A brief history of strike action
From striking feltmakers in the 17th century to the miners’ strike of 1984–85, Professor Keith Laybourn charts the history of industrial action and explores the punishment faced by striking workers…
What is strike action?
A strike is a withdrawal of labour by a worker, often under the instruction of a trade union.
It needs to be distinguished from a lockout, which is when an employer imposes new conditions of work upon his or her employees as a condition of them continuing in employment. This distinction becomes clear with the General Strike of 1926. In that case, the calling of a General Strike was the decision of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), with the permission of trade unions, to support the coal miners, who had been locked out by the coal owners, who were trying to reduce the pay and increase the hours of workers.
In other words, there was a General Strike in support of miners who had been locked out. The General Strike lasted nine days, from one minute to midnight on 3 May 1926 to 12.20pm on 12 May 1926.
When was the first strike action?
For as long as people have been in employment, there have been strikes. Indeed, there were strikes in ancient Egypt. In what is now the United Kingdom, there were withdrawals of labour in the medieval and early modern periods, although these were organised by small groups of craft workers in contravention of legislation such as the Statute of Artificers (1563), whereby justices had the right to fix the wages of both the artisan and the labourers.
Between 1696 to the 1720s, the Journeymen of Feltmakers negotiated with their employers and occasionally called strikes, and the London tailors did much the same from the 1720s – although the Combination Acts, which prevented workers combining in a trade union, prohibited such action and wages were fixed by statute.
In 1715, the woollen weavers struck against an attempt to impose a factory system to their work. And the West Country weavers struck in 1764 when threatened with wage reductions. Indeed, it has been estimated that there were more than 300 strikes between the 1720s and the 1790s, even though workers in about 80 trades were individually faced with a Combination Act which banned workers from combining in unions. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 merely gathered these acts together in a general attack upon combination of workers.
What was the biggest strike in history?
This is difficult to assess, but on the definition of days lost to strikes and the number of workers involved, this would – in Britain at least – have been the General Strike of 1926.
This was when the Trades Union Congress (TUC) brought the members of six transport and communication unions, such as the National Union of Railwaymen and the Amalgamated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, out in support of the miners who had been locked out. The miners were led by Arthur J Cook and Herbert Smith, who famously resisted the coal owners with the catchy phrase: “Not a Penny off the Pay, Not a Minute on the Day.”
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It is possible that some of the locked-out figures appear in the final number, but in 1926, some 2,750,000 workers were on strike, costing the nation 162,230,000 days lost. Assuming the figures include those on the General Strike and the miners who were locked out, this suggests that about 2,550,000 people were not working because of this dispute, and that around 92 per cent of the days lost on strike were down to the General Strike and the coal lockout. This compares with a total of 7,952,000 days lost to strikes in 1925 and 1,174,000 days lost in 1927.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, the days lost to strikes since 2012 have normally been less than two million a year.
Historically, why have strike actions taken place?
Strikes have usually taken place over the issue of pay or the conditions of work. In periods of depression there have tended to be fewer but longer strikes, which have often been unsuccessful. Conversely, in prosperous periods there have tended to be more strikes which have been shorter but more successful. In Britain, in the decade before the First World War, strikes were generally less successful between 1904 and 1909, when there was a depression, but much more successful from 1910 to the First World War, when conditions improved. This latter period saw a number of successful transport and mining strikes.
Since the Second World War there have also been changes in strikes which are not necessarily related to an economic cycle. Trade unions in Britain were frequently involved in strikes from 1945 onwards, but since 1979, with the introduction of acts designed to restrict trade union rights, such as those calling for majority ballots from a vote of more than half of the trade union members, trade union membership has declined – from 13 million to 6.5 million. The number of strikes and the number of days lost have also been low, particularly since the 1990s.
But, as is evident in recent disputes, the primary issue remains pay and conditions, although the protection of jobs occasionally emerges as a priority.
Listen: Mark Crail answers key questions about the history of Britain’s trade union movement and the fight for workers’ rights, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
Is strike action a breach of contract?
In Britain, strike action is invariably a breach of contract. However, over the past two centuries this has been dealt with in different ways by the law. In the 18th century, the Combination Acts in certain professions made trade unions (or combined action, and thus also strikes), illegal. This was re-asserted at the national level with the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800.
Since the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825, trade unions have not been illegal so long as the rules about striking are observed. For instance, the Master and Servant Act of 1867 made the strike a criminal offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to a maximum of three months, unless the employer was given seven days’ notice of an impending strike. Note that an employer could dismiss a worker without giving any notice at all. A worker striking without notice was committing a criminal offence, while the dismissal of an employee without notice was considered to be only a civil offence. After 1875, both were subject to civil action only.
Today, trade unions are supposed to hold a ballot in which more than half their members must vote, with a majority voting for strike action before a strike can be called. There is variation in this because the ballot could be of the whole union or apply only to individual branches. But even if a strike were legally called, it would still be a breach of contract. If a strike were called without a ballot, then it would be in breach of contract and also illegal and subject to fines.
Furthermore, an action leading to a strike might be deemed illegal under legislation introduced by the Thatcher and Major governments, if it was designed to establish a “closed shop” in which only members of a particular union could work.
In the early 1980s, Eddie Shah and the National Graphical Association (NGA) came into conflict over the latter’s attempt to force a “closed shop” at Shah’s Warrington printing works by mass picketing. Shah sought an injunction against the union, and subsequently the union was fined £50,000 for contempt of court. Later, the court imposed another fine, for £100,000, and the union assets were sequestered. The union attempted to ignore these actions and continued with violent picketing. It was thus fined a further £150,000 and £375,000.
In response, the NGA made the strike against Shah’s work into a national newspaper strike for 24 December 1983, but this was declared unlawful by the High Court. In the end, the NGA was forced to admit defeat and to purge its contempt in order to unfreeze its assets.
What are the biggest strikes in recent history?
As mentioned above, the General Strike of 1926 was probably one of the biggest in history. Other examples of some of the biggest and most bitter strikes in Britain include the miners’ strike of 1972; the strikes in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978–89; and the miners’ strike of 1984–85.
Miners’ strike of 1972
In the case of the miners’ strike of 1972, it is essential to remember that it was called in the context of the Edward Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which created the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC). The NIRC could examine strikes (and intended strikes) and ask the secretary for employment to impose a ‘cooling-off period’ in industrial disputes. It could also require a ballot where strike action would be “a serious threat to the country”, as defined by the government of the day. The NIRC could also impose fines of £5,000 to £100,000 on unions who undertook “unfair industrial practices” such as “closed shop”, where a trade union wanted all workers to be in their union.
Part of the Act was also designed to tackle the problem of unofficial strikes, of which there had been hundreds. The legislation was contentious and led to many conflicts and substantial resistance. It is in this context that, in January and February 1972, the miners called their first official strike since 1926.
Their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), asked for an increase of £9 per for week for underground workers, £8 for surface workers, and £5 for face workers. The coal board replied with an offer of £1.75 per hour (8 per cent) on all basic rates. Arthur Scargill, who a decade later led the miners’ strike of 1984–85, organised an unofficial committee in Barnsley and masterminded action that led to the closure of the Saltley fuel storage depot in Birmingham, where considerable violence occurred between the police and the pickets.
A nationwide state of emergency ensued; a million workers were laid off; and a three-day week was established because of the lack of coal and to preserve stocks. Lord Wilberforce was asked to head a Court of Inquiry into the miners’ claims – offering £6 per week for underground workers, £5 for surface workers, and £4.50 for face workers – and direct discussions with the prime minister secured further gains for the union.
The Winter of Discontent
In the winter of 1978–79, a wave of strikes erupted across Britain as workers rejected the Labour government’s attempt to impose wage limits in the face of rising inflation. Read about the Winter of Discontent here
The miners’ strike of 1984–85
The miners’ strike of 1984–85 began after the National Coal Board made an offer of 5.2 per cent increase on wages in October 1983, which was rejected by the NUM. The NCB threatened to reduce coal output and it was rumoured that they had a list of pit closures. Spontaneous strike action occurred at Cortonwood colliery, which led to a strike from 9 March 1984. There was no vote on the strike, and NUM president Arthur Scargill and the NUM sent ‘flying pickets’ around the country by car and coach, to different coalfields, to ensure that it became a national strike.
There was mass picketing and violence, notably at Ollerton Colliery in Nottinghamshire, where a striker on picket duty was crushed to death in the melee, and at Orgeave coke plant, where there were clashes between the mounted police and the pickets.
There were many twists and turns in which the High Court gave the National Coal Board an injunction against the ‘flying pickets’. Various districts of the NUM were fined for contempt of court. Eventually the strike ended in an ill-organised manner and without any settlement when a special delegate conference of the mineworkers decided to return to work without agreement on 3 March 1985. The miners had, effectively, been starved into submission.
Keith Laybourn is a specialist in the labour history of the first half of the 20th century. He is Diamond Jubilee Professor Emeritus and President of the Society for the Study of Labour History at the University of Huddersfield. He has written or edited more than 50 books and more than twice as many journal articles