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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Forgotten National Railway Strike, 1911 - Part 3

With the strike over, railway workers all over the country went back to work with the promise of a Royal Commission to look into the working of the conciliation boards and the whole process of collective bargaining. The Royal Commission met in September and received evidence from all sides of the debate. The Railway managers approached the matter in different ways, from acceptance of the union position in the industry, like the case of the Sir George Gibb of the North Eastern Railway, to the obstinacy and inflexibility of Lord Claud Hamilton, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway. These two individuals were, however, unique and most railway managers took the middle ground of not wanting to recognise the unions and trying to maintain direct communication between them and the workers in matters of discipline. The commission also received evidence from railway workers, who naturally complained about the conciliation boards, and argued for their dissolution with a formal recognition of the unions.[1]

The result of the Royal Commission was only a slightly revised conciliation and arbitration scheme. Firstly, it widened the number of topics that could be discussed. Whereas before, possible discussions were limited to hours of work and wages, the new scheme also allowed for matters of employment conditions to be tabled at the sectional boards. However, with an eye to protecting the companies’ right to discipline its own staff, the commission explicitly excluded these matters being brought up. The commission also allowed that the members of each of the board could elect a secretary from any source, even if the individual was a union official or not working within the company. This allowed the union to be involved with negotiations, but without them being formally being acknowledged by the companies.

Yet naturally, these changes did not go far enough for unions and they approached the companies’ management about altering the scheme further. Not surprisingly, the railway managers refused to see them. [2] In response the unions balloted their members about their opinion of the new conciliation scheme and the possibility of further strike action. Overwhelmingly, the railway workers of Britain voted against the royal commission’s revised conciliation scheme, and for further strike action. Faced with such opposition, and the threat of the country grinding to a halt again, the companies met union representatives in December and agreed a slightly revised plan. [3]

On top of the commission’s changes, the format of the forum for discussion was slightly changed. The 1907 scheme introduced sectional boards which contained elected representatives of both the staff and management from the relevant department. If a matter could not be decided at that level, it would go up to a general board, made up of equal numbers of staff and management, and if that did not succeed at hammering out a deal, the matter would be referred to arbitration. The altered scheme removed the general boards and moved the ‘impartial’ chairman to the sectional board. If the board could not decide on a decision, his word would be final and binding. Overall, the scheme was a quicker one, but as Pollins argued, it meant that the grades were more isolated, which in turn separated the unions.[4]

Naturally, the railway companies felt that they had given up a lot of ground. Indeed, they continued to oppose the scheme. Further, official recognition of the unions was a long way off, and the most that could be said is that Union officials could assist the workers in the capacity of secretary if they were elected. Thus, the union’s gains were small, and railwaymen remained disgruntled by their lack of bargaining power within the industry. As a result in 1913 the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) was formed by the amalgamation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the main protagonists in the strike action, the General Railway Workers Union and the United Pointsmen and Signalmen’s Society.

The formation of the NUR was a landmark in the history of industrial relations as it was the first union that was formed to represent all grades of an industry. Thus, its remit to represent all railway workers, irrespective of grade, and its large size, gave it greater strength at the bargaining table.[5] Thus, the NUR’s first proclamation was that it was their aim to end the conciliation scheme.[6] However, the two other railway unions, ASLEF and the Railway Clerks Association, did not partake in the merger.

The outcome of the 1911 strike was that the unions now had a place in the British railway industry. The unions had demonstrated the power of collective militancy and had forced some changes in the conciliation scheme. Wartime cut off any more progress in changing wages and working conditions and it would only be in 1919, when there was another national strike, that further concessions from the companies would be secured. However, after 1911 the unions were never ignored again.

I have heavily used to write these posts two books. David Howell's, 'Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism,' is simply wonderful and is the comprehensive history of the Railway Unions. Harold Pollins', 'Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History,' is also good, but gives a shortened version of railway trade unionism up to the 1960s.


[1] Howell, David, Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism, (Aldershot, 1999), p.14-21

[2] Pollins, Harold, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, (Newton Abbot, 1971), p. 138

[3] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.124

[4] Pollins, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, p. 139

[5] Pollins, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, p. 139-140

[6] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.217

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