An article by Workers Playtime on an unemployment march in the mid eighties.
The second Great People's Crusade for Jobs got off to an inspiring start in Glasgow on April 23rd, with a stirring speech from Michael Foot, on the need to arouse the conscience of The Nation. Infused by his deep personal knowledge of the human waste of redundancy, this established the flavour of the whole event.
The main group of pilgrims, in their distinctive green-and-lemming coloured anoraks, was joined on its passage south by others from the four corners of England. It enters the Socialist Promised Land of Brent on June 2nd, where it will be greeted by Ken 'Giss' a Job' Livingstone. It climaxes in Hyde Park on June 5th when the marchers will all put brown bags on their heads and take part in a mass 'die-in' for Jobs. If this gesture succeeds, rumour has it that an extra leg will be added to the route, ending at Beachy Head in Sussex on Democracy Day (June 9th). The celebrants will join hands in a symbolic show of unity and jump off together.
Not since the Royal Wedding has the plight of chronically unemployed people so captured the imagination of the British public. Comparisons spring easily to mind - the unemployed marches of the 30s; the Canterbury Pilgrims; the Children's Crusade of the 14th century (when thousands of infants from all over Europe were persuaded to march on Jerusalem, only to be sold to slavery or die between Marseilles and North Africa); the annual migration of caribou across the plains of Canada (when many fall into rivers and drown)...
The march blessed, before it set off by the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, the Anglican Bishop of Manchester and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. It is, after all, a 'coming-together' of all kinds of people from the 'broad church' of humanity. The crusade crosses man boundaries - religious, class, regional and rational. Its appeal is universal and timeless; it is a plea, down the ages, of the deserving poor for the sympathetic attention of those more fortunate than themselves.
The message of this march is clear, and must not be confused with politics. Work is an essential bonding element in human society. It ties us to each other, and to the institutions under which we live. Without it, we become unstable and psychologically disturbed. It is not a question of satisfying our material needs. It is the problem of meeting our spiritual craving for hard graft in an age of mass idleness.
Many human stories have emerged over the weeks of the crusade, often full of pathos. We heard the tale of the unemployed graduate, her years of study in the loneliness of a cold student garret, her eyesight failing from Writing by Candlelight through the long winter nights, her hopes of being rewarded with a lowly executive post in some multinational company or state department dashed by some callous hand of fate she could not presume to understand. Of the skilled manual worker, thrown onto the scrapheap in the middle years of life, when all he asked for was another 15 years of the same. Of the ex-foreman, stripped of his job abusing others, and now suffering massive hair loss through abusing himself.
The people on this march were not the caricatures of grasping ingratitude we all know. These were not the insolent youths, crabby housewives, social outcasts, unmarried mothers, thieves, professional dole queuers who make up seven-eighths of the population. They were respectable well-spoken people who knew their rightful position and didn't ask much from life. Just the sort of people you would pick to go on a 400 mile sponsored crawl.
The march was not just aimed at moving our consciences. It was a morale boost for the unemployed themselves. After the 1981 Pilgrimage, many of those who took part reported afterwards that they had acquired a new self-required. Of course, it was not all plain sailing. There were many 'ripples' on the pond, caused mainly by a few people's misunderstanding of their true purpose in coming on the march. Some wanted to ignore the organisers' Code of Conduct, others didn't wear the green uniform, and a handful kept shouting controversial slogans. But this year, such heresies were anticipated. Pilgrims were hand-chosen for their cheerful willingness to 'knuckle under'. And the result was most successful. In many ways, going on the walk must be like being in a job. There are stewards to keep everyone busy, well-informed and marching in step. Police have been on hand just in case of extra problems, their wages paid by the organisers - a moving display of solidarity between the employed and unemployed.
As the crusade reaches its finale, it can only inspire us to look for a golden future. This is not the first hunger march, and it will not be the last. One day, we may be all be taking part in this wonderful movement. As it grows in size, fervour and moral authority, we can glimpse the first dim streaks on the horizon, the dawning of a new age of truly full employment. When that day breaks, we will all be put to work, and work will make us free.