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Fragile fraternity a hundred years on from Black Friday

  • 15 April 2021
  This week marks the centenary of Black Friday. To Australian eyes it may seem an odd event to commemorate, but perhaps one that resonates with our predicament as we move away from COVID-19. Here Black Friday naturally evokes images of bushfires, terrible events imprinted on our national consciousness. The Black Friday of Great Britain in 1921, however, was notable not for terrible things that happened but for desirable things that did not happen. 

It occurred in the aftermath of the 1914 War, during which the government had taken control of coal mines and had paid the miners a bonus. This reflected the sense of national unity and community in sharing the difficulties and sacrifices of the war. In 1921 the Government, faced by massive debt from the war, moved to hand back the mines to their owners with a reduction in salary. Those who did not accept it would be dismissed. The union leaders from the mines called a strike. This had wider consequences. 

At the start of the war workers from many different unions had united under the triple alliance of Transport, Coal and Rail, and Industrial workers. The alliance provided that if workers in one group struck, the others would join them. Black Friday marked the breakdown of negotiations between the members of the Triple Alliance to support the strike.

At a time of high unemployment and depression caused by the withdrawal of government economic stimulus, many even among the miners were anxious at losing jobs. The day is remembered as a failure of solidarity. It was 'black' because it marked the end of the euphoria and hope generated by solidarity in a time of crisis and hopes for a more equal world at the end of it.

The parallels with our own times of the events of Black Friday, with its movement from a time of heavy social spending and the flowering of social capital to a time of recovery, and the fateful choices that are made at such times, are evident. We await the results of the economic choices being made by government and their effects on community and solidarity.

For the moment, however, it is a time to savour the simple joys of fraternity, one of the three pillars of the French Revolution. Many people have expressed delight at the multiplication of maskless conversations, fuller pubs, face to face teaching, the return of religious services as