Anniversary: Britain’s Black Friday 15 April 1921

A warning for the workers’ movement

Following the magnificent 26 March TUC demonstration workers and anti-cuts campaigners want to know how to build the movement to defeat the cuts. Unfortunately trade unionists, looking to their leaders for a way forward, have so far, in the main, been disappointed.

However, a number of unions are looking at how to coordinate strike action over the next few months, particularly over attacks on pay and pensions.

In preparing this struggle history can provide useful lessons. In 1921, 90 years ago, in a tragic event that became known as Black Friday, right-wing trade union leaders betrayed the miners.

As a result, the bosses were able to launch attacks on almost the entire British working class. By the end of 1921 six million workers had suffered wage cuts.

ANDREW PRICE explains why it is important for socialists today to study Black Friday, but also the period of incredible working class struggle in the 1920s.

For four years, from 1914 to 1918, working class men and women made enormous sacrifices in World War One. During this time they were lied to by pro-big business politicians such as Tory Winston Churchill and Liberal David Lloyd George, who said that the war would lead to a land "fit for heroes to live in".

But post-war Britain was a society scarred by massive poverty and huge social injustice, where the bosses were determined to maintain the upper hand. Following the war the miners, in particular, felt cheated.

Their industry was at the heart of British capitalism, employing 10% of the entire workforce, roughly 550,000 men. The war had graphically demonstrated the lies of the supporters of capitalism.

The free market was not enough to provide adequate supplies to fight in a world war. In the hands of the profiteer mine owners, coal production was unreliable.

The ruling class was forced to accept the coal industry being taken into public ownership. This had the full support of the miners and their trade union, the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), who hoped it would be a permanent measure.

Private ownership

But as the war drew to a conclusion the coal owners began to agitate for the return of ’their’ industry to private ownership, confident of the support of the Liberal-Tory coalition headed by Lloyd George.

This was fiercely opposed by the MFGB who feared the return of the industry to private ownership would lead to an attack on their wages. They threatened strike action.

Lloyd George saw no possibility of compromise in the situation and tried to kick the ball into touch with the establishment of a Royal Commission into the coal industry headed by Sir John Sankey.

Expecting one of their own to do what they wanted, the ruling class and their Liberal-Tory allies were horrified when the final report of the Commission expressed a lot of sympathy with the miners’ position and recommended that the industry remain in public ownership.

But that was the last anybody heard of Sankey and his Commission as the government contemptuously rejected his recommendations. Then the miners learned exactly whose side the Liberals and Tories were on.

However, the working class at this time was anything but docile.

The 1917 Russian Revolution saw workers, led by the socialist Bolshevik party, take power. This inspired a wave of movements across the world as workers, coming out of the hell of World War One, sought an end to the anarchy and inequality of the war-ridden capitalist system.

In Britain workers scaled heights of industrial militancy previously thought impossible.

A short-lived post-war industrial boom meant that unemployment was relatively low. This, combined with rising living costs, provided the backdrop to the increased struggle.

On average, for every day in 1919, 100,000 workers were on strike. The ruling class was rocked by this wave of workers’ action, which even involved soldiers returning from the war and the police.

In 1915 an important alliance had been forged between the miners, railway workers and transport workers. This Triple Alliance, of one and a quarter million workers, was potentially a powerful weapon against the bosses.

During that immediate post-war period of struggle the importance of the Triple Alliance rose again. Lloyd George understood the potential strength of the Alliance and in 1919 summoned the leaders to a meeting.

Robert Smillie, the miners’ leader gave an account of the meeting with Lloyd George to left Labour leader Aneurin Bevan, quoted in his book In Place of Fear.

Lloyd George told them: "Gentlemen you have fashioned in the Triple Alliance of unions represented by you a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy.

The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has already occurred in a number of camps.

We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances if you carry out your threatened strike you will defeat us.

"But if you do so, have you weighed up the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance.

"For, if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state.

"Gentlemen’, asked the Prime Minister quietly, ’have you considered and if you have are you ready?’"

"From that moment on", said Bob Smillie, "we were beaten and we knew we were."

In spite of defeatism among the workers’ leaders, the movement did not go to sleep. Far from it.

This was demonstrated in 1920, when the British government threatened to support Polish capitalists in the conflict against the Russian workers’ state.

In the ranks of the labour movement there was a determination to prevent the ruling class wiping out the gains of the 1917 revolution. Councils of Action developed rapidly, where rank and file trade unionists committed to strike action in the event of British imperialism declaring war on Russia.

In 1920, London dockers heroically refused to load arms on to ’the Jolly George’, a ship destined for Poland. But in early 1921 the post-war growth was well and truly over and industrial slump had set in.

The mines were handed back to the coal owners who declared that the miners would pay the price of the industry’s crisis. They proposed cuts in miners’ pay ranging from 10% to 49%.

Any miner refusing to accept these draconian cuts would be refused entry to work. From 1 April that year the owners began a lock-out.

Immediately transport and rail workers rallied to the miners’ side. The leadership of the Triple Alliance was forced by the members to call a strike in support of the miners from 15 April 1921.

But the coal owners were determined to crush the miners and destroy the MFGB. Lloyd George’s Liberal-Tory coalition had no problem in placing all state resources against the miners.

Following a declaration of a state of emergency the government established a special Defence Corps to confront striking workers, posted machine guns at most pit heads and despatched large numbers of troops to the main working class areas.

However, faced with the brutal class politics of the employers and their political representatives, the leaders of the Triple Alliance never went beyond cowardice.

On the eve of the strike Frank Hodges, the right-wing president of the MFGB, proposed local negotiations on wage cuts, instead of a national agreement, which was one of the miners’ main demands.

This appalling position was immediately repudiated by the MFGB executive but was music to the ears of the coal owners and to James Thomas, the notorious right-wing leader of the railway workers.

On Black Friday, 15 April 1921, the leaders of the Triple Alliance called off the proposed strike in support of the miners. Thomas played a particularly pernicious role.

This left the miners in a very dangerous situation. In certain areas, notably South Wales, individual trade union activists like AJ Cook did all that they could in a hopeless position.

After two months of fighting in isolation the miners returned to work on the mine owners’ terms. Emboldened by the coal owners’ victory, other sections of the ruling class followed suit.

Engineers, builders, sea farers and cotton operatives were all forced to accept big wage cuts.

In March 1922 the employers locked out members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), the largest engineering union, demanding big wage cuts. Scandalously the AEU leadership agreed to most of the employers’ demands.

In the immediate aftermath of Black Friday trade union membership in Britain slumped dramatically from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million in 1922. Such a decline prompts comparisons with a similar decline in Tory Britain in the 1980s.

Then, as in the 1920s, rising unemployment took its toll on membership. But in the 1920s tens of thousands of trade unionists left the movement in protest at the weak policies of the right wing, cynically describing the Triple Alliance as the ’Cripple Alliance’.

Support for the left

However, as Peter Taaffe points out in his 2006 book, 1926 General Strike: Workers Taste Power, "one of the consequences of Black Friday was a deepening of the hatred, particularly by the miners, of the ’traitor Thomas’ and increased support for the left".

Eventually rank and file militants began to organise independently through the National Minority Movement (NMM). This brought together some of the leading left wingers of the time such as Tom Mann, Ted Lismer and George Peat – all AEU- and AJ Cook of the miners and Robert Williams of the transport workers.

A. J. Cook

The NMM campaigned against the class collaborationist policies of the right wing and attempted to stop the haemorrhaging of trade union membership with the slogan ’back to the unions’.

In 1925 the NMM scored a considerable victory when one of its members AJ Cook was elected general secretary of the MFGB, replacing Frank Hodges. Cook was an honest and decent socialist, arguably one of the most principled trade union leaders ever in Britain.

He worked tirelessly on behalf of his members and he stood out like a beacon among right-wing and ’left’-wing trade unionists by his opposition to World War One.

Sadly, however, he was from the syndicalist school of socialism, which does not understand the need for workers to have their own party, as well as trade unions through which to fight.

These ideas were put to the test in the 1926 general strike and found wanting. The NMM itself was deflected from the task of transforming British trade unions by the false policies of the British Communist Party (CP).

As Peter points out, the CP was "misled by the mistaken policies of the Communist International, then under the direction of Stalin". Meanwhile the ruling class continued its preparations for civil war against working people.

But they could not get away with every attack. In May 1925 the bosses agreed to postpone for a year yet another proposed cut in miners’ pay.

This became known as ’Red Friday’, and was hailed as a victory.

The whole of the decade of the 1920s is rich in lessons for the British trade union movement today. The following year saw the momentous 1926 general strike, the most important event in the history of the British working class.

An unlimited general strike ushers in a revolutionary situation and poses directly the question of power in society.

Which class will run society, the capitalists, retaining all the bad features of existing society, or the working class, with the power to transform capitalism into socialism?

Today a great opportunity exists for joint strike action by public sector trade unionists on both jobs and pensions. Socialist Party members in individual public sector unions are calling for these ballots to be coordinated to produce generalised public sector strike action.

Even if this were partial at first, and given the absence of general strike action, even for one day since 1926, such action would scare this weak and divided government, lifting the confidence of the working class, and preparing the ground for later escalation.

In preparation the working class must try to build a leadership that, unlike its mainly miserable counterpart in the 1920s, is prepared to see the struggle through to its logical conclusion.

This May will see the 85th anniversary of the 1926 general strike, rich in lessons for the battles of today.

Book: 1926 General Strike

Workers taste power

by Peter Taaffe

£8.50 including postage from Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD or or ring +44 20 8988 8789

"The general strike did not drop from the sky but was the product of the period of 1918 to 1926 when, as we have seen, the capitalists, afflicted by a serious crisis, attempted to place the burden of this on the British working class.

The working class resisted as best it could, saddled as it was by a faulty leadership. They forced these leaders to declare a general strike which resulted in the grandiose conflict of the nine days.

However, despite all their heroic efforts it was not a victory but a defeat.

On the anniversary of this great struggle, the best way to commemorate the tremendous efforts of the working class in 1926 is to ponder whether with a different leadership the working class could have come out of it victoriously."

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