Sunday, 3 June 2012

Where now for the fight against workfare?

Since the action on 5 May, the campaign against workfare in Liverpool has almost ground to a halt. This has not been the case elsewhere - as even a quick glance at the Holland & Barrett tag on the Solidarity Federation website will attest. But it does highlight a difficulty with this issue that will have to be addressed in order to keep the campaign fresh an active.

This lack of activity is not going unaddressed. There will be a further action in the city centre on Saturday 9 June (Facebook event here), and a proposal is going forward to the next Solfed meeting for a fairly intensive schedule of actions over the next month. All of which is leading towards the national week of action against workfare on 7-14 July. This being one of the outcomes of the national conference called by the Brighton Benefits Campaign on 26 May.

A scene from the last action against workfare in Liverpool, on May 5
Nonetheless, it does underline how difficult it has been to kickstart some elements of the three-pronged strategy first agreed by Liverpool Solfed last November. From the first national day of action, initiated by one of our members through UK Uncut, the campaign has almost exclusively involved members of the local anarchist and activist milieu, whilst attempts to get claimants on board - let alone establish any kind of unemployed workers organisation - have seemingly gone nowhere. A comrade from the Anarchist Federation, in particular, clocked up loads of hours leafleting Job Centres and speaking to people, with almost no return. Solfed had a similar experience ahead of our action in Wavertree.

This doesn't mean that such attempts should stop. Far from it, as workfare is fundamentally an attack on the unemployed it should be they who are at the forefront of fighting it. Indeed we do have several unemployed workers heavily involved in the campaign. But this is an attack on the class as a whole, part of a more fundamental restructuring of the labour market, and even whilst it is proving difficult to get one specific form of organisation off the ground the attack must still be fought.

The other organisational aspect that is lacking is the workers within those companies that use workfare. Most providers are non-unionised, and when taking action we have been distributing leaflets encouraging staff to organise. But, again, people won't organise just on your say so and, though most have taken leaflets and reacted positively to the actions, there has been little follow through. The very real fear of retaliation by the bosses will be a consistent sticking point here, alongside things like high turnover, lack of militants in the workforce, etc.

The established unions, as in most struggles, are as much a hindrance as anything else. The most extreme case being the Communication Workers Union's support for workfare, which saw its headquarters picketed by Boycott Workfare, Solfed and the IWW. Other unions are slightly better, being prepared at least to pass resolutions against the scheme, but this has yet to translate into numbers on the ground at or taking the initiative with workfare pickets.

Image from a London workfare picket on May Day
The recent PCS conference highlighted some of the problems with trying to address this through the reformist unions. Whilst the motion in support of the campaign at the national conference passed overwhelmingly, the motion that passed on the issue at the Revenue & Customs Group Conference was a lot more problematic.

The motion made noises about how "workfare is 21st century slavery" and should be opposed, but then went on to say;
This conference instructs the GEC [Revenue & Customs Group Executive Committee] to ensure that HMRC does not agree to the Government Work Programme until such times as it is clear that:-

  • The scheme is entirely voluntary
  • The scheme does not breach any existing rules surrounding eligibility to receive JSA or other benefits
  • That any workfare participant who works longer than 16 hours per week is paid at NMW [National Minimum Wage] at the least, but preferably the same as any comparable worker in HMRC; and
  • That the parameters of the scheme are published by DWP clearly and unambiguously
I spoke against this, making the point that negotiating on the terms of workfare is essentially acceptance of it. Further, that even if we were able to obtain these guarantees, we would still have a second tier workforce which could be used to undercut existing staff. Unfortunately, despite these objections, the motion passed.

The national motion effectively supercedes it by setting union policy that is against the scheme at all. However, that both motions have gone through suggest that in most cases unions would take this line - opposing it before implementation, but negotiating its terms after. After all, as one member of the GEC said to me in defence of the motion once it had passed, that is the union's job.

But then the fight against workfare was always going to have to be done outside the trade unions. Their role will always be to seek a seat at the table, negotiating the terms of capitalism's adverse effects on the working class. Our aim is to stop these attacks dead and to attack capitalism itself.

South London Solidarity Federation picket Holland & Barrett on 19 May
Direct action is of course the most vital component of that fight. Propaganda work is essential in terms of getting people on board, and there has been a knock-on effect of providers pulling out early over "bad publicity" fears. However, this amounts to a microcosm of what sustained direct action can achieve - damage to profit margins. Those first providers who "bottled it" did so from a fear that the negative publicity would lead to people boycotting their stores en masse. This evidently hasn't been the case, underlining that a reliance on consumer boycotts is problematic at best for a variety of reasons, but pickets and occupations that shut stores down on a regular basis can cause far more damage in the same respect.

It does have to be sustained, though, as the case of Holland & Barrett is proving. The Trots jumped in to grab headlines at the point when interest was at its highest, but have quickly lost interest and moved on now that not everybody is folding as fast. Then there are plenty of people who are exclusively activists and will leave it to others to do the organising, drifting onto a new cause if that doesn't happen. Thus, the real difficuly comes from making sure there is a sizeable group of people properly committed to keeping the campaign going.

This will probably always be a tension in the workers' movement in its current state - between a reliance on "activism" to sustain momentum and the need for people who are more than just activists. This dynamic will change in the face of more victories and thus the class becoming more confident in itself. But we still have a long way to go to reach that point, and so that central contradiction remains.

In struggling through it, I would urge everybody who has a stake in this to get involved. There are and will continue to be shortcomings to this campaign, as I have sketched out above. But as long as we're willing to look at them honestly and do our best to overcome them - learning from any mistakes we make along the way - there's no reason this fight cannot be won.