10 Jul 2014

Call that a strike? General strike of 1926 – and now

More than a million public sector workers strike – but last time, in 2011, the action was more a war of words over the turn-out than one of attrition. It wasn’t like that back in the day…

Trade unions say they have been “overwhelmed” by support as more than a million public sector workers – from teachers to firefighters – have downed tools in a bitter dispute with the government over pay, pensions, working conditions and jobs.

Council workers, including home helps, lollipop men, refuse collectors, and cleaners, have been striking alongside teachers; civil servants in jobcentres, passport centres and museums; firefighters, and administrative Transport for London staff.

Interactive map: the public sector strikes where you are

But the last time unions called for a “general strike” – in 2011 – the government branded it a “damp squib”. And despite large turn-outs for marches and some disruption, it is fair to say the country did not grind to a halt in quite the way many union bosses had predicted – or indeed, as it has in the past in major strikes, as you will see below.

Has Britain forgotten how to strike? It is hard to dispute the numbers: in 1926, 162 million working days were lost to the strike. In 1979, it was 29 million.

In 2012, the most recent statistics, it was just 250,000.

Are you on strike or on a march? Send us your pictures @channel4news or on Facebook 

In 1926, during what was widely agreed to be probably the biggest strike in Britain in memory, between 1.5 and 1.75 million people took part in industrial action.

It was sparked in solidarity for miners, who were asked to work longer hours for less money, but also included bus, rail and dock workers and people with jobs in printing, power, building, iron, steel and the chemical industries.

It had a huge impact: the transport networks were crippled, roads were choked, printing presses stopped, and, more importantly, food deliveries were affected.

In response, the army stepped in, and so did the upper classes (pictured), providing security, transport volunteers, food at Scotland Yard, and more. The government took things pretty seriously: even sending a warship to Newcastle.

But things were not all bad. The picture above shows an amicable football match which took place between a strikers’ football team and a police squad.

The strike lasted nine days, and was then called off without the miners achieving very much at all. The next year, the government passed an act banning sympathy strikes and mass picketing. It was later repealed, then re-introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Talking of Mrs Thatcher, it was a strike in 1978-79 – the “winter of discontent” – which in part led to her election. The strikes crippled the country, leaving rubbish on the streets in cities like London, coffins unburied in warehouses, and hospitals only able to cope with emergency patients.