By Jack Kellam
January 19 2021
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we’ve heard lots of statistics about the number of workers being laid off, but far too little from the people directly affected.
That’s why, as a group of campaigners supported by Autonomy, we’ve drawn inspiration from the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) of the early 20th century to create a new forum, launched today, bringing together workers made unemployed by the pandemic to organise, demand and resist.
The new Unemployed Workers Movement will aim to provide a louder voice and means of representation to unemployed workers in the media, in politics and on the streets.
Unemployed workers will have the chance to escape their isolation during the pandemic through our new Facebook forum, develop a set of political demands through regular polling, and – through media training and case studies – ensure their voices get heard in press coverage of the unemployment crisis.
But rather than acting as a new organisation, the Unemployed Workers Movement will encourage participants to join and seek support from existing Trade Unions where possible, and link-up with other worker social justice campaigns, such as those demanding a permanent uplift of Universal Credit, a Universal Basic Income, a Green New Deal, a four-day working week and a ban of zero-hours contracts.
Our name pays homage to the NUWM, founded in January 1921 when unemployment passed the 1 million mark and which, by February 1933, had grown to around 100,000 members across 349 branches. The original unemployed workers movement went on to organise hunger strikes and mass demonstrations, culminating in a huge protest that departed from Hyde Park in London with over 100,000 people.
A century on, we can see stark similarities with the situation in which we find ourselves in today. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak said last week that “over 800,000 people have lost their job since February and we should expect the economy to get worse before it gets better.” Even more worryingly, we know that over three million people have been excluded from any financial support since the pandemic began.
This has left an unfathomable number of people with nowhere to turn. Providing a platform for unemployed workers to organise together in solidarity is going to be crucial. We want to build power among unemployed workers to demand better protection and support from the government immediately, and – looking beyond the pandemic – spark a conversation about the type of work people want to do in the future, grounded in the hopes and dreams of the unemployed.
The pandemic has massively disrupted the world of work, challenging and reshaping our assumptions. Its effects have often been devastating, but with old economic beliefs now thrown into crisis, we have a chance to shape work in the interests of the many.
Unemployed workers have been at the pandemic’s sharpest end: their voice must be heard.
Jack Kellam is a researcher at Autonomy, helping to develop new projects and partnerships. He is helping build the Unemployed Workers Movement.