1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame



Why we did it

In the 1970s as after 2008 there was rising unemployment, and politicians and the media liked to divide people in work from people out of work (‘layabouts’, ‘scroungers’, ‘benefit cheats’).  This was a way of blaming ordinary people for unemployment, picking on the most vulnerable, and dividing the class. We felt it important to challenge this and work towards building solidarity so people in and out of work could support each other. Several of us were claiming ourselves and experienced how dismal, humiliating and depressing the dole queues were. For women, the system also made it hard for us to claim in our own right, with DHSS snoopers trying to prove we were co-habiting with a man (looking for men’s clothing or shoes in the bedroom, two used breakfast cereal bowls in the sink, etc.). So gender was used as a way of controlling people’s lives. (see Women in the Claimants Union in the ELBF document Women’s Lives – A basis for struggle pp 3-4, and the leaflet Sex Discrimination and Social Security, we’re not sure who produced it.)
ss what hardship cartoon

What we did

We were involved in organising Claimants Unions – see leaflets On Social Security? Join the Claimants Union (from a local east London group) and Support the Unemployed (from a London-wide group). Most unemployed people were unskilled, disabled, school leavers, black people or women, many of whom had never belonged to a union, and trades unions turned their  back on them.  

During the 1972 dockers’ strike against containerisation some of us took our Claimants Union table down to the dockland picket lines to advise strikers and their families on how to claim benefits – but the union leaders told us to ‘piss off’. They didn’t see the connections or the importance of solidarity.

We attended local meetings, put out information, and in the late 70s one of us in the Newsreel Collective was involved in making a film about unemployment The Gaffers’ Strike.

Looking back…

Every time unemployment rises, it’s again a big question how those not in work can organise.

In the 1970s, there were some free advice centres and law centres in Tower Hamlets, but not in many other areas. Claimants Unions not only gave advice about the intricacies of claiming benefits but also campaigned and supported people who had lost or were refused benefits because of cohabiting with a man or other reasons. Recently, the TUC have started Unemployed Workers Centres to support and campaign for people who are out of work.

Post-2010 ‘austerity’ measures further squeezed those claiming benefits, especially disabled people. There was organised protest but not enough to stop the swingeing cuts.

A new form of attack on unemployed people was the ‘Workfare’ scheme forcing them to work in unpaid, usually inappropriate, situations or else lose their benefit – the same principle as the Victorian workhouses. There was strong opposition from some left groups, including internationally-co-ordinated pickets on multinationals who are using the scheme to get free labour.

Other ideas bubbled up, including a revival of interest in the idea of  the ‘social wage’ which includes the benefits of free public services and is different from focusing on a ‘living wage’ tied to pay and conditions.

One positive initiative has been the big union UNITE’s idea to start ‘community’ branches whose membership can include non-working people including pensioners and disabled people. This addresses the continuing need for solidarity and co-operation between the employed and unemployed.

In ELBF we never organised specifically around disability, although during the 70s one of the group made a couple of documentary films about this, including Like Other People (1973) about the right of disabled people to have a sex life, which fed into the burgeoning disability movement. Another member of the group wrote the seminal book The Politics of Mental Handicap (1980). A few of us were caring for disabled members of our families, and in the early 1980s some were involved in a London-wide campaign to keep special schools open.