Workfare and the Unions

By Julie MacLeavy, University of Bristol

Worfare image

Workfare: doesn’t work and not fair. Photo by Howard Jones licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The potential role of organised labour organisations in policy debates on and resistance to workfare programmes is a complex issue, as is broached in relation to the US context in the article accompanying this blog. Recent developments outside of the US might point to a more engaged role for unions in such debates. In the UK, the state’s largest union, Unite, responded to last fortnight’s launch of the Coalition government’s new ‘workfare’ programme with a plea to charity managers not to sign up for community work placements, which are by part of a set of measures aimed at helping jobless benefit claimants move from welfare into work. In a statement, Unite described the mandatory work placements as “nothing more than forced unpaid labour”.

Their opposition to the Help to Work programme, which aims to reduce unemployment by making the payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) dependent on individuals’ enrolment for a six months work placement, is threefold. First there is no evidence that workfare programmes get people into paid work in the long-term. Second, workfare programmes stigmatise job seekers by making them work for nothing, or face having their benefits docked. Third, workfare displaces existing workers and enslaves jobseekers and in doing so undermines collective bargaining.

Unite’s statement of opposition to the implementation of workfare is important. Given the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics over the past two decades as the welfare system has increasingly required work in exchange for time-limited assistance, the addition of this established organisation’s voice to the critique of workfare could help to forge a counter discourse about welfare that consciously recasts welfare struggles in terms of civil and economic rights. Unite’s opposition identifies the manner in which the reduction of welfare assistance/imposition of workfare ensures a steady supply of cheap labour to industry and in doing so narrows the distance between the concerns of unemployed and its union members.

Until now, those targeted by workfare have not had the necessary institutional resources to effectively dispute the received wisdom that welfare recipients are unemployed because of a lack of motivation, skills and a ‘work ethic’. There have been independently-organised campaigns against the Help to Work scheme and its predecessors – including the former Labour government’s suite of ‘New Deals’ for the unemployed (which similarly required unemployed persons to undertake education, training or work experience in return for JSA payments) – but these have produced little in terms of long term resistance. With further support from the unions, claimant-led campaigns could be horizontally linked, relationships between welfare activists and the trade unions developed, and a greater level of public debate about the government’s reforms fostered. These nascent developments might also provide a model for the organisation of counter-workfare coalitions in the US context, where workfare programmes have also proceeded apace along broadly comparable lines to that of the UK, and with similar degrees of quietude and ineffectiveness within progressive welfare politics (see article reference in The Geographical Journal below), albeit with important differences and national inflections.

About the author: Julie MacLeavy is a Senior Lecturer in political and economic geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK.

books_icon MacLeavy, J. (2014), Workfare and resistance in the US: the quietude and ineffectiveness of progressive welfare politics post 1996. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12092

60-world2 Guardian, The (2014) New Help to Work programme comes into force for long-term unemployed. 28 April

60-world2 Unite (2014) Charity bosses urged to shun ‘workfare’ scheme by Unite. 28 April

5 thoughts on “Workfare and the Unions

  1. Lynne Friedli

    Sadly, this blog is very poorly researched and shows a complete lack of knowledge of the very considerable success of organised resistance to workfare across the UK. Readers hoping to be more informed could start with Boycott Workfare, as a route to a rich seam of information on the ‘independent resistance’ and what it has achieved. Their efforts even have the dubious honour of being cited by the DWP as a factor is ‘making the programme unworkable’.

    Reply
  2. Sam Shelley

    I would echo what Ms Friedeli has said. Boycott Workfare has been so successful that organisations against Workfare in Holland have reached out to share their expertise. A series of workshops with Dutch anti-Workfare activists is planned this month. If the author of this piece had done a cursory search on Twitter she would have seen a very vigorous opposition to this policy and the results of said opposition – for example the new campaign Keep Volunteering Voluntary and numerous blogs detailing success against providers such as The Salvation Army through boycotts and pickets. People are not taking this lying down and the supine attitude of the unions and Labour Party to this vicious policy has meant the unemployed have organised themselves. It is a shame that the writer did not research the movement before writing this piece.

    Reply
  3. Julie MacLeavy

    In response to the above comments, I would like to clarify that the blog post is in no way intended to diminish the activities of Boycott Workfare, an independent group that was set up in 2010 to campaign against UK Coalition government’s welfare reforms (details of which can be found here: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?page_id=711).

    Rather the blog – as the title suggests – is intended to highlight the comparatively slow response of the unions to the implementation of workfare, which the Boycott Workfare campaign have themselves commented on in the past (http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=2658). The blog was limited to 500 words and the intention and focus of the blog was, given the topicality of Unite’s statement on workfare, to stimulate reflection on the potential role of unions in relation to broader civil society campaigns against workfare programmes. That focus may well well have left little space within the blog to consider the important role and activities of, most prominently, Boycott Workfare in campaigns against and resistance to workfare programmes – but that was certainly not for reasons of ‘lack of research’! Indeed as suggested by the commentators, campaigns such as Boycott Workfare are an important part of the wider picture here.

    Reply
  4. Lynne Friedli

    I feel it would be more honest to acknowledge what you wrote i.e. ‘There have been independently-organised campaigns against the Help to Work scheme and its predecessors – including the former Labour government’s suite of ‘New Deals’ for the unemployed (which similarly required unemployed persons to undertake education, training or work experience in return for JSA payments) – but these have produced little in terms of long term resistance’.

    This is the sentence that people are objecting to and which demonstrates a lack of awareness of what the resistance has achieved. Why not admit that you should have provided a reference to Boycott Workfare and that if you had enough words to say ‘little has been produced in terms of long term resistance’ then you had enough words to acknowledge the achievements of a grass roots campaign.

    I don’t want to be unduly harsh, but your response is depressing and seems to me to illustrate how rarely academics (and politicians) apologise. Your failure to reference Boycott Workfare was either lack of research or an oversight. In either case, your use of an exclamation mark to rebutt this claim is especially twee and annoying. The commentators do indeed note that campaigns such as Boycott Workfare are an important part of the wider picture – the point is – you yourself did not mention this.

    Reply

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