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Strike build up

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This film from 1910 criticises the inequality and unfairness that existed in the British coal mining industry.
©British Film Institute

Full transcript of the film "A day in the life of a coal miner"

Duration: 0:09:36

Text slide: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A COAL MINER - KINETO LTD
Text slide: BY COURTESY OF THE LONDON AND NORTH WESTERN RAILWAY
A miner leaves his house, kisses this young daughter and waves goodbye to his wife, son and daughter.

Text slide: THE PIT HEAD
Mine shaft with smoke coming from chimney. 2 women dressed in hooded rain coats pushing a trolley of coal.

Text slide: LOCKING THE LAMPS
3 miners. 1 is leaning over a machine and locking lamps, another stands watching, another sits.  We now see a line of miners with lamps signing in at a window and walking out of view.

Text slide: MINERS DESCENDING
Inside of mine shaft and several miners climbing into the shaft with their lamps.  Man walks past them then the shaft is sent down into the mine

Text slide: WORKING THE COAL FACE
Miners mine the pit with a pick axes. A trolley is loaded up with coal and pushed away

Text slide: THE COAL SHAFT. 4 & 9 TUB CAGES.
The trolleys are unloaded and replaced with empty ones that are send back down to the pit. The trolleys are emptied.

Text slide: SCENES AT THE PIT'S MOUTH
Text slide: HOISTING THE WASTE
We see the outside of the mine the shaft going up and down taking the trolleys of coal

Text slide: BELLES OF THE (BLACK) DIAMOND FIELD
We see a large group of women all dressed with scarves around their heads and long dresses lining up in 2 rows looking at the camera, they are smiling and laughing

Text slide: FEMALE INDUSTRY
We see these women pushing the empty trolleys along tracks

Text slide: LOADING WOODEN PROPS
Women load tree trunks onto a trolley

Text slide: SORTING, SCREENING AND LOADING
Several women sort through the coal and it is put into trolleys. Women stand on top of the trolleys and level them out

Text slide: COAL TRAINS LEAVING
Rows of train trucks full of coal, another row of trucks moves along the tracks with a stream train pushing them and smoke billowing

Text slide: BACK TO DAYLIGHT
The mine shaft comes back up and the miners come out

Text slide: PAY TIME
A line of miners receive their pay some count it as they leave

Text slide: LIGHT AFTER DARKNESS
The miner from the first scene returns home. His small daughter runs out of house to greet her father. They go in house with mother

Text slide: A COSY FIRESIDE
Inside a wealthy home. A man sits next to a large fireplace reading the paper, with his wife and young daughter, while a maid lights the fire and leaves. The little girl goes to the fire and warms her hands then sits with her mother. The man moves his chair right in front of the fireplace and continues reading the paper.

During the First World War the coal industry was nationalised by the government. Coal was at the heart of British industry and was even more important than other energy sources - such as electricity and petrol - that emerged in the 1920s. This was the reason government took-over the mines during the war.

Under government control, wages, hours and safety improved, and at the end of the war miners wanted to retain the status quo. Sir John Sankey led a Commission to investigate this issue, and recommended that nationalisation should continue. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, refused; the mine owners were influential and powerful and he wanted to avoid taking control of an industry facing serious conflict. Lloyd George returned the mines to the mine owners in 1921.

Mine owners' demands

Conditions in the coal mining industry were very hard indeed, and partly due to this, mineworkers were some of the most heavily unionised and most militant workers.

In the aftermath of the First World War the coal industry was under pressure from foreign competition. As a result, in 1920, mine owners demanded cuts in wages and an extended working day stating that the alternative would be complete closure of the least economically viable pits. The miners refused to accept these measures.

Black Friday

A further cause of tension was the threat of the mine owners to impose pay cuts and increase working hours when the coalmines were returned to private ownership and out of government control on 31 March 1921. The miners were told they had to accept the new conditions or lose their jobs. They called on the railwaymen and transport workers to join them in a strike starting on 15 April 1921. Together these three unions formed the Triple Alliance.

The railwaymen and transport workers felt that the miners had not tried hard enough to negotiate. On the day the strike was supposed to begin they withdrew their support. This became known as 'Black Friday', and although the miners continued with a bitter strike they were eventually forced back to work after accepting a wage cut.

Tensions increase

On 30 June 1925, with one month's notice, the mine owners announced that existing working conditions would end. A new demand was made, involving a further cut in wages and an extra hour on the working day. However, the new miners' leader, A.J. Cook, was firm in his view that they would accept 'Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day'.

A lockout seemed likely, but this time the Triple Alliance held together, threatening a complete embargo on all production or movement of coal, which would have brought the country to a halt. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) wanted to help the miners, but also wanted to involve the government in the dispute in the hope government involvement would bring a lasting settlement.

Red Friday

The Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, agreed to pay mine owners a subsidy which would avoid the wage cut for miners. This success became known as 'Red Friday'. However, the agreement was only for 9 months and the government took no responsibility for running the mines. It seemed that conflict would arise again once the subsidy ended. Baldwin was buying time. He set up the Samuel Commission to study the coal industry and report back. He also set up the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) in 1925. This established a force of volunteers to drive public transport in the event of a strike. The OMS also set up stores of food and fuel.

Economic downturn

Ernest Bevin as a union leader, two years before he helped to found the Transport and General Workers' Union.
Ernest Bevin as a union leader, two years before he helped to found the Transport and General Workers' Union.
©TopFoto

Between 1921 and 1925 relations between Labour and the trade union movement, and government and employers got steadily worse. Many areas of British industry were going through a disastrous slump, and during the war British industry had lost many of its old markets to American and Japanese competition. The industries that were particularly hard hit were the old 'staple' industries - shipbuilding, coal and textiles. These industries relied heavily on export markets that were disappearing fast.

From the unions' point of view, the staple industries were large-scale employers, which made a bad situation for the miners even worse. Employers were trying to cut costs, starting with wages. Dockers, railway workers, builders and many others all had to take wage cuts, and to defend their members, unions drew closer together. In 1921 Ernest Bevin, the leader of the powerful Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), convinced the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to create a General Council (TUC). Its role was to coordinate a major strike if this became necessary.

In 1925 Britain returned to the gold standard. This was a way of protecting the value of the pound against foreign currency, particularly the dollar. However, it depressed the economy and made British exports more expensive, which in turn, made the rising unemployment of the 1920s worse.

The Samuel Commission of 1926

Throughout 1925 and 1926 tension increased with government and the mine owners on one side and the unions on the other. In March 1926 a Royal Commission headed by Sir Herbert Samuel recommended small wage cuts, but not longer hours. These recommendations were not acceptable to the miners or the employers. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Council (TUC) threatened a strike of key workers on 4 May. 

Printers at the Daily Mail newspaper refused to print a leading article criticising the Trades Union Congress (TUC). For the government, this action was unacceptable. All attempts at negotiation were broken off and the General Strike began on 4 May. The coal mine owners declared all strikers were locked out - and out of a job.