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

Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain, 1889-1966. By Roy Church and Quentin Outram (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xx plus 3l4pp. $69.95).

The coal miner shoulders a heavy interpretive burden in British Labor history. Geographically isolated and culturally distinct, this heroic proletarian periodically downs tools to foment epoch-making strikes. His moment on the stage of history past, the class-conscious miner returns to the coalface to await the next call to arms. This, at least, is the way Church and Outram characterize historical writings about miners' militancy, a picture they demolish in Strikes arid Solidarity. While they provide a useful corrective to the existing literature, their focus on conflict reinforces the approach they claim to be challenging. This methodologically innovative analysis of strike activity covers the period between the creation of the national miners' union in 1889 and the end of piece-work payment in 1966. Much of the authors' case rests on evidence drawn from publications of the Board of Trade, the Home Office, and other official sources, along with the voluminous body of historical writing on mining in Britain. The omission of local newspapers is a serious weakness, however, given the authors' conclusion that local strikes were more prevalent--and therefore worthy of further investigation--than regional or national stoppages. This significant conclusion, however, is extremely valuable in its own right and points the way to future research.

Church and Outram use solidarity as a conceptual tool to transcend the "impressionistic empiricism" of previous studies of mineworkers (p.4). Drawing on the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim and more recent anthropological notions of social exchange, Church and Outram suggest that group solidarity develops because of structural conditions--especially law and political opportunities--and networks of social relationships. Thus, they argue, there is no inherent propensity to striking in the occupation of coal miner. The preconditions for workplace solidarity must exist before strikes can occur, which in practice means the actions of trade union organizers and pit managers determine worker behavior. Numbers alone do not tell the full story. To illustrate their statistical findings the authors use narrative vignettes, drawing contrasts between selected pairs of collieries to demonstrate how certain variables--location, size of workforce, or extent of mechanization--cannot adequately predict strike pro pensity. This combination of data and narrative, theorized around the concept of solidarity, is used to undercut several key "myths" in the historiography on British mineworkers. The first myth is the idea of the "isolated mass," proposed by the American sociologists Clark Kerr and Abraham Seigel in the 1950s. They explained militancy as a consequence of the "isolated and homogeneous industrial communities" in which miners lived (p.139). The problem here, according to Church and Outram, is the assumption of a simple causal link between militancy and place. There is no guarantee that "actions were supposedly directly explained by particular aspects of social structure" (p. 141). Following the writings of historians engaged in the work process debate, Church and Outram also argue that the structure of the workforce was highly differentiated.

The second myth they dismiss concerns the size or "massness" of pits. One of the abiding assumptions in the history of coal mining, dating from the writings of Adam Smith and Charles Babbage, is that the larger the mine, the more likely it is to be strike prone. This myth also informs the work of Karl Marx and Max Weber, whose theories of alienation and bureaucratization claimed massness as a variable in explaining class consciousness. While the data indicate that larger pits--defined by the size of the workforce--are more prone to strikes than smaller pits, there is no necessary correlation. Church and Outram argue instead that solidary behavior and the skill of managers and supervisors in dealing with labor unrest are more reliable indicators of the likelihood of strikes. The third myth Church and Outram repudiate is the assumption that the representative strike in the mining industry was national or regional. The data show that local and domestic strikes were the "ordinary" form of strike activity, not th e national and regional strikes previous histories emphasized. While more days were lost on average to large strikes, it was the smaller strikes which were more common and therefore typified the experience of the British coal miner. From this finding they again argue that the propensity to striking is best explained by the failures of managerial and supervisory staff, though this is speculative given the small number of local studies available. Church and Outram have offered an important revisionist analysis of the history of coalmining labor relations, yet one crucial fact remains uncontested: in the overall context of British labor history the mining industry was undeniably the most strike prone sector of the economy until the 1980s. Church and Outram do not deny this, providing data to prove it. More troubling than the extrapolation of mining from the whole picture of British labor relations is the use of brief narratives to illustrate the validity of the data. There is no attempt to argue the representati veness of the particular cases chosen, largely because they derive from existing writings. Here a series of local studies based on local sources would be valuable to test the conclusion regarding managerial and trade-union activity as the prime cause of unrest and especially the rejection of miners' agency as a significant cause of strikes.

Conceptually Strikes and Solidarity reinforces the central place of strike activity in labor history. Though the authors do an excellent job of reinvesting the discussion of strikes with new significance--and future work on unrest in any industry cannot ignore their findings--there is nothing terribly innovative about focusing on discord. They suggest that one of the problems with labor history is its "trade union perspective," but this is only buttressed by a book about strikes (p.5). What is needed now is an approach that will explain the absence of conflict not as a void but as a theorized structure within which activity can occur.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cordery, Simon
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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