After World War 1, with the end of the war economy, and the de-mobbing of millions of soldiers and sailors from the armed forces, Britain (and much of Europe) sank into recession, with mass unemployment, poverty hardship the main reward working class people received for supporting and fighting in the war.
However, the end of the war had also thrown up revolution, mutiny, mass movements aiming not just at fighting for a bigger slice of the social pie, but a whole new arrangement of society.
While attempts at revolution shook Russia, Germany, Hungary, in the UK, one of the biggest movements that arose in the post-war years was that of the unemployed. Originating in local committees of the unemployed, struggling for livable levels of relief (the dole), and support for those out of work and their families, and against the harsh social control the workless were then subject to, by 1921 the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was born.
Many of the committees were based on groups of ex-servicemen, out work and angry after years of the trenches…
… but the movement was also very much a continuation of the pre-war industrial unrest of 1910-14, the wartime shop stewards’ struggles, and, to some extent, reunited the strands of the socialist movements divided by the war.
One of the early campaigns the unemployed committees focused on was against the working of overtime in factories, arguing that those out of work could be employed instead of existing workers doing longer hours. In 1921, in London, the main tactic was to invade workplaces where overtime was being worked and convene meetings of the workforce to argue for an overtime ban and the hiring of those on the dole to instead.
Wal Hannington, national organizer of the NUWM, who organised the raid with Lilian Thring, takes up the story:
“The success of these raids on the smaller firms encouraged us to tackle the big factories. The first big firm to be tackled was one at Edmonton, where approximately 1500 men and women were employed. The raid took place on 15th December, 1921. It was carefully prepared, all the necessary details concerning the plan of the building being ascertained beforehand. A much larger body of raiders was needed to carry out this job. We used about 150, and great care had to be taken in mobilising them near the works in order not to arouse suspicion. I was in charge of the raiding party, and at 4.15 pm I gave the signal for all raiders to rush the main entrance of the firm, enter, and close the gates behind them. The commissionaires on the gates were taken unawares and with the first inrush they attempted to slam the gates to, but the raiders tackled them while the rest of their colleagues entered.”
Once inside, the gates were firmly shut and the telephone exchange near the entrance was captured by a group detailed for this task; but subsequent events proved that we still had left a loophole for communications with the police. The bulk of the raiders proceeded to the main workshops. We selected a shop where there were millions of finished fragile articles [lightbulbs] and where considerable damage would have been done if the police had been brought in and caused trouble.”
Sympathetic engineers inside the factory switched off the production line. Lilian Thring went to address a meeting to the many women working in the factory.
“The news of the raid spread rapidly through the works and the workers gathered in large numbers to hear what we had to say. Many expressed warm sympathy for our stand against overtime. After the meeting had been in progress half an hour we received a message asking us to send a deputation to the main office to interview the responsible officials of the firm. The deputation was courteously received by the management who stated that they were very desirous of getting on with the interview as quickly as possible in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the unemployed from the factory. Whilst the interview was proceeding a knock came at the door and we were informed that 200 police had been brought into the factory. They were, however, not interfering with the men but were just standing about awaiting orders from the management. After a further quarter of an hour’s discussion with the management, the principal of the firm and another manager decided to sign the following agreement which we put to them:
- That all overtime should cease at Christmas.
- That in the event of the management contemplating the working of overtime at some future date, before putting it into operation they should first explore all channels to find suitable workers by applying to the local labour exchange, local trade-union branches and the local unemployed organization.
The main argument of the management had been that they had to work overtime because they were unable to obtain suitable workers. We, of course, had strongly disputed this, but the agreement which they gave us met with our approval and when the results of our interview were reported to the men in the shop it was accepted without dissent. We then asked the manager if the workers would be paid for the time which they had been stopped working by the raid. We received a promise that they would be paid and then the raiders formed up four abreast and marched out of the works, singing the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. As they came out they were cheered by a huge crowd who had heard of the raid and had gathered outside.”
This phase of the unemployed movement was by far the most successful, creative and autonomous. Organised locally, at the grassroots, addressing issues shared by millions but at an immediate level. Increasingly, however, through the 1920s, the NUWM became more centralised, controlled by members of the Communist Party who had always formed the central plank of the movement… The creative, local focus was also more and more submerged into a culture of mass national stunts like the hunger marches, which drew mass attention but absorbed vast amounts of energy. However the unemployed movement of the 1920s and ’30s represents a movement of huge importance, especially in their constant attempt to link waged and unwaged workers, their challenge to daily austerity as it was implemented directly in people’s lives, and an attempt to work out how to share out the meagre resources allotted to us under capitalism while also fighting for more…
Two books worth reading on the NUWM: Unemployed Struggles, 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve In Silence, Richard Croucher.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online