‘We must learn the lessons of 1926’ – UNISON conference warned


Last week saw the annual conference of UNISON, the largest public sector union in the country.

As befits a union that represents hundreds of thousands of predominantly low paid workers in the public sector, all the main issues confronting the working class today were on the agenda.

And one of the most pressing issues is the continuing assault by the Labour government on pensions.

It was during the debate on pensions that a delegate from Greater London UNISON Regional Committee, Mandy Burgess, issued a warning to the conference that they must learn the lessons of ‘what happened on “Red Friday”‚ in 1925, the year before the 1926 General Strike.

‘The government used the time to prepare for the fight to come. The trade unions did not.

‘We must learn the lessons of 1926.

‘There must be no separate pensions deals, we must stand united across all the public sector, there must be up to five million workers striking together.’

To understand the significance of this timely warning to learn from the bitter lessons of history we must first briefly consider the recent attacks by the Labour government on public sector pensions and the response of the trade union leadership to them.

Late last year the government announced its intention to cease the final salary pension scheme for public servants and increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 years of age.

This was presented to the public sector union as a statement of intent, to be imposed by the government without negotiations with the relevant trade unions.

The reaction of public sector workers was immediate.

The PCS, representing low paid civil servants, voted overwhelmingly for strike action and issued a call for a one day general strike by public sector workers to take place in spring 2005.

This call was taken up by members of other public sector and local government trade unions and the leaders of UNISON, the TGWU, Amicus and UCATT were all forced to ballot their members.

In every union balloted there was a majority for a one day strike scheduled to be held on 23rd March 2005.

What emerged clearly was the desire of the membership not to be isolated in individual unions to confront the government but to mobilise their full strength in a strike that would have involved not just those unions balloted but others, such as the teachers union (NUT) whose members pledged to join in the action.

Such a movement easily promised to get out of hand as far as the union leaders were concerned, whilst the Labour government faced the prospect of a virtual general strike that threatened not just their policy on pensions but every single other attack they were launching against the working class, for inevitably what was mixed up in the action was not just the issue of pensions but of jobs and conditions and the whole issue of privatisation of the public sector, from health to education.

And all this was in the run up to the general election in May.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, lumbered into action, calling on the TUC and the individual leaders of the unions involved to ditch the industrial action decided upon by the membership in favour of ‘meaningful talks’ on the pensions issue.

Naturally the trade union bureaucrats seized on this as the excuse they needed to dump strike action in favour of meaningless rounds of talks which everybody knows will produce absolutely nothing from this government and will only buy time for it to prepare to take on the unions and force through measures that are dictated to it by the massive slump gripping British capitalism.

In the meantime the bankrupt reformist leadership of the trade unions are uttering brave words about strike action if necessary at their union conferences, whilst doing absolutely the minimum to prepare for a serious struggle against the government in the inevitable event that the ‘meaningful’ talks produce absolutely nothing or at best only purely cosmetic changes.

This is what lay behind the London UNISON delegates warning that workers today must learn the lessons of the events of Friday 30th July 1925, the day that passed into labour history as ‘Red Friday’.

The background to ‘Red Friday’ was the massive slump experienced by British capitalism after the First World War.

The brunt of this slump fell on the coal industry which had been returned to private ownership after the war and whose owners had immediately ceased national bargaining and slashed the pay of miners.

An attempt by the Miners Federation to invoke the triple alliance – the alliance between the miners union and unions in the transport sector in which each union pledged to come out in sympathy should one of the alliance take strike action – to defeat this attack, had been betrayed by the leadership of the other unions who reneged on the agreement on the very eve of strike action on Friday 15th April 1921.

This became ‘Black Friday’ in the history of trade unionism.

The acute nature of the crisis in the coal industry was exacerbated by the peace terms imposed on Germany at the end of the war.

These called for a large part of its war reparation to be paid in coal which led to the world market being flooded with cheap German coal.

This situation was eased for a period when the French army occupied the Ruhr coal-producing region in 1923-24 and German coal production was halted.

But as soon as this occupation ended the squeeze on British coal owners’ profits started and they again demanded that miners pay be slashed and the working day be increased to keep their profits flowing.

The miners may have been in the forefront but the entire working class faced attacks as British capitalism attempted to shore up its shattered economy and regain its pre-eminent position as the greatest imperial nation.

The newly elected Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, expressed the requirements of British capitalism bluntly in July 1925 when he stated ‘all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet’.

The Miners Federation rejected all the demands for pay cuts and the destruction of their bargaining rights and went to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Council for support.

The TUC General Council announced its ‘complete support’ for the miners and set up a Special Committee to co-ordinate strike action.

With the support of the executives of the transport and railway workers unions, this committee drew up plans for a complete embargo on coal movement in the event of a lock-out by the coal owners.

The Coal owners deadline for the Miners federation to accept cuts was 31st July 1925, the TUC organised a special conference of trade union executives to be held the day before, Friday 30th, to activate the struggle.

Baldwin’s government was shocked and unprepared for such a class showdown and on the same day they rushed out proposals for a Royal Commission to make a detailed inquiry into the coal mining industry.

It further announced that it would give a government subsidy to the coal owners for a period of nine months to enable the Commission to make and report its inquiry.

As a result the owners withdrew their notices of pay cuts and changes to negotiating practices.

The TUC celebrated a famous victory with the climbdown forced on the government and this became ‘Red Friday’.

The government for its part immediately set about preparing for the inevitable.

The unofficial ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ a strike-breaking organisation set up by volunteers was given official backing, with potential scabs being given training in running industry and supplies.

Dictatorial powers were put in place with ten ministers being given absolute powers to run the country as soon as the government gave the word.

While the government was busy during the nine months grace it had bought itself what preparations did the TUC, which had a ‘left’ majority on its General Council, make for the inevitable fight?

The short answer is none whatsoever!

Despite the fact that almost every TUC leader after ‘Red Friday’ had warned that this was not the end and that the unions needed to prepare for ‘the final struggle’, in practice they did absolutely nothing to prepare for the inevitable General Strike.

The attitude of the trade union leaders was described by a historian of the General Strike, W H Crook, as being one of a ‘studied attitude of unpreparedness’, this he explains ‘had results upon the Labour forces in the actual struggle that were nothing short of disastrous.’ (W H Crook The General Strike)

Crook points out ‘common sense should have dictated some modicum of preparation.’

Here we must disagree with Professor Crook, the inactivity of the TUC leaders both of the left and right was not occasioned by a lack of common sense but by their reformist political positions.

They were quite simply incapable of leading a General Strike, in which the question of power, i.e. who runs the country, the working class or the capitalist class, is put point blank and carried out to a successful conclusion – the overthrow of the capitalist state and the institution of socialism.

A General Strike is but a small step from insurrection, which above all means seizing power.

Reformism, which merely seeks to work within capitalism and win what reforms for the workers as can be achieved without threatening the entire structure of private ownership, recoils in horror at the mere thought that the working class in the course of its struggle to maintain its living standards and rights will inevitably be forced to confront the issue of state power.

These reformists would rather see their members defeated than lead a struggle that could bring down a government and place power within the grasp of workers.

Just as in 1925, today’s reformist trade union leaders are prepared to accept any promises such as those contained in the Warwick Accord or the meaningless discussions with Prescott on pensions, in the full knowledge that they are worthless rather than prepare their members for the inevitable fight against this Government.

The true nature of reformism, both past and present, was starkly revealed years before the events of ‘Red Friday’.

In 1919 leaders of the Miners Federation, including its very left leader Robert Smillie, along with other representatives of the Triple Alliance met with the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

A general strike was very much the agenda for the meeting.

In his book ‘In Place of Fear’, the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan recounts the story of what was said at this meeting:

‘ “But if you do so (i.e., call a general strike)” went on Lloyd George, “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, 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 Robert Smillie, “we were beaten and we knew we were.” ’

The real lesson of all the history of momentous class struggles of this period is that the reformist leadership of the trade union will always be beaten when confronted with the question of power.

Only by replacing these craven reformists with a new, revolutionary leadership, can the working class and its trade unions go forward and advance society through the socialist revolution.