The Trades-Union War in England


THE coal strike of 1925, the so-called general strike of 1926, and the TradesUnion Bill of 1927 are linked in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. The social philosopher of a later day will doubtless count more links in this chain of historic perspective, but he will not deny that the precipitating causes of the bill were the two strikes immediately antecedent and still so fresh in the public mind as to need no detailed repetition here.

We recall that in the summer of 1925 those employers who were united in a ‘Mining Association’ gave notice that the contracts with their men must be terminated, and that the men would be permitted to continue work only at a substantially lower rate of wages. At the back of the minds of many was the desire to reverse the act of the Government of 1919, following the recommendations of a committee under Justice Sankey, which had reduced the hours of work in the pits. The miners, who were then represented by the largest and most powerful trades-union in the country, with nearly fifty members in Parliament, appealed to the Trades-Union Congress, a body representing, I think, between five and six millions of organized workers, to save them from industrial disaster.

At the end of July of that year, therefore, the Council of the Trades-Union Congress went to Mr. Baldwin demanding that, as an alternative to the lockout of all miners who would not accept lower wages, a subsidy on all coal raised should be given from the national exchequer, so that wages might be maintained and at the same time coal-getting might be made to pay. If this were refused, they threatened what is now commonly known as a general strike. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet defiantly refused this effort to tax the whole community in order to maintain the miners’ wages. In twenty-four hours, however, this refusal was abandoned; and during the next nine months the taxpayer paid toward mine owners’ profits and miners’ wages some twenty-three million pounds. The policy was approved without a protest by the overwhelming number of Government adherents in the House of Commons and, of course, by the Labor Party, whose strength depends almost entirely upon tradesunion support. In the midst of this general applause the protest of the tiny Liberal Party in Parliament sounded at worst indecent and at best negligible.

From that moment it was evident to the close student of affairs that a new situation had arisen in British history. The fact that a Parliament elected by a democracy, having been obdurate to persuasion, had suddenly yielded to a threat of force by a ‘Parliament’ elected by organized Labor presented to all men the spectacle of two centres of authority, in which the one might always, through threats, be made to yield to the other; although the one represented not much more than five millions at most of the population and the other represented an electorate of eighteen millions —of which latter, however, a substantial number were women, men occupied in sedentary occupations such as clerks, small shopkeepers, and les bourgeois, whom the leaders of the Socialist Party in England, imitating their confreres abroad, were teaching Labor to regard as a negligible rabble of rats or rabbits.

For the nine months following that surrender both sides were engaged in consolidating their forces for a conflict which both sides believed was sure to come, and for a conflict in which each side believed it was sure of victory. It must be confessed that the consolidation on both sides was revealed as incompetent and futile, as is normally revealed when nations which are supposed to be fully prepared for war plunge into active hostilities. Here the revelation has been not which side has prepared most but which side has prepared least for the inevitable. We recall the dumping of British coal into foreign markets at a price less than the cost of production, owing to the benefit of the subsidy; the Coal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel; the refusal of the miners to accept one element in the Commission’s report—the reduction of wages. We recall the slogan of Mr. A. J. Cook: ’Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay’; the refusal of the owners to accept other elements in the report, especially state control; the refusal of the Government to put in force the recommendations of their own Commission unless both sides agreed to it. Vividly we recall the attempt of a Trades-Union Committee to bend the representatives of the country in Parliament to its will through the ten days of the ‘general’ strike, when not more than two millions out of some twenty millions of workers came out in sympathy with the miners.

The thing, of course, died almost before it was born. It died from a variety of diseases, each one, in itself, fatal. The leaders of the Labor Party, including Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, at one time Prime Minister of England, passionately advocated the general strike when it was threatened; and as passionately sought a method to ‘call it off’ and throw over the miners when it was in operation. The Trades-Union Committee was scared by the result of its own handiwork. Above all, the despised ‘rats and rabbits’ of the ‘ bourgeoisie ’ came in to assist a Government for which they had no particular admiration and which showed no particular efficiency in the crisis.

Three startling and hitherto unknown results emerged. The first was that every road has become a railway, and that therefore the holding up of railway communication has become a useless method of ‘lightning’ strike. The second was that the despised bourgeoisie can now always fight the working classes; and that the bank clerks, students at universities and hospitals, and all the new race which has been educated at the secondary schools, who for years had been held up to obloquy as ‘fat’ against the noble form of ‘Labor,’ are better men than the laborer, and in resourcefulness, intelligence, and courage can beat the laborer at his own game when an appeal to force occurs. And the third was that there is practically no difference now between skilled and unskilled labor. After two or three days’ practice, students from the hospitals were driving electric trains, or, with more or less success, motor buses. For example, a couple of undergraduates — relations of a famous publicist and editor, Mr. Alfred Spender — were cheerfully conducting fish trains from one side to the other of England without ever having seen the inside of a locomotive before. The unfortunate so-called skilled men gazed with disgust and dismay while undergraduates from Oxford or Cambridge, assumed to be ’soft,’unloaded perishable produce at the ports, or worked cranes and other mechanical implements, with the greatest good humor, for they had no bitter feeling against the workingmen, only a vague determination that they would not be ruled by a Soviet. At one port, disdaining lethal weapons offered them by the authorities, they swept away an advancing attack of the strikers by a judicious use of the fire hose and the force pump, which dispersed the invaders in dismay.


The surrender, when it came, was complete; as complete as the surrender of Germany and the Central Powers before the Armistice which preceded the Treaty of Versailles.

The miners, however, like the Prussians in Germany, despite the fact that all their allies were deserting them and that the fight was obviously hopeless, maintained a resistance of the kind which some call insensate and others heroic. The dreary story of that nine months of combat abides as one of the most mournful records of a conflict, not between two nations, hating and despising each other, but between members of one nation; in which, a few years ago, the victors in this dismal struggle had crowned the vanquished with flowers and proclaimed that nothing was too good for those who, in the day of decision, had forgotten all thoughts of class warfare and united in the destruction of a common enemy.

I should require space equivalent to the whole of this article to describe the tangled mess and muddle of ‘negotiations’ which continued month by month while the nation was reduced to bankruptcy for lack of power produced from coal, showing neither statesmanship nor sympathy between the leaders of the one party and the other. At one time Mr. Baldwin was abolishing the Seven Hours Day Act, in the face of the determined and fierce denunciation of such a step by the Royal Commission which he himself had set up. At another he was pressing through Parliament the emaciated skeleton of some of the positive proposals of the Samuel Commission, with all the flesh and blood and brains removed. At another, leaders of the churches, headed by ten among the most honored of the Bishops of the Episcopalian and Established Church, proposed a compromise which involved an arbitration, which Mr. Cook, the extremist and avowed ‘humble disciple of Lenin,’ had himself accepted. Mr. Baldwin at first refused to receive them, and then kicked them into the gutter. Later, last autumn, Mr. Winston Churchill endeavored to take up the work of reconciliation, and obtained the support of the coal miners for a tribunal which implied at least a negotiated and not a dictated peace. But the mine owners, ignorant of the fact that dictated peaces always carry the seeds of future war, while negotiated peaces may lead to subsequent friendship, avoided such a determination by ‘melting into air, into thin air,’ dissolving their association, and with some insolence declaring that, even if they would lie prepared to negotiate, they had nobody to negotiate for them. Mr. Churchill, and to a lesser extent Mr. Baldwin, ‘unpacked their hearts with words’ in denunciation of these amazing creatures. But denunciation broke no bones and opened no single coal pit.

The end resembled the conclusion of the Siege of Paris in 1870. All funds, whether sent from Moscow, from other trades-unions, or from individual sympathizers, such as that sent by the Prince of Wales to the Somerset coal miners, had disappeared in the struggle. The Federation was bankrupt. The individual miners were bankrupt. They shambled back to work at mean wages, with hatred and despair in their hearts, while various imbeciles among the mine owners, the newspapers, and the owners of wealth rejoiced that at last ‘trades-unionism had been broken,’ that ‘the men had been put in their proper places,’ and that their wages and hours and conditions of work should be determined, not by any collective action on their part, but by such good will and generosity as are possessed by the owner toward his slaves.


Such, then, was the position of Capital and Labor at the commencement of the present Parliamentary session. The trades-unions who participated in it had cut their own throats by the general strike. Some, like the railway men, had lost more than a million pounds of their reserve capital. Others, like the miners, were in an actual state of fissure, with rival unions being established against rival unions; just as national fissure occurred in Germany after it had been destroyed by the Versailles Treaty. A few negligible and desperate persons declared that they intended to renew a general strike again at an appropriate time, and much play was made with the assertions of these grotesques when the Government brought forward its legislation. The leaders of the mine owners pretty soon found that a knowledge of the elements of economics was not unuseful, even to business men. The sole result of the increase in coal raised, due to the abolition of the seven-hours day, was to produce a glut of coal in England and all over Europe which could not be sold except at a substantial loss. Pit after pit closed down. A quarter of a million miners, nearly a quarter of the total mining population of Great Britain, are now living unemployed on the ‘dole’ — that is, supported in idleness by the general taxpayer. And the mine owners, blinking dismally at the Samuel Commission, the action of the Government, their own beloved eight-hours day, the failure of the leaders of the churches (who, of course, are not ‘business men’), see before them, with all their quaint cunning and credulity, nothing but financial disaster.

From May, when the general strike was broken, until December, when the miners were smashed to pieces, no concerted recommendation or policy came from any member of the Government —of woe to the vanquished or reprisals for what had been done by the defeated in the past. In the King’s speech — which, of course, was not written by the King, but by the Prime Minister of the day — there were only the vaguest suggestions of a counterattack on the trades-unions. But the great trusts and combines, the employer class, and all who had been induced by fear to hate the working people, including the Conservative official organizations, brought pressure on Mr. Baldwin, for once supported by the quaint adventurers in his Cabinet. He gave way, and signed the document which meant a declarat ion of war. Mr. Baldwin is a kindly man; he is a well-meaning man; but he is a weak man. And weakness, in a condition of chaos, in so high a position is more harmful than wickedness.

Any sane observer, looking on the situation from outside, detached and unaffected by changes in British affairs, could have told him what was the only conceivable course. The general strike had been so completely broken as to make it likely never to be heard of again, unless it carried revolution in its train. And, as has been proved by history, against revolution all legal enactments and Parliaments are in vain. The miners’ strike had been so completely broken that the men were working for miserable pittances with despair and bitterness in their hearts. The great working-class organizations were inspired by a sense of impotence and a sense of humiliation, with their membership depleted and their money gone. This was a time when any man calling himself a statesman might have made a great gesture of conciliation; have set up the establishment of the means of organizing industrial peace instead of war among members of a common race; have uttered the call, ‘Sirs, ye are brethren,’ the refusal to extort the last admission of defeat from the vanquished, and the appeal not only for ‘peace in our time’ but peace for a decade or a generation. Instead of this, after three months of waiting, without a word of conciliation, without a suggestion of any better way, the Government suddenly threw on the table of the House of Commons, without explanation or discussion, the TradesUnion Bill, which, with some modification of its more indefensible clauses in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, is passing into law on the day on which I write these words. It represents to all organized Labor in England a determination to do anything that Parliament is capable of doing to batten down, to discourage, and to destroy.


The bill was made up of a series of more or less disconnected clauses. Most of these clauses, in themselves, could be defended. But the bill was devised without any attempt at consultation with the trades-unions themselves, without a single clause making for conciliation in industrial disputes, and at a time when the trades-unions were bankrupt in funds, losing hundreds of thousands of members who could not afford to pay or were in too much despair to pay their subscriptions, and when those who had hated these great working-class bodies and desired every injury short of declaring them illegal had bundled together everything they could devise to make their existence as lighting organizations impossible.

Ostensibly the adherents of the Government who had created this concoction asserted that they were merely embodying in law certain principles which no men could object to; that they were rendering illegal any ‘general strike’ which designed to set up a sovereign authority against the sovereign authority of Parliament. Who could challenge such an idea? They were protecting men who did not wish to withhold labor during an ordinary strike from ‘intimidation.’ Who could be so mad or so blind as to defend intimidation? They were ensuring that contributions of members of tradesunions should not be extorted in the interests of one political party in the state from those who did not own allegiance to that political party. Again, what person who believed in liberty could deny so elementary a proposition? They were ensuring that government servants, postmen, dockyard workers, humble clerks, and the like, should be so cut off from the general trades-union movement outside as to guarantee that in a time of crisis they would support the Government and not, through refusing work, aid those who wished to disorganize society by a gigantic passive-resistance movement. And, once again, who could deny that the first duty of government servants is to the Government? These aphorisms were declared on every platform and proclaimed in every leaflet, of which millions were issued by the Conservative Party.

Only when the bill came to be examined in Parliament was it found that its clauses and its threatenings of fines and imprisonment — for fines and imprisonment are the note of all of the dismal proposals — were altogether divorced from these universally accepted propositions. The Labor Party immediately declared war on it, although the majority of that party in Parliament, being ignorant of the technicalities of legal phrasing, were unable to attack it in articulate utterance. What was more important , the Liberal Party, under the leadership of Mr. Lloyd George, also declared war on it, and with the exception of Sir John Simon, a lawyer whose whole life has committed him to the narrowest points of legal interpretation, assailed it both in the House and in the country. And as the Liberals, however diminished in numbers, stand for liberty, the cry that this bill was making for liberty in trades-unions seems to sound a little false and a little thin.

The first clause proposed to make a general strike impossible without a definition as to what a general strike was. It was quite obvious that, had the Government been content with merely rendering illegal a conspiracy organized by trades-unions and their leaders against the State, the thing could have been done by enlargement of the Acts concerning conspiracy. Instead of adopting this method, the Government offered forms of words continually changing under criticism, in which obviously the intention was not merely to render a trades-unions conspiracy against the State illegal, but to render all strikes illegal except those confined to one particular trade. It clung to words asserting the illegality of strikes in which more than one trade was engaged which were designed or calculated to put coercion upon the Government by causing hardship to the majority of the people. Had it maintained merely the word ‘designed,’the bulk of the critics would probably have realized that there was some force in its contention. But it defined as ‘calculated ’ a strike in more than one trade which, although the individuals themselves had no desire of coercing the Government through inflicting hardship there, might as a matter of fact cause a Government, or a weak Government, to be coerced by the inconvenience caused to the community as a whole.

This of course had two results: first, it rendered everything normally known as a sympathetic strike impossible; second, it provided a situation unknown in common law, and only in operation during a panic of the Napoleonic Wars, under a statute law speedily repealed, by which it was made a crime for an individual, after having fulfilled his contract, to give notice to his employer that he no longer intended to work for him, and to retire into any other or no other business or occupation, the crime being caused not because the individual retired, but because he retired in company with a large number of other individuals and thereby caused hardship to the people, and through causing hardship to the people created coercion of the Government. Under the influence of a tormenting criticism the government advocate, Sir Douglas Hogg, a rather crude specimen of lawyer who knows little if anything about life, realized that this operation might cause persecution, fines, imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people if a strike arose. He therefore attempted to meet his critics by exempting those not directly concerned in promoting or continuing the strike.

Never could the Government escape from this dilemma. If, for example, all the coal miners struck against reduced wages, this would cause infinite hardship to the people and would probably come under the definition of a method calculated though not designed to coerce the Government into interference in a trade dispute between coal owners and the coal workers. This would not be, under the definition, illegal strike. But if a small trade like the tinplaters or the pottery workers struck in sympathy with the coal miners, although they themselves would cause no hardship or inconvenience to the community, the fact that the strike of the coal miners caused hardship and inconvenience to the community, and that another trade had come out in support of them, would not only make the pottery workers’ or tinplate workers’ strike illegal, but would make the miners’ strike illegal and would therefore render any of these million miners liable, at the verdict of a magistrate, to be subjected to severe fines or to imprisonment up to two years.

The actual interpretation is that the Government intended that the weapon of the strike should be taken away from the working class; while, of course, trades-unions and their leaders are all against a strike, which is generally urged by the rank and file against their advice on such occasion as a reduction of wages. A strike is like war, and even soldiers and sailors are against war. On the other hand, if you are unable to threaten or negotiate by the weapon of a strike, you have abandoned the measure which has caused all the improvement of the condition of life of the individual through collective bargaining for the last hundred years. ’When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace,’and nine out of ten of the advantages which have been gained in various forms by the working people have been gained in the knowledge that in the last resort the workers will be able to withdraw their labor, and therefore negotiations have settled the questions at issue. Now it is quite evident that the Government and its supporters intend to make such a menace or weapon impossible in the future.


Another clause deals with intimidation. This has nothing whatever to do with the general strike, but applies even to a dispute in which the men come out in a few hundreds against some particular firm that employs but a few hundred workmen. In the Trades-Unions Acts of 1875 passed by Disraeli, and of 1906 passed by the Liberal Government, the law contained definite statements as to what intimidation should be, and all could know that if they broke the law they were liable to fine or imprisonment. The Government has now given a definition as to intimidation, which is indefinite, uncertain in character, and which every bench of magistrates or judge can interpret as they or he pleases; by which the man who is impeached for having indulged in any particular conduct cannot possibly tell beforehand whether he is breaking the law or no. The old definition was confined to various forms of material or physical damage. The new definition started with a statement that it was illegal to cause apprehension in any man’s mind of ridicule, hatred, or contempt. Who is to define what will cause the apprehension in any man’s mind of ridicule, hatred, or contempt?

Mr. J. H. Thomas gave an example of a case where his wife might refuse to invite to tea a man who would not conform to the request of the railway unions to come out on strike when wages or hours were challenged, and subsequently, under this law, might be clapped into jail for such refusal. Others gave examples of how men might be imprisoned for two years if they said their children should not play with the children of so-called Blacklegs. Others asked desperately what intimidation was which was suggestive of neither physical nor material injury, and what the law was doing in trying to examine whether a man was in apprehension of some future injury which was not physical or material. The thing was laughed out of court in the House of Commons, but words were substituted in the House of Lords, and, although Lord Reading tore the government proposals to pieces, the words finally adopted give opportunity for uncertain law to be administered by any prejudiced bench of magistrates in a case in which the prisoner himself has no kind of conception that he has done any illegal wrong at all.

The third great onslaught on the trades-unions was the attempt to diminish their funds for political purposes definitely and deliberately, that they might not have enough money to put up candidates for the elections and to carry on political enterprises. Until 1911 everyone had assumed that tradesunions had as much right as companies, breweries, and organizations of employers to spend part of their ordinary funds, if they voted in that direction, to put up trades-union candidates for Parliament. That condition was challenged at law by a railway man called Osborn, who was financed by opponents of the Labor Party, for the Labor Party had obtained no substantial importance; and the courts decided that no such right existed. The Liberal Government of the day introduced a compromise. The ordinary funds of the unions were not to be used for political purposes. The unions were to be allowed to take a ballot on the subject of whether they should levy a special contribution from their members for political objects. But so meticulous were the men of that time concerning the liberty of the individual that they also inserted the provision that if a union had decided that this special fund, not amounting to more than a few pence a week, should be levied any man who desired not to contribute should be allowed, without having to give any reason at all, to contract out and not pay his pennies to this levy. When the Labor Party arose it was found that practically all the tradesunions that had balloted for a political levy used that levy for the interests of members of the Labor Party, although there is no reason in the Act why the levy should not be used for the Conservatives or the Liberals.

From the commencement of the control by the Parliament of the enormous Conservative majority elected in 1924, a substantial proportion of the back benches of the Conservative members and the organizations in the country have been trying to force the Prime Minister into a change in this system. Mr. Baldwin resisted with considerable courage. He asserted: ‘How did we get here? It was not by promising to bring this bill in. It was because, rightly or wrongly, we succeeded in creating the impression throughout the country that we stood for stable government and for peace in the country between all classes of the community.’ Although no case could be presented in Parliament of the misuse of this power, there was a general impression that large numbers of trades-unionists were so idle or indifferent or anxious to avoid trouble as to refuse to use the conscience clause. The resistance, however, has now been abandoned. All that is given to trades-unions is the right to collect funds for their own representatives in Parliament from those who are willing to sign a document that such collection can be obtained, which, after all, is no more than any other political party can do.

The hope of the Conservatives is that the great mass of trades-unionists, who, like the great mass of electors, care little or nothing about, politics, will not take the trouble to sign documents definitely offering weekly subscriptions for members of Parliament, and that therefore the trades-unions will be unable to put up tradesunion candidates against the wealthy Conservative landlords and profiteers. Whether such a result will be attained remains conjectural, but the weighting of the thousands of the wealthier classes against the diminished contribution of the poor is interpreted as a direct declaration of a class war, by which the workingman shall be battened under hatches and the Labor Party substantially diminished, not through lack of enthusiasm, but through definite poverty of organization in the House of Commons. And that is how it is interpreted by both parties alike in the country.


The wretched bill which excited weariness and lack of enthusiasm both on the one side and on the other passed through under what is called the closure— that is, the official limitation of debate, day by day, in the House of Commons. Curiously enough, in the House of Lords criticism became most vocal, not so much among the eight or ten Lords of the upper chamber who, in membership of over seven hundred, alone represent the Labor Party, which polled six millions at the last election, but in the scanty representatives of the Liberals and especially in the person of Lord Reading. This man, with his great distinction, once head of the English Bar, Lord Chief Justice of England, Ambassador to America, and for many years Viceroy of India, was found to offer criticism of a bill which the workingmen and members of the Labor Party were unable to exhibit, and quite astonished the not very brilliant minds of the hereditary peerage by the vehemence of his attack.

He deplored the stimulus of a class war after the working people had been crushed and would have responded to any note of conciliation. He asserted that the bill made a man a criminal against his intention and took no note of his intention. He declared that it offered ‘not one single ray of light for the workingmen’ of this country. And, speaking with all the authority of a great lawyer, great judge, great ambassador, and great administrator, he asserted: ‘When I take the bill as a whole and look through it as I have done with great care, consider it clause by clause, I say without hesitation that it is a bill which in the language it uses is more vague, more indefinite, more lacking in precision in respect of the crimes which it indicates and the penalties which follow upon them, than any bill I have ever seen or any Act of Parliament I have had to construe either as a law officer or as a judge.’ He drove, by the sheer force of his criticism, the Lord Chancellor and the Government to an amendment of the section regarding intimidation; but he could not produce either any substantial modification or withdrawal, and the bill passes into law with his word standing out above all others on account of the distinguished character of his impartiality and the great experience of his career. ‘ I can find no reason for modifying or changing the views I have before expressed on this bill. . . . The necessity for clear language is that the bill constitutes new crimes. . . . I desire merely to add that throughout the discussions on this bill the reflection has been constantly in my mind how lamentable it is that at this period, when we stood so much in need of industrial peace, when everything should be done to promote greater good will between employer and employed, the time of Parliament should have been taken up during almost the whole of this session in trying to pass a measure which can only embitter relations, and which will certainly not mollify the attitude which has been taken up by all the principal Labor leaders.’

With such a benediction the bill becomes an Act of Parliament . There has been exultation among those who have been promoting it and driving the Government forward, owing to the fact that, as they think, any universal trades-union agitation against this attack on trades-unions has failed to ‘cut any ice,’ and that there has been no general strike, no violence, no threat of revolution among the working people of this country. They may perhaps be somewhat subdued by a succession of elections to Parliament. The Liberal and Labor parties have both declared against this measure. It has been opposed in every by-election, and the majority for it has sunk down to negligible dimensions.

I don’t think there will be open resistance or rebellion. I don’t think there will be fighting in the streets. I don’t think there will be a general strike of the kind which this bill makes illegal. But I am entirely sure that it has cut a deep cleavage between the Conservative Party and the workingmen of this country; that it has forwarded a class war scarcely expected except among men of unbalanced minds, in a real belief that there is a declaration of conflict, not by the poor against the rich, but by the rich against the poor; that the trades-unions and their sympathizers will turn this bill into political and not social or economic advantage, and that more than any other measure which has been passed by the Conservative Party, steadily decreasing in prestige and popularity, this bill will be found an instrument of the next general election to drive them completely out of all the industrial districts in such a manner that they will probably not in a generation recover the position which they attained three years ago.