by Brian Rylance
For those who experienced the deprivation caused by the recession of the 1980s, and were galvanized by the strength of the fight against it, there can be a feeling of hopelessness at today’s relative lack of organisation and militancy to defend the position of the working classes as many are pushed into unemployment again.
Vast numbers of people who struggled against Thatcherism will have used one of the many unemployed workers centres and heard the unions protest on behalf of those without work, but what of this 21st century global recession? It must be admitted that the fightback has been slow in gathering strength, but there now appear to be three main strands of resistance appearing. At a national level there are campaigns to protect the rights to benefits and protest against erosion of the safety net welfare state legislation. This is linked with an attempt to revive the unemployed workers centres that have shut. At a grassroots level there are attempts to create action groups with a more combative approach – some of these have been remarkably successful.
Listening to reports from the recent SWP Right to Work Conference, Manchester on 30th January, all three strands were discussed as ways to combat the attacks against the unemployed, and against workers who face the prospect of unemployment. One clear message was that the use of private corporations, like A4E, to ‘deliver’ Job Centre programs clearly adds to the victimization of claimants. This policy has introduced a target/commission based element to driving people into possibly unsuitable jobs at great expense of public funds, and yet the success rates of these companies at finding people work remains notably low – this is hardly surprising, since the much-needed jobs are constantly being cut! Along with battling against new ‘welfare reform’ (in fact, welfare abolition) legislation, resisting this policy of privatisation is central to the national protest campaign.
Defending and expanding unemployed workers centres clearly has its roots in the 80s even though in some form or other they date back to the 1920s. In defending and expanding the unemployed workers centres, the question of how they should be funded is a key concern. Unions, councils and political parties/factions are all possible funders of such centres but each have interests that potentially clash with each other as well as with the interests of claimants. The work done by these centres is invaluable, giving people benefits advice and helping with appeals. Those like the Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre are clearly of great importance, but it is also clear that their independence must be assured if they are to genuinely act for the people that they have been set up to defend.
The grassroots strain is heralded by those like the Hackney Unemployed Workers Group whose approach is based on a mix of support, advice and certainly in Hackney an approach of taking direct action. Advice and support are essential to sort problems with as little stress to claimants as possible. This is hard territory with the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) book providing the law while essential training is necessary to use the indexing and cross referencing correctly. Even then advice must be checked as this is the livelihood of individuals and families that are being dealt with. Groups like Hackney are an inspiration to new organisations which are springing up all around the country – for example, I am involved with a set of activists in Oxford, who plan to form a new Unemployed Workers and Claimants Union, and we hope to learn from their valuable experiences.
When the system fails to respect a claimant’s rights then direct action has been used successfully in Hackney to reverse decisions. Links with the Public and Commercial Services Union have been made in some cases to try and reassure the workers in the Job Centres that they are not being personally targeted and that it is just the decisions that are being fought, though when the case involves bullying of claimants by individual staff this relationship can become more difficult to negotiate. Because the DWP use call centres in regions distant from the areas effected, decisions in the South of England may be made in Glasgow or Belfast, but picketing and leafleting the local Job Centre has still been reported to have had positive results. One legal framework for unemployed unions is the ‘friendly society’, which is reported to not be subject to the same restrictive anti-union legislation affecting actions such as flying pickets, though this needs investigating further.
Ultimately this is one front, the fight to defend the rights of workers and claimants, that can provide a real way for the left to act to protect those most at risk in recession. Taking left politics out of the lecture hall and meeting room is essential if we are to genuinely try and fulfill our aims whilst also to take the ground out from the fascists who falsely claim to offer solutions to the problems faced by the working class.
Thanks to Ben Pritchett for advice and feedback on an early draft of this article.