Tuesday, 21 February 2012

From Welfare to Workfare


Great news being reported on the retreat by multi-nationals and UK corporations from the coalition's attempts to turn the unemployed into slave labour.

As reported in today's Guardian Tesco no less has decided that it has unilaterally changed the basis on which it will continue to engage with the 'work experience scheme' including the option of paid work at the end of the scheme.

The story's link is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/21/back-work-scheme-disarray-tesco.

Naturally the relevant Ministers are condemning those who are opposing the scheme. Nick Clegg commented to the BBC that the schemes "is not slave labour. It is not compulsory. It is entirely voluntary." But then of course a scheme which penalises with the sanction of benefits withdrawal if the person opts out of the 'voluntary' scheme' is highly questionable.

Moving away from the coaliton's attempts to claw back some credibility from this appaling attempt to disguise era-defiing unemployment figures it is important to locate the coalition's position based on a tradition which is in-part a New Labour legacy.

To get sense of how we got to where we are I can recommend an article (available freely in PDF) by Bob Jessop at Lancaster University: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/jessop-from-thatcherism-to-new-labour.pdf

In this he charts the ascendancy of New Labour's 'third way, but unpicks the extent to which New Labour offered a variant of the neo-liberalism of Thatcher - what he refers to as 'consolidated Thatcherism'. Here are some useful extracts which illustrate the thesis:

The Thatcher-Major years witnessed a growing turn to neo-liberal workfarism with Major himself being the first to float the idea of 'workfare' to replace welfare before he became Prime Minister. The shift towards 'soft' workfare can be dated from the introduction in 1986 of the Restart Programme (itself modelled on US experience) which invited the unemployed to search for work and accept job or training opportunities in return for benefits.

Having pioneered Keynesian demand management under Attlee, the Labour Party under Blair now advocates full employability achieved through micro-government rather than full employment achieved through macro-economic management; and, having set up the post-war welfare state, it now sees welfare dependency and welfare statism as problems to be eliminated through a mandatory neo-liberal programme of workfarism and the introduction of market forces and business practices into delivery of income support and public services.

This means in turn that the appropriate response to unemployment should no longer be short-term job creation until demand management reflates the economy but, rather, policies to force the unemployed into work (with employers subsidized by the state and/or their employees receiving top-up social security benefits as necessary) in order to reinforce the work ethicr educe welfare dependency, and generate social security savings and/or tax revenues that can be applied to more worthwhile social ends.

Even if we ignore the hard-edged academic analysis what is interesting about the vernacular of New Labour and Labour under Milliband is the way in which it derides the unemployed and the working poor. For example, Milliband's dominant policy focus is the 'squeezed middle' and Brown consistently championed 'hard working families' - the language of inclusion?

How we move forward on the issue of welfare and the treatment of the unemployed under the coalition will be interesting to monitor - what should also be under the spotlight though is Labour's response also.

In Solidarity.


Monday, 13 February 2012

Young Workers United


The last post focused on the output of the Recomposition website and more specifically what is meant by solidarity unionism as practised by the IWW.

Interestingly, as I finished typing that piece I came across news on the site that the Sheffield local of the IWW has unionised a branch of Pizza Hut. This is very interesting news given the new inpenetrability of the fast food sector in the UK. What is it that the IWW has that UK trade unions do not - I think many of us could hazard a guess?

Hot on the heels of this development came contact from a colleague at the Labor Studies centre at Univ. Coll. Berkeley in the US.

In an innovative partnership with a fledgling youth-based labour organisation the Center had helped to create a video-based course 'Eye's on the Fries'. More details of the course are here: http://www.youngworkersunited.org/article.php?id=38

The group, Young Workers United, are based predominantly in California and monitor the activity of the fast food and restaurant sector. One of the interesting areas of activity is a booklet that YWU produces rating a wide range of local eateries based on social justice factors and carrying (or not) a quote from an employee.

The activity of the group (http://www.youngworkersunited.org) is well worth reviewing, and you can donate online.

Whilst the hard work of the UK trade union movement needs to be applauded in maintaining a vigorous approach to engaging with and organising young workers, something radical is missing in its approach.

Part of the answers lays outside of the UK and can be seen, as discussed in prior posts, in countries in Latin America and the US.

A significant answer to the conundrum is relatively simple, or not in the case of the UK, in that youth-based labour movements are organised by young workers for young workers and is able to resist an inherent bureacracy which manifestly hinders and plagues Western trade unionism.

In addition, these movements appear able to appear and grow in the face of austerity and in sectors where any form of worker organisation is prone to attack. On that basis these developments need our support and are worthy of monitoring for evidence of what works and what can be transferred.

Any comments on this post are very welcome.

In Solidarity.


Monday, 6 February 2012

An alternative unionism


The major benefit of working amongst the highly talented trade unionists who comprise the current crop of students on the labour studies MA that I run at Ruskin is the opportunity to develop my own understanding of how labour movements can continue to reshape and grow in the face of external and internal threats to our existence.

It is in this context that I have a great interest in the work of Dek Keenan, an MA student who, under the theme of 'an alternative unionism' is exploring the phenomenon of solidarity, minority and direct trade unionism. The primary proponents and actvists of these models are our fine sisters and brothers in the IWW. And, we have evidence of this method in action via the process of the IWW unionisation of Starbucks - surely one of the most painstaking, breathtaking unionisation successes of recent years.

YouTube has many excellent clips of young Baristas holding forth on the values of the techniques and of the benefits of union membership - they are well worth watching.

You can track these amongst the phenomenal content of the Starbucks Workers Union website (http://www.starbucksunion.org/) and get a good sense of what it takes to build and grow a union from nothing and without the need for a bureaucracy and officer structure - and built on worker solidarity.

The IWW success at Starbucks has been written up into a first rate account by Daniel Gross and Joe Tessone (An IWW Story at Starbucks, Counterpunch 2006). In the book they document the roots of solidarity unionism in a phrase used by Staughton Lynd

“Solidarity unionism is a term coined by the great labor activist and author, Staughton Lynd, to describe a rank and file organization of workers who fight directly to win demands without resorting to government certification or union bureaucracy…A solidarity union is simply a group of workers uniting with each other and other workers in the community and (with the internet) around the world, to apply direct pressure around issues of concern at work.”

Lynd wrote a book with this title in 1992 - well worth a read to get a sense of tthe historical basis for the proposition of the concept and, if you are a UK trade unionist, a consideration of what it would take to apply the lessons learned here.

It is arguably the case the we have forms of solidarity unionism in the UK and the case if the Indian Workers Association (IWA) come to mind. The examples however, tend to more historical and ad hoc and nothing on the scale of the unionisation of Starbucks in the US. Despite that, I do think that the UK remains fertile ground for the a transfer of IWW approaches - what is their to lose?

A blog that is well worth following if you are interested in what Dek is researching for his dissertation is one he has just pointed me toward (and from where the graphic below has been lifted) http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com

Please take a look and reply with your thoughts on the blog and what I have posted here. Am I, for example, just being a moist eyed about opportunities outside of our grasp in the UK or, is there indeed an alternative unionism available to us here also?

I look forward to hearing from you.

In Solidarity