WHO ON EARTH IS A.J. COOK?
My search began with an image I found of a Durham miners banner. Tony Benn said that being added to a miners banner was the greatest compliment a Labour Party politician could receive and considering the figures that he appears with, it's easy to see why.
Keir Hardie is well known as the father of the modern day Labour Party. Anuerin Bevan was the minister for Health who oversaw the creation of the National Health Service. Tony Benn was Thatchers most powerful opponent during the industrial struggles of the 1980's.
But one other figure appears on the banner. A. J. Cook is undoubtedly the least well known figure to appear on the banner and yet, as I would discover, it was his leadership during the 1926 general strike and campaigning with the labour movement of the early 20th century that would provide the bedrock for all future British Trade Union activity.
Despite much knowledge surrounding him having been confined to the annals of time, his words and actions easily hold equal weight to those of Hardie, Bevan and Benn. In this essay I will illustrate why his life should be remembered with equal importance to the other three men on the banner.
OUR STORY BEGINS 120 YEARS AGO DEEP IN THE BOWELS OF THE EARTH.
It was the summer of 1899 when a teenager from Somerset, one of thousands like him who would leave their parental homes in search of better paid work at one of the many coal faces in the South Wales Valleys.
The fiery passion of this militant collier would forge the image of British trade unionism until present day.
Despite being hot, dusty, dirty and dangerous a job in the mines was the one form of employment any able bodied man or boy could get.
In an age prior to the welfare state, NHS or even a representative democracy there was no choice beyond work or starve. It’s said that no mother wanted to see her son down a mine, but surely better a son in a mine than a workhouse. Arthur James Cook moved to the Rhondda in 1899.
QUEEN VICTORIA HAD BEEN GRANTED THE TITLE “EMPRESS OF INDIA”
She declared that she could simply not be the Queen of a democracy. Sparks flew across the commons between Gladstone and Disraeli as the battle between tariffs and free trade was being waged.
The Tsars still held control in Russia, Germany didn’t yet exist. Victoria's grandchildren would occupy the thrones of the greatest threats to the Empire. The threat of Napoleon had faded into obscurity and thus far only the French had deposed of their royal family.
Victoria had secured the jewel in the crown of her empire - The East India Trading Company. The Empire was at its height, the first Global super power soon to sign off the World’s first Million pound cheque.
Considering what a staggering sum of money £1,000,000 was it should be harder to believe that just five years later, miners in Tonypandy, whose coal commanded such an eye watering sum, would die while out on strike.
BRITANIA RULED THE WAVES
It was during the first decade of the last century that Arthur James Cook was recruited to the Independent Labour Party and became a resounding voice for socialist principles.
Made to choose between his chapel and his political activity, A.J Cook left the church and devoted himself fully to his political activities.
In the years running up to the Tonypandy Riots, where then home secretary Winston Churchill would deploy the army to quell the striking miners, Kaiser Wilhelm 2nd had embarked on a platform of naval expansion - the response to which would be a refreshment of the Royal Naval fleet with new, modern engines powered not by coal, but by oil.
Being the cleanest and hottest burning known coal, Welsh anthracite was highly sought after as a naval fuel. The Empire, commanding the World's largest fleet was a customer the coal industry could ill afford to lose.
CHURCHILL SENT THE ARMY TO DEAL WITH THE STRIKES
As demand for coal dropped, so did prices which in turn caused pit owners to restrict wages while sustaining their own lavish lifestyles. The sharp decline in living standards is cited as the flash point over which the Tonypandy Riots erupted where troops opened fire on the miners and hand to hand skirmishes were fought between strikers and the police.
The actions of the army under the direction of Winston Churchill would seal the electoral fate of the Conservative Party in South Wales for over 100 years.
The bitterness of the Tonypandy riots would have a lasting impact on A J Cook.
It was out of this bitter industrial struggle that A.J. Cook's opinions were formed and he began to agitate against greedy mine owners and increase his prominence in the South Wales Trade Unionist movement. Known to the Trefor Pit Management as an unruly agitator, he would move from Lewis Merthyr in Trehafod to Coedcae Colliery where he’d quickly ascend through the ranks of his trade union lodge, claiming that by 1914 he had held every official position.
DEATH IN THE MINES WAS NEVER FAR AWAY, INJURY A WAY OF LIFE
Mining accidents and disasters were commonplace. On his first day in the pit, the man working beside A.J. Cook was killed in a rock fall.
The Lewis Merthyr Colliery was part of a group that was home to Britain's worst mining disaster, still one of the worst in the World today.
Explosions occurred all too often and with devastating consequences. Crushing, drowning and and all manner of various types of injury were simply daily occurrences for miners.
Mines in the Rhondda were hewn from remarkably loose rock. The tunnels men worked in, that stretched for miles underground were not solid like the London underground but instead are simply loose rock. The walls and floors shifted constantly, the metal supports holding them up could buckle within a week. Injury through collapse was less of a possibility than an inevitability.
AJ COOK WOULD GO TO PRISON FOR HIS BELIEFS
In the years running up to the First World War, AJ Cook would end up in a dispute with the Lewis-Merthyr management who would attempt to sack him and evict him from his home. The local lodge rallied and the management, surprised by his popularity and the solidarity of the lodge were convinced to keep him on. As his confidence grew, so did the strength of his anti-war convictions. At the start of the war, anti-war sentiment was neither commonplace nor popular. Trade unions agreed to adopt a positive attitude toward recruitment in to the armed forces. In this respect, AJ Cook was an outlier and in the eyes of some, a criminal. His opposition to the conflict stemmed from working class solidarity and a grave concern for those left struggling at home.
"To hell with everybody bar my class. To me, the hand of the Austrian and German is the same as the hand of my fellow workmen at home." - A.J. Cook
Due to mass casualties, in early 1917, a proposed 20,000 miners were to be drafted into military service. Workers of essential industries had previously been excluded from the draft but the military were getting desperate. A.J. Cook began a series of tours around the Rhondda, urging pits not to give up their men. His popularity and success at resisting the draft earned him some very unwanted attention with his local law enforcement.
"I will be shot before I go to fight" - A.J. Cook
In March 1918 A.J. Cook was charged with 6 counts under the Defence of the Realm Act. In court he declared that he believed the war to be the root of all evil. Though several strikes were threatened if A.J. Cook was sentenced, he only served 2 months. As soon as he was released, he continued agitating to bring about peace and resist the draft while earning himself a reputation as a great orator and potential future leader for the left.
At the end of the war, the representation of the peoples act had given most men a vote. Democracy as we know it was starting to take shape. The Liberal Party hadn't formed a majority government since 1906 and with its collapse, left wing principals were being pushed to the front of politics. Theories of common ownership were becoming mainstream and popular among a workforce who felt particularly exploited by their pay masters.
“He had the inspiring personality and the almost fanatical zeal of the true reformer. His character is beyond reproach and his straightforwardness is unquestionable.” - Porth Gazette, April 1919.
LEST WE FORGET...
At the end of the war the sense among working people was that change was inevitable. The men who had fought on the front line were not going to return to meagre wages and long hours. The trade unions began agitating for mines to remain nationalised and in part commonly owned by the miners.
Marxist principals, inspired by the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution would become mainstream and grow in popularity among miners.
In 1919 Cook was elected onto Rhondda district council where he clashed repeatedly with colleagues of all political stripes, but was a hard worker paying particular care and attention to issues of housing and education. This was also the year he would be voted in as a miners agent for the South Wales Miners Federation.
In 1920 he would leave the coal face to serve full time as a trade unionist. It's from here that his career would really begin to take shape. By 1921 however, half the Rhondda was unemployed and coal mined in Britain was selling at a loss. During this time membership of the Miners Federation fell dramatically and as a result A.J. Cook lost his seat. For a period, his militancy eased and he urged miners in the Rhondda not to take rash action out of line with the broader positions of the Trade Union movement.
"Patience has been exhausted. Our people refuse to starve peacefully. They claim the right to live, South Wales is preparing for the struggle" - A.J. Cook
Despite the first ever Labour government in power at Westminster, Cook's personal political philosophy was considerably further to left than the parliamentary Labour party, once saying that his concern lay with the Labour movement, not the Labour Party. His popularity and straight adherence to Marxist principals won him many nominations on the ballot of the Miners Federation Secretary position in 1925.
"I will not rest satisfied until private enterprise in the mining industry is abolished." - A.J. Cook
Throughout the mid 1920's, Cook embarked on a series of tours around the country and became a regular contributor to a new working-class newspaper the 'Sunday Worker'. His popularity peaked during this period where his presence and oratory fervour at meetings would electrify and enthuse the workers. His articulation and understanding of their grievances made him a folk hero of sorts. Toward the end of 1925, the miners forced a concession from a Conservative government to subsidise their wages for 9 months. But Red Friday was a short-lived victory for the Labour movement.
"Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day!"
In the year leading up to the General Strike, Herbert Samuel had been charged by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to draw up a report on the mining industry which advised against re nationalisation, withdrawal of the subsidy and reduction in miners wages. The conclusion of this report is widely cited as one of the key factors of triggering the general strike.
By 1926 demand for coal was in serious decline. Strikes in America has caused an artificial inflation of value a few years earlier but as Global production resumed, British coal was once again uncompetitive. Savage wage cuts and increased working hours had been proposed while the Miners Federation pushed for re nationalisation to prevent further poverty among mining communities. The subsidies had come to an end and the old wounds which threatened to spill out into strike action had been re opened.
Cook, by now a prominent figure in the Labour movement and head of the Miners Federation urged the TUC to support an all-out industrial strike to prevent further degradation to the pay and conditions of workers in all walks of life. He once again put his skill as a public speaker and vociferous campaigner into action, drumming up support for mass industrial action. The TUC granted authorisation for a General Strike on 30th April.
On May 2nd, printers at The Daily Mail refused to carry their pro-government front page editorial which ended all further negotiations until the government had assurances from the TUC that the threat of a general strike had been fully withdrawn. The Miners Federation was approached one final time by the TUC but A. J. Cook would not move on lowering the minimum wage for miners, though offered some concession for higher paid workers. The talks ended and the General Strike went ahead.
The government refused to negotiate in public with the TUC for the duration of the strike, but the General Council continued talks with Herbert Samuel in secret. The TUC capitulated to Samuel on the empty promise of establishing a national wages board and only increasing the working day by half an hour. The General Council accepted these terms despite Samuel affirming he had no official authority on which to offer them. Cook was suspicious of Samuel and furious at being kept out of the loop concerning the TUC's decision to end the strike.
Stanley Baldwin claimed no knowledge of Samuel's agreement when the General Council arrived to announce a cessation of the strike. The miners had been betrayed and were left on their own to face a 9 month lock out.
Despite the perceived failure of the 1926 General Strike, Cook's popularity remained intensely high. At times addressing up to 80,000 workers, on tours where he'd give up for 4 speeches a day. Wherever he went in the country, the community would pour out to hear him speak. Regardless of his personal popularity, the crushing defeat of '26 tore open schisms within the Miners Federation and put the left-wing elements out of vogue. By 1927 he was an isolated figure within the Miners Federation and a lone voice in calling for a single, centrally organised Miners Trade Union.
Fears of competition for wages drove many trade unions to initially reject women members and even parity of voting with men. But it was becoming clear that in the miners struggle, women were going to have an equally critical role to play as men.
During the general strike, the organising efforts of the miners wives would help to drive their ability to sustain strike action through fundraising and food distribution.
Behind every striking miner was his wife, who was no less organised, determined or militant in her drive to end the exploitation of her husband and children.
When the political franchise opened up to some women in 1918 their portion of the vote could no longer be ignored and for the first time the concerns of women were being heard.
In 1926 thousands of women took part in a peace pilgrimage which spanned the four corners of Britain.
WOMEN IN THE STRUGGLE
Working underground for women and girls was made illegal from 1842, but women were still employed as either chain makers or as pit brow women.
Mines had been mixed work places before the War and as such the Trade Union movements which grew out of them reflected this.
Mining unions were among the earliest to accept women members as equals.
THE MILITANCY OF RHONDDA SUFFRAGETTES WAS REMARKABLE
"Instead of crying for industrial peace, we must organise our industrial forces to fight our way out of capitalism" - A.J. Cook
The mine owners proposals as outlined in Samuel's report had not worked. Wage cost per ton of coal was low and working hours long, but unemployment in the South Wales valleys was at 20%. Poverty and destitution haunted the mining communities and 1,000's had left in search of other work. In one last great call to action, A.J Cook embarked on a miners march which culminated in speeches held at the plinth of Nelsons Column in London.
Following this march, Cook was nominated by the Miners Federation to sit on the TUC General Council. However, the relentless campaigning he had undertaken his entire life had finally caught up with him. He collapsed during a speech at the TUC and was ordered to rest.
Years of ceaseless campaigning had taken their toll on A.J Cook.
1928 was a difficult year for Cook, who fell out with the hardliner and militant elements within the Communist Party of Great Britain for expressing support for the Labour Party after winning concessions to include the Miners Federation in their parties manifesto. It must have been a difficult time for Cook who found himself beset on all sides - too radical for the moderate elements within the TUC and not radical enough for his former CPGB allies.
"The only rational organisation of industry which I recognise is the social organisation of industry to serve social ends. The capitalist organisation of industry cannot be rational from the workers' standpoint." - A. J. Cook
On the 9th January, his right leg was amputated in an effort to save his life. The hospital warned that he was a very sick man who may take months to recover. A.J. Cook played no further part in the Miners Federation following his operation. Instead, he travelled to Geneva several times to negotiate with the International Labour Organisation at the League of Nations. It was during one of these trips he fell very ill and was diagnosed with cancer. Despite an operation on his neck, a few months later he would be dead.
A. J. Cook should be remembered foremost as a humanist. His deep and earnest caring for his fellow man drove his white hot passion for justice and equality. He dedicated his life to improving the human condition, not just for miners but all workers and the values he strove for would be cemented not just in the Labour movement but in the Labour Party Manifesto under clause 4 for more than half a century.
SO, WHY IS THIS RELEVANT TODAY? REMEMBER ALL THAT 'EU RED TAPE'?
Employment laws that we now take for granted, a legal responsibility toward employees, a minimum wage, equal franchise and pay, safety standards and working conditions were adopted to be enforced across borders and upheld by the EU. Working time regulations and enhanced laws that affect seasonal workers are just some of the rights we enjoy today which are enforced by the EU.
When the United Kingdom leaves in 2019, those laws will be up for re-negotiation.
For the first time in generations, a Conservative government will have total control of employment law.
While Labour are funded through small party donations and individual membership fees, The Conservatives are funded by big business owners. Under a Conservative government, post Brexit employment legislation will be influenced by the highest bidder.
Would you trust your boss to help write your employment laws?