Articles  •  Britain

Fighting unemployment in the 1980s

08 October 2020

‘Labour Isn’t Working’ cried the Tories during Margaret Thatcher’s victorious 1979 election campaign. The advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi depicted long queues of unemployed in their Tory posters. The Labour government had indeed presided over a rise of the jobless to 1.3 million. But to insinuate that unemployment might fall under the Tories was the deepest form of cynicism and deception.

Sure enough, three years into Thatcher’s reign, unemployment had risen to 3 million, surpassing the high point of the 1930s depression. By the summer of 1984 an all time high of 12 per cent or 3.3 million had been reached. The recession had begun to bite under Labour but deepened under the Tories. For Thatcher it represented a golden opportunity to fundamentally change the balance of class forces in Britain.

Thatcherism was distinguished by its primary objective of disabling trade union power and influence. By 1979 trade union membership was at an all time high; the unions had already seen off the Tories in 1974 and had caused much grief for Labour during the ‘winter of discontent’. Despite wage restraint, job losses and cuts, British capitalism’s competitiveness had not been seriously overhauled or improved under Labour.

So Thatcher’s drastic surgery ensued. Her new brand of Conservatism was to ruthlessly promote ‘deflation’ or slump conditions, delivered with an iron fist. The Thatcher offensive or ‘Monetarism’ was let rip with a restriction in money supply and a hike in interest rates. The least efficient companies collapsed, leading to a consequent and dramatic rise in unemployment, especially in manufacturing. This attack on workers’ jobs was of course designed to undermine militancy and union strength and serve as a downward pressure on wages.

Next came Thatcher’s attack on the Welfare State, especially healthcare, education and social services: more job losses as resources were diverted to subsidise private industry via tax cuts. Cuts to nationalised industries would be combined with privatisation schemes. Indirect taxation increased. To cap all of this came her legal attacks on trade unionism, outlawing the closed shop and secondary action like strikes and picketing, as well as imposing the requirement for strike ballots.

Throughout her three terms in office Thatcher’s victories on several fronts did significantly change the balance of class forces in favour of the capitalist class in particular after the defeat of the miners in the 1984-85 strike. Consequently the conditions of the working class worsened considerably. The scourge of mass unemployment was used as a key weapon to break the power of workers and revitalise capitalism. In this situation the response of the trade union and labour movement to these attacks was critical. Their ultimate failure to stop the jobs slaughter exposed the flaws in their leaders’ strategy.

Manufacturing jobs decimated

Initially Thatcher and some bosses were prepared to settle with organised labour on pay in order to push through redundancies. The first big test for the union leaders came during the national steel strike in 1980. Labour had already placed the nationalised British Steel Corporation under the cosh, but the new management under Tory appointee Ian MacGregor heralded a major rundown of steel and eventually privatisation. So after 3 months on strike for a 20 per cent pay rise, steelworkers settled for16 per cent but with many productivity strings attached.

However, strikers believed that the action was meant to save jobs as well. In this respect the strike failed; by the end of the year over 20,000 steel jobs had been lost and three steel plants – at Consett, Corby and Shotton – had shut down. The ineffective leadership of the ISTC steelworkers’ union, personified in Bill Sirs, quite apart from refusing to bring out the private sector and call other workers out in solidarity, also crucially failed to link the pay rise to the issue of jobs and plant closure. When the steel plants shut down, his advice to branch secretaries was merely to send letters of protest.

British Leyland and the car industry were the next to suffer, as defeats on pay and victimisation of union militants like Derek Robinson were followed by job cuts and a withering of union strength. Thatcher’s policy of taking on the unions one by one in sectional disputes was paying off. As too was the bosses’ policy of conceding short-term pay rises in return for long-term job cuts and closures, which often devastated whole towns and regions. Just to put the steelworkers’ “victory” on pay in context, inflation peaked in 1980 at 18%, so 16% was not even a standstill settlement.

Unfortunately the union leaders had no battle plan of their own. They would prefer to fight on their own and get picked off one by one. The steel strike was a golden opportunity to launch an all out offensive against the Tories. Unions could have brought forward their claims and more importantly have united in general strike action against the growing anti-union legislation.

Occupations and strike

Rank and file steelworkers had shown tremendous resolve in their strike as they organised mass pickets and clashed with police. In other Locally, at factory level, rank and file trade unionists did resist job cuts, for example at United Glass, Holman Mitchells (St Helens), and Plansee. In Manchester the diesel engine plant Gardners was occupied and a successful fight against job losses was waged. Similarly the women workers at Lee Jeans in Glasgow staged an occupation and held off redundancies for two years.

The failure of Ansells brewery workers in Birmingham to save their plant was perhaps a more typical experience. Here the malign influence of the union leaders, in particular Brian Mathers TGWU regional full-timer, sabotaged their struggle and over 700 jobs were lost. Throughout the strike the union officials sabotaged picketing other Allied Brewery plants and then arranged a sell out deal with the bosses. The offer was to accept closure or jeopardise 300 jobs in 2 depots and the promise of ex-gratia payments, the latter subsequently withdrawn! This was put to a ballot and a demoralised workforce accepted.

An alternative strategy was put by Workers Power, Red Flag’s precursor, in strike bulletins to the pickets, proposing an occupation and spreading the strike to the whole of Allied Brewery alongside defence of mass pickets. Control of the strike by regularly held mass meetings was vital if the officials were to be held accountable.

Across industry the union bureaucracy stifled every sign of rank and file democracy. A coordinated militant programme of direct action, strikes and occupations, could have turned the tide. This would have meant an independent rank and file movement across the unions organising such action but also prepared to challenge the bureaucrats and the Tory government. Such a political challenge would always have to flow from the recognition that working class need was a higher goal than capitalist profit.

The Great Strike

The year-long struggle of the miners in 1984/85 was an epic stand against Thatcher’s government and the National Coal Board. The vanguard of the trade union movement was determined to resist the pit closure programme. Thatcher had stumbled in 1981 when Welsh miners successfully resisted pit closures. This time round she was fully prepared.

Coal stocks were built up and scab transport prepared. The police and courts were mobilised with great effect. A militarised police force occupied pit villages; many pickets suffered injuries and two miners died from police attacks. The National Union of Miners had a leader in Arthur Scargill who was a fighter that certainly stood up to Thatcher and possibly Britain’s most militant union leader ever.

However the miners lost and the end of coal mining loomed in Britain. Tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs and scores of pit communities were left derelict. The miners, like other sections of workers before them, were left to fight alone. Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party betrayed them, despite many Labour members supporting the strike; even leading left Bennites failed to criticise Kinnock for his lack of unconditional support for the miners. Both TUC and Labour Party conferences passed motions in support of the NUM in 1984 but failed to call for the blacking of scab coal or for a general strike.

But the limits of left reformism can also be found in Scargill’s inability to demand of his fellow TUC bureaucrats solidarity action. Even after the dockers had twice come out on strike against the scrapping of the National Dock Labour Scheme, Scargill failed to demand their leaders enter a joint struggle, insisting the dispute was their own. Scargill should have appealed to rank and file dockers directly but this would have upset the traditional way bureaucrats handle matters by turning a sectional struggle into an overt struggle of class against class, of the workers against the capitalist state.

So once again union leaders sacrificed the jobs of workers and sent whole communities to the scrap heap rather than pursue a strategy based on a united working class revolt. Only a revolutionary response, which would have posed the need for a general strike based on councils of action, i.e. the miners’ support groups, and defended by workers’ defence squads against state violence could have thwarted the attacks of the British ruling class.

Organising the unemployed

If the official trade union response to workers’ action was one of sabotage, then their response to the unemployed was one of tokenism and inertia. Whether from the trade union or the Labour Party leaders, there was not any serious attempt to organise the ranks of the unemployed. Instead of building a fighting unemployed workers’ movement in every town and city, all we had was a few rallies against unemployment and a couple of marches.

The two People’s Marches in 1981 and 1983 ended up as passive protests under the strict control of the officials and their CPGB enforcers on the ground. The Eastern Leg of the first People’s March was organised like a prison regime with threats by CPGB stewards to remove dissident marchers and paper sellers. The Western Leg was at least subject to some democratic accountability, thanks to Workers Power marchers and other left activists challenging stewards’ decisions and organising democratic assemblies. One such decision tried to stop women on the march wearing sashes calling for a woman’s right to work!

Martin May, Workers Power People’s Marcher on the Western Leg, recalls how stewards ‘tried to stage manage the whole march without any concern for the wishes of the marchers’. He goes on to point out that ‘democratising the march was vital in turning it outwards to workplaces rather than impressing clergy and local dignitaries’. The argument was initially won, as visits went ahead to Holman Mitchell’s occupation, United Glass and other North Western factories.

Sue Dye, another marcher, writes that ‘Workers Power supporters argued for delegations to go ahead of the march to plants – to secure strike action as the march arrived’. The answer from the stewards was predictably negative: ‘there’s only enough money for one minibus’! Such were the obstacles in launching a real fightback against unemployment. Indeed nothing was built out of the marches. By the time of the 1983 People’s March, the TUC actually banned marchers from raising anti-Tory slogans. The ‘non-political’ nature of the march was in line with its mission as being a moral protest against unemployment, not a working class fight for jobs. Both marches had an orientation towards middle class dignitaries, the clergy, Liberals and even ‘soft’ Tories.

The other token gesture towards the unemployed came with the TUC-inspired unemployment centres, some of which still exist. Such local centres were a vital counterweight to the atomisation of the unemployed and the invisibility of their plight. As well as keeping the issue in the public eye through Job Centre occupations and militant marches, they could have exerted pressure on workers facing redundancies or closure to resist job cuts through strike action.

The TUC and Labour councils, however, relegated their activities to offering advice and recreation rather than building organising centres for the jobless. The centres were run by the bureaucrats and not under the control of the unemployed. Workers Power supporters argued for unemployed control of these centres and their experience of setting up Unemployed Workers’ Groups in Birmingham and Sheffield showed the potential that existed for organising action by the unemployed. Instead of providing tea and sympathy as Labour and the Stalinist CPGB were content with, the Birmingham group decided ‘the centre will assist the united action of employed and unemployed to defend every job, resist all closures, redundancies and cuts in social spending and seek to prevent the unemployed being used as scabs to break trade union strength’.

A militant unemployed movement, which could have linked up with organised workers in struggle, was both possible and necessary in this period. Their failure of the official labour movement leadership to do this was also a contributory factor in the inner city rebellions of 1981. Obviously government policy caused these areas to be blighted by poverty, unemployment and racism, but the labour movement’s inaction ensured these uprisings were dislocated from the fight for jobs for all.

Against the bosses’ all out war on jobs in the 1980s Workers Power posed a militant programme of action which called for:

The scale of the unemployment crisis could be even worse this time round. Not only that, today’s conditions pose additional problems for workers facing job cuts or eking out an existence on Universal Credit. Rank and file organisation in the workplace is weaker and more sporadic, the anti-union laws are reinforced and well established, the union bureaucracy is stronger and more conservative. Well over a quarter of the workforce is stuck on zero-hours contracts, bogus ‘self-employment’ or inadequate part-time hours, relying on ‘in-work’ benefits, thus masking the true extent of joblessness. The unemployed no longer ‘sign on’ in a dole queue, but online, at home, isolated. And finally, there are virtually no rebellious Labour councils but instead Blairite monoliths, implementing Tory cuts.

Nevertheless the pent-up anger and anti-Tory hatred in post-lockdown Britain, as witnessed in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Tower Hamlets strikes and the nurses’ pay protests, are to our advantage. Given a lead by local Labour Party branches and CLPs, as well as by union branches and trades councils, activists can help kick-start an unemployment workers’ movement and provide facilities for their own self-organisation.

The prospect of failure to stop the bosses and the government at making us pay for their crisis will not only obliterate our standard of living but will also embolden the forces of the far right to capitalise on people’s desperation. That’s why we need to organise the employed and the unemployed into an effective struggle against the capitalist system. That’s why we need a revolutionary not a reformist response. A system that weaponises unemployment to ensure its own survival deserves to come crashing down!

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