Hundreds of thousands of mostly casual workers have been sacked over the last week, the first victims of an economic crisis that will shake the foundations of global capitalism.
It must be terrifying. Suddenly, paying rent, covering bills and affording life’s many necessities are thrown into question. There’s also a danger of isolation, of suddenly being cut off from the social connections that workplaces provide and being forced to navigate the hostile environment of Centrelink.
Yet historically, when masses of people have been kicked out of work all at once, impressive displays of collective resistance and solidarity have cut through the anguish. Such experiences are worth returning to as millions more face the prospect of unemployment in the coming months.
When economic crisis hit the UK in the mid-1970s, it smashed more than just the London Stock Exchange. For decades, British workers were promised their own version of the American Dream. Finish school, get a job, work hard and reap the rewards of a stable and comfortable life.
But as the initial economic slump of 1973 turned into a protracted downturn, the full employment of the post-war period abruptly ended. By 1978, more than 1.5 million workers and their families were out of work and lining up for the dole.
Initially, there was very little resistance. Trade union leaders signed a pact with the Labour government, promising to quell industrial unrest and freeze workers’ wages to allow the economy to get back on track, supposedly to save jobs. But the economy kept tanking and unemployment kept rising. Tragically, there was no fight against wage cuts, unemployment or deteriorating social services from a well organised working class.
The International Socialists (IS, later the Socialist Workers Party), a revolutionary organisation with about 3,000 members, launched the Right to Work campaign. Their aim was to unite unemployed workers with union militants to fight redundancies, end the wage freeze and increase payments to the unemployed.
The campaign began in November 1975 with a demonstration of 20,000 in the heart of London. While reluctantly supported by the moderate left union officials, it was the angry radicalism of leading socialists that caught the attention of militants from across the country.
For the next three months, Right to Work activists carefully planned the first cross-country march of the unemployed since the 1930s. In February 1976, a few hundred activists, unemployed workers and trade unionists set off from Manchester on a 550-kilometre journey to London.
On the first day, they stormed a construction site to stop a group of scabs from dismantling a crane, an action which helped the striking electrical workers win their demands. This tactic of flying pickets, having proved to be successful from the outset, was then repeated over the next 22 days of the march.
John Deason, secretary of Right to Work and a member of the IS, described the march as much more than a plea for sympathy: “Our job is not only to remind workers of the desperate plight of the unemployed. It is also to encourage employed workers to throw their strength behind policies which can stop unemployment”.
The marchers joined picket lines, walked into factories and held impromptu meetings with local workers from Yorkshire, Birmingham, Coventry and London. Police truncheons rained blows on them as they entered London, a testament to their disruptive tactics. Finally, the marchers were met by a crowd of 6,000 unionists outside their destination, Albert Hall, except for 44 who were arrested before they arrived.
The march was repeated three more times over the next few years, the last one taking place in October 1979. The battles were never fought on a large enough scale to defeat the bosses’ offensive, but they proved it was possible to organise and resist in difficult conditions.
If the British working class felt like the rug was being pulled out from under it in the 1970s, it was only a taste of what was to come. In 1979, arch-conservative Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister. She launched a scorching attack on workers that continued as all-out class war into the 1980s.
By 1981, unemployment had reached 3.5 million. Britain’s manufacturing industry – a union stronghold – was aggressively dismantled, with a fifth of the industrial base destroyed in just two years. Thriving cities such as Manchester and Liverpool were devastated with high unemployment, ravaged social services and decaying urban spaces. A generation of working-class youth went straight from the school gates to the dole queue.
In May 1981, the unemployed marchers returned for the month-long People’s March for Jobs, grudgingly backed by the Trade Union Council under pressure from local affiliates. Punks, skinheads, laid-off factory workers and housewives marched from Liverpool to London. The initial crowd of 300 picked up 200 more in towns along the way. By the end, 150,000 people joined a rally in London’s Hyde Park, marching to Downing Street where Thatcher, unsurprisingly, refused to greet the crowd or accept a petition with 250,000 signatories.
Later that year, Chris Dean, an 18-year-old socialist and lead singer of punk band The Redskins, joined another 10-day march from Liverpool to the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. Along the way, he reported on his experience for NME magazine:
“The 10 days were in a way predictable. But whereas the routines of life on the dole remind you of your position on the muck heap, the routines of life on the march strengthen your anger and make that anger positive – gives a sense of hope, a realisation of power and friendship. What the march says is: make that collective power a continual part of life on the dole by organising as those out of work and cementing the links with those fighting for their jobs. Make the fight for the right to work a fight for the right to live.”
The second wave of unemployed marches wound up in 1983. By then, unemployment had become more widespread and more deeply entrenched. It peaked in 1984. To be beaten, Thatcher’s intransigent government needed to be confronted with a serious working-class mobilisation. But the Trade Union Council refused to launch the generalised strike action necessary for victory.
Nevertheless, the marches mattered for the unemployed in Britain. A collective fight is better than a passive defeat. Struggle inspires and connects us when the barbarity of capitalism threatens to atomise and depress. Their experience shows that despair is not the only option for the millions of people who are again being forced to join the dole queue.