Politicising unemployment


Peoples March for Jobs poster, 1981

Guest blogger Dr Paul Griffin from Northumbria University has written this post about Politicising unemployment – connecting workers and non-workers through the trade union movement (1978-)

Ours is a different army. The young unemployed now descending on London may not have starved. They have never tasted Army life. They have grown up against the background of the post-war consensus of economic policies which have had at their heart a commitment to full employment and the welfare state. Skinheads from Bolton, punks from Manchester, the mother and her unemployed son from Whaley Bridge, blacks from London and their older marching companions; what brings them together is the cry for work and dignity.

(People’s March Co-ordinators, Letter to the Editor, The Times, May 5th 1981, p.13)

1980s Britain – responding to a crisis

On May 1st 1981, over 250 unemployed people departed from Liverpool for London on the People’s March for Jobs. En route they were joined by parallel regional marchers from elsewhere across the UK and on their arrival into London a month later, became part of a crowd estimated to be over 100,000 people in Hyde Park for a rally. The over 200-mile march, and solidarity events across the country, reflected a community and trade union response to the challenges posed by unemployment. In Liverpool alone, redundancies and industrial closures caused 17.9% of the workforce to be unemployed in July 1981. Nationally the statistics were similarly increasing with 11.9% unemployed.

The march was a response from the trade union movement, with leadership from the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and wider political left organisers, to intervene in a crisis posed by industrial closures. Echoing some of the comments in the exert above, unemployed marcher Keith Mullin reflected on his experience of arriving in London in 1981:

Hundreds and hundreds of people who are just offering you support, putting money in the pockets because we all had collection buckets. We all had the green jackets, we all had the green tops, we were all kitted out with boots. All this stuff by the march which was all paid for by the trade union movement, the TUC, and donations of other people so, that particular day that was historical in my mind.

[Oral History with Keith Mullin, 2021]

Such campaigns sat alongside the opening of Unemployed Workers’ Centres (UWCs) in towns and cities across the UK. These centres were established by trades councils and viewed as a community response to the challenges of rising unemployment. Over the last few years, I have been working with UWC staff, volunteers and activists to uncover a history of struggle associated with unemployment. Their commitment, in some cases of over 40 years, reflects a little known history of organising and resistance in a time largely defined Thatcherism and neoliberalism. My work has looked to illuminate these actions to consider a further history of unemployed struggle, which might complement more familiar social struggles, such as the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement of the 1920s and 30s.

Unemployed Workers’ Centres

The first UWC officially launched in Newcastle in 1978, following a series of meetings and actions in 1977. The Newcastle Trades Council Centre for the Unemployed opened with the ambition to be a space where unemployed people could meet, access resources and support, as well as providing an organising resource for associated campaigns, connecting workers and non-workers. Reflecting on their second year, the centre’s annual report described their role as platforming a ‘voice for the unemployed’, blending together their campaigning efforts with the ‘mass of day to day issues and queries which crop up among working people, created by the variety of economic and social pressures arising under the present system’ and handling cases on behalf of ‘redundant workers or long term claimants; school leavers or young unemployed’. [i]

Unemployment was regularly discussed and debated at the annual conference of The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and this resulted in a consultative conference in November, 1980 to outline next steps in building a response to the crisis. The most significant outcome of this meeting was a clear instruction to trades councils for an expansion of UWCs based upon the experiences in Newcastle and to respond to the political challenges of the time. The TUC produced guidelines and resources, through regional trades councils, to help establish centres. The TUC President Lionel Murray pledged a commitment to the centres in a letter instructing all affiliated unions and trades councils:

-          [A]ffiliated unions should do all that they can to retain and recruit more of the unemployed, and to publicise union services available to unemployed members;

-          there should be an action programme for the development of unemployed workers’ centres throughout the country.[ii]

TUC support for the initiative was prominent within conferences yet wider calls for greater involvement, participation and membership of the unemployed within Congress remained a source of considerable tension. That said, the centres grew in number considerably and began to provide vital services across the country as well as providing organising spaces for the trade union movement. The potential here for collaboration between those in-work and those out-of-work was clear in the principles outlined by centres.

Activities varied between centres, with some prioritising welfare advice and others emphasising campaigning in their work, but successes were notable. Centres were notable for the large amounts of money returned to claimants through appeal processes. The very presence of centres within urban settings was also significant in itself. Centres offered a place of support, comfort and sociability for unemployed people to gather and share experiences. They could draw upon the expertise of welfare rights advisers and also lead as organisers of campaigns. In this regard, the centres should be considered as sites of care and campaigning. Such services were found at centres across the country, perhaps no more impressive than those found at the large (0.93 acres) Merseyside UWC at 24 Hardman Street in Liverpool. This centre had numerous resources, including a music venue (The Flying Picket) and recording studio, library, office space, and creche.

Image of mural in Newcastle Centre Against Unemployment (with permission from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre)

Image of mural in Newcastle Centre Against Unemployment (with permission from Derbyshire Unemployed Workers’ Centre)

Alongside smaller acts of listening and advice, the centres often held a strong political commitment to related campaigns. These active organising efforts can be broadly described across two perspectives, first campaign and organising work centred upon those issues faced most closely by the unemployed, and second those actions characteristic of a solidarity between workers and non-workers. Multiple actions were prominent throughout the 1980s across unemployed and employed struggles and there is not sufficient space to detail these in full here. Instead, two snapshots are introduced, in addition to earlier references to the People’s March for Jobs, to give an indication of the organising histories. During the 1984/85 miners’ strike, for example, UWC workers, volunteers and users were involved in substantial fund-raising efforts and picket line acts of solidarity. At the same time, centres were also prominent in organising against changes associated with social security, including a sustained campaign against ‘welfare snoopers’ and the surveillance of welfare claimants.

By 1982, the UWC Bulletin reported 150 centres had opened, increasing to 210 centres by 1985, before a significant number of closures in the latter period of the decade, primarily due to reductions in local authority funding and changes to the welfare system (including the closure of the Manpower Services Commission). Their history, though, is reflective of trade union efforts to connect employed and unemployed. This, of course, was not without its tensions and limits. The challenge of what Chesterfield centre co-ordinator Colin Hampton described as ‘organising the unorganisable’ was evident in many conversations through the research. Yet, the potential to extend the reach of trade union principles, beyond the workplace, was clear throughout interviews:

You can’t find out what the problems that people are facing who are out of work unless you offer advice. So you have to offer advice, but when they come in, we’re not just going to sit there in a bovine fashion and just say well, we can help with that, we can’t help with that, you can claim that, you can’t claim with that. If we saw that there was an injustice, then our job was to get people together to do something about that injustice.

(Oral History with Colin Hampton, 2021)

This sentiment is captured in the continued work of centres like those still active in Derbyshire and Tyne and Wear. At their best, Unemployed Workers’ Centres illustrate the transferability of trade union principles and practices. As spaces of care and support, listening and advice, as well as organising and expressing solidarity, Unemployed Workers’ Centres provide a lesser-known history of a sustained alternative vision during a period defined by economic crisis and widening inequality.

This project is funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant (SRG1920\101292)

For more about the project, access to these publications or if you have a suggestion for the research:

Contact: Dr Paul Griffin – paul.griffin@northumbria.ac.uk

Follow publications from the project at: https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/persons/paul-griffin  

For article versions of this research, see:

Griffin, P. (2021) Expanding labour geographies: resourcefulness and organising amongst ‘unemployed workers’. Geoforum, 118, 159-168.

Griffin, P. (forthcoming) Unemployed Workers’ Centres (1978-): spatial politics, ‘non-movement’ and the making of centres.  

[i] Newcastle on Tyne Trades Council – Centre for the Unemployed – ‘The Second Year’ (1979). Modern Records Centre, MSS.292D/135/16.

[ii] Letter to the secretaries of all affiliated unions, regional councils, Wales trades union council, CATCs and Trades Council. Modern Records Centre, MSS. 292D/135.58/1.