1919 - Triple Alliance: Untapped Power
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Rail strike bulletin

Also published on the Workers' Liberty website, here.

With engineers and others taking on the employers, the time was ripe for the other bastions of industrial power – the rail workers, miners and transport workers – to join the fray. The government was certainly afraid that they would, knowing that these workforces’ unions had a deal, known as the Triple Alliance, that they would strike in solidarity with each other if asked.

But the government and employers would outflank them, with the union leaders allowing their confrontations to be pushed to the later part of the year, by which time the authorities were ready to contain or even beat them.

The government had taken the railways, mines and docks into their own control during the war, and as 1919 started had not yet returned them to their private owners. In January, the Miners’ Federation presented its demands for a 30% increase in miners’ poverty low wages, a six-hour working day, and for the government to keep their industry in public ownership.

The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) demanded an eight-hour day. The government, not yet ready for a showdown, agreed, although the employers tried to take back some of the time from the workers, for example cancelling the previous five-minute handwashing break! London Underground tried to count its drivers’ half-hour meal break as additional to the eight-hour day, but five days into strike action that began on 3 February, Underground bosses backed down.

Prepared for power?

Rail workers in London and Liverpool also wanted to strike, and according to NUR historian Philip Bagwell, General Secretary JH Thomas ‘had considerably difficulty in restraining the men.’

The Cabinet set up an Industrial Unrest Committee. Lloyd George proposed withholding food from strikers, and wrote to Lord Privy Seal Andrew Bonar Law that ‘we shall have to fight [the disputes] through’, as ‘Labour is getting unreasonable in some respects’.

The rail workers had key demands outstanding: enhanced overtime rates, fourteen days paid holiday and labour and capital to jointly run the railways. The Railway Executive told Thomas on 12 February that it had not yet prepared its response. Thomas was Labour MP for Derby, and had risen up the ranks of the NUR since his role in its formation just before the war. He was an avowed ‘constitutionalist’, opposed to revolution and to militant action, and was determined to restrict this dispute to narrow workplace demands and to settle it as peacefully as possible.

Lloyd George saw a way to disarm the Triple Alliance, calling the bluff of their leaders. When Robert Smillie, General Secretary of the Transport Workers’ Federation (forerunner of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and later Unite the Union), met the Prime Minister in February, a remarkable and revealing conversation took place, reported only years later. Lloyd George said to Smillie and his companions:

Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the 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 occurred already 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 threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?

Lloyd George’s calculated gamble worked. Smillie was a militant, but he was not a revolutionary. He and his companions conceded the point.

Rail delays

By March, the Railway Executive had refused the NUR’s demands, prompting the union’s Special General meeting (SGM) to express its ‘utmost disgust’ and to vote 43-19 to ask the Triple Alliance partners to support a national strike. But the NUR leaders were not keen on this course of action, and together with the transport and miners’ union leaders, decided against a national strike. Instead, they met Bonar Law, who made some concessions to the railwaymen: guaranteed working hours, minimum rest periods and a week’s paid holiday.

On 27 March, the NUR SGM voted 41-19 not to go ahead with strikes because of ‘progress in talks’, a phrase familiar to rail union members to this day. Those talks would continue for six months, while the government prepared to defeat the inevitable strike but the union leaders prepared to avoid it rather than win it.

Bonar Law suggested empowering the government to seize strike funds and arrest strike leaders, and headed off disputes in other industries by convening a National Industrial Conference to draw up some limited improvements for workers.

Sidelined into Sankey

Like the NUR, the Miners’ Federation let the government persuade it to postpone action. Lloyd George appointed the Sankey Commission to investigate working conditions and ownership of the coal industry, promising to implement its findings.

After a preliminary report on 20 May, the Sankey Report delivered its full verdict on 20 June, favouring nationalisation, a 20% pay rise and one hour off the miners’ working day. A month later, the government had taken only one measure, announcing that the maximum time that miners may work underground would be cut from eight to seven hours.

The Miners’ Federation did not act, still trusting the government to honour the Sankey Report. But rank-and-file miners were not so naïve and patient. In mid-July, an unofficial strike spread from Kent and South Wales to Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland. But without the support of their union, the strikes came to an end in mid-August.

His confidence buoyed by the union leaders’ timidity, on 18 August Lloyd George rejected the Sankey Report’s findings. Instead of nationalising the coal industry, he set up a Department of Mines. Labour MP Vernon Hartshorn said that miners had ‘been deceived, betrayed, duped’. Still the Miners’ Federation did not fight back, instead asking the TUC to call a special congress.

Back on the rails

Through the summer, rail workers threatened unofficial local and sectional strikes. In August, the Railway Executive tried to divide the railway grades, offering pay rises to clerical workers and footplatemen (train drivers and firemen). It reached agreement with the two non-NUR unions which represented workers in those grades: the Railway Clerks’ Association (forerunner of today’s TSSA) and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF).

Other grades wanted their wages levelled up to those of their workmates. After six months of talks and under pressure from members, on 16 September NUR leaders asked the government for concrete proposals. Three days later the union got them: wage cuts for many rail workers. Porters, for example, would see their weekly wage cut from fifty-three shillings to just forty.

Five days later, the NUR rejected the proposals and issued a strike ultimatum. On 25 September made met Lloyd George in a last-ditch attempt the strike, but this failed it started the next day. Despite having reached its own agreement over traincrew pay, ASLEF joined NUR in striking.

The government put its preparations into action, appointing Eric Geddes (head of the newly-formed Ministry of Transport) as chair of its Strike Committee, the new name for the Industrial Unrest Committee. It empowered food controllers to requisition any horse or motor vehicle.

23,000 soldiers and put 86 infantry battalions were put on standby. Five hundred sailors landed at Greenwich and soldiers came ashore at Grimsby. The navy deployed ten destroyers, twenty sweepers, six sloops, sixteen drifters and twenty-eight trawlers to transport food in defiance of the strike. But all the ex-services organisations refused to help the strike-breaking operation.

Scab trains ran with the help of volunteers – including aristocrats such as Louis Mountbatten – and when these were attacked, armed guards joined the trains. The government asked mayors to set up local Citizen Guards.

But the strike was solid. Rank-and-file rail workers organised mass pickets, support for strikers’ families, even football matches. They were sustained by strike pay of twelve shillings per week plus one shilling for each dependent child. And they had wide support.

The government launched a propaganda campaign against them but met with an unexpectedly effective counter-campaign from the Labour Research Department on behalf of the NUR. Lloyd George called the strikers anarchists, and the Daily Mail accused them of leaving railway horses to starve (in fact, pickets allowed workers to enter the depots to feed the horses).

On 30 September, London bus, tram and dock workers asked the Transport Workers’ Federation to call them out on strike. But the NUR and Federation leaders wanted to contain the dispute within the rail industry. The Federation chose not to call a strike, but instead to call a conference of labour and union leaders which sent a deputation to Lloyd George.

Thomas took the view that a Triple Alliance strike would be a strike against the state and so would be disastrous. If the workers won, then the state would lose and the nation would be put in danger. If the workers lost, it would be a setback for industrial democracy. Thomas wanted a settlement, not a win for either side. His priority was to preserve the capitalist order.

On 3 October, Geddes announced that rail workers would not be paid their wages for the week before the strike. Union leaders warned Lloyd George that unless he was ‘more reasonable’, it would be impossible to prevent a ‘widespread extension’ of the strike. Neither the union leaders nor the government wanted this, and on 5 October, the government abandoned its wage cuts and promised standardisation of wages by the end of the year. The strike was over.

What was won?

The rail strike had won its immediate demands and shown the power of workers taking action. The NUR Executive gave the credit to Thomas, calling a special collection for him to which union branches donated enough money for him to buy and furnish a house.

But could the strike have gone further? Three days after it finished, NUR President Charlie Cramp admitted that while the government had been preparing since February for the strike, ‘rather foolishly’ the union had not actively prepared because it trusted the government to act fairly. The government continued its preparations for future disputes, putting the Industrial Courts Act through Parliament to steer them through mediation and avert strikes.

On 19 October, Robert Williams of the Transport Workers’ Federation told a demonstration that it had been a tactical error for the NUR not to have mobilised the Triple Alliance, earning himself a rebuke from the NUR Executive four days later.

The terms of the settlement left a lot still to be negotiated, and within weeks, rank-and-file members were expressing concern. Some NUR branches passed resolutions declaring that simply withdrawing wage cuts was not good enough; workers needed a wage rise and the three-pounds-per-week minimum wage that their union had demanded but not yet won.

By June 1920, NUR branches were expressing their anger at the government’s pitiful pay offer of only two shillings a week and disappointment at their union’s acquiescence with it. The union’s Bishop Auckland and District Council condemned the ‘audacity’ of the Wages Board and protested against NUR officials ‘signing such a paltry agreement’. The Talywain branch viewed the award ‘with disgust’ and called on the union’s Executive to call a strike if the employer did not concede its demand for a pound-a-week increase.

As it had transpired, a potentially very powerful strike had won demands that were limited, defensive and short-lived.

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To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, order this pamphlet.