Thursday, October 1, 2009

Claimants and unemployed issues and struggles in the 1970s and 1980s (especially in Tottenham in the 1980s) - what can we learn from them?

In 2006, the government is continuing its ever-increasing attacks against the hard-won benefits of all kinds of claimants (pensions, invalidity benefits, unemployment benefits etc), and stepping up its pressure on claimants to take any job at any price in order to drive down wages. What can we learn from the widespread struggles by unwaged people in the not-so-distant past, and what can be done today to stand up for everyone's right to a decent income?

The 1920s-30s

There had been a big movement of the unemployed in the 1930s, focusing on demanding work or basic payments. There were marches, lobbying, stunts and sometimes direct action protests - like storming into expensive hotels demanding food. There was a Tottenham branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement which had a meeting room on Tottenham High Rd by High Cross. A couple of local factories were occupied by protestors to demand jobs and prevent overtime working.

The 1960s - a new wave

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a new unwaged and unemployed movement sprung up throughout the UK demanding the right to adequate benefits for all adults. People formed local Claimants Unions, and the CUs formed the very active Federation of Claimants Unions - at one point there were over 100 active local CUs. This movement was one of the new wave of radical,self-organised and often overlapping movements and struggles which came out of the ‘60s, including struggles for women’s liberation, black liberation, wildcat strikers and ‘rank and file’ industrial organisation, gay liberation, grass roots community action including independent radical newspapers and bookshops, squatting and international solidarity. These
movements tended to be characterized by collective working, solidarity, class-consciousness and anti-sexism, a tendency to direct action and radical protest whilst promoting a culture of ‘we demand our rights’.

The Federation

From about 1970 to 1990 the Federation of CUs held annual conferences and also camps, rotated each year around the UK. It had an influential and popular programme of ‘claimants helping each other to claim what we can from the welfare state, especially the Social Security office’, whilst demanding ‘a basic income for all’, and coupled with a longer term explicit libertarian / socialist / anarchist vision of ‘power to the people’. It was a ‘right to live’ movement rather than ‘right to work’ movement. It was building a well-respected and to some extent an effective claimants’ movement of grass roots day-to-day mutual aid, and of militant ideas and
protest aiming to defend and improve the lives of millions of people in previously marginalised sections of society. However, its local impact around the UK was patchy, very much depending on whether local CUs could get established…


In 1981 I got involved in Haringey & Islington CU which met at the Crouch Hill Recreation Centre. This was one of the longest established CUs, active since 1970. Around 1982 Tottenham Claimants Union was formed (or indeed re-formed as there had briefly been a TCU 10 years earlier based in Broad Lane) - meeting in a house in Radley Rd, N17 and mostly helping each other with our claims and housing etc. When we heard the Trades Council was setting up a Council-funded Unemployed Workers Centre we started meeting there in what was little more than the broom cupboard. For about 5 years we met there, soon to be on almost a daily basis.

The Centre

Part of a national network of TUC centres in the 1980s, it was very much intended to be part of the TUC/Council approach to ‘the unemployed’ as individuals needing advice by professionals, plus recruiting people into campaigns run by trade unions and left-wing parties against unemployment or for benefits. It was initially run by the Trades Council (effectively the Communist Party). However, the unwaged regular users soon expected a great deal more, and began using the place as a public base to reach out to local claimants, to support each other, to demand our own collective voice in the borough, and to develop our own independent ideas and activities. We
gradually built up a very high level of mutual aid, friendship and solidarity.

The following are some of the activities and achievements:

- supporting each other and other claimants with claims at the DSS. And also over other basic needs like housing - for a couple of years there were Homes For All meetings supporting short-life use or squatting of empty homes
- campaigning against DSS claimant harassment squads - this definitely had an effect
- campaigning fairly successfully for free or 'concessionary' services and facilities for all unwaged
- organising social events (including a 4-day free food kitchen at xmas)and helping organise the annual FCU camping holidays (15 of us from Haringey went one year)....
- supporting independent unwaged groups using the Centre (eg Unwaged Women’s Group, creative writing group, a poetry group, drama group), and also a local pensioners’ action group - occupying the Civic Centre to demand emergency payments when the DSS was closed for 2 weeks by industrial action - 200 claimants took part but were
ejected by police
- joining DSS and Jobcentre workers on their picket lines (there were regular disputes there), and at one time joining Coombes Croft library workers successful occupation to prevent closure
- supporting the miners strike (1984/5) including attending Haringey Support Group meetings at the centre, putting up visiting strikers in our homes, visiting mining villages and going on demonstrations
- supporting Wapping printworkers in their 1986/7 dispute, including going on pickets and supporting strikers producing their own ‘Picket’ bulletin.

Communist Party

We began to insist the Centre be run by the unwaged/unemployed. The Trades Council / Communist Party were dead against this and pulled out all the stops to ensure it didn’t happen. When the TCU agreed to let Wapping printworkers use the TCU address as a contact for their independent ‘Picket’ bulletin, the Communist Party (which dominated the official Union machinery trying to keep control of the very militant Wapping dispute) lost the plot and launched a local campaign against the TCU trying to prevent local trades unionists and pensioner activists working with us.

Our own base

Eventually we decided to set up our own Haringey Unwaged Centre in a shop front at 72 West Green Rd. The Unemployed Workers Centre became an advice centre where people had to have an appointment to go in - it eventually closed a year later. [In fact the local Communist Party branch seemed to collapse around this time or just later]. Although we had no funding we managed to run our own ‘drop-in’ centre, open daily (and sometimes evenings) for about 4 years, holding a range of events and activities
similar to before, but maybe less strong. For 7 or 8 years TCU had also played an active role in linking up with unwaged organisations around London and the country. But times were changing, and government efforts to suppress ‘rights culture’ and opposition movements were beginning to have an effect throughout society - ‘unemployment’ and claimants’ issues were being depoliticised.

Poll Tax

From 1988-1991 the Unwaged Centre was instrumental in helping to build the largest community-based civil disobedience movement in Haringey’s history - the anti-poll tax movement. [For more info, see the HSG local history pamphlet on the subject]. Tottenham Against the Poll Tax was based at the Centre which was the hub for distribution of tens of thousands of leaflets, and all manner of continuous activities and protests for 2-3 years - and eventually victorious!

The end, or moving on?

In 1991 the 3 main anti-poll tax groups agreed to set up local Solidarity Groups (which eventually became Haringey Solidarity Group). The Centre became less and less used, and we eventually donated it to the mainly turkish International Transport & General Workers Union activists for their own use. During the 1990s, the government adopted increasingly oppressive 'right to work' measures and propaganda, and the claimants’ movement largely lost its way and dwindled - although a ‘Groundswell’ activist network was set up in the late-1990s to oppose job seekers allowance rules and incapacity benefit cuts.

In 2006 in the UK there are still some claimants' groups, an active pensioners' movement, disability campaigns, and various other campaigns around related issues. Should efforts be made to build on the successes of the past? Or are there better ways these days for unwaged people to stand up for their interests? Can the tactics used in the past be employed today in other movements?

Dave Morris

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