Workfare is a growing problem, as demonstrated by recent stories of a number of supermarkets had volunteered to be providers for the scheme and that young people were providing 30 hours a week of unpaid labour. This presents a problem both for the claimants trapped by this scheme, essentially as slave labour, and for the providers' workforce who are being undercut by those doing their job at practically no cost. Equally worrying is that, despite the growing anger over government attacks and emergence of anti-cuts groups across the country, nothing is being done to challenge this.
At our latest meeting, members of Liverpool Solidarity Federation agreed that this is a significant issue which needs to be tackled. Organisations such as the London Coalition Against Poverty offer an incredibly positive example of claimants' organisation, but they are one of the very few. Other groups which supposedly exist to tackle unemployment issues, such as Youth Fight For Jobs, do little beyond set piece demonstrations whilst the trade unions' new "community membership is little more than a gimmick to try and stem the loss of members and thus subs income. It is clear that no real help is going to come from this direction, and that a more substantial effort at organising against workfare and other problems is therefore needed.
At our meeting, Liverpool Solfed members discussed this in depth and agreed to pursue a three pronged approach:
- Organise claimants: we will, in the near future, be calling a meeting with the express aim of establishing an unemployed workers' union in Liverpool. This will involve leafleting job centres around the city and appealing to claimants to attend. We will also be looking at venues that are accessible and welcoming to the unemployed, such as the Kirkby Unemployed Centre.
- Build solidarity: though we recognise the limitations of the reformist trade unions and are critical of them, we also recognise that solidarity from the workers within them will be vital in building the unemployed workers' union. For example, it would be incredibly useful to have PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions recommend the union directly to claimants.
- Direct action: ultimately, whilst moral pressure such as boycotts may prevent individual companies from being workfare providers it will not stop the practice itself. It is also problematic for workers who are struggling with rising food prices and stagnant wages to boycott the cheapest supermarkers. However, disruptive direct action against providers - from pickets to blockades and occupations - will cause significant economic damage. We will seek to initiate a campaign of such action and encourage others to follow our example. Workfare will only stop when the consequence of being a provider is disruption and economic damage.
Once the November 30 strikes have happened and we can pour all our energy into the campaign, we will begin putting this strategy into action. This will also tie in nicely with the month of action against Atos Origin called by the National Campaign Against Benefit Cuts.
Cuts and "reforms" to welfare constitute the most significant attacks upon the working class in Britain. Especially as we are set to face more job losses from the public sector and the private sector job market isn't about to perk up any time soon, more people will begin to feel the pain being suffered by those at the sharpest end of the austerity programme. An injury to one is an injury to all, and it is long past time that we fought back on this issue.