J.T. Murphy

The Unemployed Movement in England

(27 February 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 21, 27 February 1923, pp. 163–164.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Hunger Marchers have returned to London. They have marched and marched. Now whither shall they turn? For mouths they have tramped from city to city and town to town declaring that they, will “see Bonar Law”. And Bonar Law will not meet them. This is a serious situation of which we must take stock The problem of unemployment finds no solution in Europe. Indeed everything points to this problem becoming ol primary importance in all the countries of Central and Western Europe.

This is the third year of acute unemployment in Britain. Throughout the whole period there have never been less than 1,500,000 unemployed. At one time they totalled nearly 2,500,000. At an early stage efforts were made to organize them. It was exceedingly difficult to make headway at first. The trade union unemployment benefits plus the state insurance cut away the grounds for agitation. This was especially the case with the skilled workers. It was only the poorest sections of the proletariat, often those who had never been in the trade unions and lacked organizational experience that were approachable. These of course were hit severely right from the early days of the slump. When the call was issued “Go to the Guardians”, they were the first who made response. There was no other course for them to take. They were thus thrown together in large masses with nothing else to do than ponder on their misery and listen to the voice of the agitator. Out of these and the rebel elements who had been active in the “unofficial” shop stewards movement, there sprang up the organization of Unemployed Workers Committees.

Success attended their early efforts. The Board of Guardians gave way under the pressure of the mass agitation that developed all over the country. Better terms than had ever been granted to those in distress were now established. The methods adopted by the Guardians to divide the forces only served as a means to more efficient organization. The guardians made it a condition of relief that the applicant should put in so much work, and sent the unemployed to the outskirts of the towns to clear the ground for parks or bowling greens, etc. Each of the centres to which these groups of workers were dispatched served as a centre for organization during the summer months. Out of the summer agitation grew the strength and organization to demand hails for shelter in the witter. In tins they were successful during lite first year. But the whole movement remained segregated from the unions, and the unions and the official labor movement practically ignored its existence.

It was not until union benefits began to give out, and the State insurance benefits got into difficulties, so that large numbers of trade unionists, including the skilled workers, were compelled to resort to the Guardians for relief and were brought into more real contact with the unemployed workers’ committees, that the strong prejudices of the craft unionists were broken down. Even then it was only these who were actually unemployed and suffering all the misery of their position, that listened in any other than a pious way to the pleas for united action. Every union was a bulwark of conservatism safeguarding the financial interests of its members, as an insurance society, and thought this was not the time for fighting and simply ignored the agitation of these masses The union leaders pleaded the difficulties of the slump and the futility of strikes, but the revolutionary fervour of the unemployed prevented blacklegging during the lock-outs while the union leaders negotiated the retreats. The unemployed pressed for action by the employed. The trade union leaders permitted the unemployed leaders to appeal to the Trade Union Congresses and the Labour Party Conferences, passed resolutions, interviewed Ministers of the Government, but never took a single step to join the forces of the employed and the unemployed for united action of any character.

Meanwhile, the funds of the unions were being depleted and wages fell. Discontent with the leadership found its echo in the loss of membership. The unemployed became tired of their appeals to the unions, and discontent fastened on to the fact that the unemployed organization was the only organization which would do any fighting, and an agitation sprang up to make of the unemployed an all-inclusive organization. This was an exceedingly grave danger for the trade union movement, and, had it not been for the prompt action of the Communist Party, the unemployed would certainly have taken steps along these lines and become a rival organisation to the unions, the union leaders would have had themselves to blame.

The continued isolation of the unemployed and their vital question right from the beginning of the slump, has become the central problem of the movement. For a period of four months the sharpness of this issue was modified. The danger just mentioned had caused alarm. Then came the general election and the Hunger March well timed for the effect on the election campaign. Right from the north of Scotland and all parts of the united Kingdom, the marchers roused the constituencies. Neither the Trades Union Congress nor the Labour Party could ignore them. The unemployed broke down the barrier between the union headquarters and the Unemployed Workers Committees. All joined in great demonstrations on Unemployed Sunday.

The Hunger Marchers had demanded to see the Prime Minister. He refused as a result of the demonstrations, he met the General Council of the Trade Union Congress. The General Council did not put forward the demands of the unemployed, the victory of the unemployed had not gone so far. But in true parliamentary style, at which the leaders of the Second International are adepts, they “drew attention to the serious position etc.”, and there the matter rested for the moment. The Labor leaders were at a dead end. The Unemployed get off to repea. the Hunger March with the cry “We will see Mr. Bonar Law”, intending to make a big show at the opening of Parliament. The Trade Union leaders and the Labour Party simply sat tight waiting to make a Parliamentary protest, while the leader of the Amsterdam International, Mr. J.H. Thomas, condemned hunger marches and “such sensational exploiting of the distresses of the unemployed”.

The Hunger-Marchers returned to London several hundred strong. After the police had turned a few demonstrators back from the route of the procession at the opening of Parliament, a large protest meeting of the unemployed was held in Hyde Park. They have not seen Mr. Bonar Law. And so, what next? All the months of agitation, of sacrifice and endurance, of marching and hungering seem to have gone for nothing. The men in the factories seem to think the unemployed problem is an unemployed workers question. The labor leaders consider parliamentary speeches to be the only fit and proper form of agitation.

When the lock-outs were in progress the unemployed acted again and again iu the interests of the employed workers. In town after town they marched on the union committees and into the factories in thousands to present a united front of the locked-out and unemployed workers. It is the only line that can be pursued now if the unemployed organization is not to fall to pieces.

Last updated on 8 July 2021