By now, there doesn’t seem to be much point in summarising the storm that’s broken out over workfare this week. If you’ve somehow managed to miss it, the best coverage has consistently come from the Void, but Truth, Reason & Liberty, the Guardian and Freedom have all had good articles on the subject, along with this piece of slightly heavier analysis from Joseph K. The Void summarises a number of attempts by benefit claimants to fight back here, with Boycott Workfare being the main group focusing on this specific issue, and the source of a national call for action on Saturday 3rd March. Anyway, you probably already know that workfare is a bad thing, you don’t need me to tell you that. Instead, it might be useful to try and think about some aspects of the story which haven’t been explored that much in the mainstream coverage.
1) Workfare isn’t just an attack on claimants, it’s an attack on all workers.
The Void has been particularly good at highlighting this point. We have to sell our ability to work in order to survive, and threatening to withdraw our work is one of the major weapons – not the only weapon, but one of the most effective – we can use to defend ourselves against the bosses. By introducing unpaid benefits claimants into the workplace, the situation changes: if they refuse to work, they don’t run the risk of losing their job and having to go on benefits, they’re likely to lose their benefits and become totally destitute. This isn’t an entirely new development, since there’s a similar process going on with the increasing use of temp agency workers, and legislation designed to make everyone easier to fire, but it is still a very serious attack on our ability to strike. In 2009, Royal Mail tried to recruit 30,000 agency workers to break a posties’ strike, but at least nobody was being actively forced into applying for those roles. Workfare could potentially become a devastating tool for forcing the worst-off into undermining the struggles of organised workers trying to defend their position. If you think this doesn’t affect you – it does.
2) The liberation of claimants must be the act of claimants themselves.
Stressing that this is more than just an attack on claimants doesn’t get rid of the need for those who will be directly forced into filling these roles to organise and resist. I’m not going to pretend that claimants are the only people who can stop workfare, because I think there’s a number of ways it could be beaten, such as by consumer pressure on companies using the scheme, but the way it’s beaten will have real consequences for what happens next. If workfare gets beaten back by an outcry of paid workers kicking up a fuss on behalf of the unemployed, that still leaves the unemployed in the same position as they were before – unorganised and an easy target. To stop the government coming back with a similar attack a few months down the line, the storm of outrage over workfare needs to become a way of kickstarting a militant, self-organised claimants’ movement.
Just portraying people as helpless, innocent victims may be a good tactic for charities and the like, but we want something more. In the long term, we want ordinary people to take over the whole of society and start running it for ourselves. That means breaking through the many mental barriers that keep us from exercising our own power, and, apart from anything else, will involve a huge process of building up people’s confidence in themselves. That doesn’t mean dishonestly claiming false victories, but it does mean not portraying people as powerless when they’re not.* A lot of people on the left see the unemployed as inherently weak and “lumpen” because they lack the ability to strike, but then a lot of people on the left are wrong about practically any issue you can think of. It’s worth bearing in mind that many of the participants in last summer’s riots were unemployed, and the riots had a much greater impact than almost anything that’s come out of the traditional workers’ movement recently. There are plenty of liberals around to make the humanitarian case against workfare by portraying the unemployed as helpless victims. If we want to make a radical case against workfare that empowers the unemployed, I think a good place to start might be to highlight how much of the country young unemployed people smashed up last year, and then ask why anyone would think it’s a good idea to piss them off further.
3) Workfare is not a Tory policy.
Again, I’m not the only one saying this – the Void has been consistently good at highlighting how far workfare was rolled out under Labour. But it’s an important point, and one that’s worth repeating: this isn’t some crazy idea that sprang from Cameron or Duncan Smith’s brain, it’s a policy that’s been consistently encouraged by every government for over a decade now. No matter who’s in charge, the people managing the economy have been consistent in attacking the unemployed, and so in order for this struggle to truly be about stopping workfare and not just about getting a different set of people to run it, it has to be seen as part of a broader fightback against all the managers and wannabe managers of this society. If Labour politicians who supported the New Deal speak out against workfare programmes now, all they’re doing is exposing how totally spineless and hypocritical they are, lacking even the courage to stand by their own disgusting policies.
4) The “right to work” is a really bad slogan.
In some ways, it’s amazing that we’re still having this argument, nearly 150 years after a certain bearded German advised his followers that “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” The Right to Work demo that closed a branch of Tesco in Westminster sounds like it was a good action, and I don’t have any problem with the action in itself. But doing it under the slogan of the “right to work” makes literally no sense. The people being pushed into workfare already have the right to work, they just don’t have the right to get paid. That’s the problem, not the absence of work in itself. I’m not saying that we should only use slogans along the lines of “abolition of the wages system”, because apart from anything else that’s not particularly catchy, but we should be clear about asking for what we actually want. If we try and disguise our demands by dressing them up in language borrowed from the bosses, we’ll just end up talking contradictory nonsense. In the main picture illustrating that article, there’s someone in the background holding a Socialist Party-produced placard saying “Create real jobs!”, which is a slightly better slogan, but only slightly – for the vast numbers of people with mental or physical conditions that make it impossible for them to meet employers’ demands, creating real jobs that they still can’t do isn’t much of an answer. Much of the work that’s done today is pointless rubbish or even actively harmful, and there’s no reason to defend it.
News round-up: starting off in the UK, the National Union of Students is calling for a national walkout, a surprising move for a body so useless it couldn’t bring itself to support its members when they started walking out spontaneously in 2010. Lewisham Council has abandoned plans to sell off some empty properties after they were occupied by campaigners calling for them to be kept as council housing. The campaign by IWW cleaners in London continues with another demo this Thursday in support of sacked workplace organiser Alberto Durango. Bosses in Bootle have gone on the offensive by locking out their workforce in the UK’s first lockout since 1958. And that’s not the only worrying news from Merseyside, as it sounds like fascists there went on the offensive against a Republican march yesterday. And to close the UK section on a grim note, Michael Gove’s support for bigoted teaching materials being used in schools is just fucked.
Over the water in Ireland, the Vita Cortex occupation has reached 60 days, marking the occasion with a demonstration of 5,000 people through Cork. Throughout Europe, anarcho-syndicalists have been taking action in solidarity with the ABB strikers in Cordoba, with the highlight being 40 militants of the CNT occupying the headquarters of Adecco, a temp agency that’s been supplying scabs to undermine the strike, in Valladolid. John Holloway has a really good article about the situation in Greece, while looking further abroad, Anarkismo has reports on recent revolts and repression in Morocco and a huge national port workers’ strike in Chile – thinking about the inherently international nature of port work, it’d be pretty interesting if they started linking up with the militant longshore workers who’ve been showing their power in the US recently, but not being a port worker or living in either of those countries there’s not much I can do to affect that. Australia’s currently seeing a miner’s strike that’s apparently the biggest dispute in the country for years, and government officials have been driven out of the village of Zheijang in China in a revolt reminiscent of the Wukan uprising at the end of last year.
* sharp-eyed readers may spot the fact that, a few lines above, I described the unemployed as “unorganised and an easy target” and think that contradicts what I’m saying here. But I don’t think there’s any real contradiction between saying that the unemployed have the potential to become a powerful force and saying that at the moment their lack of organisation mostly prevents them from using that power.