British police strikes in 1918 and 1919
The Police Strikes of 1918 and 1919 resulted in the British government putting before Parliament its proposals for a Police Act, which established the Police Federation of England and Wales as the representative body for the police. The Act also barred police from belonging to a trade union or affiliating with any other trade union body. This Act, drafted and passed into law, was as a direct response to the emergence of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO). A successful police strike in 1918 and another strike in June 1919 led to the suppression of the union by the government. On 1 August 1919, the Police Act of 1919 passed into law. Only token opposition from a minority of Labour Members of Parliament was voiced in Parliament.
In 1870, it is recorded that police in Newcastle upon Tyne were 'in dispute' with their local Watch Committee over conditions of work and low pay, though there was no withdrawal from duty. Two years later in 1872, 179 men of the Metropolitan Police refused to report for duty. Their refusal was over the poor conditions of their service and low pay the same as those in Newcastle upon Tyne. The police that refused duty were back on the beat in a matter of hours. Of the 179 men that refused duty sixty-nine were dismissed from the force. The rest were, after apologising for their conduct, allowed back on duty. The end result was an improvement in pay and conditions. This action was significant for establishing a precedent for collective action by police as a means of improving conditions.
However successful this stoppage was in 1872, it did not result in the formation of police union. Indeed, most of the police involved in this stoppage would not have considered forming a union, reflecting the quasi-military nature of the police institution. Despite dismissals resulting from the 1872 strike, members of the Metropolitan Force took part in a further stoppage in July 1890, this time over police pensions. The government argued that it could not be held hostage over the demands of police workers, but nevertheless passed the Police Pensions Bill (1890), which was drafted and rushed through Parliament in a matter of weeks.
The Formation of NUPPO
The September 1913 issue of the Police Review carried an anonymous letter informing its readers that a union was being formed, and rank and file officer began secretly joining the union. Anyone found to be a member was instantly dismissed from the force. The fledgling union increasingly resonated with the rank and file and membership grew. On the eve of the 1918 strike, NUPPO claimed a membership of 10,000 out of an over-all strength of 12,000 of the Met. Commissioner Sir Edward Henry responded by issuing an official police order banning the union and promising instant dismissal to anyone found to be associated with it. The government also took a hostile stance regarding the police union. The Home Secretary and the Commissioner assumed that the threat of dismissal from the force and loss of pension rights was an adequate deterrent. Nevertheless, by August 1918 the mood of the police rank and file was so misread that the Metropolitan Police went on strike.
Dismissal of Police Constable Theil
The dismissal of Police Constable Theil, a prominent member of the force and a union organiser, for union activities was the trigger for the 1918 strike. This was however only a spark for all the grievances over pay and conditions. The authorities grossly underestimated the strength of rank and file support for positive action to address their grievances and to defend Constable Theil. The day before the strike began, Police Superintendents reported at their weekly meeting with the Commissioner that all was quiet in the force.
The 1918 strike
The executive of NUPPO demanded a pay increase, improved war bonuses, extension of pension rights to include policemen's widows, a shortening of the pension entitlement period, and an allowance for school-aged children. The most significant issue was that NUPPO be officially recognised as the representative of the police workers. NUPPO informed the authorities that unless their demands were met by midnight on the 29 August, they would call a strike. The strike of 1918 caught the government off guard at a time of domestic and international labour unrest.
The swiftness of the strike and the solidarity of the men shocked the government. By the next day, 30 August, 12,000 men, which was virtually the entire complement of men in the Metropolitan Force, were on strike. Troops were deployed at key points across the capital in response to the strike. The government's first imperative was to end the strike. Prime Minister Lloyd George, who had been in France when the strike started, called a meeting on the 31st with the executive of NUPPO, and the strike was settled that same day. The terms of the settlement included an increase for all ranks of 13 shillings [65p] per week in pensionable pay, raising the minimum to 43 shillings [£2.15]. The right to a pension was reduced from thirty years service to twenty-six years service and widows were awarded a pension of 10 shillings [50p]. A war bonus of 12 shillings [60p] per week was granted and a grant of 2 shillings and sixpence [12½p] for each child of school age was given. Constable Theil was reinstated. All NUPPO's demands had been met except official recognition of the union. In the provinces there had been no strikes. Nevertheless, policemen in Manchester threatened to strike; they were offered and accepted the same terms given to the Metropolitan Police. By October, several other police forces around the country had been given pay increases. An immediate consequence of the strike was the increase in union membership, which jumped from 10,000 in August to 50,000 by November 1918.
As far as union recognition was concerned, Lloyd George stated that this could not be granted in time of war. The fact that Lloyd George had met, and settled the dispute, with the union leaders was viewed by union president James Marston as de facto recognition of the union.
As a consequence of the 1918 strike, Sir Edward Henry, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police resigned and was replaced by a serving soldier, General Sir Nevil Macready. Macready immediately began reorganising the command structure of the police. As far as Macready was concerned the days of the NUPPO were numbered. He had the comforting knowledge that, given the circumstances in which his appointment was made, he was to have carte blanche in his dealings with the NUPPO and its officials. Macready did nothing to encourage talks with the union. He refused to recognise both James Marston, the president of NUPPO, and Jack Hayes, the general secretary. As far as Macready was concerned the police had had a grievance that was now settled, and NUPPO remained an unofficial body therefore they were not to be dealt with.
In an attempt to circumnavigate the union, Macready established representative boards for police officers. In instituting the boards, Macready had neither consulted the government nor the Union. These boards would consist of one delegate from each of the twenty-six divisions within the Metropolitan force — all of whom were to be elected by secret ballot. The NUPPO executive demanded once again that NUPPO be officially recognised. With the approval of the Home Office, Macready lifted Police Orders ban barring police from joining NUPPO, but added an addendum forbidding union members from interfering with police discipline or imploring police to withdraw from duty.
Desborough Committee and 1919 strike
The government announced that a committee be convened under Lord Desborough that would look at all aspects of police forces in England, Wales, and Scotland. One of the things the committee highlighted was the inconsistency in police pay. At the time, there was no uniform pay structure for the police. Local Watch Committees were the sole arbiters of police pay. The pay of agricultural workers and unskilled labourers had outstripped that of the police. The Desborough Committee recorded that the pay for the average constable serving in a provincial force with five years service who was married with two children would earn 2 pounds 15 shillings [£2.75], including all their allowances such as rent and a child allowance. The Desborough Committee cited examples that a street sweeper in Newcastle-on-Tyne was on the same rate of pay as a constable in the provincial force. Ten other examples cited by the committee also showed police were paid less than menial labour occupations, six of which paid higher than the Metropolitan Police. Lord Desborough was therefore quite sympathetic to the plight of the ordinary policeman regarding pay, and consequently recommended comparatively generous increases.
By the end of 1918 and into 1919 it seemed that all the unions, large and small, were active in disputes throughout Britain. By mid-1919 there were strikes or the threat of strikes on the docks and among railway and other transport workers. There was a nationwide bakers strike and a rent strike by council tenants in Glasgow. The press, meanwhile, was reporting that a Bolshevik revolution had arrived in Britain. The government could not afford the possibility of the police aligning themselves with another union or the TUC. The government thus interpreted labour discontent, including the police, as a sign of disloyalty and was determined that it would not be caught napping a second time.
The Police Act of 1919 was the death knell of NUPPO. It established the Police Federation, a public sector version of a company union, to replace NUPPO. Under the Act, NUPPO was outlawed as a representative body for the police and forbade them from belonging to a trade union. NUPPO had no options but to fight or fold; unsurprisingly, it chose to fight. This time however, it was the union that misread the mood of the men when it called for another strike. Out of a force of 18,200 men in the Metropolitan Police, only 1,156 participated in the strike.
Liverpool City Police, however, supported the strike. Of the 1,874 members of the Liverpool City Police, 954 went on strike. The Bootle police union claimed that 69 out of 70 officers had joined the strike. The grievances of police in Liverpool were for many years ignored by a local Watch Committee noted for its disciplinarian attitude, which helped foster the propensity for collective action. The poor conditions in the Liverpool Police were well-known amongst other forces in England. On the day the strike started in Liverpool, strikers formed into ranks and decided to march on police stations around the city in an attempt to persuade those not on strike to join them. Police strikers found themselves confronting fellow officers that had not joined the strike, some of whom were union members.
The consequences for the people of Liverpool were far greater than those in the capital. Left without an effective police presence, public order in some areas broke down and resulted in what the Liverpool Daily Post (4 August 1918) called 'an orgy of looting and rioting'. This continued for three or four days before the military, aided by non-striking police, brought the situation under control, but at the cost of several lives and more than 200 arrests for looting. The final outcome of the strike was that every man who had gone on strike throughout the country was dismissed from his respective force. Not one striker was reinstated anywhere, and all lost their pension entitlements.
The eventual outcome of the strikes of 1918 and 1919 benefited police workers. They received a pay increase that doubled their wages and the government was forced to take notice of their issues, establishing the Police Federation in the process. The two strikes also increased the government's awareness of the importance of the police in terms of the government's own stability. After 1919, the police were never again taken quite as for granted, as they had been in the years before.
- Taaffe, P. & Mulhearn, T. (1988) Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight, London: Fortress pg.26
- Taaffe, P. & Mulhearn, T. (1988) Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight, London: Fortress pg.27
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- Bean, R. Police Unrest, Unionization and the 1919 Strike in Liverpool, Journal of Contemporary History 15, 1980, p. 647
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- Presenter Michael Portillo; Producer Roger Mahoney (2011-11-20). "Police Strike". Things We Forgot To Remember. Season 7. Episode 2. BBC. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 2012-06-25.
- Police and Prison Officers’ Magazine: 2 January 1919, 20 February 1919, 30 April 1919, 21 May 1919, 2 July 1919, 20 August 1919, 3 September 1919.