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Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain, 1889-1966

Author(s):Church, Roy
Outram, Quentin
Reviewer(s):Wale, Judith

Published by EH.N ET (July 1999)

Roy Church and Quentin Outram, Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in

Britain, 1889-1966. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xx +

314 pp. $69.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-55460-8

Reviewed for EH.NET by Judith Wale, Warwick Business School, University of

Warwick, UK.

The British economy was dependent in the extreme on its coal industry as a

source of fuel for all but the final decade of the period covered by this book.

Exports, moreover,

comprised a significant proportion of output throughout the earlier part of

the period and especially before 1913. The numbers employed in coalmining rose

from around 620,000 in 1890 to almost 1.1 million in 1913, before peaking at

1.25 million in 1920.

Employment levels had fallen to 780,000 by 1938, a figure never again reached,

but were still over 700,000 in 1957, though they then dropped to around 450,000

by the final year covered by this study, 1966. The size of the industry alone

justifies this new

look at the high strike propensity of the industry by Roy Church (University

of East Anglia, UK) and Quentin Outram

(University of Leeds, UK), who have both previously published extensively on

coal. An important benefit of the long period they examine is

their coverage of both the pre-1947 era of private ownership of coal

production,

when the industry was fragmented operationally among several hundred

independent enterprises, and the post-1947 era of nationalization of production

under a single National

Coal Board. The book encompasses a wide-ranging survey of existing literature

not only on coal but also on strikes and industrial conflict more generally, as

evidenced by the extensive bibliography. In building on earlier work and

developing new approaches, Church and Outram are purposefully

interdisciplinary, not only combining quantitative and qualitative methods as

historians, but also bringing together theoretical concepts in industrial

relations and actual practices as handled by labor historians. One innovation

of the book is its concentration on strikes at the local level, mostly at the

level of the colliery, in contrast to earlier tendencies to focus on nationwide

or at least coalfield-wide strike activity. In consequence, though the long

national strikes of 1912 and 1926 receive appropriate attention, it is not the

well-studied causes of these strikes but the hitherto little-understood factors

behind the large numbers of local strikes which form the main subject of this

book. Data on the number

of strikes were collected annually by the government from 1889; these provide a

firm foundation for the study of strike patterns and causation. The key

question which Church and Outram seek to answer is why some collieries or

localities were so markedly more strike-prone than others and why, in an

industry notably strike-prone by UK standards, some localities were virtually

strike-free. In attempting to provide answers, the strikes are examined not

only as conflicts between workers and employers, but also

as instances of co-operation among workers.

This co-operation is the “solidarity” of the book’s title.

After setting out their objectives and methodology in the first chapter,

Church and Outram spend three chapters setting the context of the strikes,

providing an incisive and fresh analysis of the organization of the coal

industry, as well as of relations between employers and employed together with

their respective attitudes and outlook. There is much here to interest the

historian of business and management, since the functions and attributes of

the “coalowners” – the owners and senior managers of the colliery operating

companies down to 1947 – are examined in depth. Chapters 5 to 9 form the core

of the book. Analysis of strike activity leads to the perhaps surprising

conclusion, given the reputation of British miners for militancy, that local

strike action frequently recruited few followers; in other words, solidarity

was often limited. The precise nature of solidarity in this context is then

investigated. Turning to the causes of the enormous variation in strike

activity, Church and Outram test the frequently stated hypothesis that high

strike activity arises from the crowding together of miners in isolated

communities (in which many, though by no means all, of them lived). The

results partly substantiate this hypothesis, but also suggest that the massing

of miners in their workplace — underground or on the surface at larger mines

– as well as in the wider community was an important factor in increased

strike propensity. Interpretation of the size effect of mines is however

difficult, since it is not clear whether the relevant factor is the overall

size of the workforce or the larger number of separate work groups which a

larger mine will contain.

There is some evidence that solidarity arose within groups of miners working

together,

such as teams extracting coal on an advancing longwall face. At the end of

chapter 9 Church and Outram find that they have partially explained variations

in strike propensity, but that they must also seek causes other than the

structural ones so far examined. Accordingly in chapter 10 they investigate

statistically the types of local organization and policies of both management

and trade unions for their impact on the

level of strike activity. Certain characteristics on both sides which tended

towards higher levels are identified, but the mechanisms which linked the

characteristics to actual strike outbreaks remain somewhat obscure. Still

unexplained is the fact that collieries apparently alike in structural and

organizational respects could vary markedly in strike activity. Chapter 11,

which attempts to explain this fact, is however the one weak section of the

book. It compares for the interwar period nine pairs of neighboring

collieries

(representing seven major coalfields) which have been matched for similar

structures. Within each pair one colliery was notably strike-prone and the

other notably strike-free. The problem is that, while Church and Outram admit

to a shortage of information on some pairs, they nevertheless draw conclusions

on the attitudes of managers and miners which are not justified, given the lack

of essential details or lack of a coherent story of events over time. (This is

not to say that their conclusions are necessarily wrong.) Though the evidence

for many collieries is fragmented,

further archival research on company records should reveal data which would

allow additional and more accurate pairing of collieries and hence better

substantiated conclusions.

The issue of continuity and change before and after nationalization in 1947 is

raised in chapter 12. Change of ownership seems to have had remarkably little

effect on labor relations, with the high level of local strikes which began in

the late 1930s persisting through to the mid-1960s. The forces of continuity

at the colliery level appear to have been strong. The same combination of

structural and organizational factors with the occurrence of particular events

is needed both before and after nationalization to explain variations in

strike propensity. Chapter 13 makes a valiant attempt to draw comparisons with

coalmining strikes in France, Germany and the United States. The attempt is

however, as Church and Outram admit, largely defeated by

the inadequacy of the statistical base, though they tentatively conclude that

the British experience was exceptional. In the final chapter, entitled “Myths

and Realities,” they emphasize that some of the conclusions they have reached

challenge received views regarding coalmining strikes and so-called militancy

of miners. This book, despite one significant drawback, should be read with

benefit by a wide range of economic, social and cultural historians.

Judith Wale’s current project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is entitled:

“Management Strategies and Business Performance in the British Coal Industry,

1914-1946.”

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative