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When the Unemployed Fought Back

In the 1920s and '30s, the National Unemployed Workers' Movement mobilised thousands to resist the indignities of unemployment. As we enter another economic crisis, we should learn from their fight.

In her welcoming speech to the 1922 Trades Union Congress in Southport, the town’s mayor Christiana Hartley took the opportunity to express the ignorance of her class. In her speech, Mayor Hartley — an heiress to the Hartley’s jam fortune — derided the growing sense of injustice felt by millions, asking delegates:

Why all this unrest? What ails the workers? It seems that, in the rebound from the anxieties of the war, we are all trying to get something for nothing. Too much selfishness exists; that is the result of all the evil. We must not ask for the impossible.

Hartley’s remarks were rebutted by miners’ leader Bob Smillie and future Labour leader George Lansbury, who chastised her arrogance. To the millions directly affected by the war, it was clear that the Liberal–Conservative coalition government had no intention of producing a society fit for heroes, and the Armistice had brought only new anxieties. Thousands of soldiers were demobilised onto the dole queue, while scores of workers employed in the war industries also found themselves on the scrap heap. By the end of 1920, around 6 per cent of the population were unemployed.

On 18 October 1920, while miners began a national strike, over 20,000 unemployed workers and ex-servicemen clashed with 1,600 police officers outside 10 Downing Street. In a day-long battle which saw protesters destroy the stone balustrade protecting the Privy Council and erecting barricades from railings ripped up from Whitehall, many walked away from the ‘Battle of Downing Street’ sensing that the unemployed might become a force.

Getting Organised

Although unemployed assistance committees existed in many towns and cities, they usually served little purpose beyond charity. Indeed, it was not an uncommon sight in larger cities to see rival unemployed groups fighting each other for parts of major streets they could beg from. But in the weeks following the protest, a London District Council of the Unemployed was rapidly formed, with delegates represented from thirty-one London boroughs.

Among the new unemployed leadership was Walter Hannington. A young toolmaker from Camden, ‘Wal’ was a self-taught Marxist who gained notoriety for hoisting the red flag over his engineering works on the day war ended, and had led the ‘Slough Soviet’, a notoriously militant government transport depot.

Following the creation of a London organisation, it became clear that the national picture was just as volatile. The special post-war ‘donation benefit’ of 29 shillings a week, which was vital to the livelihoods of millions of ex-servicemen, was ended in March 1921. Two months later, unemployment stood at 2,126,800.

In every major city, tens of thousands of unemployed workers were staging confrontational demonstrations, occupying public buildings, and disrupting the daily business of local authorities. From this energy, the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (later shortened to the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the NUWM) was formed.

Though the NUWM published different demands in different disputes, the core fighting principle of the organisation was simple: work or full maintenance at union-agreed rates. The organisation would highlight the crippling effects of cuts to maintenance allowance and the lack of government interest in providing work, and ensure that communities plagued by unemployment were organised to resist the indignities of an uncaring society.

But self-defence wasn’t the only goal: at the heart of the NUWM was a commitment to changing the entire social order. The oath that NUWM members undertook reflects the commitment found in its ranks:

I, a member of the great army of unemployed, being without work and compelled to suffer through no fault of my own, do hereby solemnly swear with all the strength and resolution of my being, to loyally abide by, and carry out the instructions of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement, with the deliberate intention of pressing forward the claims of the unemployed so that no man, woman or child suffers hunger or want this winter.

Further, realising that only by the abolition of this hideous capitalist system can the horror of unemployment be removed from our midst, I here and now take upon myself a binding oath, to never cease from active strife against this system until capitalism is abolished and our country and all its resources truly belong to the people.

One of the first NUWM campaigns was to plan invasions of workplaces across the country. In these actions, groups of unemployed would sneak into workplaces known for crushing overtime regimes and protest in the hope of pressuring bosses to drop overtime and to increase workers’ wages. These ‘raids’ became a popular and successful tool of agitation, particularly for unemployed engineering workers in London.

Alongside helping thousands of people receive their proper assistance money from the local Board of Guardians, the NUWM mobilised entire communities against the threat of homelessness. In cities such as Sheffield and Glasgow, huge confrontations with the police erupted after hundreds of unemployed workers turned out to stop bailiffs throwing families out onto the streets. In parts of London, NUWM militants would frustrate slum landlords by taking the furniture of an evicted family and setting them up in unoccupied accommodation, using popular sympathy with the evictees to force a decent arrangement for the landlord’s unexpected tenants.

Since many NUWM members were staunch trade unionists, the organisation believed in its potential as a solidarity auxiliary for employed workers fighting low wages or for improved conditions. NUWM militants were regulars on picket lines, with a particularly successful mobilisation coming in Ipswich in 1922 where, according to a regional docks secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, over a fifth of the town’s 5,000 unemployed workers joined the ranks of the NUWM to ‘energetically picket’ the docks and ‘assist strikers to every possible extent’. The mobilisation was so strong that only twenty scabs undermined the strike, and the dispute was won in a fortnight.

The NUWM also became remembered for the sombre symbolism of their Armistice Day commemorations. On Remembrance Sunday 1922, more than 25,000 NUWM veterans marched in silence down Whitehall behind red flags and branch banners. In an act that Hannington described as ‘an indictment against the system which praises the dead and condemns the living to starvation’, NUWM members pinned their war medals to their flags and branch banners, while pinning their pawn shop receipts to the lapels of their coats. Heading the procession was a large wreath with an inscription which read: ‘from the living victims — the unemployed — to our dead comrades, who died in vain’. While the London police marched beside them, an NUWM brass band struck up ‘the Internationale’ and ‘the Red Flag’. Hannington recalled the scenes from the throng:

‘Who are these people?’ asked one young woman to another on the sidewalk. ‘Why — they’re the unemployed.’ ‘Then good luck to them,’ said the first girl bitterly, almost savagely. ‘Disgraceful,’ snorted a red-faced old man, with a fur-clad young creature on his arm. ‘Those men are Bolsheviks’, he said. ‘But look at the medals,’ said the girl. A woman in a black shawl turned on the old man. ‘Shut up your bloody gap! If you’d been out of work as long as my old man, you’d be a Bolshevik.’ A murmur of approval went through the crowd.

Hunger Marches

As the NUWM gathered in strength, many began to feel that a national demonstration to direct all discontent towards Westminster was possible. Following a march of thirty unemployed Birmingham workers to London, the mayor of Poplar — then a ‘rebel’ borough for its resistance to the government — said that more workers marching to London would make the government ‘wake up to its responsibilities’. This sentiment was echoed by the Daily Herald, the paper edited by George Lansbury, who suggested the potential political statement that would be made if ‘half a dozen of the unemployed from every town set out to meet the Premier on a given day.’

The wheels were set in motion for the first national hunger march. In October 1922, a month after the NUWM leadership called upon branches to organise marchers who ‘must have on his or her heart the cause for which we fight: the emancipation of our class’, unemployed iron and steel workers set off from Scotland, to be met by unemployed dockers, miners, mill workers, and engineers from every part of the country. Walking through towns as they zigzagged across the nation, nights were either spent on the floors of workhouses or, if the area had a Labour or Communist presence, in accommodation arranged by local socialists.

As the marchers began to enter London on Wednesday, 15 November 1922, the result of the ongoing general election was declared. Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservatives had triumphed, but Labour had pushed the Liberals into third place for the first time, gaining 142 seats and only a million or so fewer votes than the Tories. A demonstration was declared for the Sunday, intending to hold Bonar Law to their demand that the marchers meet him. Speaking at the rally was the newly elected Labour-Communist MP for Battersea, Shapurji Saklatvala, who told the crowds that ‘ever since the revolution in Russia in 1917, mankind has discovered another cure for unemployment.’

Unsurprisingly, Bonar Law refused to speak to the marchers. In response, they decided to stay; streams of marches, rallies, and meetings took place throughout the rest of the year and into early 1923. The tabloid press was frenzied, with papers such as the Pall Mall Gazette claiming that the protesters were armed with guns and had telegraphed Moscow to say: ‘We have marched a Red Army into the capital of the Empire.’ More men replaced exhausted marchers, while arguments and dissent began to sap the enthusiasm. One young marcher was so exhausted by London in the winter that he smashed a sweetshop window just so the police would put him in a cell for the night and send him home. Bonar Law still felt the pressure,  though, and snapped at jeering Labour MPs in Parliament that ‘I am sick and tired of hearing about the unemployed marchers and I do not want to have anything more to do with them.’

The first national hunger march was formally called off in February 1923, with Bonar Law never receiving a delegation. But for NUWM leaders, the power of the hunger marches could not be reduced to whether the government had made immediate political concessions. In his memoirs, Hannington wrote of the marchers’ ‘cumulative effect’ on the overall movement. In small towns and villages throughout the country — communities that were often untouched by the intensity of class struggle — thousands were moved by the marcher’s ability to bring the plight of major industrial areas into their locale. This active sympathy often turned into political struggle, as these areas began forming their own NUWM branches and labour movement organisations. Hannington wrote:

The government had sneered when the first contingent had set out to march over 500 miles in severe wintry weather. The capitalist press endeavoured to ridicule it, and spoke of it as an impossible task, but as the army of marchers pressed forward from town to town, as contingent after contingent arose, according to plan, to take the road, as they swept in towards London from all parts of Great Britain, a ragged, grim, determined army of men, breaking down all barriers and battling their way forward against tremendous odds, the government had cause for alarm at the way in which the people were being stirred by the marchers.

Struggle and Strife

The economic crash of 1929 saw millions more workers return to the dole as whole industries collapsed. The radicalism that emerged out of the First World War was echoed in a bitter, intense resurgence in the thirties. In October 1931, a huge demonstration of NUWM members in Salford against the Means Test led to a fight with the police that was dubbed the ‘Battle of Bexley Square’ (and later immortalised in Walter Greenwood’s film Love on the Dole).

Similar scenes erupted the following year in the shipyard town of Birkenhead, where an unemployed uprising saw thousands of people erect barricades and temporarily drive the police out of the town. The Birkenhead riots were memorialised in a chant written by Ewan MacColl, then a young Salford NUWM militant:

Forward unemployed, forward unemployed
Led by the NUWM, we’ll fight against the cuts again
From Fighting Birkenhead, we’ve learnt our lesson well
We’ll send the national government and the means test all to hell.

This standard of politics set the tone for working class resistance in industrial areas, and — despite the right-wing of the Labour Party’s antipathy towards the NUWM — kept hundreds of thousands of people aligned to the labour movement. Unlike in Germany, where the Nazis made great strides among the unemployed, the NUWM made sure that lessons were learnt.

During the thirties, Wal Hannington argued that ‘disunity, hesitancy and doubt’ among the German left caused the unemployed to sympathise with fascist solutions. He made the case that NUWM agitation had inoculated areas with high unemployment against the threat of fascism. A young unemployed Liverpool docker, Frank Deegan, believed unity and solidarity offered hunger marchers a bulwark against the far-right, recalling how poorly prepared they would have been if sympathetic Jewish tailors and outfitters had not ‘enabled us to obtain boots and clothing on a weekly basis for a very small amount of money.’

By 1935, when the NUWM could count around 50,000 members in its ranks, the organisation began to dwindle. Much of this was due to the rise in the arms industry, which put many thousands back into work. However, that year still saw huge confrontations and victories for the unemployed.

In response to new potential cuts to maintenance that were being threatened by the government, the NUWM could mobilise 300,000 workers across South Wales, 150,000 in Glasgow, and further thousands in Sheffield, whose confrontation with police outside City Hall erupted in a riot. But the days of mass confrontation over unemployment were drawing to an end, as many became focused on resisting fascism. The NUWM was formally wrapped up when the Second World War ended in 1946.

For two solid decades, the NUWM kept the government on edge. From slum tenements to the corridors of Parliament, thousands of people’s lives were aided by the NUWM’s constant pressure on the authorities. New bases for the labour movement were built all around the country, inspired by their example. In his almost canonical wartime report, William Beveridge paid testament to the NUWM for their ceaseless fight, as well as their ideas on how the state could offer a less humiliating benefits system in the future.

Above all else, the NUWM gave people dignity and self-respect. Membership of the organisation allowed the unemployed to combat a situation that was inflicted upon them. It gave people a way out of the miserable isolation and the opportunity to shape history in their interests. As we face a period of profound economic crisis, socialists must once again think imaginatively about building a movement that can challenge ruling class responses to malaise. We could do worse than revisiting the history of movements like the NUWM.