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A Hundred Years Ago Today, A Gloomy Black Friday Hit The Streets Of The UK

7th March 2021

Upon reading this headline, younger people who do not happen to be history buffs may be skeptical of the notion that Black Friday, the shopping holiday that takes place every year the day after Thanksgiving, was around for a hundred years.

And their suspicion would be correct; the term Black Friday was first used in reference to the shopping craze for which it is known today in the 1950s when the US city of Philadelphia was inundated with crowds of consumers who came to watch a football event taking place the day after thanksgiving.

Older readers, on the other hand, may think back to the Black Friday of September 24, 1869, when an attempt by a couple of Wall Street financiers to manipulate the price of gold resulted in a stock market crash that had catastrophic effects on the US economy with products such as wheat and corn seeing their prices plummet by half.

But Black Friday also refers to a less-known event that took place exactly 100 years ago today, on April 15, 1921.

During that period, Great Britain was recovering from the brutal effects of the First World War and facing an emerging economic crisis.

As a result, the coal industry in the UK was facing financial struggles, and coal miners were confronted with the bleak prospect of having their wages reduced.

The British government, which at the time was in charge of the coal sector, was reluctant to impose these salary cuts in fear of the political backlash likely to occur following such an unpopular decision.

However, the State relinquished its control of the industry on March 31, 1921, essentially absolving itself from the matter and leaving workers to fend for themselves against the powerful business interests.

Unsurprisingly, coal miners saw their salaries put on the chopping block, had to contend with poor work conditions, and were threatened with layoffs if they dared to voice any objection.

It was, however, expected that the transport and rail unions –which along with the coal union made what was referred to as “the Triple Alliance”– would rally in solidarity with the coal miners’ cause and join them in calling for more equitable treatment.

In a surprising turn of events that took place on Friday, April 15, 1921, the representatives of the transport and rail unions publicly declared that they would not instruct their members to strike in protest to the salary cuts, effectively abandoning their fellow workers and allies and giving this day its dark historical significance.

The union leaders who made the call justified this perceived disloyalty by citing the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain’s refusal to give them a seat at the table in terms of the negotiations with management over the issue of wages.

In addition, there were allegations that the miners themselves were reluctant to engage in a strike in pursuit of their own demands, which hardly inspires others to get involved and jeopardize their own jobs.

There were also fears that the miners’ pleas for better work conditions would not be received with compassion by the British public when a large percentage of the population cannot even find employment.

Other labour organisations also refused to assist the coal miners in their struggle to protect their wages, including the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union –Britain’s main seamen’s union at the time– whose members voted against participating in a strike by a thin margin of 59 votes.

How ironic that Black Friday, a term that has such deep historic ties to the financial struggles of workers during an economic depression, has become synonymous with extravagant consumption and an economic boom for retailers. What a difference a hundred years makes! 

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