As unemployment exploded after the First World War, teams of wounded ex-squaddies begged for handouts on the streets.Then, as now, the government was trying to solve the bosses’ problems by driving wages ever lower.Some unemployed, including blacklisted Union militants, started to demand decent treatment.
In 1920, mounted and tooled-up cops savagely attacked an unemployed demo outside Downing Street- and were briefly driven back up Whitehall. Finally the marchers were trapped. And being battered senseless, till one of them unseated a cop, rode the horse straight at police lines, followed by thousands of “workless”. ( He got into Downing Street before being clubbed down.)
Eventually the cops did regain control. But they didn’t give up. Instead the National Unemployed Workers Movement was born.
Fast forward to 1929, when the government of the day (Tory) was turfing tens of thousands off the dole every week, under the new “not genuinely seeking work” clause* At the same time, they were about to withdraw an earlier “concession”, which would cancel benefits for hundreds of thousands more.
The NUWM moved into action, and launched its second hunger march. It was immediately denounced not only by the government and press, but the TUC and Labour Party as well. Trades Councils were “advised” not to give the marchers any support.
200 unemployed left Glasgow, each marcher endorsed by mass meetings at their respective Scottish towns and cities, led by a pipers’ band. Soon after, other contingents were leaving South Wales, South West, .North- well, all over really, cheered off by thousands. Some places, Trades Councils, even local Labour councils, and others, provided places to sleep and food. (In Aldershot, squaddies turned out in hundreds in support!) In others, the marchers were forced to resort to workhouses. (These were then the last resort of the poor- oppressive, demoralising, a place feared by everyone) Here the managers tried to enforce their regulations. Faced with huge numbers of hungry, stroppy militants- and sometimes straightforward violence -they hardly ever succeeded. This was a series of battles stretching back to the start of the NUWM.
By Saturday Feb 24 the different contingents arrived at their London last stops before the Sunday demo. When the East End contingent arrived, Trafalgar Square was already packed- followed by all the others. But this wasn’t just a (very long for some) march from A to B.
Billetted in large halls provided by Shoreditch Labour Council, the marchers started by demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister.No suprise they were refused. So they ran a rolling week of demos and direct action. Including lobbying Mps. Taking over the Gallery to lecture the House of Commons, leaving the cops floundering (an unemployed demo in the docks had sidetracked them). Occupying the HoC lobby, then the Home Office. A march from Tower Hill into the West End made the local richies very nervous!
By the end of the week, it was back to the traditional Sunday mass rally in Trafalgar Square. Three days later the government suspended the “30 stamp rule”, which would’ve kicked thousands off benefits.** Six weeks later, the government lost their jobs!
If it could be done in 1929, why not in 2010?
*same as proposed sanctions in Welfare Reform Bill really
**pretty much like them trying to increase the number of stamps needed to be eligable for dole money at the moment
Read a longer piece on the Unemployed Workers Movement