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The Great Unrest: How militant miners created a movement of the rank and file

In part two of this commemorative article, Dave Stockton looks at how the miners built the first rank and file trade union movement in the UK.


In Part one of this article, we looked at the work of Tom Mann in bringing many of the ideas of transatlantic and continental revolutionary trade unionism (syndicalism) to Britain, and linking the militancy and massive expansion of the unions here into a worldwide movement.

We saw too how syndicalism, with its doctrines of direct action and rank and file control, was a reaction to the bureaucratisation of the unions and the class collaboration of the leaders of the newly formed (1906) Labour Party.

In part two we look at the work of a group of young rank and file militants, mostly from South Wales, who were to become leaders of the Unrest and many of the struggles of the next 15 years – a highpoint of British working class history.


Cambrian Combine Strike

Wages and conditions in the mines had been deteriorating since 1907. The owners were trying simultaneously to boost production and drive down wages. Since wages were according to a complicated piece rate scale, miners in narrow or less productive seams struggled to support their families. The demand for a minimum wage began to be raised, though the employers bitterly resisted it. The year had seen a sharp recession when union leaders agreed to wage reductions. But by 1910 a recovery was underway, and naturally the employers resisted calls to restore wage levels.

The first major eruption of the Great Unrest took place in September 1910 in the South Wales Rhondda Valley coalfield. It was a dispute unparalleled in its length and intensity except for the miners’ lockout of 1926 and the Great Strike of 1984-85. Indeed it foreshadowed many of the features of these fierce class battles, sustained by the tight-knit mining communities, and initiated a tradition that continued until the destruction of the industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

The strike lasted from September 1910 to August 1911. It originated in a dispute at a pit owned by the Cambrian Combine over rates to be paid per tonnage when working in “abnormal places”. Twelve thousand miners walked out, rejecting a deal agreed by the established leadership of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) under William Abraham (1842-1922) – nicknamed “Mabon” (the Bard) on account of his powerful voice and skills as an orator.

As MP for Rhondda since 1885, Mabon incarnated the so-called Lib-Lab policy of standing miners’ candidates for parliament where they would sit as members of the Liberal Party. The Cambrian strike was thus a revolt against the traditional influence of the Liberal Party in the SWMF.

Indeed in 1909 the MFGB finally decided to join the new Labour Party. But with its 14 MPs, most, like Mabon, altering their politics not one bit and with the new party not challenging Liberals either in parliament or at the polls, its independence was largely formal. It proposed no “socialist measures”, and its leaders Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald made very few socialist speeches there either. This explains in large measure the anti-parliamentary bias of the syndicalists.

Unsurprisingly Mabon was ever ready to compromise with coal owners and was an advocate of submitting all disputes to conciliation boards. As a result miners’ wages had fallen by about 10 per cent since the opening of the new century. He was the very incarnation of the union policies and politics that the younger generation of miner activists were determined to oust.

In November nearly 30,000 miners in the Cambrian Combine were on strike in what proved a savage battle, with repeated fighting between strikers and an army of police brought in from other parts of Wales and London. In Tonypandy in early November, one striker was killed and around 500 injured after a mass picket failed to stop police from scab herding. A veritable local uprising ensued, with “rioters” selectively targeting the shops of local magistrates who had imposed harsh sentences on strikers.

After attempts at sabotage in the mines and mobbing of the mine managers and coal owners’ mansions, troops were sent to guard the pitheads by the Liberal Home Secretary Winston Churchill. As a result Churchill’s name remained covered with infamy in South Wales for the rest of his life.

The dispute was taken up and supported by a host of renowned militants of the syndicalist and socialist movement. Tom Mann was a regular speaker throughout the dispute, and Big Bill Haywood from the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) crossed the Atlantic to address packed meetings in the Rhondda, as did Antoinette Cauvin (also known as Citizen Sorgue) of the French syndicalist union the Confédération générale du travail (CGT). Active in several countries, she was known by the police as “Madame Trouble, Europe’s most dangerous woman.”

The dispute remained one led and organised by young local rank and file militants – not least because of the outright hostility of the ageing bureaucrats who headed the South Wales federation. For the same reason it attracted the enthusiastic support of the syndicalist, socialist and anarchist movements in Britain and indeed worldwide. Large sums were raised to keep the struggle alive.

But the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) under Enoch Edwards (a Liberal-Labour MP and Justice of the Peace) refused point blank to call a national strike. AJ Cook, then a young rank and file militant (27 years old), recalls in his memoirs a visit by four of the Federation’s top leaders to address the strikers:

“Their visit evoked a tremendous demonstration against the official leadership. When they reached Tonypandy they were met by thousands of strikers. With difficulty, surrounded by this seething mass of excited men, the four leaders made their way through the street to the meeting place, where the strike leaders were waiting for them. On their way they must have realised that what they had to deal with was a genuine popular revolt, not an artificial agitation kept alive by ‘rebel’ leaders in defiance of established authority…”

Eventually the leadership’s blocking of effective national solidarity action condemned the strike to isolation and final defeat in August of the following year. But the strike had organised and politicised miners throughout the coalfield and beyond and exposed the Welsh and national union leaders’ treachery.

Thus, though a bitter defeat for the Rhondda miners, the Cambrian Strike rapidly bore rich fruit because vital lessons were learned. Since an unofficial joint lodge committee effectively ran the strike, a true rank and file movement came into being, based on the militant lodges. ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ was a programme for this current, written by young miners who had been active in the strike.


The Miners’ Next Step

The pamphlet was issued by the “Unofficial Reform Committee”, a group of militants who were both syndicalists and revolutionary socialists – Noah Ablett, William Mainwaring, Noah Rees, Will Hay and AJ Cook. After considerable discussion and amendments, their collective labours were published in Tonypandy in early 1912.

It was an immediate sensation with The Times publishing parts of it and shocked reviews carried in many national and local papers. Here it seemed was the genuine voice not only of the new revolutionary syndicalists but (by middle class standards) of “uneducated” rank and file miners. AJ Cook described them in his autobiography:

“We who were regarded as the leaders of the rank and file were all young men, most of us unknown outside the Rhondda area. We were opposed not only to the established leaders, 1ike Mabon and Tom Richards, Alfred Onions, and others; we were also at odds with the national leaders of the miners – the late Enoch Edwards, then president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Thomas Ashton, its secretary, and other officers of the Federation.”

‘The Miners’ Next Step’ was a powerful polemical blast against the class collaborationist policies of Mabon and the entire leadership of the South Wales Miners Federation, and by implication that of the MFGB too. It demanded that “the old policy of identity of interest between employers and ourselves be abolished, and a policy of open hostility installed.”

It called for the and solidarity between all the miners’ lodges (branches) in disputes, the adoption of a unified strike policy by sovereign coalfield delegate conferences, the nationalisation of the mines and the ‘elimination’ of employers, with miners themselves managing the mines. It was thus one of the first proposals of what later became known as workers’ control of production. In so doing – though not explicitly – it suggested an alternative basis for society and transitional steps towards it. In this sense it anticipated the demands and approach discussed in the early years of the Communist International (1919-23).

It denounced the executive’s “conciliation policy” as failing to defend let alone increase miners’ wages, and hampering miners in any dispute by constantly delaying action, sometimes for years. It denounced the lack of knowledge available to miners due to business secrecy:

“They [the owners] alone have the inside information. We don’t audit their books, and we have no means of judging the truth of their assertions. They say the colliery won’t pay. We must accept their word.”

The Miners’ Next Step also denounced the fact that “conciliation gives the real power of the men into the hands of a few leaders”. Here it developed an initial understanding of the role of the trade union bureaucracy. It condemned them in very modern terms for undermining the workers’ initiative and creativity, stating that the power of such leaders “is based on the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being ‘the men’ or ‘the mob.’”

It said of the full-time officials that controlled the SWMF:

“First, they are ‘trade unionists by trade’ and their profession demands certain privileges. The greatest of all these are plenary powers. Now, every inroad the rank and file make on this privilege lessens the power and prestige of the leader. Can we wonder then that leaders are averse to change? Can we wonder that they try and prevent progress? ….The leader then has an interest – a vested interest – in stopping progress. They have therefore in some things an antagonism of interests with the rank and file.”

The answer was to exert control over the officials and indeed to deprive them of any power over the rank and file – to put control of the union into the hands of its members.

The pamphlet then set out those “means which will enable this new spirit of real democratic control to manifest itself. Which will not only enable the men, but which will encourage, nay compel them, to take the supreme control of their own organisation.”

It proposed a whole new Constitution for the SWMF to ensure rank and file control and prevent local or regional officials from acting as masters of the union:

• The administration of the organisation shall be vested in the hands of one central executive council, who shall be elected annually by ballot vote of the members. The method of election to be determined by a conference called for that purpose.

• No agent or other permanent official of the Federation, shall be eligible to a seat on the executive council.

• The president and vice president shall be elected by the executive council, from amongst its own members. No person shall hold the office of president for more than two years in succession.

• The Lodges have supreme control  – the executive becomes unofficial, i.e. officials are excluded from all power on the executive. Agents or organisers become the servants of the men.

Though the pamphlet advocated measures to prevent the miners’ members of the House of Commons, like Mabon, from controlling the union – they were to be banned from holding any official union positions and to be subject to recall by an elected rank and file executive – ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ was not anti-political as such. Indeed it had a section headed Political Action which said:

“That the organisation shall engage in political action, both local and national, on the basis of complete independence of, and hostility to all capitalist parties, with an avowed policy of wresting whatever advantage it can for the working class.”

It further explained that: “Political action must go on side by side with industrial action. Such measures as the Mines Bill, Workmen’s Compensation Acts, proposals for nationalising the mines, etc., demand the presence in Parliament of men who directly represent, and are amenable to, the wishes and instructions of the workmen. While the eagerness of governments to become a bludgeoning bully on behalf of the employers could be somewhat restrained by the presence of men who were prepared to act in a courageous fashion.”

In fact this perspective on politics had the weakness of nearly all syndicalist and socialist approaches before 1917 – it was unable to fuse the class struggle in industry with the use of elections and parliament into a combined revolutionary strategy for power. The Bolsheviks alone did this – opening the way for a transformation of the class struggle.


The Miners Strike of 1912

The strike of 1912 was the first national strike by coal miners in the UK and lasted some 137 days from the end of February to 6 April. Nearly one million miners took part.

In many ways the National Coal Strike of 1912 was a continuation of the issues raised in the Cambrian Strike and a result of the radicalisation and politicisation engendered by the strike. It centred on the variegated and unfair wage structures that had replaced the old ‘sliding scale’, tying wages to the selling price of coal. Instead there were local price-lists, agreed by the miners’ lodge and owner, with a further sum to be agreed by a conciliation board under an ‘independent’ chairman.

The resulting wage fluctuations meant a constant struggle for workers in these conditions. From this arose the demand passed at the MFGB conference in October 1911, which called for the union “to take immediate steps to secure an individual district minimum wage for all men and boys working in the mines… without any references to the places being abnormal”.

In a national ballot well over half the MFGB membership voted for a stoppage.

So severe were the implications of a national coal strike for both British industry and the Royal Navy, that Herbert Asquith’s government was quick to intervene directly in the negotiations. After the Cambrian dispute, the leaders of the MFGB felt the need to bring delegates from the coalfields into the discussions in London. One of them was AJ Cook, who records an exchange he had with Asquith himself:

“You do not know”, I said, “anything about the new spirit that is working in the coalfields. The miner today is better educated, and he is not content to remain a hewer of wood and drawer of water for the employing class. The younger men in the coalfields are not going to accept the conditions their fathers were willing to put up with, and in future you will be dealing with the real rank and file of the miners, not merely with their leaders in Parliament.”

The strike opened at Alfreton in Derbyshire at the end of February, and spread slowly as local notices expired. Miners left work in a holiday mood.

However, the government recruited a volunteer strikebreaking force, reinforced the police and mobilised the army towards the end of the strike. But unlike in the Cambrian Combine, strike major clashes were avoided. In fact it was the government which offered to draft a bill granting a minimum wage and rush it through parliament.

However the MFGB executive managed to snatch, if not quite defeat, then only partial gains from the jaws of victory. The Minimum Wage Act, while conceding the principle for which the Federation had fought, conceded also the employers’ demand for separate district settlements on the new minimum levels. Mass meetings in the coalfields showed large-scale opposition to the terms of the Bill. But, as ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ had described – and is still the case today – the leaders had the power to settle the dispute over their members’ heads. Thanks to them the owners robbed the miners of the full fruits of their victory.

In 1913 the programme of reform put to the SWMF federation conference was defeated.

Nevertheless, for the miners the struggles of 1910-1912 enormously strengthened the union, and in the years ahead a new generation of leaders, often leaders of the unofficial ranks and file movements, came to the fore like Cook did.

The tremendous struggles of these years are still an inspiration for a time when the building of a rank and file movement and the rebuilding of a militant and democratic union movement is a task of the highest order.



We can learn a lot from the ‘Miners’ Next Step’ and its goal of dissolving completely the power of the officialdom over the unions. In each union today it would be a great thing if militants gathered like Ablett and his comrades and drafted similar proposals linked to today’s needs and conditions.

It would be great too if they were permeated by the same spirit of anticapitalism and the goal of a society based on workers’ control and workers’ power.

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