The 1919 rail strike – a reply

The last issue of RMT News contained a useful pull-out on the historic 1919 railway strike. It captured some of the excitement of the action and its success in beating back pay cuts. The strikers and their supporters are heroes of our history and deserve to be remembered and honoured.

However, I would like to offer a view that although the strike was a success in its own terms, seen in context it was a missed opportunity.

With the war over, working people began 1919 determined to fight for the ‘land fit for heroes’ that Prime Minister Lloyd George had promised but not delivered. Engineers led general strikes in Clydeside and Belfast, and rail workers formed a Triple Alliance with miners and transport workers.

The government feared that the unions could topple it. But while ministers made plans to fight their corner, union leaders instead allowed their battles to be pushed to later in the year.

The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) demanded an eight-hour working day. The government agreed, although the companies tried to nick back some of the time from workers, for example cancelling the previous five-minute handwashing break! London Underground tried to count its drivers’ thirty-minute meal break as additional to the eight-hour day, but five days into strike action in February, Tube bosses backed down.

Rail workers in Liverpool and London also wanted to strike, and NUR historian Philip Bagwell claims that General Secretary JH Thomas ‘had considerably difficulty in restraining the men.’ Thomas was an committed ‘constitutionalist’ who opposed militant action.

The rail workers had more demands that had not been met: enhanced overtime rates, fourteen days paid holiday and a role in running the railways. In March, the Railway Executive refused these demands, prompting the NUR’s Special General Meeting (SGM) to express its ‘utmost disgust’ and vote to ask the Triple Alliance to support a national strike.

But, along with the transport and miners’ union leaders, Thomas decided against a national strike. A further NUR SGM noted ‘progress in talks’, expecting further talks to bring further progress. But those talks dragged on for months, while the government prepared to defeat the inevitable strike but union leaders tried to avoid it.

Through the summer, rail workers threatened unofficial strikes. In August, the Railway Executive reached agreement with the Railway Clerks’ Association (forerunner of today’s TSSA) and ASLEF for wage rises for clerical workers and footplatemen (train drivers and firemen). Other grades wanted their wages to rise too, but instead the government proposed wage cuts.

In September the NUR issued a strike ultimatum, but its leaders still tried to reach a compromise that would avoid the strike. This did not succeed, and despite having reached its own deal over traincrew pay, ASLEF joined NUR in striking.

The government’s attempts to crush the strike were met by solid and popular resistance, and the action successfully stopped the pay cuts. 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.

However, the NUR and Transport Federation leaders had refused calls from bus, tram and dock workers to join the action, because they wanted to contain the dispute within the rail industry. Thomas was not worried that a wider strike could lose – he was worried that it would win, and that this would undermine the government!

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.

Although the strike was settled, a lot of issues had been referred to ongoing talks. Within weeks, NUR members were expressing concern. Some branches passed resolutions declaring that simply withdrawing wage cuts was not good enough; workers needed a wage rise.

By June 1920, NUR branches were angry at the government’s derisory pay offer of just two shillings a week and disappointed at their union’s agreement to it.

A heroic and powerful strike had fought off employers’ attacks, but its achievements were less than they might have been.

Further reading: ‘1919 – strikes, struggles and soviets’ by Janine Booth.

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