Resistance to Workfare in the UK
Over the last decade claimants in the UK have found themselves having to fight defensive battles to hold on to their rights to welfare benefits. Social security reforms like the introduction of the Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) have made the receipt of benefit much more dependent on showing a willingness to work and Project Work and more recently the New Deal have effectively made claimants work for their benefits. Whereas before welfare benefits were a defence against low wages and being made to work, welfare benefits are now being used as a way of forcing the unemployed back into the labour market and of making them compete amongst themselves and with other workers for jobs. This threatens to break up solidarity, fuel racism and ultimately drive down wages. Claimants in the UK are not alone in facing these attacks as this process is happening across Europe and beyond. Workfare style schemes were first introduced in the United States in the eighties. Consequently for a successful struggle against welfare reforms it is increasingly important to develop an understanding of local and national circumstances in relation to the international situation. This chapter is an attempt to contribute to such an understanding by locating defensive struggles in the UK in a European context.
In general terms, welfare reform can be understood as an aspect of the global restructuring of the capital relation along neo-liberal lines. Restructuring is a response to the crisis brought on by the class struggles of the 60s and 70s. It is part and parcel of capital's attempt to reorganise production in ways that will resolve its profitability crisis at the same time as maintaining social order. This involves breaking up the old systems of labour regulation that developed in the social democratic era and replacing them with new forms that serve to increase the rate of exploitation through reimposing work and work discipline. From this perspective the neo-liberal restructuring of welfare is part of an attack on the working class as a whole. An attack that is attempting to decompose the working class into individualised workers. So by making welfare payments more dependent on work, the working class is potentially set against itself in the competition for jobs that provide the money through which needs are met. This competition works at all levels, the local, national and international, and workers are forced to work ever harder for increasingly less. However it would be wrong to state that welfare spending will disappear as a result of this strategy, rather money is being spent in a different way. It is being spent on making those who claim state benefits more able and willing to accept the low waged, insecure jobs that predominate today.
The European road to Workfare
Although this process is a global one it is taking a particular form here in Europe (often referred to as the »Third Way«) and the European Union (EU) is taking a leading role in taking this strategy forward. The EU has developed as a mechanism of restructuring European capital in order to restore its international competitiveness. The EU has overseen a wave of mergers and privatisations that has allowed business to escape from existing collective bargaining that guaranteed workers« rights to employment and wage increases that made European based firms less profitable than their international competitors. The introduction of European Monetary Union has limited state spending that was seen as a burden on business and since 1997 the EU has started to reform employment and welfare systems along the lines of what it calls »employability«. This idea makes the unemployed, responsible for unemployment and justifies policies that make the unemployed more prepared to accept low paid, insecure and temporary jobs. In practice this means that governments replace »passive« policies that grant benefits to claimants with »active« policies that offer »training« programmes to »jobseekers« and through which the unemployed are supposed to gain the skills that they need to compete in the labour market. The experience of such policies in the UK shows that they are more about getting people used to working for low wages.
The UK - from welfare to work
The 'New Deal' was presented as the flagship of New Labour's 'welfare to work' policy. The New Deal is about pushing those who are not working and receiving benefits (the unemployed, disabled and single parents) into any job available, usually at the minimum wage (£ 3.60) or under. It started by targeting the under 25's and over 45's but is now universal. It offers claimants the 'choice' of a job placement with a private company or voluntary organisation, a place on an environmental task force, or a training or educational course. Refusal to accept this 'choice' means loss of benefit. Benefit can also be lost while on placement and can be for poor attendance, punctuality or even appearance. These are the real »skills« that employers want workers to learn. While 'New Deal trainees' get an income that is little above benefit levels, the employers that provide the placements like Tesco, Ford, GEC, receive a subsidy of £ 75 per week. The 'New Deal' is not a completely new initiative but is built on the previous government's policies like 'Project Work' that was a pilot Workfare scheme and the Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) that forced claimants to accept offers of work or face losing benefit. The JSA turned claimants into 'jobseekers' and each person receives an individual jobseekers contract. This individualisation process has affected the form that resistance has taken. Many claimants have, and are, opting for individual forms of resistance like appearing to look for work, changing their claim from JSA to sickness benefit, or just signing off altogether. The fact that people are being disciplined while on New Deal may mean that individual resistance is also happening, but so far collective resistance to workfare has not been widespread unlike the JSA, where anti-JSA groups linked together in the »Groundswell« network sprang up all over the country prior to its introduction.
Brighton - linking dole struggles
The Anti-JSA group in Brighton was probably the most successful. Their strategy was to make contact with dole workers, recognising that they themselves were unhappy about the changes taking place within the Employment Service. Contact was established through the opportunity of a strike and links with militant dole-workers were built up. This involved supporting the dole workers in their struggles recognising that this also acted in the interests of claimants; in return the workers passed on information and tactics. On the day that the JSA was introduced all the job centres in Brighton were besieged by over 300 people. The dole workers used this opportunity to stop working and the first day of the JSAís implementation was plunged into chaos. Brighton was, unfortunately, an isolated example of this.
The same can be said with resistance to Project Work, the poorly funded Tory workfare scheme where the unemployed were forced to work for local voluntary organisations, such as charities, for their benefits. These organisations were targeted through occupations (which included a local church which had claimed that claimants needed some incentive to get out of bed in the morning - this action ended in a fight with the cops!) and pickets which took place daily outside offending shops (usually charities) informing the public that they were using cheap labour. The result was that many of those involved were forced into humiliating climb-downs. In this way Project Work was brought to its knees in Brighton but unfortunately, this happened in few other areas. Consequently by the time the New Deal, a more sophisticated and well-funded workfare scheme, was introduced by New Labour, the Groundswell network had all but collapsed.
Unlike the success in resisting Project Work, action against the New Deal in Brighton has been less fruitful. Apart from the spoofing of the Employment Serviceís publicity and distributing it in dole offices all over the country, there have only been sporadic pickets and occupations. One notable example was at the EU summit in Cardiff in June 1998. Claimants from Brighton, Bolton, Newcastle and London occupied the Labour Party headquarters in Cardiff and watched the World Cup on large screen TV while enjoying Indian take away!
Resistance to welfare reform in Bristol began with claimants organising a campaign to 'Sabotage Project Work'. Sabotage was the main form of action as claimants glued up the locks of firms providing placements, hassled the project's administrators and even set up their own bogus Project Work placement firm. They also occupied the job centre bringing along a band to entertain fellow claimants. The introduction of the New Deal was met by a picket of the same job centre that was followed by an office occupation of a placement provider. More recently there have been actions against the introduction of Employment Action Zones (EAZ), that includes issuing mobile phones to the unemployed, and against the replacement of benefits for asylum seekers by vouchers. Activists turned the offices of Bristol Labour Party into an 'Enjoyment Zone', demanded 'Less Labour, More Party' and declared that the 'Party is Over'. Local campaigners have understood that the New Deal is part and parcel of an attack on the right to benefit and on wages and working conditions. Consequently Bristol Benefit Action Group has been set up as a way of making links between claimants, workers, students, pensioners etc. in order to try to build a united campaign against welfare reforms.
Resistance in Europe
As government leaders sit together to plan how to improve our exploitation, so we are also beginning to meet on an international basis to co-ordinate our resistance. We have seen that governments within the EU are learning from each other and the German government has even given its youth employment policy an English name. The JUMP programme is also similar to the New Deal in that failure to accept a place on it can result in the loss of benefit. Welfare reforms in Germany and France have led to using the European Social Fund to fund work and training programmes that are supposed to tackle the problem of social exclusion. This is the new European buzzword for poverty and it is clear that work is seen as the route to social inclusion. Again it is the unemployed themselves who are seen to be the problem and so policies in France, Germany and the UK involve advice and counselling for the unemployed who are required to sign up to individual action plans to get them back to work. However the process of individualisation is not so far advanced as in the UK and the last few years have seen significant struggles by French and German claimants and workers in defence of existing rights to benefits.
Many international links have been made through these struggles and with the EU co-ordinating the drive from welfare to work it is essential that locally and nationally based campaigns develop international exchanges of information, ideas and strategies of resistance. A recent example was the visit by Palestinian unemployed campaigners to the UK to discover more detailed information about the New Deal. New Labour advisors had helped the Israeli government set up a similar policy and the Palestinian activists required information from the grass roots that could help them in their fight against it.
This chapter has highlighted some attempts made at collectively resisting Workfare and shows that collective organisation and action is still possible. But it is vital to recognise that neo-liberal strategies have been largely effective in individualising welfare and consequently it is not possible to speak of an unemployed or claimants movement in the UK. The attempt to build a national network of claimants groups through »Groundswell« was shortlived and it appears that most of the groups that still exist are more involved in offering individual advice than in organising collective action. It appears that most resistance is itself individualised with people refusing or avoiding Workfare placements or not taking shit when they are on such schemes. Much activist campaigning has involved attempts to discredit Workfare projects but has had limited success in involving claimants who are actually on Workfare programmes. The experience of previous struggles demonstrates that they are most effective when claimants and dole workers fight together and it is possible that the proposed privatisation of the Employment Service will offer opportunities to develop united resistance. However with welfare reform strategies developing at a European level it is vital that any resurgent movement in the UK develops links with its European counterparts.
The writer is involved in Bristol Benefits Action Group that can be contacted at email@example.com
Thanks to Brighton claimants for information about claimant resistance there. They can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org