that the extra production which used to be done on Saturdays was compensated for by an increased workload during the week. The NUM opposed the strike. Within 3 weeks it spread to 38 pits and the Yorkshire Area General Secretary told the men to choose [/i] [/i] "between industrial democracy and anarchy" . Will Lawther, ex-President of the General Council of the TUC and an NUM bureaucrat, said that the NCB should prosecute the strikers "even if there are 50,000 or 100,000 of them" and he attacked strikers for not recognising "their responsibilities" and for committing a "crime against our own people". Strikers at Grimethorpe responded by painting a gallows outside the colliery gates with the slogan "Burn Will Lawther" . Shinwell pleaded that many Yorkshire firms could go bankrupt if the strike continued and Horner warned that the shortage of coal could bring down the Labour Government. The union signed an agreement with the bosses promising "to prevent unconstitutional stoppages" and to prohibit any financial or verbal support to strikers in such stoppages, whilst the NCB took 40 miners to court who were penalised for damages under a law passed in 1875. In the year after nationalisation miners strikes accounted for 33% of days lost (lost to capital that is - but gained by the workers) through strikes that year. Miners were just 4% of the workforce.

The decade after nationalisation - the period of the most capitalist reconstruction up till that time - nevertheless insured a growth in wages in part due to the combativity of the miners, but also due to Keynesian government policy of full employment which needed to develop proletarians as consumers, and required better health for wage slaves, partly because of the possibility of war constantly in the background. Mechanisation was brought in, and so were free baths, newer canteens, better housing, better compensation for injury, a pension scheme, and better safety conditions (though mechanisation involved the creation of vast amounts of coal dust particles which produced an epidemic of pneumonicosis - a kind of lung cancer). Although production had remained steady up till 1960, manpower had fallen from 704,000 to 602,000, the increase in productivity being mainly down to mechanisation. Moreover, the increase in oil imports from the end of the 50s meant coal production was being increasingly cut and by '65 there were only 456,000 miners, and by the end of the 60s this had fallen to 287,000, 47% of what it was in 1960, though productivity had risen by 57%.

From '59 onwards, the NUM, while recognising that "all pits must eventually die", were warning governments about "the effect on the community" of "premature" shutdowns. The NUM defended capitalist policies in the interests of the NUM - i.e. investment in coal, the more the better. Unions defend their own particular interests within capital - hence the NUM represented a section of industrial capital, unlike banks or financial institutions, which are not concerned with investment in any particular secto [5]. Apart from the Unions' role as police, as negotiators of wage labour, as recuperators, they also have to defend their specific role in the reproduction of capital - because they depend solely on the union dues paid by their members and on the investment of these dues and pension funds. The NUM cannot suddenly relocate to another industry. Hence, in the 60s, both the NUM and the NCB campaigned for a greater consumption of coal on the internal market - both extolling the homely virtues of coal fires. The NCB too had to defend its own position - the defence of the profit-rate of a sector of capital. In 1966, Lord Robens, Chairman of the Coal Board, said "A lot of people in the union attack the Coal Board...I attack the government."