The Cabinet Papers banner

1920s Industrial relations

Trade union growth during the First World War

During the First World War trade unions became increasingly influential. The need for essential war materials meant workers could achieve higher wages and better conditions and were not afraid to go on strike. Trade unions also served on Whitley Councils who worked with the Ministry of Labour to organise production and solve (or prevent) disputes. Good relations between trade unions and government were vital during this period.

Post-war economic slump

After the war Britain suffered a major economic slump and industrial relations took a noticeable downturn. The staple industries like steel, coal, shipbuilding and textiles were hit the hardest. Strikes increased dramatically from 1918, culminating in 85 million working days lost in 1921. As Chancellor, Winston Churchill insisted Britain tie its currency to the gold standard. Although this helped protect the assets of the wealthy, it made British exports more expensive and damaged staple industries further.

The response of many employers in these industries was to cut wages, lengthen working hours or lay off workers altogether. Understandably, this increased strike action. Although there were also plenty of other disputes, including major strikes on the docks and in the railway industry, the most significant was the General Strike of 1926.

Mediation

The government worked hard to mediate in the major industrial disputes. Trade union leaders and employers were regularly in contact with the government, and industry leaders had meetings at 10 Downing Street in attempts to resolve issues.

As a general rule, the various governments of the 1920s were prepared to talk to trade union leaders. However, especially within Conservative governments, there were concerns that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was dangerously radical - or even revolutionary.

Industrial relations in the 1920s

In 1920 London dockers refused to load arms onto a ship destined to supply the anti-communist forces in Russia. In 1924 a self-confessed Syndicalist, A.J. Cook, became leader of the miners. In the same year, the Daily Mail published the Zinoviev letter that suggested Labour was in league with Russian Communists. The letter was a forgery.

All of these concerns were factors in the way industrial disputes came about and were resolved. There is little doubt that this was a difficult period for the workers and unions of the staple industries.