On August 31 1915, a strike by some 32,000 miners in South Wales came to a formal end, bringing to a close a summer of discontent in the region’s collieries that had shaken the nation to its core.
Back in March, the Asquith government had finalised the Treasury Agreement with a significant majority of British unions, a move that helped mobilise the economy for modern warfare and transformed the nation’s industrial relations. While it calmed controversy over ‘diluted’ labour, the Agreement still left room for pay disputes – and in particular for a long-running dispute between miners and employers in South Wales.
Details aren’t my business here. They can be looked up, as can opinions stating that the miners were greedy and arguments that the employers were greedy. My view is that the miners, working to archaic pay agreements and hard hit by spiralling living costs, were quite justified in demanding incremental pay increases, and that mine owners were unlikely to suffer much hardship as a consequence – but that’s just emotion talking and beside the point. The point is that 250,000 miners in South Wales went on strike in mid-July, defying an ill-judged government attempt to apply the Munitions Act, which rendered the strike illegal and the miners liable to arrest.
Because South Wales was the chief supplier of coal to the Navy, political mayhem erupted when the strike began on 14 July, and for the same reason the government didn’t let it last long. A high-powered delegation led by Lloyd George, without question the minister most qualified and able to parley with socialist-leaning Welsh miners on a mission, caved in to most of the miners’ demands in Cardiff on 19 July, and work resumed next day. The strike had cost an estimated million tons of coal output, outraged right-wing opinion and taught the government the limits of its power to dictate labour relations… or almost.
A few weeks later, the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman – no political ally of Lloyd George – sparked a second, smaller strike over his interpretation of the July agreement. Some 32,000 miners struck, and the government was again obliged to concede to their demands before the strike ended on the last day of the month.
That return to work did mark the sea change in industrial relations that the government had hoped would take place in March. For the rest of the year strikes in Britain were uniformly small affairs, and the overall number days lost to strikes in 1915 came out lower than at any time since 1910. The downward trend would continue through 1916, and not rise again until the last year of the war.
So yes, as the heritage story goes, the British government and labour force did get together to create a modern war economy during the Great War – but it wasn’t just a matter of mutual wisdom and patriotic handshakes all round. To make mutual compromise between employers and workers equitable and sustainable, some British citizens had to fight for their share and hold the nation to ransom.