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, 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. J H 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 A J 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.