26 December 2020

Fight back with the UNEMPLOYED WORKERS CHARTER

Originally published in The Leninist No.40 October 9 1986. Available on our archive here

  • Work at trade union rates or full maintenance.
  • Abolish the YTS – real training at trade union rates.
  • Stop harassment of the unemployed. No to the Community Programme, New Workers’ Scheme and all government and MSC measures which exploit or harass the unemployed. Claiming benefit is a right, not a crime.
  • End all unnecessary overtime work with no loss of pay.
  • Unemployed workers’ groups should have representation on trades councils. They should be the voice of the unemployed.

Organise to fight

The Tories fought the 1979 election using the slogan: Get Britain Working. Since their coming to power unemployment has more than doubled. Despite numerous statistical revisions of the figures – downwards of course – and the removal of hundreds of thousands claiming Unemployment Benefit through schemes like the YTS, TOPS and Action for Jobs, every year has seen the numbers on the dole rise.

No wonder the problem of unemployment promises to become the dominant issue at the next general election. Unemployment has become a spectre haunting establishment politicians.

It certainly concerns all workers and their families. Not only the millions who have had direct experience of unemployment over the last six or seven years, but also those who have escaped it, yet have been constantly plagued by the fear that any moment they might be flung onto the scrap heap.

The Tories have true to form, sought to blame ‘high’ wages for unemployment, rather than blame their policies, let alone their system. They have even attempted to get the unemployed to blame themselves for being unemployed. ‘You are feckless, lazy or simply too well off on social security,’ they say to us.

That is why the Unemployed Workers Charter exists. We stand for direct action to fight for unemployed workers’ rights, not idle talk.

We, the unemployed, will organise ourselves. In this way we will gain self-respect and become strong. In this way we can secure what we and our families need – not what the system can afford.

No Harassment

Far from alleviating the plight of the unemployed, the Tories are doing their damnedest to force the unemployed onto cheap labour schemes by keeping benefit increases below the rate of inflation (Supplementary Benefit rose by just 30p in July) and introducing measures such as Action for Jobs, New Workers’ Scheme and Restart to force people out of claiming benefit.

Restart was started with the blessing of the TUC. It is designed to remove 10% of all unemployed workers from the books by intimidating them.

Restart drives workers into schemes like Jobstart which subsidises employers. Workers on less than £80 get a £20 a week top-up allowance – but only for six months. After this if they can’t afford to stay working they will be deemed to have made themselves unemployed, and this will mean losing 40% of benefit for the first 13 weeks of a new claim.

Alternatively Restart offers the unemployed 12 moths work on one of the MSC’s various community programmes which are little more than useless work on lousy wages. Training is non-existent and wages average a mere £50 per week.

The most notorious form of harassment, though, is suffered by young workers. The cooked official unemployment rate for those under 25 is well over twice the average. The Tories want their parents to support them, not the state. They want young workers as cheap labour.

In July they removed young workers under 21 from the scope of the wages councils – which set minimum rates for the lowest paid. In August they announced the extension of the MSC Technical and Vocational Initiative to all 14-18 year olds. This has the aim of preparing a whole generation for the YTS when they leave school.

Nearly half a million young workers suffer under YTS which now lasts two years. According to the Tories it has ‘solved’ youth unemployment. This is a lie. It is a form of slave labour. It is also, according to the bosses’ paper The Times, a way of “maintaining social peace”. The YTS is, it says “an anti-riot device keeping 16-year-olds off the unemployment register and off the streets”. (September 2 1983).

Already over 1,000 young workers have been seriously injured on YTS work and 31 have died. In the first year the young conscripts get £27.30 for a 40 hour week and 18 days annual holiday. In the second year wages rise to the princely sum of £35 – not surprisingly many drop out from this scheme. After all not only are the wages a pittance but the so-called training is laughable.

For 20 weeks in the year YTS workers are trained – not in socially useful skills but how to have the ‘right attitude’. In other words how to accept low wages, dangerous conditions and dictatorial bosses.

The two year YTS was launched on April 1 (yes it was a sick joke) by a panel which included Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC. Willis was quoted by the press as saying “Our overwhelming conclusion is that in the real world, in which so many people are faced with unemployment or no-skill, dead-end jobs, we have to face up to that challenge and carry the responsibility of supporting and building up YTS.”

By “supporting and building up YTS,” Willis and the TUC support no-skill employment for young workers, and build up the number trapped in dead-end jobs and the sack at the age of 20 – when greedy bosses no longer get a government subsidy.

That’s why the Unemployed Workers’ Charter fights to smash the YTS and end trade union cooperation with it.

Labour no answer

Kinnock and the Labour Party, as we all know, have promised that within two years of their being elected there will be one million new jobs. This will of course leave the little matter of around three million still unemployed – even if Kinnock ever managed to deliver his promise.

We remember the last Labour government introducing YOPs, the forerunner of YTS. It also saw unemployment double. So what about their job creation programme they now promise if elected? Can they deliver the goods?

If they do, it can only be because the bosses find it profitable. Kinnock makes no pretence of ushering in the socialist millennium. The present state of the economy in Britain means Kinnock will – If Labour gains a parliamentary majority – take further measures relegating women and young workers to a source of cheap labour. This is an economic fact of life which flows directly from the politics of Labour’s leadership.

Kinnock is out to manage, not fight, the system – just as all previous Labour governments have. And today that system is rotten and crisis ridden.

The more the bosses get rich the more they introduce new technology to replace workers with machines. Capitalist development therefore creates what is called a “relative surplus population” or a “reserve army of labour”. Under capitalism Kinnock’s wish to take on board the most advanced technology so as to compete with the Japanese can only be at the expense of workers’ interests, even if they are, like the printers, highly paid.

As to Labourite integrity, even when they say they are going to introduce socialist measures, the truth is that the very nature of the system and the Labour Party itself means that such talk is nothing more than talk.

Given that Labour is now firmly in the hands of the openly pro-capitalist right, why should Labour’s recipe for getting Britain back to work be any more successful than that promised by the Tories in the 1979 election? After all, similar policies to those proposed by Kinnock and Hattersley were tried by the last Labour government back in the 70s. What happened? YOPs and double the number on the dole.

So there is no reason to believe that if Kinnock was sitting pretty in No. 10 things would really improve for the unemployed. Labour is committed to managing the capitalist system.

The capitalist system, dying and decaying while still alive, dooms millions of workers to unprecedented tortures. Unemployment has reached monstrous proportions under the last Labour government and has continued to grow ever since.

And we must not forget the vast army of low paid workers, mostly women who were forced to stage a whole series of strikes in the winter of 1979. They desperately attempted to claw back some of the losses suffered in their real wages under Labour’s Wilson/Callaghan governments.

All Labour’s promises today rest on its ability to restore the profitability and competitiveness of British bosses. And in the real world this can only be done by replacing yet more workers by machines and again trying to force down real wages in an effort to reverse Britain’s decline as a big power.

The fact is that Britain has inexorably declined over the last 50 years at least. More than that, all other major capitalist countries are suffering from deep economic problems. So if truth be told all the fancy plans Labour has announced about a massive increase in public spending to boost the domestic economy would be unceremoniously junked with the first run on the pound or stock market downturn.

Those who insist that “Labour has the will to solve the twin evils of mass unemployment and social deprivation”, that all we have to do is vote Labour at the next general election, are simply perpetuating a cruel con trick on the unemployed. Capitalism produces unemployment; it is part of its very nature to have a reserve army of labour. And yet the Labour leadership does not even now talk of ending capitalism. Indeed Labour’s Kinnock, Hattersley, Healey et al objectively seek to perpetuate the capitalist system – and that means, whether they like it or not, perpetuating unemployment.

Kinnock’s politics are not revolutionary but as much part of capitalism as unemployment. They are tied and tie workers to the system. This is proved by every Labour government there has ever been and by the simple fact Kinnock is committed to the capitalist state. Flowing from this, most of the militant left Labourite anti-capitalist rhetoric is left to impotently blow itself out within the safe confines of the House of Commons, simply because of loyalty to Kinnock.

That is why the Unemployed Workers Charter does not look to the next general election but to action in the here and now.

Jarrow 1936

October 5 1936 saw 200 men who had been thrown out of work by the closure of Palmer’s shipyard begin their famous four week march from Jarrow to London. Unemployment had risen to 51% of the workforce in a town murdered by the destruction of industry after industry. The Jarrow Crusade set out to highlight the town’s plight.

Surprisingly the Labour Party and the TUC refused their support. Why was this? Although initiated by Jarrow’s Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, they feared being seen to associate with the militancy of the unemployed organised in the National Unemployed Workers’ movement. The Labour Party and TUC advised their local organisations not to give any assistance.

But they need not have worried. The organisers of the 1936 Jarrow Crusade wanted, and got, a well-publicised, highly respectable begging bowl march. They dissociated it from the NUWM simply because they wanted charity for Jarrow, not a militant struggle against the evil of unemployment in Britain as a whole. To avoid being tainted by the NUWM and its communist leadership, with Special Branch cooperation, they even expelled a marcher from the ‘Crusade’ simply because he was a member of the Communist Party.

The Jarrow Crusade was eminently safe. Its organisers sent the divisional agents of both the Labour and Tory parties ahead to prepare the receptions. Because of this they were cared for by the Territorial Army, Tory businessmen and the Rotary Club en route. The march as a whole was explicitly ‘non-political’ – which meant it was class collaborationist to the core.

In reward for this, when it arrived in London it was greeted with tea on the lawns of the House of Commons and middle class sympathy, where the huge Hunger Marches organised by the NUWM were greeted with police truncheon and media hysteria.

Predictably it left nothing in its wake; no unemployed workers’ groups, no follow up actions. Whereas the Hunger Marches had a militant character, the 1936 Crusade was, just like Jarrow 86, carefully tailored for class consensus, not class conflict.

No wonder the media smiles on the 1936 Jarrow Crusade with such tenderness. That is why Kinnock and Willis felt safe with the Jarrow Crusade as the model for Jarrow 86. After all, they only want to use the unemployed as cannon fodder to enhance the labour Party’s pre-election propaganda.

Jarrow 1986

TODAY unemployment in Jarrow is up to 1930s levels. Shipbuilding, steel and other traditional areas of employment have again been decimated. To highlight this and to mark the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusade, Jarrow 86 was set up. Its plan is to get 30 unemployed workers to retrace the original route. And in all of the 23 towns and cities they pass through, they will be joined by two more marchers, and when they reach London on November 2 they will be led by Norman Willis and be greeted by a large demonstration.

According to the publicity material, sent to trades councils and other labour movement bodies, the aim of Jarrow 86 is to use the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusade to “actively campaign for the unemployed of the 1980s.”

Unfortunately, in the Jarrow 86 propaganda this does not seem to include building an unemployed workers’ organisation. No, the organisers of Jarrow 86 are quite clear that their march is designed to be a pre-election bid to boost the standing of Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party.

In fact the only hope offered to the unemployed by Jarrow 86 and its “high profile touring theatre show”, Brookside script writer and all, is to trust in the ‘next Labour government’.

They do have at least the virtue of being honest about this. “Jarrow 86 will provide a massive public platform for the presentation of Labour Party policy”, “demonstrate only Labour has the will to solve the twin evils of mass unemployment and social deprivation” and “make a major contribution to the election of a Labour government”.

The timing of the march is also very much tied to improving the electoral chances of the Labourites. “Jarrow 86 happens less than a year before a general election”, it will pass through “a number of key marginals”, it will coincide with the “Tory Party conference”.

While no one should doubt the sincerity of the 1986 Jarrow marchers, all workers, above all the marchers themselves, should question the sincerity of the organisers.

They will encourage anti-Tory slogans (banned on the People’s March for Jobs) but will they allow democratic control of the march by the marchers? You must be kidding. They want a tug-at-the-heart-strings march for the benefit of the middle class charity mongers and to promote Kinnock’s image as a caring politician.

Of course, given Labour’s past record and its commitment to the bosses’ system, it is unlikely to say the least that a Kinnock government can rid our country of the scourge of unemployment. The last Labour government saw unemployment double, just as it has under the Tories. Did Jarrow do any better under Labour? The truth is that it did not.

So should we simply ignore Jarrow 86? Some trades councils and trade union branches have adopted this attitude. Many an honest rank and file Labourite cannot stomach the sheer cynicism of using the unemployed. They quite rightly smell the slick PR rats of Walworth Road behind the whole jamboree. Nonetheless we think militants should use every opportunity.

The Unemployed Workers’ Charter will expose the TUC and Labour Party sponsors of Jarrow 86. But more importantly set up Unemployed Workers’ Charter groups in each and every one of the 23 towns and cities the march passes through.

That is why we say: Fight for work, not Kinnock. The unemployed have no interest in being used as cannon fodder for the ‘next Labour government’.

Past Lessons

What do the organisers of Jarrow 86 propose the unemployed do if Labour does not win the next general election? Should we simply endure another four or five years of poverty and degradation until another general election is called? We get no answer.

To us the whole of working class history proves that nothing has been gained by way of improved living standards, liberties and democratic rights, without persistent organisation and struggle. The bosses, even with the Labour Party in office, have not given concessions to the subject class out of good-heatedness or human consideration.

Right down the ages all rights had to be wrung from the ruling class by the organised strength and action of the workers. Every item of boasted legislation, the NHS, education, the vote, unemployment benefit – has been preceded by intense and protracted agitation.

When unemployment reaches dimensions such as we have witnessed in this country since the late 1970s and increases from year to year – despite fiddling the figures, YTS and cheap labour schemes – the organisation of the unemployed becomes an imperative necessity.

Of course the task of organising the unemployed is not a simple one. The unemployed are atomised, often dispirited and most of those under 25 (who make up around 50% of the unemployed) have little or no experience of working class or any disciplined organisation.

The ideal model for organising the unemployed must be the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, which rallied up to 100,000 to join its ranks.

In April 1921 the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (after 1929 known as the NUWM) held its founding conference. Once off the ground the NUWM went about winning the unemployed to action with flare and imagination. The NUWM fought long and hard to unite unemployed with employed workers.

Definitely the most famous actions of the NUWM were the Hunger Marches. Six were held between 1922 and 1936. They all had specific demands. In 1922 it was “full maintenance or work at trade union rates”, the central NUWM slogan. The first contingent set out from Glasgow on October 17 and arrived in London one month and one day later to a huge reception.

The second Hunger March of winter 1929, which again started from Scotland, was an even greater success, indirectly leading to the fall of the Tory government and its replacement by a Labour one. After fierce battles and several more national Hunger Marches against the Labour government of MacDonald and then his National Government, the unemployed made some real gains.

This was not because the NUWM was respectable. It organised factory raids to stop excessive overtime work, it occupied buildings from which to organise the unemployed, it fought side by side with workers in struggle, not least the heroic miners of 1926. A testament of this can be seen by the fact that its leader, Wal Hannington, served five terms in jail between 1922 and 1932.

Members of the NUWM were admitted after swearing this oath:

“I, a member of the great army of the unemployed, being without work and compelled to suffer through no fault of my own, do hereby abide by, and carry out, the instructions of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement, with the deliberate intention of pressing forward the claims of the unemployed so that no man, woman or child suffers hunger or want this winter.

“Further, realising that only by the abolition of this hideous capitalist system can the horror of unemployment be removed from our midst, I here and now take myself a binding oath, to never cease from active strife against this system until capitalism is abolished from our country and all its resources truly belong to the people.”

Organising

By setting up local groups of the Unemployed Workers’ Charter, the first foundations can be laid for a national organisation of the unemployed. Such a body would seek to mobilise the mass of unemployed workers alongside all workers in struggle. Organised, the unemployed could prove to be a tremendous ally to those like the Wapping printers, the Silentnight strikers and those fighting for workers’ sanctions against apartheid.

This means unemployed workers being allowed to remain members of their unions, but it also means sending unemployed workers’ representatives to bodies like trades councils. Eventually it would also mean seeing an unemployed workers’ organisation with a seat on the TUC general council.

The unemployed must be organised to fight alongside their employed brothers and sisters. Just imagine what a difference the mass mobilisation of the unemployed would make to a struggle like Wapping. Some trade union officials are, of course, afraid of such a prospect.

They want the unemployed drafted onto YTS, MSC schemes and other slave labour measures to keep us “off the streets”. To these fat cats we say we’ll go with you if you come with us, but we’ll go without you if we must. We certainly don’t need your People’s Marches for Jobs nor your re-run of the ever so respectable Jarrow Crusade. We will improve our conditions by organising ourselves.

Because we see the struggle of the unemployed directly linked to the struggle of all workers fighting for the right to work, we are not out for sympathy – the unemployed have had enough of being made the objects of pity. We are now going to organise to fight.

The Unemployed Workers’ Charter lays the foundation for a national unemployed workers’ movement. It will be run by the unemployed themselves and its officers will be elected and recallable.

We have had enough of non-political tea and sympathy labour movement unemployment centres run by government paid appointees. Now we are going to take things into our own hands.

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