And suddenly – as if it ever went away – it seems trade unionism is back. 

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is flavour of the month in many quarters, a convenient bogeyman in others. 

Here in Wales, Mark Drakeford has drawn a line between the approach of his own government – "working on a social partnership basis to bring people round the table together" – and what he said was "the entirely absent UK government who abandon their responsibilities, leading to the thousands of people unable to travel because of the dereliction of duty that is so apparent in their approach to industrial relations".

Meanwhile, Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies tweeted a dinosaur emoji in his own assessment of the situation: "While Dinosaur Drakeford and Labour are backing the trade union barons… Welsh Conservatives are backing working people."

Strikes by the transport unions have not only caused travel disruption, they have brought to mind long buried memories of the industrial strife and class warfare that has characterised so much of British history over the two centuries since the industrial revolution. 

And Wales, most especially the industrial south, has been at the epicentre of many of those battles.

Most iconic of all is the Miners Strike of 1984-5, its continuing power as a symbol of polarising class struggle in Britain demonstrated as recently as this week when it was invoked by Sky News presenter Kay Burley in a much-shared exchange with RMT leader Mike Lynch.

Widely regarded as the most bitter industrial dispute in British history, the 1984-5 Miners Strike is remembered for its violent confrontations between picketers and police, its lengthy duration and a political, social and cultural legacy that is almost impossible to exaggerate. 

In the south of Wales and other coalfield areas of Britain, the strike and its fallout expedited the end of the industry, leading to a long period of post-industrial decline, entrenching poverty and social problems whose effects are still very much felt today.

More than a century earlier, another strike by south Wales miners resulted in what became known as the Tonypandy Riots of 1910-11, a series of violent confrontations between striking workers and police that took place around mines run by the Cambrian Combine cartel.

Although that strike was undoubtedly a major flashpoint in industrial relations in the period before the first world war, it is primarily remembered in Wales more than a century on because of the role of then Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who sanctioned the use of troops from the British Army to reinforce police who had been struggling to contain disturbances across the Rhondda valleys.

Police officers blocking a street during the Tonypandy Riots of 1910-1911

The events of Tonypandy lived long in the memory of south Wales miners, and as recently as 2010 there was controversy over the naming of an RAF base, ‘Churchill Lines’ at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Former Labour Prime Minister and MP for Cardiff South James Callaghan also courted dissension in the House of Commons in 1978 when he confronted Churchill’s grandson (and namesake) with the accusation that his family had a "vendetta… against the miners of Tonypandy".

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But despite the pivotal importance of the 1984-5 Miners Strike to the history of modern Wales, and the infamy of the Tonypandy Riots, by far the most significant set of strikes to affect the country came in 1926.

Just as today’s rail strikes have been organised in response to a toxic combination of cost of living pressures resulting in real terms wage cuts and government attempts to reorganise the industry, so the General Strike of 1926 was sparked by coal miners’ anger at proposals from the government and their employers that they accept reduced wages while also working longer hours – the idea that it should be workers, not bosses, who foot the bill for an economic downturn.

Arthur James 'AJ' Cook, General Secretary of the Miner's Federation of Great Britain, delivers a fiery address to miners assembled on Cilfynydd Common during the 1926 General Strike.

The Miners Federation of Great Britain – known as ‘The Fed’ – fought these proposals with a campaign titled ‘Not an hour on the day. Not a penny off the pay’. 

But the authorities would not budge, and on 30 April 1926 miners who refused a pay cut were locked out of work, resulting in a call from the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) for all workers to strike in solidarity with the miners.

The height of the strike was a nine day period, from 3 to 9 May 1926, during which between 1.5 and 2 million miners, steelworkers, dockers, transport workers and printers laid down their tools.

And just like today, the line taken by the right-wing media became part of the story. The Daily Mail wanted to run an editorial titled ‘For king and Country’ that would have included the claim that: ‘A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people.’

Striking print workers refused to print the paper.

However, unlike today, the reigning monarch weighed in on the dispute. King George V urged: "Try living on their wages before you judge them."

Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called the strike "the road to anarchy", painting the widespread industrial action as a challenge to democracy.

But the TUC newspaper, British Worker, opined, again in an argument that will be familiar to those following the polarised current debates: ‘We are not making war on the people. We are anxious that the ordinary members of the public shall not be penalised for the unpatriotic conduct of the mine owners and the government’.

READ MORE: ‘We Know What We Are’: football songs and national identity

But perhaps the most familiar legacy of the General Strike in the south of Wales comes in the unlikely form of a football chant still regularly sung in the stands of the Cardiff City Stadium. 

Some Bluebirds supporters may not have known the origin of one of the sport’s oldest and oddest terrace ditties.

But before the 2008 FA Cup Final, when Cardiff City faced Portsmouth at Wembley, Jonny Owen – who has since made the acclaimed documentary about Wales’ glorious run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – explained the history of ‘I’ll be there’ in a short film about the club’s history.

As in so many instances, it was the miners of the Rhondda valley who were last to return to the pits following the General Strike. "They were literally starved back to work," explains Jonny Owen in the film.

"When they returned, they defiantly sang a song that is still [heard] on the terraces today: When the coal comes from the Rhondda down the Taff Vale railway line, when the coal comes from the Rhondda, I’ll be there… With my little pick and shovel, I’ll be there.’ 

The chant, now approaching 100 years old, has become such a part of Cardiff City folklore there is even merchandise available from the official club shop featuring the legend ‘I’ll be there’ above an icon of a pick and shovel crossed like a hammer and sickle.

At least in Wales, it seems we’ve always been into trade unionism.

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