This article was published in RMT News, September 2020.
By Janine Booth, Chair of RMT National Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee
One hundred years ago, two hundred and fifty blind people from across the UK marched from Newport, Manchester and Leeds to London in protest at poverty and poor working conditions.
Setting off on 5 April, the marchers arrived in London twenty days later and rallied in Trafalgar Square along with ten thousand supporters. The march was very much a labour movement event, organised by a trade union called the National League of the Blind (NLB) and its rally addressed by trade union and Labour leaders.
The marchers refused to leave London until Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd agreed to meet them, which he eventually did on 30 April. Under the pressure of the march, Parliament passed the 1920 Blind Persons Act requiring local authorities to provide for the welfare of blind people and lowering the retirement age for blind (male) workers from seventy to fifty.
Following the awful carnage of the First World War, there were many blind and disabled people in Britain. Despite being promised a ‘land fit for heroes’, many found themselves unemployed, begging, or in low-paid, super-exploited jobs in charity workshops. By the NLB’s estimate, over half of the thirty-five thousand blind people in the United Kingdom lived in poverty.
When the War finished, the NLB held a large gathering in Trafalgar Square and disrupted a Parliamentary session in 1919. But Parliament refused to legislate to improve the welfare of blind people, voting down a Bill proposed by Labour MP Ben Tillett. So the NLB stepped up its campaign by calling the march.
The marchers – all civilian men, as the NLB barred women and ex-soldiers from taking part – were accompanied by music played on trumpets and drums. They demanded better education, more work opportunities and a financial grant to all blind people, and carried banners with the slogan ‘Social justice not charity’. They marched arm in arm and four abreast, and some held on to a rope. Sighted guides marched with them and shouted and whistled to direct them. Trade unions and co-operative societies provided overnight accommodation for them along their route.
Despite not meeting all the march’s demands, the Blind Persons Act did deliver significant progress. The NLB remained concerned that local councils would implement the Act by contracting-out their services to the very charities that the marchers were protesting against, and had little confidence in the government’s commitment to better their welfare. It continued to organise blind workers to fight for their rights.
The issues that the marchers tackled are still with us today. Only a third of registered blind and partially-sighted working-aged people are in paid work, and nearly half describe their financial situation as ‘just getting by’ or worse – and that was before recent economic hard times. [RNIB, 2013] Disabled workers are paid on average fifteen per cent less than non-disabled people and only around half of working-age disabled people are in work. [TUC, 2019]
We have many workers in our industries who have visual or other impairments. Employers’ actions and workplace barriers keep them in lower-paid jobs or threaten their job security. The Covid-19 pandemic will not only create more disabled people, it will also threaten the jobs and livelihoods of people who already face more than enough obstacles – unless we fight back effectively.
The 1920 Blind March gives us some ideas of how to do this. It teaches us to think of disabled people not just as victims of oppression but as fighters against it. It also shows that we win progress through mobilisation rather than pleading and that disabled people’s struggles and workers’ struggles march powerfully together.