Unemployment threatens to hit early-1980s levels: but how can the jobless stand up to the government? Terry Liddle reflects on his experience of the unemployed movement in those years
In the early 1980s there were 3 million unemployed and students were moving straight from graduation to the dole queue. No exception, I went to sign on at Spray Street dole office in Woolwich. Outside a group of people were leafleting. They were Greenwich Action Group On Unemployment (GAGOU). As the factories which lined the river from Erith to Deptford closed down, it was set up by the newly unemployed and a community worker from Greenwich Council, shades of things to come!
GAGOU spent a lot of time on individual cases of which there were many. In this we enlisted the help of sympathetic staff at the dole office. And in turn when they were in dispute our banner would appear on their picket line. But we did not make links with local union branches, many of which would not let the unemployed join, or with the Trades Council.
Our use of direct action was also limited, mainly consisting of pickets. For example when a member was made redundant just before Christmas and refused a benefit payment until the New Year, under the slogan ‘Who Says You Can’t Starve?’ we successfully picketed the local DHSS.
The left groups largely left us alone. The Communist Party had begun its terminal decline, Militant clung to the Labour Party like manic limpets. The Socialist Workers’ Party had its own front in the Right To Work Campaign and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party mostly tried to get people to meetings of its front the All-Trades Union Alliance. The real danger came from the Labour Party!
While national conferences were held in Newcastle and Leicester, no national movement like the prewar National Unemployed Workers’ Movement emerged. A divided and fratricidal Left just could not provide the initiative or support. While GAGOU had nothing like the Communist Kath Duncan, a brilliant orator who answered every attack on the unemployed with militant direct action, I spent much time speaking at meetings to set up local groups.
In a bid to recreate the 1930s, the TUC marched from Liverpool to London and the Right to Work Campaign from London to Brighton. But these events were kept firmly under the control of union and party bureaucrats.
Under Thatcher’s iron rule, the Labour Party, while remaining Fabian paternalists, adopted a Bennite visage and decided it had to be seen doing something for the deserving poor. This something was to provide funds for a centre and full time workers.
And so we moved into an empty building in Woolwich and employed three full time staff. We could have made better use of the building, organising basic economics classes rather than just using it a social centre and a place where people got their individual problems sorted.
By now I had a job as a clerical officer in Lewisham DHSS where I became union rep, providing information about crack downs on the unemployed to the Woolwich and Catford Unemployed Centres and trying to build solidarity between the DHSS staff and the unemployed. I remained chair of GAGOU’s management committee.
Money doesn’t shout, it screams when you don’t have any! As the Council tried to set up its own make-work schemes, GAGOU opposed them. The Council retaliated by withdrawing funding, alleging GAGOU hadn’t kept proper accounts. A final desperate battle was fought for redundancy payments for the three workers. This happened all over the country and today only a few unemployed centres like the one in Brighton remain.
Mass unemployment is a feature of capitalism. Students are again going from graduation to the dole, this time burdened with massive debt. There is again an urgent need for a mass militant movement of the unemployed. Many former students have gained the necessary organisational and propagandist skills from the campaign against tuition fee hikes. The lessons have to be learned from both the 1930s and 1980s. The movement has to be independent of the state but with solid links not only to workers in the civil service and way beyond. Every attack on the unemployed and claimants has to be answered with militant direct action. Capitalism is as powerful as the slave masters of old, but a determined working class, in and out of work, like a modern Spartacus, can beat it.