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General strikes

1842 general strike, New Cross ManchesterAlthough many people in the UK associate the term 'general strike' with the events of 1926, the term goes back much much further.

A general strike can be limited or expanded in a number of ways.

  • It can be limited to one industry.  So, the 1926 General Strike began as a coal dispute but expanded to involve other groups of workers through the intervention of the TUC General Council.
  • It can be defined by geography. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia that brought about its freedom from Soviet domination was the occasion for a four-day general strike.
  • It can be defined by objective.  It may begin with a limited tactical aim of say, a pay claim or recognition of trade union rights, but can change into something more revolutionary that challenges the authority of the state.  Such was the case with shipbuilders in Gdansk in Poland and the Solidarnosc movement.

One of the basic problems with general strikes is determining how ‘solid’ support for the strike is.  In the 1984-85 miners’ strike, even within the National Union of Mineworkers some Nottinghamshire miners did not support the strike.

Preparing for a strike is also important.  The political authority of a ballot of members, the accumulation of a strike fund, and the garnering of solidarity and support from as many sources as possible, including political parties, are all vital to its success.

The political establishment and the Right in particular see the general strike as a threat.  In 1926 Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin wrote ‘The general strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin’.

Historically the idea of a general strike can be traced back to Roman times, when the common people vacated the city of Rome when they had difficulty negotiating with the ruling class.

In the 19th Century, William Benbow advocated a Grand National Holiday or ‘sacred month’, as a part of a strategy to usher in a government more sympathetic to radical opinion.

In 1842, what were commonly called the Plug Plot riots (because the participants pulled the plugs out of the boilers for steam engines in the mills) escalated from local attempts to force employers to the negotiating table to a general strike that affected industrial areas from Scotland to South Wales. You can read a post about the role of the town of Stalybridge in the 1842 General Strike on the Library blog here.

More recently Rosa Luxemburg, a leading socialist revolutionary in the aftermath of World War One in Germany, wrote on how to organise within the context of a mass social general strike.

To read about the 1926 General Strike, click here.

Resources in the Library about general strikes pre-1926

Wiliam Benbow, Grand National Holiday and Congress of the productive classes (1977 reprint) - Shelfmark: D19

Ruth and Edmund Frow, The general strike in Salford in 1911 (1990) - Shelfmark: Q26

Harold Hikins, The Liverpool general transport strike 1911 (1961) - Shelfmark: AG Liverpool Box 1

Mick Jenkins, The general strike of 1842 (1980) - Shelfmark: D21

Heather Jordan, The 1842 general strike in South Wales (no date) Shelfmark: Periodicals - Our History Pamphlet 75

Mark Krantz, The 1842 general strike: Richard Pilling and the Lancashire Chartists (2014) - Shelfmark: AG Chartism Box 2

Rosa Luxemburg, The mass strike: the political party and the trade union (ca. 1920) - Shelfmark: AG Communism Box 3

Jack Tanner, The social general strike (1919) - Shelfmark: AG Strikes Box 1

To search the catalogue for more resources, click here