The “On This Day” series is slowly but surely building up and forming an interesting and diverse collection articles. This latest contribution is from our YCL General Secretary Zoe Hennessy and seeks to draw from the lessons of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) in the interwar period.
85 years ago;
on the morning of Wednesday, 23rd of January, 1929, tens of thousands of Glasgow workers mobilised on Blytheswood Square, to give a rousing send-off to 200 men, representing the Scottish coalfields, shipyards, textile towns, fishing industries and others affected by the blight of unemployment in Scotland. The marchers were something more than individual volunteers; they were representatives, because they had all been endorsed at great mass meetings held in their respective towns throughout Scotland. Led by a pipers’ band, we set out to blaze the trail for over five hundred miles on the roads of Britain, calling upon the workers of the land to stir their slumbering souls and to rise against the callous governing class responsible for the terrible plight of the unemployed.” – Wal Hannington, founding member of the CPGB & the National Organiser of the NUWM.
They set out from Glasgow in the depths of a Scottish winter in order to complete the second great national hunger march to London. During this five week journey through blizzards and snowstorms, they were joined by other marchers from other areas of Britain suffering from extreme poverty and high levels of unemployment. They were marching against the “not genuinely seeking work” clause, which the ruthless Baldwin government were using in order to throw tens of thousands of young men and women off the labour exchange benefit, and pitch them and their families further into poverty and hunger.
As with the other marches organised by the communist led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the right wing T.U.C. and labour leadership condemned it on the grounds that it would mean hardship for the men, and implored trades councils and local labour parties on the routes not to offer assistance. The capitalist press and Tory government did their best to dishearten the marchers, so deciding to set out without the guarantee of help along the way was no mean feat.
The weather was extremely challenging at the beginning, and the marchers were disheartened, worrying that the contingent from the North East of England would abandon their march. They sent a telegram to them, and were reassured of their faith and solidarity, when the response came; “Greetings to the courageous Scottish contingent! Tyneside assembling ready for the road!” Knowing the route the marchers would take meant that their families and comrades could send ahead messages of solidarity. Wal Hannington writes that this telegram from the Tyneside contingent had a strong effect on the workers, for it “made them realise that they were part of a great national movement, which was moving into action against unemployment”.
The marchers experienced different treatment from local labour parties and trades councils. Where the labour party was right-wing, the marchers would be ignored, but in more progressive areas local trades councils and labour parties openly defied the TUC, by providing food and accommodation for the marchers, and organising demonstrations of support. For example when they reached Preston, thousands of textile workers lined the streets to welcome them, and they were given a Lancashire hotpot courtesy of the trades council. They were treated with this good will and solidarity throughout the textile belt.
Other groups of marchers experienced problems with the police and workhouse officials, and in Birmingham the police lead a baton charge against the unemployed, severely injuring many. In Thirsk the Durham marchers were locked into the workhouse, and on managing to break out, realised that there was nowhere else for them to stay. At 10pm they decided to defy the police and march 12 miles to Ripon, with the police trying to provoke them every step of the way. Hannington writes that “they were still marching at two o’clock in the morning, and still the ‘Internationale’ rose in deep-throated singing; though their legs by now were moving mechanically, still they kept their regular marching step”. Everywhere the marchers were smashing through attempts by the Baldwin government to treat them like animals, and their message was being taken into homes of thousands of working class people. These people, who had little themselves, were always forthcoming with food and milk, and donations for the marchers to reach London. Sometimes they would have to march for more than 30 miles to reach a town that could accommodate them, always they had to sleep on hard floors, but there were no complaints. They would often be exhausted upon reaching somewhere, but would always gather themselves to march smartly into town in companies of twenty. In Aldershot, which accommodated a major British army base, soldiers gave money and cigarettes to the marchers, and the Aldershot Labour party held an official reception for them.
The marchers arrived in London on the 24th of February, and the London workers eagerly awaited them in their thousands, with working class banners and bands. Thousands of marchers poured into Hyde Park, greeted by cheers and singing. Indeed it was a “thunderous challenge that the marchers had brought to the Baldwin government on the question of unemployment”. Although the Baldwin government continually refused to meet a deputation of the marchers, its success cannot be judged on that alone.
The outstanding feature that was apparent in the experience of all the contingents was the rank and file working class support they received, which defeated the TUC and labour leadership’s attempt to thwart the march. It was the class unity between the English, Scottish and Welsh that ensured that this march was a success, and that the blight of unemployment became a serious issue in the hearts and minds of the working class. These people began to pave the way for the gains made by the working class in the twentieth century. Along the way the march leaders would read out press articles from the capitalist media. Not only did this give the marchers a laugh, but it also taught them lessons about the anti-working class propaganda waged against them. This continues to happen to today with programmes like Benefits Street, which aims to soften people up for the destruction of the welfare state.
In the immediate aftermath, Baldwin government was compelled to stop the operation of the thirty stamps qualification, saving 250,000 thousand from being struck off the dole. This was the first retreat since 1927. Just six weeks later the Baldwin government resigned, and a Labour government was elected to replace it. And so the courageous work of the NUWM continued.
Today unemployed workers are facing another ruthless Tory government, which continues to demonise them, and expect them to search high and low for jobs which don’t exist, and take on jobs with poor pay and few rights. We should take hope from people like Wal Hannington and The NUWM, and know that with class unity and discipline we can bring down this anti-working class government.
Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936, Wal Hannington.