Mention Black Friday today and most people will conjure up images of bargain-hunting shoppers grappling with each other for discounted consumer goods. But 100 years ago, on April 15 1921, Black Friday was the day when the leaders of the transport and rail unions announced their decision not to call for strike action in support of the miners.
It was also the day that a conference involving more than 50 delegates representing local unemployed workers’ committees met at the international socialist club in Hoxton, east London, out of which the National Unemployed Workers Committees Movement (NUWM) was formed.
Following the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic, unemployment was rising dramatically, with employers taking the opportunity to weed out shop stewards who had gained prominence in the war years.
When I first became involved in the TUC unemployed workers’ centres in the 1980s, I campaigned alongside veterans of the NUWM of the 1920s and 30s. I learnt a great deal.
A hundred years ago, it was possible to address a crowd of unemployed workers standing on a beer crate outside the labour exchange or to advertise a local NUWM meeting with chalk on the pavement. People would see and meet with others in the same predicament and recognise common interests and problems.
In the 1980s, people signed on at allotted times, so big congregations of the out-of-work were avoided. Campaigners would have to talk to individuals outside the jobcentre, standing there for days on end.
When the unemployed became “jobseekers,” the individualisation of their plight was near completion. In recent years, jobcentre closures and digitalisation have seen the Department for Work and Pensions do its best to reduce “footfall” at its offices. During the pandemic, people have signed on via smartphone or computer.
The desperation of those facing redundancy and unemployment has no doubt been amplified by the isolation of lockdown. Up to two-thirds of those made redundant so far have been under 25, with women disproportionately affected and unorganised sectors bearing the brunt.
A century on from Black Friday, the struggle has great similarities, but the challenge for those wanting to organise unemployed workers and give voice to their demands is nowhere near identical.
In 1921, key individuals came to the fore out of the wartime shop stewards and workers’ committee movement, centred on the engineering industry. Today, the teenagers and twenty-somethings of the hospitality industry, while passionate about injustice, the environment, feminism and Black Lives Matter, have almost no knowledge of trade unions and the class consciousness of their 20th-century counterparts.
Although the government has announced 80 new temporary jobcentres, making contact with unemployed workers is still going to present a huge challenge as the remote working world becomes entrenched following the end of pandemic restrictions.
Agency work, the gig economy and low, minimum and zero-hours contracts has made the world of work a different place for many. Jobs on offer for the poor are routinely precarious. While there has never been a homogeneous group of unemployed workers as such, the nature of the labour market has made organisation increasingly difficult, not just for those out of work but for those in the peripheral labour market too.
No matter how difficult the task ahead, it is my contention that the labour and trade union movement cannot afford to duck the issue of organising the unemployed. If no-one speaks out and addresses the authentic demands of those on benefits and universal credit, then the right and the fascists will fill the void, sowing seeds of division and despair, finding scapegoats to divert people from the real causes of their plight.
In the 1930s, Wal Hannington, leader of the NUWM and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, argued that its actions had inoculated areas with high unemployment against fascism. Unity and solidarity are still the antidote.
My mentors in the 1980s, Communist Party veterans Bas Barker and Fred Westacott, did emphasise the advantages that we have over our counterparts of the 1920s and 30s – namely our precious links with the trade unions.
The NUWM was divorced for the most part from the organised labour movement and attempts to involve employed workers in unemployed people’s campaigns were not fruitful. One hundred years of history should have taught every worker and trade union leader that if there are 50 people waiting at the gate for your job, it will be hard for the movement to win better terms and conditions.
We must act quickly. Each trade union needs to look at their offer to their unemployed members and make union retention a priority. For the unorganised, Unite Community offers a trade union home for those out of work. Local trades councils must draw people together where they can.
Unemployed workers’ centres are unlikely to spring up in the present financial climate, but the possibility of virtual and pop-up centres must be explored, along with the potential of social media. The TUC is making the right calls on job creation and job guarantees, but it must make a clear appeal to unemployed workers to come together in defence of their interests. It is still the same demand as in 1921 — work or full maintenance at trade union-agreed rates.
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- This comment is a personal view and was first published in the Morning Star
- Main pic: A group of men from the National Unemployed Workers Movement in Downing Street, London, with a ‘protest postcard’ listing various grievances and suggestions for the attention of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in April 1939
By Colin Hampton, Unite Community activist and co-ordinator of Derbyshire Unemployed Workers Centres since 1985