1980s >> 1986 >> no-982-june-1986

Then and Now

In March, I went along to the Dundee Rep to watch the world premiere of They Farily Mak Ye Work, a play based on the life of Dundee’s jute-mill workers from the First World War to the early Thirties. The play covered some of the important events of the period such as the Mill Workers’ Strike of 1922 and the Means Test demonstration of 1931 but what impressed most was the quite remarkable resilience displayed by workers enduring quite dire poverty in their day to day lives.

When I left the Rep. I wondered if there were many people who had been left thinking, “Ah great, another fine play about the inter-war depression . . . I’m glad things are very different now”. While in some respects life has become more comfortable for working people in the 1980s, it would be mistaken to suggest that there have been fundamental changes since the 1930s.


Today we are again witnessing record levels of unemployment: workers are laid off and those who remain have to work harder as their employers try to retain their share of the market. Commenting on this practice at the newly-opened Eagle Jute Mill in 1930, the Dundee and District Jute and Flax Workers’ Guide (June/July 1930), stated that:

    “. . . a number of women were sent from the Labour Exchange on Monday morning, 30th June, and were told they had to do the work of four women. And as they declined to be “preyed upon”, they left.”


The large reserve of young unemployed workers proved a useful source of cheap—or even free—labour in the Thirties, as one annual report of the Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers noted:

    “. . . the Ministry of Labour Trade Boards Divisional Office, Edinburgh, drew attention to two recent cases in which Dundee Jute firms had had juveniles on their premises without paying wages. The matter appeared to have arisen through permitting the juveniles to “look round” for a few days on the understanding that no wages would be paid unless, and until, the juvenile was taken on in a regular capacity. It was stated it was understood the practice was not uncommon in Dundee.” (Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Committee, 1933, p. 10)

Is today’s YTS a great deal better? Employers may claim that they are taking on youngsters for social reasons, but they cannot deny that young workers are receiving pocket money for a week’s exploitation.


The soup kitchens that were synonymous with the Twenties and Thirties have disappeared. So too have other features of capitalism’s charity. Commenting on the dire poverty faced by some workers in Dundee in the 1920s, Mary Brooksbank recalled that:

    “Even the police had their Bootless Bairns Fund, for bootless bairns were a common enough sight in those days.” (No Sae Lang Syne: A Tale of This City, p.29)

Today you just have to stroll through the centre of any city to be confronted with numerous charities all with their collecting tins hoping that you will donate to the cause of Help the Aged, Shelter, Dr Barnado’s and so on. All of them signs that workers suffer a great deal at the hands of this society that asks for payment before human needs are considered.

Since the 1930s, we have witnessed the proliferation of new generations of “luxury” consumer goods among working people. In the 1950s, workers increasingly began to possess televisions, cars and washing-machines—wow, the “affluent society” had really arrived! In the 1970s colour TVs and digital quartz watches went from being status symbols to commonplace items and the video seems to be heading the same way. The question is, can we really say that things have got better just because there are more consumer goods around? Often you will hear people claim that a new car is a sign that, “there must be a lot of money about” when in fact many people are up to their ears in debt as the home, the car and the household items are paid for on the never-never – mortgage or HP payments. The increase in consumer goods should not be related to what workers had in the 1930s, for it should be remembered that they then had more items than workers in, say, the 1850s. If we make comparisons we should be looking at the proportion of wealth the workers received then and receive now, from the total that workers in society have created. Now, as then, workers only receive a tiny fraction of the wealth they produce and while the employers reap the profits of our labour we are expected to be grateful for the tiny slice of the cake that is our wage or salary.

Class division

This, then, is the class divide: a conflict between owners of capital—be they mill-owners, land-owners, or shareholders in private or state-controlled industries—and the rest of us. This is the relationship that compelled our relatives in the 1930s to suffer the treadmill of wage-labour and poverty, to march for the “right to work” and which led to numerous demonstrations and cracked heads in strikes where the police clearly showed that their main function is to protect the capitalists’ property rights. Looking back on the Means Test Demonstrations in Dundee on September 24 1931, Sara Craig recalled that:

    “. . . the policemen came on horseback and they were hittin’ folk wi’ their batons. They were hittin’ the folk wi’ their batons and chasin’ them and breakin’ up the crowds.” (Ed. Billy Kay, Odyssey: Voices from Scotland’s Recent Past. p. 13)

Only someone who had just crawled out from a hole in the ground, or had been beamed down from outer-space, would suggest that you can have a democratically accountable police force. Yet time and time again, the Labour Party and assorted left-wing romantics advocate precisely that. If anyone believes the myth of Dixon of Dock Green bobbies then they ought to ask themselves why the police’s task-force was deployed against striking miners in the recent strike? Did they not defend the interests of the National Coal Board against the miners?

An alternative

The problems of poverty that we face today have led to so called solutions like “Right to Work” marches or voting Labour and expecting nationalisation to solve our problems. These “solutions” have been tried and they have failed and it is a tragedy that they have been repeated decade after decade. The sense of disappointment felt by Labour Party members and voters after 1945 must have been immense, watching the dream of the New Jerusalem fade as the Labour government showed it could not run capitalism any better than the Tories.

It is time we decided to get rid of employment and organise the production and distribution of wealth without the barrier of wages and money and the restrictions that capitalism places on our needs. One by one, this system of society stamps out the dreams, hopes and ambitions that we have at various points in our lives – they are crushed by the need to make ends meet. Common ownership is not some age-old dream of a perfect society but am immediate and realisable means of getting rid of the numerous problems that are our lot as wage-workers. The alternative to organising for socialism is the acceptance of our poverty where employers will continue to “fairly mak us work”.

Derek Devine

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