Saturday, 3 March 2012

A day of action against workfare in Liverpool

Today saw a national day of action against workfare. The nationwide protest was called by the Boycott Workfare campaign, in solidarity with an action called in Liverpool by a member of UK Uncut and Solidarity Federation. 

The action kicked off at 1pm in the Next to Nowhere Social Centre. Just as with innumerable UK Uncut actions in the past, protesters gathered in the basement to equip themselves with signs and flags and hear where the target would be. This has always been a useful precaution against the police being able to pre-empt any protests and block access to intended targets, as well as keeping an element of surprise to proceedings. Today, this had a double benefit.

Already, I had heard from elsewhere in the country of campaigners arriving at planned protests only to find an army of Trots already there. With branded placards bearing the names of their respective front organisations, Right to Work and Youth Fight For Jobs, the Socialist and Socialist Workers Parties had hijacked demos whilst competing for paper sales and signatures on "petitions" that were actually mailing lists. This was predictable given that the SWP had jumped in to grab national headlines and be held responsible for "defeating" workfare despite the fact that all the hard work was put in by others, but nonetheless dispiriting.

In Liverpool, it looked for a while as if we would see similar scenes. Absent from the social centre and any part of the planning protest, around a dozen Trots greeted the workfare protesters as they stepped onto the streets, handing out placards and ready to flog papers. When we reached our first target - WH Smith - they even unfolded stall tables from which to flog their wares!

The bulk of the protest at first went into the store, holding a demonstration inside where a number of people spoke over the megaphone about why they were taking part. I approached the staff in the store, explained what the protest was all about, and handed them a leaflet on workplace organisation. I made a point of explaining that the protest was not directed at them as workers, and that the workfare programmes affected them just as much as those forced to take part. Though obviously bewildered by the event, they took the leaflets, including some to distribute to other staff who weren't present.

After about twenty minutes, the occupation ended and those taking part joined the picket outside. We handed out leaflets, spoke to people and addressed the public on a megaphone for the next half hour or so. For the most part, this was good natured and both the police and private security kept their distance. By this point the demonstration numbered about fifty, at least as many holding up homemade signs as were brandishing the Right to Work placards. There were also a fair number of red-and-black flags flying as well.

The SP had set up stall away from the rest of the demo, as is long-established custom for perhaps the most sectarian of the left sects in Liverpool (outside of the really bizarre Stalinist ones, anyway). However, they must have only had plans to attend a single picket, as they disappeared altogether when the decision was made to move on. In the style that both UK Uncut and the Occupy movement in Liverpool have long since perfected, we were off on an impromptu march through the Liverpool ONE shopping district to our next target.

Tesco was next on the list, though this was clearly expected and as soon as the group arrived the guards closed the doors to prevent an occupation. As people stood outside I, with no protest paraphernalia on me, asked if we were still allowed to enter to shop. I was allowed in and, with the attention of security on those outside, once again spoke to and handed out leaflets to staff.

Returning to the street, I was amazed to find the SWP stall across the street from us. They had, apparently, legged it after us carrying an open stall table! If nothing else, we were at least making them work for their paper sales.

After another half hour, the picket of Tesco naturally reached a point where most people were ready to move on. So we marched back through Liverpool ONE to end up at McDonald's. Initially, this led to a breakdancing display outside being interrupted, until the decision came to occupy and the store was essentially blockaded by the sheer number of both protesters and customers inside. Outside, the SWP were still keeping fit and chasing us with their stall.

After this, the last target on the list was Holland and Barrett. Here, again, leaflets were handed to the workers and the store was occupied. However, it was also at this point that we began to see signs of more overt agression from security staff, including one who came into the shop weilding a video camera and getting in people's faces whilst filming.

An SF comrade responded by filming him as he moved around the shop, whilst others continually blocked his shot. Ultimately, a confrontation with him forced a police officer to lead him outside where a legal observer and a number of demonstrators challenged him on what he was doing. He refused to show his badge when asked, and decided to show protesters the middle finger when leaving to demonstrate his position on the event.

Mindful of the violence that occurred at the last similar demonstration, the decision was taken to make sure that everybody ended the protest together. The last thing we wanted was a group of kids trying to carry on running riot after the bulk of those present had gone elsewhere, and getting a smack for their troubles. Thus once this picket had run its course we marched back to where we had begun and wound the demo up outside the Social Centre. There, most chose to go inside to wind down, and the private security thugs effectively deprived of a punch up.

Ultimately, the day was a success. It passed without arrest and without the Trots being able to effectively hijack the campaign, whilst hundreds of leaflets went out both to the public and to workers in the places operating workfare. However, workfare itself is not defeated, and until it is the campaign against it will continue onwards. Expect more action soon!