On Tuesday 17th June 2010, the Anarchist Federation, the Industrial Workers of the World and other activists and people on benefits put on an event entitled ‘Defend Welfare’ at the Chase community centre in St. Ann’s. We showed a film made about a ‘workfare’ scheme in New York City. ‘Workfare’ means when claimants are forced to work for their benefits. The film showed how people forced on to it fought for the same terms and conditions of service as other workers, meaning wages, health and safety agreements and a grievance procedure to protect them from the many ‘employers’ who were taking advantage of this underclass of workers, who their government considered that employment laws should not apply to.
The reason we showed this film is that the Coalition government here is following up what Labour started, namely to make claimants who have been signing for what they consider too long to work for their benefits. We worked out that these means working for £1.60/hour!! We fail to see how this is not virtual slavery and a disgusting and degrading way to treat people. It makes the claimant feel as though it is their own fault they are out of work. There are NOT enough jobs to go around for the people who want to work, whatever they tell us.
12 people came (apart from us), which is actually quite good for a political meeting put on by a group not well-known in the community! Everyone was pretty shocked at the prospect of a scheme like this coming to the UK. Some local people told us that there are people they know who have never worked and don’t want to work. To us, it’s a shame that the world we live in demoralises us and makes us not want to lift a finger to do anything to help ourselves lead more fulfilling lives. But paid work is not necessarily the answer to this. We have no moral position against people who don’t want to work, not least because most people’s jobs are completely pointless anyway and most people in work hate their job and are made ill and miserable by it. Lots of people are too busy doing useful things to work, be it looking after children, volunteering, being creative, and also ‘fighting the power’ to do some meaningless pen-pushing/phone-answering/sweat-shopping job for almost no money. It doesn’t make sense. There is no ‘dignity’ in labour of that kind, and certainly not in forced labour. Anyway workfare is not really about getting people back to work, but about the state showing us it can ruin our lives if it wants to.
We leafleted most of St. Ann’s and also the Job Centres and Working Links to advertise the meeting, and in doing so we heard about the experiences of some local claimants. One thing we wanted to raise claimant awareness of is that people on Incapacity Benefit (or the newer Employment Support Allowance) will be being re-assessed by private companies who the state is effectively paying to put claimants on Job Seekers Allowance, whether or not they are actually able to work. But before campaigning about that, we met a women who had been switched even WITHOUT the assessment. She decided not to appeal the decision, because she did not have the information or stamina to do so. Another women had JSA stopped for a week for being seven minutes late to Job Club. She was told that being 5 minutes late was “socially acceptable” but no more! Never mind that they’d taken weeks to sort her benefit out in the first place and left her children with no money, and that on the day in question they’d kept her in a queue which actually MADE her late in the first place.
Anarchist Federation members in Nottingham have previously been involved in opposing the major threats to the benefit system. The big one was called Project Work in the late 1990s, which was pretty much an early try-out of what we now face. As claimants, and workers supporting claimants, we and other class-struggle anarchists picketed charity shops in town that were accepting people from the Job Centre, sent there and forced to work for their benefits or be cut off. The charities were still claiming to be staffed by volunteers! This was a local and national scandal. We picketed the British Heart Foundation and Oxfam, and the BHF pulled out of the Project Work scheme locally, and the national pressure on Oxfam made them drop it like a shot too. We also talked to people being shipped out into the countryside and made to build dry-stone walls. This was considered by people forced onto it to be like a convict chain gang. They didn’t need anarchists to tell them to work really slowly and be as crap at building walls as it was humanly possible to be. Some of those walls were absolutely shocking workmanship and a Derbyshire sheep could have knocked them down! Project work did cost many claimants hours of their lives that they won’t get back, but it nonetheless collapsed even sooner than those walls did. Claimant power!
I’m going into detail to stress that it is possible to fight back. Through collective action claimants in Nottingham have successfully taken on Job Centre bullies (we all know that there are some nice people at the Job Centre, but it’s ignorant ‘little Hitlers’ who run the show and we know there are targets for getting people on to schemes like Flexible New Deal). We also took on the City Council’s HOPELESS Housing Benefit system (yes, they are over-worked and under-paid, but why should they take it out on claimants rather than fight for better conditions themselves?). It is tiring and demoralising to try to get what we are entitled to individually, and leaves claimants open to victimisation. But collectively we can do more, more safely, and people in work can help too.
We enjoyed the meeting, and thanks to the people who came to the event. The discussion was thought-provoking, even if we don’t agree with everyone about whether it is OK to not try to even get a job. At least no one said that such people deserve to be put on workfare. This proves that we can tackle a problem without resorting to repeating the state’s own propaganda. St. Ann’s is an area too enlightened and sussed out for that: people say what THEY think here, not what the T.V. and politicians tell us to say. And there’s clearly lots to discuss.
We’ll be doing follow up events and want to get more and more people involved. St. Ann’s is lucky in having an advice centre based at the Chase which loads of local people tell us they really value. At the Job Centre I spoke to several people who had had valuable help and advice from it. But in many areas people can’t even get advice, let alone feel empowered to act on it. It’s an up-hill struggle.
Here is my 6-point plan for what we could do next. Just a suggestion….
- Collect claimants’ stories of how they are treated and what they want to do about it, as well as informative articles with a local angle about workfare companies and the private agencies responsible for getting us cut off, and also where to get good advice. Then put a magazine together to give out free at the Job Centre inviting people to another meeting; something funny and inspiring, not just moany and depressing.
- Find out who all the providers and scummy companies trying to get people off Incapacity Benefit and OCCUPY THEIR OFFICES!!! OK, maybe just leaflet them at first, ‘til we get our nerve and numbers up.
- Ask people from independent Advice Centres and also people who used to work in Claimants Unions to talk at meetings to tell us our rights and inspire us to stand up for ourselves. Knowing our rights really helps build confidence.
- Start a Claimants’ Union! One run by claimants, with claimants making the decisions! The AF and IWW are not all claimants, but we are all willing to help if claimants take the lead themselves. Anarchists are about self-activity.
- Linking up with claimants in other parts of the city. We also met someone from the Meadows and offered to help them put on a meeting there too.
- Linking up with the new Defend Welfare network with groups who are saying similar things as we are across Britain (see http://defendwelfare.org )