Tony Cliff

The Right to Work
A new stage?

(November 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 10, 15 October–14 December 1980, pp. 3–4.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We can compare three periods in the fight for the right to work. In the 1920s and 1930s the main emphasis of the movement was about conditions of the unemployed. The fight against the Means Test, for better dole payments, etc. Although they had formal demands for jobs, people in practice took it for granted that you could not fight unemployment. A good example of that is the story of the Slough Soviet at the start of Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles. 5,000 engineers got the sack when their factory in Slough was closed. The level of political consciousness was very high. They declared themselves a Soviet, made a big wooden elephant, wrote ‘Capitalism’ on it and buried it. Then they went to London to demonstrate.

The remarkable thing is that they never decided to occupy the factory to prevent the sackings. In fact the idea of factory occupations does not appear either in Hannington’s book or in MacShane’s account, No Mean Fighter. Even the relationship between the employed and the unemployed was very loose. There were very, very few cases of the unemployed walking into factories. Even more significant, there is hardly any mention of collecting money at the factory gates. The reason is that after the lock-out of the engineers in 1921, shop steward organisation was smashed, workers were really frightened and felt that to stop outside the factory to give money openly to the unemployed was too risky. After the defeat of the General Strike, this tendency was strengthened.

Therefore, while there was massive sympathy for the unemployed, there was no readiness on the part of the employed to take risks to help the unemployed.

At the same time the movement of the unemployed was of a massive scale. When the marchers came to London, they would be met by 100,000 or more workers – some employed, some unemployed.

In the second period, 1971 and the two years or so following the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation in defence of jobs. there were something like 200 factory occupations. The majority of them were in defence of jobs. Practically all of them were victorious. At the same time, the struggle was much more internalised to the factory. The workers had much more confidence in their ability to fight back. But the movement was much less political than before. If you read the literature from the 1920s, there was always a statement about socialism and even, in one or two of the leaflets, about the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That was not a feature of the early seventies.

The third period began with the massive rise of unemployment under the Labour Government of Wilson and Callaghan. This time the fight was on a much smaller scale. The number of workers involved was incomparably smaller than in the 1920s and 1930g. At the same time, workers were far less confident than they were in the 1971–3 period.

There are a number of reasons for this. The scale of unemployment now is not that much different from the 1930s. There are two million officially unemployed, plus about a million unregistered – women without enough stamps, people over 55 who have given up all hope of ever getting work. the partially-disabled, etc. – making about three million in all.

But there are important differences in the nature of unemployment today. First of all the standard of living of the unemployed is higher than it was before the war. Secondly there were then many hundreds of thousands who had been unemployed for many years and were in desperate need of basics like blankets. Today – so far at least – unemployment is much more short term. Very few are unemployed for more than one year.

Again, the unemployed before the war were more visible. We did not have the telly then. so the unemployed were on the streets more often. Workers used to have to sign on once and sometimes twice a day; now they sign on once a fortnight. Therefore unemployment is more hidden and that makes for less collective feeling on the part of the unemployed themselves.

Another very important difference is that, between the wars. unemployment benefit was very much determined by local officials. Therefore there were always a mass of personal grievances you could organise around. What made for permanent organisation of the unemployed was, by and large. the fight over those day-to-day issues. Today dole levels are mainly determined by the government nationally and local struggles are much more difficult.

A further very important factor was that the Communist, Party was much better rooted in the working class movement than anyone is today. Even though the overwhelming number of their recruits in the 1930s, came from the unemployed movement, they were still a very influential force in the labour movement as a whole.

But the unemployed movement today has many advantages over that between the wars. For a start, workers today are incomparably more confident. Therefore relations between employed and unemployed are very much closer than they were. The fact is that money has been collected openly for the Right to Work Marches in trade union branches and in factories right from the start.

Secondly. even in the downturn, there have been factory occupations against unemployment. It is true that many of them ended in defeat, unlike 1971-73. but still workers had enough confidence to fight inside the factory.

The fact that the Right to Work Campaign organised marches reflects the downturn in the class struggle. The truth of the matter is that, we would have much preferred to occupy factories. Basically, to get 200 youngsters to march from Port Talbot to Brighton was a propaganda exercise against unemployment.

Now, in 1980, there is another aspect of the downturn. While workers are giving money to the Right to Work, they are feeling unemployment as a disciplining factor over wages struggles. This is a completely new factor in the period since the war.

When we say that there is a downturn, it does not mean that everybody gives up to the pressure. When you look at the attitude of the mass of the workers to unemployment, there has been a change in the last year.

Unemployment went up and up under Labour, but there was a feeling that there was a limit. Now, with the Tories, the feeling is that the sky’s the limit. In the last few months, the Gallup polls show that the vast majority of people are now very worried about unemployment. After all, when you think you might have a job and a wage packet, inflation is the most important thing. But when you think that you might lose your job then you think more about unemployment.

There is a feeling that enough is enough, and this is very important to deciding whether individual workers arc ready to fight.

The march from Port Talbot was very much bigger than we had expected. So was the lobby on 10 October. And the anger was much more focussed on unemployment than we expected. There was also a clear focus on the Tory government as the enemy. The fact is that 8,000 people would come to Brighton to attack the Tory government but they would not have gone to the TUC. Unemployment is the focus for a growing generalised attack on the Tories.

What I have said up to now does not point to any turning point in the immediate future. But I believe that there will be a turning point. I am not speaking about a big bang – 200 factories occupied in the next months. I am not speaking about the miners taking on the government and winning. I am speaking about something very different. A set of circumstances are combining which create a situation in which there is a possibility that a minority can fight back and win.

It would be rash to predict what the outcome of Gardners will be. Let us assume the best: after a few months the workers win. Even then, it will not be a UCS. The downturn has been too long and too deep for other workers to take up the example in the same way as they did then. This time it will be a much slower process. We need a number of successes if we are to have the same result.

If we assume the worst, and Gardners are beaten after a few months, even then it will help the fightback. It will help because the last few years have seen too many defeats without any fight-back at all. Gardners is a big factory m a strategic industry in a strategic area, and any fightback there will have an impact.


Last updated on 22 September 2019