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In this drawing police clash with a match girl's protest

7 biggest strikes in British history 

Cartoon from The Day's Doings, showing the police clashing with protesting match girls | Image: Public Domain

What is a strike?

A strike is when employees gather together in unison to withdraw their labour from employers. The mass refusal to work is often under the instruction of a trade union and in response to a variety of employee grievances, including poor pay and/or bad working conditions.

When was the first strike in history?

The earliest known strike occurred in Ancient Egypt in 1152 BC. Documented on a papyrus dating from that time, the strike happened when artisans of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina organised an uprising. The workers were upset about the quality and quantity of their rations, therefore they downed tools and protested their grievances to Pharaoh Ramesses III. The workers got their way after successful negotiations and immediately returned to work.

What is the history of strike action in the UK?

In the UK, strikes have taken place since the Medieval period, however, they became more commonplace during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, as mass labour in factories and mines took off. A collective consciousness developed over workers' rights, leading to the legalisation of the trade unions under the Trade Union Act of 1871. The unions were a way of protecting and advancing the working conditions and practices of British workers.

What are the biggest strikes in British history?

1. The Matchgirls’ Strike (1888)

Poor working conditions combined with long hours, bad pay and the risk of developing ‘phossy jaw’ – necrosis of the jaw bone caused by white phosphorus – meant that life was incredibly tough for those who worked in the matchstick-making industry during the late 19th century.

After one worker was dismissed from the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, London, in July 1888, some 1,400 workers (predominately women) staged a walkout. Within a couple of weeks, company bosses had agreed to reinstate the worker as well as offering the workers improvements in both pay and conditions.

2. The Great Unrest (1911 – 14)

Between 1911 and 1914, the country, along with Ireland, witnessed a series of mass strikes by a variety of industry workers from miners to tramway workers. Driven by falling wages and increased costs of goods, workers staged around 3,000 strikes during this period with many of them turning violent. The women’s suffrage movement, along with the Irish Nationalist Movement, were all taking place at the same time causing this period of British history to be one of great social upheaval.

Some of the most notable strikes during the Great Unrest included the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike, the Miners strike of 1910-11, the National coal strike of 1912 – the first national strike by miners - as well as the 1913 Dublin lock-out.

3. The Battle of George Square (1919)

A violent confrontation between police and workers took place in Glasgow, Scotland, just a few months after the Great War had ended.

With unemployment rising, due to the demobilisation of the military, trade union groups hoped to increase the number of jobs by reducing the number of working week hours. In response, strike action was called by those in the shipbuilding and engineering industries. The strike was centred on Glasgow’s George Square and it quickly turned ugly as rioting led to the deployment of armed troops (as well as tanks) to the local streets.

In the end, no one was killed and the workers secured a guaranteed 47-hour-week.

4. The General Strike (1926)

For nine days in 1926, around 1.7 million workers went on strike in the UK in what is often referred to as the biggest strike in British history. The General Strike of 1926 was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in an attempt to prevent wage and condition reductions for 1.2 million coal miners. In solidarity, workers from other industries went on strike leading to the loss of around 165 million working days.

The strike was called off after nine days with the TUC backing down. The miners were forced to accept the new working terms and returned to work to keep their income.

5. Miners’ Strike (1972)

The Miners’ Strike of 1972 was the first official strike miners had been on since the General Strike of 1926.

After negotiations over pay between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Edward Heath’s Conservative government broke down, a strike was called by NUM at the start of 1972. It plunged Britain into darkness and the government declared a state of emergency. Planned blackouts attempted to conserve the remaining energy reserves as Britons learned to live by candlelight.

Although a deal was eventually struck after a matter of weeks, rising inflation soon wiped out any monetary gains the workers had made. This led to further action in 1973 that forced the government to introduce a Three-Day Week to conserve coal stocks.

6. The Winter of Discontent (1979)

The winter of 1978/79 became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ as widespread strikes across multiple trade unions brought Britain to a standstill.

To tackle rising inflation, James Callaghan’s Labour government had imposed wage limits, much to the opposition of the TUC. Combined with the coldest winter in 16 years, workers up and down the country went on strike.

The widespread unrest led to the fall of the Labour government as the Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, returned to power via a landslide victory in the 1979 election. The Tories passed legislation that restricted the powers of the trade unions.

Miners’ Strike (1984 - 85)

During the early 1980s, cheap imports had led to the closure of many factories and coal pits, leaving unemployment at levels not seen for half a century. Further plans were made by Thatcher’s Tory government to cut the output of coal, an action that would lead to more job losses.

The NUM, headed by Arthur Scargill, decided to go on strike with a walkout at Cortonwood Colliery kicking things off on 6 March 1984. Controversially, the strike action had been called by NUM without a vote. As strikes began to erupt across the nation some turned violent, most notably at the Orgeave coke plant, near Rotherham, where strikers clashed with the police.

Prepared for the long fight, the government had already gathered significant stockpiles of coal. This allowed them the time to effectively starve the miners into submission.

By 1985, it was all over with the miners backing down and agreeing to return to work.