Long before ‘Black Friday’ became the name for the first day of the Christmas shopping season, it was the name that the labour movement gave to the day on which trade union leaders inflicted a defeat on their own movement. It happened exactly one hundred years ago, on 15 April 1921.
Over the previous few decades, unions had worked together more closely, as workers’ organisation evolved through amalgamations and alliances from a patchwork of hundreds of distinct ‘craft unions’ to a smaller number of larger, more powerful industrial unions.
It was in this context that the ‘Triple Alliance’ formed in 1914. The National Transport Workers' Federation (created in 1910 to co-ordinate unions representing dockers, seafarers, tram workers, vehicle drivers and others), the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR, created in 1913 as an amalgamation of several sectional railworkers’ unions) and the Miners' Federation of Great Britain pledged to support each other in their struggles. If one group of workers went into battle with the employer, the other two would mobilise to support them.
Four years later, when the First World War ended, workers launched a series of industrial battles, scoring important victories, although perhaps not as many as they might have won with bolder leaderships.
During the war, the government had taken the coal and rail industries into state control, as both were crucial to the war effort. The unions failed to stop the government returning them to their private owners after the war ended. In 1921, economic recession hit and the private mine owners, back in charge, pulled out of national wage agreements and announced that they would cut wages to a lower level than before the war. Miners refused to accept this, and the owners locked them out of work on 1 April.
True to the pledge of the Triple Alliance, the transport and rail workers’ unions called strike action in support of the miners, to start two weeks later on 15 April. Rank-and-file rail and transport workers enthusiastically prepared for the strike, setting up local committees and public events, stepping up their financial collections, and organising picketing.
As the strike approached, Miners’ Federation leader Frank Hodges [pictured], looking for a way out, began to talk about local pay negotiations, a policy which in practice would concede defeat and by dividing and weakening the miners. Although the Miners’ Federation’s Executive repudiated this, the rail and miners’ leaders, also looking for a way out, used Hodges’ words as a pretext to call off the strike just as it was about to start.
The socialist Daily Herald described it as ‘the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Movement within the memory of man’, all the more so because it was self-inflicted. Rank-and-file workers were furious, with the Herald reporting a wave of resolutions and angry letters from branches calling on their union leaders to give a satisfactory explanation or resign.
In Hounslow, a joint meeting of the NUR and two vehicle workers’ unions unanimously carried a resolution, ‘That we condemn the action of the Triple Alliance officials in refusing to carry on the support of the miners' cause, and we hereby instruct our officials to rescind their resolution and call for direct action at once!’
Rank-and-file anger forced the rail and transport unions to support them in refusing to handle coal being imported to undermine the miners’ stand. But, facing employers who enjoyed far greater support from the government than workers got from their union leaders, the miners were forced back to on worse terms three months later.
The leaders responsible for this fiasco were held in contempt. JH Thomas of the NUR became known as ‘Traitor Thomas’, Robert Williams of the Transport Workers’ Federation was expelled from the Communist Party, and miners elected left-winger AJ Cook to replace Frank Hodges in 1924.
‘Black Friday’ was a terrible betrayal, and its centenary is a reminder of the importance of rank-and-file control and accountable leadership in our trade unions.
An extract from the Daily Herald's coverage:
RAILMEN CONDEMN CANCELLATION
Within a few hours of the decision to call off the strike, resolutions from branches of the N.U.R. protesting against the decision were received by the DAILY HERALD. During the night repeated telephone calls were received from meetings which had been organised for the purpose of starting the strike.
At 11.30 o'clock Councillor Taylor, L.C.C., rang up from a Kinema Palace in North London asking us what he was to say to the 800 Transport and Vehicle Workers who were present to hear the latest news of the strike. We were only able tell him we had no further information.
Headed by their chairman and secretary, Messrs Martin and Briggs, a deputation of 42 dock workers from the Shad Thames area called at the DAILY HERALD office last night. Their object was to record their protest against the last-minute calling off of the Triple Alliance strike, which they described as "a let down for the whole movement and particularly for dockers and transporters."
They demanded a full inquiry into the negotiations and meetings at Unity House and in the Commons, and demanded to be told why the strike in support of the miners was called off. They wanted answers to these queries "to satisfy all the members of the Dock. Wharf, and Riverside Workers' Union."
MAY STRIKE ON THEIR OWN
The deputation came from a representative meeting called by the === Strike Committee, which was attended by over 600 disappointed would-be strikers. That meeting resolved
"That we call at once for a verbatim report of the Negotiating Committee proceedings, and demand to know why the strike was not called.
"We urgently need an answer at the earliest possible moment — and an answer that will satisfy all our members." said one of the spokesmen, who significantly added: "The dockers may be declaring a strike on their own."
"EXPLAIN OR RESIGN"
Henley branch of the N.U.R. last night passed the following resolution, which was sent to the general secretary of the union:- "
We emphatically condemn your action in cancelling our notices of the 12th inst., and also of our final notices Friday, 15th inst.
"We demand a satisfactory explanation of your attitude in not giving us this one and only chance of showing our support of the miners in a fight to live. Failing this explanation, we ask you, the general secretary and the Executive Committee, to resign."
A crowded meeting of Cheltenham rail men passed resolution,
"Deploring the defection of the N.U.R. and transport workers from the Triple Alliance as reported this evening's paper,' and congratulating the Miners' Federation on the stubborn manner in which they are conducting the struggle, and wishing it complete success.
Telegrams calling off the strike had a staggering effect at Hounslow. A joint meeting the N.U.R., National Union of Vehicle Workers, and the United Vehicle Workers was called, and the following resolution was unanimously carried:-
"That we condemn the action of the Triple Alliance officials in refusing to carry on the support of the miners' cause, and we hereby instruct our officials to rescind their resolution and call for direct action at once!"
A collection was taken up for the miners. and this totalled £3 10s.
A deputation from the meeting personally conveyed this message to the DAILY HERALD.
In every district our correspondents report that the most thorough preparations had been made to meet whatever contingency might arrive, and to ensure the smooth running of Labour's affairs during the period of crisis.
Many Nottingham transport workers had actually ceased work when the cancellation bombshell burst, our correspondent says."