Building a new unemployed workers’ movement

By Elaine Jones, Vice Chair Wirral TUC

In Birkenhead in September 1932 there was a demonstration demanding an increase in unemployment relief. More than 10,000 people attended. Several people were arrested and another demonstration organised. For two days there was fighting with the police. On day four they won some of their demands.

This was a result of the work of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), set up in 1921 by members of the Communist Party. The NUWM aimed to highlight the situation facing the unemployed and in particular to fight the means test, which forced workers into almost pauperised conditions before they were eligible for unemployment support. The demands were:

• Raise the benefits of the unemployed

• Remove the “not genuinely seeking work” clause

• Restore benefits to all those excluded by previous governments

• No disqualification unless refused work available on trade union rates of pay

• Shorter working day without loss of pay

• Adequate pension for all over 60.

The NUWM organised a series of hunger marches to London. As with the Jarrow Crusade, these were met with attacks from the bureaucracy of the workers' movement.

The largest of the NUWM marches was the National Hunger March of 1932. 3,000 marched to London to present a petition signed by more than one million people demanding the abolition of means testing. When they reached the capital, a demonstration hundreds of thousands strong greeted them in Hyde Park.

The then prime minister Stanley Baldwin refused to accept the petition and unleashed police on the demonstrators. Opposition to the role played by agent provocateurs on the march led to the formation of the National Council for Civil Liberties, the forerunner of the campaign group Liberty.*

The NUWM had its faults. In the leadership the CPers Harry McShane and Wal Hannington became notorious for the aggressive manner in which they enforced the Stalinist line. During the Third Period, they made it clear that, within the NUWM's ranks, Trotskyists, ILPers and other independently-minded socialists were unwelcome. They also believed that in every situation there were revolutionary possibilities and that social democrats were social fascists not to be worked with. Despite these serious faults they did manage to organise thousands of unemployed workers. We can learn a lot from the experience of the NUWM during the 1920s and 30s, while avoiding the mistakes of the Communist Party.

In Birkenhead last week, Wirral Health and Safety Centre launched an Unemployed Workers Movement for Merseyside. Eighty years on, the levels of unemployment in the area are again increasing. Here many people fall into the category of ‘long term unemployed’ but they are now being joined by the victims of the latest recession. In Merseyside unemployment has increased by 54% in the past 12 months and is now standing at 57,340 or 6.15% percent. This is 2% above the national average which is 4.1%.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that the number of working-age people in so-called workless households jumped by 500,000 to 4.8 million in the year to June. The workless household rate increased by 1.1% to 16.9%, the highest since 1999 and the biggest year-on-year increase since Labour came to power in 1997.

The number of households with someone in work fell by 410,000 to 10.7 million. The workless household rate was highest for lone parents at 40.4%, followed by one-person households at 30.1%, with the worst figures recorded in the North-East at 23.2%. The lowest rate was in the East of England at 12.2%. Figures showed that the biggest fall in the employment rate over the past year was for married fathers, down 2.1% to 88.8%. The number of children in workless households was 1.9 million in June, up by 170,000 from a year ago. There is clearly again a need for a movement that fights for the unemployed.

The meeting in Birkenhead was open to all unemployed people and is a local attempt to create a voice and representation for unemployed people, a campaign for free training and jobs at a proper rate of pay. PCS reps have also been invited to future meetings.

A Charter for the Unemployed was also discussed. Demands raised so far:

• Right to work for all

• National Minimum Wage of £8 per hour

• Unemployment benefit to be 70% of the National Minimum Wage

• Free Transport for the unemployed

• Free prescriptions

• Free Legal Aid

• Free Childcare

• Free Education for students (including tuition fees as in Scotland)

• Apprenticeships for young people.

An Unemployed Workers Union has also been established by the Unemployed Workers Centre in Salford, an appeal sent out for support and a call for the establishment of a national campaign.

The need obviously exists for a movement of the unemployed. Even now when it is clear that it is capitalism that causes unemployment, unemployed people, especially single parents and those who are disabled, are scapegoated and blamed for a whole host of society’s problems, are expected to live on next to nothing, and are pressurised to do ‘work trials’, i.e., work for nothing.

Organising such a campaign will be difficult but with large numbers of young people out of work and large numbers of people losing their jobs in a short space of time the trade union and socialist movement has a responsibility to help organise the unemployed.

* From Class struggle and Social Welfare, by Michael Lavalette and Gerry Mooney