Socialist Worker

How workers resist recession

Despite fears of unemployment, some of the most inspiring struggles have taken place against the backdrop of a recession, writes Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2130

Women workers at the Lee Jeans factory in Greenock occupied the plant and won solidarity from other workers in 1981

Women workers at the Lee Jeans factory in Greenock occupied the plant and won solidarity from other workers in 1981

The growing recession threatens the living standards of millions of workers across the world. Bosses will try to make workers pay for their crisis – and we will need mass resistance if we are going to stop them.

Some people argue the fear of job losses will stop workers from fighting back. But this ignores the fact that some of the most inspiring workers’ struggles have taken place during a recession.

The 1930s saw the biggest slump the world has yet seen. But it was also a decade of militancy. Across the globe workers took part in mass strikes, riots, mutinies and demonstrations in response to the crisis.

Workers’ organisation in the US was dramatically stronger at the end of the 1930s than it had been at the beginning. It grew through struggles.

In 1934 truck drivers in the city of Minneapolis with no history of militancy struck to demand union rights. Membership of their union, the Teamsters, dramatically increased during the struggle. In autumn 1933 there were 75 members of the local union branch. By July 1934 it grew to 7,000.

The strikers consciously involved unemployed workers in the dispute. They organised to ensure the unemployed joined pickets and protests. This undermined bosses’ threats to sack the workers and replace them with scabs.

The strike was met with the utmost brutality from the bosses and the state. Police shot pickets, while the state governor brought in troops and arrested strike leaders.

Yet the strike won – and inspired other groups to fight. Workers at car plants in Toledo, Ohio, struck several times in 1934 to win union rights and higher pay. Dock workers in San Francisco struck for 83 days and won the unionisation of all ports on the West Coast of the US.


The existence of revolutionary groups of workers was a key factor in many of these struggles.

Car workers in the US came under sustained attack as bosses tried to cut jobs and pay to safeguard their profits.

Yet they fought back and made huge gains. On 30 December 1936 over 3,000 workers at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, occupied the plant and struck for 40 days. They won union recognition for the entire car industry.

These occupations became known as “sit-down strikes” and rapidly spread throughout the industry. In 1936 there were 48 sit-down strikes. In 1937 there were 477 involving over half a million workers.

Trade unions drew in people who had not been seen as “typical” union members – women and immigrant workers. This led to the Congress of Industrial Organisations, a federation of trade unions, being launched in the US.

Fights were not limited to organised workers. Farmers fought the police to stop their land being repossessed, while unemployed workers and school children protested to demand increased benefits and food.

The turn towards militancy was not limited to the US.

In Britain unemployment had risen to 2.5 million by the end of 1930. The National Unemployed Workers Movement organised demonstrations of 250,000 people.

Unemployed workers rioted for several days in Birkenhead and Belfast in autumn 1932. They forced the councils to increase their benefits.

The government’s Unemployment Act of 1934 sparked massive resistance. New benefit scales meant that hundreds of thousands would have their benefits partially or completely cut.

The act came into force in 1935, and was met with huge protests and riots in cities across Britain. Mass resistance forced the government to retreat and introduce different benefit scales.

In September 1931 sailors at Invergordon mutinied for two days after the government tried to impose a 10 percent pay cut. The mutiny terrified the government, which was split over how to respond. It was forced to grant concessions.

This ideological turmoil led to battles on issues beyond “bread and butter” ones. In particular, workers had to respond to the fascists, who exploited the crisis of the 1930s to swell their ranks.

In Britain the Battle of Cable Street blocked the British Union of Fascists from marching in the East End of London. But sections of the world’s ruling classes encouraged fascist organisations – in an attempt to smash workers’ resistance.

The 1930s shouldn’t be romanticised. It was a decade of severe hardship that ended in a world war. But the fact that workers were still able to fight in such circumstances is an inspiring one.

We don’t need to go back to the 1930s to find workers fighting back in recessions. In Britain there have been a number of struggles during more recent economic crises.

In the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government responded to the recession by launching sweeping attacks on workers.

At the end of 1979 British Steel announced it would sack 52,000 workers. In response steel workers walked out on their first national strike for over 50 years. They were on strike for 13 weeks – which at the time was the longest strike since the end of the Second World War.

In the end the strike lost. But this was because the union bureaucracy failed to lead it, not because workers didn’t want to fight.

At every stage the union leaders tried to compromise. Despite this workers ran a determined and militant strike.


Strikers organised marches to build solidarity. There were spontaneous occupations of British Steel’s offices in Sheffield. They mobilised flying pickets to stop the movement of steel. The prospect of a general strike in South Wales was raised.

The strike pushed Thatcher’s government into crisis. Half the government wanted to back off and the Tories could have been defeated.

Following her victory over the steel workers, Thatcher tried to take on the coal miners. In February 1981 the government announced the closure of 23 pits.

Some 24,000 miners came out unofficially across South Wales and miners went to other areas to picket more workers out. After three days Thatcher retreated. This was the first major policy U-turn that her government had been forced to make.

Fights weren’t restricted to the strongest groups of workers. In February 1981 over 200 women workers at Lee Jeans in Greenock, Scotland, began an occupation of their factory, which was threatened with closure. The occupation lasted for seven months.

Rank and file organisation was crucial to the occupation. The National Union of Tailoring and Garment Workers only officially recognised the dispute after six weeks. The union bureaucracy lagged behind the mood of the workers.

The strikers won fantastic solidarity. When the company threatened to evict them, workers from shipyards, mines and steelworks came to surround the factory to defend the strike.

British and Irish dockers refused to ship any of the company’s products. In the end the strikers stopped the closure of the factory and saved 140 jobs.

A “People’s March for Jobs” took place on 31 May 1981. Delegations of workers from different parts of the country marched to London to join a rally of tens of thousands.


When one delegation marched through Coventry, 10,000 engineers walked out to greet it.

The 1980s also saw explosions of anger over issues apart from jobs or pay. In July 1981 people rioted in Liverpool, Brixton and Southall against police racism.

Workers can and have fought in recessions. But these fights don’t happen automatically. Many problems can get in the way.

The powerlessness that workers experience every day encourages them to look to others to change things for them, rather than taking action themselves.

The trade union bureaucracy can be a barrier to action. Union leaders are in a position that means they often compromise with bosses. At the same time they are removed from the day-to-day experience of being a worker.

They have ties to the Labour Party that can been an important factor in pushing them to hold back struggles so as not to rock the boat for the party.

But union leaders also can be pushed into taking action. And workers can go around the union machine by taking unofficial action.

It would be wrong to conclude that workers won’t fight in a recession. Over the last few months workers in a number of industries have voted for strike action. On London’s buses the votes for action have been as high as 99 percent.

During an economic crisis workers find themselves under constant pressure from the bosses. And the crisis makes it much harder for the dominant ideology to explain away the reality of workers’ everyday lives. All these factors can encourage a fightback.

These factors operate during both booms and slumps – but slumps can make the contradictions sharper.

This crisis comes at a time when we’ve had a prolonged period of slow economic growth. Yet pay and conditions for workers have been under attack even during the “boom” years.

And the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements have fuelled distrust with mainstream politics, leading to widespread questioning of the system and its values.

The situation today is different from that of the 1980s. Then Thatcher consciously used the threat of unemployment to help smash working class organisation.

People were told unemployment was part and parcel of the free market and had to be accepted. Those arguments will not have the same purchase today.

None of this means that workers’ struggle is inevitable. The recession will lead to a huge ideological battle between left and right. What socialists do on the ground makes a huge difference in these circumstances.

Issues that we may think aren’t important can become flashpoints for people’s anger. Battles that seem to be over can suddenly flare up again.

Socialists have a job to do in organising resistance to the crisis, building rank and file organisation in the unions and winning solidarity.

But we also have to grab the opportunity to build a revolutionary political alternative – and to help put a permanent end to the capitalist system of recession, poverty and wars.

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Article information

Tue 2 Dec 2008, 18:43 GMT
Issue No. 2130
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