The great divide

The TUC's surrender in 1926 was followed by years of mass unemployment and poverty pay. Mary Davis e

The greatest significance of the 1926 General Strike lies not in its duration or success, but in the fact that it posed the strongest challenge in the 20th century to the power of capitalism and, by implication, to the labourist ideology that had always shrunk from such confrontation. Why did the government choose that moment to assert the full power of the state to crush the labour movement, rather than resorting to its traditional strategy of divide and rule? The mountain of evidence provides no easy answer, but it is clear that the Conservatives' strategy was based on an understanding of the weakness rather than the strength of British capitalism in the inter-war years.

Even though trade unionism was much weaker in membership terms in the 1920s than it had been around the time of the First World War, the militant trend, led mostly by communists, was still power- ful enough to block the restructuring of British capitalism. This restructuring could only be accomplished at the expense of workers in the staple industries, of which mining was key. British coal mining, which accounted for a sixth of the male labour force, was the strongest and best organised industry in trade union terms. Miners thus bore the brunt of the employers' postwar offensive. Their defeat was essential if a new climate of industrial relations was to be made to stick. A victory for the labour movement at the weakest point of capital formation - the coal industry - would reverberate far wider than that industry, particularly when the weakness of British capital as a whole stood in sharp contrast to the development of socialism in Soviet Russia. Hence the fight of the miners, and the widespread solidarity that it attracted, were represented in Tory propaganda as a challenge not just to the coal owners, but to civil society itself. The government's intelligence sources informed it that, given the effect of mass unemployment in sapping the strength of the trade unions, this was as good a time as any to tame the labour movement once and for all.

The TUC's surrender brought a crushing defeat for the mass movement, from which it took at least a decade to recover. Trade union funds dropped by £4m by the end of 1926 and membership fell by over half a million in 1927 alone. Capitalising on its victory, the government was punitive. The lesson the TUC learned from the General Strike was that class warfare was over and capitalism was here to stay. Walter Citrine, then general secretary of the TUC, argued that "trade unionism has reached the end of a defensive stage in its evolution" - "Mondism", the 1920s version of "partnership", was the result.

The period of industrial restructuring and mass unemployment that followed had a huge impact on all workers. What has often been overlooked, however, is the extent to which women suffered. The number of women trade unionists in 1920 (nearly 1.5 million, 25 per cent of the total female workforce) dropped to just half a million by 1939, even though the percentage of women in the total workforce had risen (from 27 per cent in 1923 to 30 per cent in 1939). This bleak statistic has to be placed in the context of the overall decline in membership, but there were specific factors that affected women. Chief among these were the attitudes of the unions themselves. Given high unemployment, cost-cutting and a reversion to sectionalist attitudes by the unions, women workers were perceived as a threat. Their employment was rising at the expense - or so it was thought - of that of men.

This provoked two contradictory attitudes on the part of the male leaders, both motivated by self-interest rather than the interests of women. On the one hand, many unions that organised in industries with a high percentage of women workers (for example, the shop workers' union Usdaw, teachers' union NUT and government workers' association Nalgo) sought to limit the employment of women by calling for a strict application of the marriage bar, or the introduction of one. Almost all of them refused to campaign or shelved demands for equal pay and instead pursued wage claims that increased the differentials between men and women. Some, like the post office workers' union in 1935, went even further and called for a halt to female employment altogether. In these ways, many of the unions contributed significantly to the problem they thought they were addressing - namely the use of women as cheap labour in a time of recession and high unemployment.

On the other hand, the worrying direction of overall trade union membership was a problem that might be redressed if only women could be persuaded to swell the declining ranks and boost the depleted coffers. Thus, at the same time as pursuing negative policies on the employment of women, individual unions and the TUC were actively involved in recruitment campaigns. To its credit, the TUC did at least recognise that women were less likely to be used as a source of cheap labour if they were unionised. It had established, in 1925, its own Women's Conference, and later, in 1930, initiated a Women Workers' Group (later known as the Women's Advisory Committee) to assist the general council to tackle the "problem" of women. The Women's Committee was left to launch a series of recruitment campaigns, which proposed, sensibly, to increase the involvement of women by establishing local women's committees. Such committees would themselves campaign around the issues of most concern to women workers and would thereby assist in recruitment.

These efforts were greeted with solid indifference. In response to this failure, the general council stepped in with its own remedy, first in 1937 and again in 1939. It launched two campaigns, both based on the assumption that trade unionism would attract women if it appealed to them on the basis of such "womanly" issues as personal health and beauty. Trade unionism, according to a special leaflet adorned with a radiant-looking female clad in a swimming costume, was the "ticket" to health and beauty, presumably because the improved wages secured by unions could be used to buy cosmetics and other adornments.

Apart from grossly insulting women's intelligence, such male-designed campaigns were an abject failure, as the membership figures showed (though that didn't stop the TUC trying similar tactics in later years). Then, as now, women workers needed to be convinced of the tangible benefits of trade unions on the issues of most concern to them as workers rather than as putative beauty queens. Today's trade union women still face attitude problems but, in contrast to the inter-war years, their position in the labour movement is more assured: women now account for half of the labour force and their membership of trade unions is rising, albeit slowly. Department for Trade and Industry figures show that, while the number of male trade union members fell by around 48,000 in 2003, women's membership rose by around 37,000. In these circumstances, the voice of women trade unionists, although sometimes marginalised, cannot be ignored, especially when there is unity of purpose around an agenda for working women. Self-organised women trade unionists are mobilising and campaigning around the Charter for Women, an agenda that brings together the policies of the TUC women's conference and wider feminist demands.

In the aftermath of the General Strike male and female workers were divided, to the detriment of both. Today's women trade unionists are determined to ensure that job security and decent pay are not won at the expense of equality. Such a strategy did not work in the wake of the General Strike; nor will it work 80 years on.

Mary Davis is professor of labour history and head of the Centre for Trade Union Studies, Working Lives Research Institute, at London Metropolitan University. She is an elected member of the TUC Women's Committee and serves on the NEC of the University and College Union

This article first appeared in the 11 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, It must be Gordon, Gordon, Gordon