Be the Change. Boycott Workfare

June 19, 2013


It has been over a year since The Occupied Times first invited Boycott Workfare to spread the word with an article in print. At the time, few people knew what workfare was, or why it mattered. Since then the campaign against workfare has come a very long way. It continues to grow and, importantly, to enjoy real concrete successes. People now know what workfare is and what it means. What started as a small group of unemployed people, union members, voluntary sector workers and activists at an open meeting in London has grown into a truly UK-wide campaign, which has now also taken on an international dimension. Boycott Workfare has worked with groups across the world, and will soon be taking part in an international unemployed people’s conference in Austria. Not bad for a grassroots campaign run on a shoestring.

The relentless efforts of growing numbers of people campaigning has seen nine more organisations pull out of workfare schemes since the turn of the year: Sense, PDSA, Shoe Zone, Wilkinson’s, Superdrug, Capability Scotland, Sue Ryder and the Red Cross. The Children’s Society has pledged: “All volunteering at The Children’s Society should be done by choice and under no obligation from any other agency.” If there are no places to send people to carry out workfare, then workfare cannot exist.

There was the High Court victory in February 2013, in the case bravely brought by Cait Reilly who was forced to work in Poundland. It was a reminder that people faced with workfare also face sanctions – benefit stoppages which can now last up to three years. The High Court ruled that 300,000 people were unlawfully sanctioned on workfare schemes, and that £130 million had to be repaid to them. But to avoid doing so, the government pushed a retroactive law with the help of the Labour party. It is a bill that denies justice to those unlawfully sanctioned by the state. The DWP have said that even if it is repealed, the £130 million in compensation would come from brand new cuts to the social security budget. Collective punishment of the poor is the order of the day, with Jobcentre staff rewarded with Easter eggs for sanctioning people. Sanctions are a way of making cuts by stealth: 827,660 people were sanctioned between April 2011 and October 2012. It’s a fact that on workfare schemes, you have a better chance of being sanctioned than of finding a job.

The greatest success of the campaign is that it demonstrates the goodness and kindness of people and their generosity of spirit. Faced with huge odds, people power can overcome government policy, vested corporate interests and big brands. This is because it is a campaign that puts people first. That means listening to people, not lecturing them. We try to help and empower people. If you take people as they are, they will give what they can. Christianity Uncut now also supports the campaign against workfare, which given the large number of Christian charities taking part in schemes, such as the Salvation Army and YMCA, could make a big difference.

With the introduction of Universal Credit, even those who are in part-time work or self-employed will be referred to workfare schemes – for the crime of not working enough hours or being paid enough. Disabled people passed fit to work by ATOS are also being sent to do workfare. The idea has even been floated by one Lord that pensioners should do workfare for their pensions. Workfare replaces paid workers which means it affects everyone, unemployed and employed alike. Because this is such a wide-ranging issue Boycott Workfare works closely with other groups. Without this spirit of working together, the success we’ve had up until now would not have been possible.

Workfare has become a totemic issue, in which people see different aspects of neoliberalism in action. People focus on whatever ideological critique of workfare suits their political beliefs, but our message is simple: Workfare is wrong and you either oppose it, or you don’t. Boycott Workfare works with anyone opposed to workfare and will not compromise on its anti-workfare stance. This has meant that at times it has had to contend with criticism from those that many would assume to be supportive – union leaders, Labour Party apologists and mainstream commentators among them. To us, unity comes from working together with integrity, not being told: “Shut up, don’t criticise, and do as we say”.

Ironically, the successful campaign against workfare represents as much a threat to the institutionalised way of ‘opposing the government’ as it does to the government policy itself. After all, if such a diverse array of individuals and groups can have such success then what does this mean for those with leaders to sell, party faithfuls to please, and career ladders to climb? Change is scary. When people don’t need to ask what action to take and they can just take it, counting on others in the network for support, where does that leave annual A to B marches concluding with speeches from the usual suspects? If you had spent millions on ‘opposing austerity’ but had absolutely nothing to show for it, how would you feel?

It’s about horizontal organising, not vertical. This is something Boycott Workfare took from London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), which is where the campaign evolved. LCAP’s model of community organising has an emphasis on empowering people. People must always come first. We work together to learn legal rights and share practical advice, information and strategies. When this approach is combined with the tried and tested: demonstrations, leafleting, occupations, workshops; and the new: social media, crowd-sourcing,Tweet-walls, and online action, you get a successful campaign. Our keywords are: People, Empowerment, Outreach, Creativity, Collaboration, Dialogue, Flexibility and Fun.

Perhaps, and in a similar vein to Occupy and UK Uncut, the campaign against workfare represents the birth of a new campaigning paradigm, a new way of doing things.. The infographic later in this issue is an example: The Occupied Times and Boycott Workfare, working together to produce something practical to help people in their lives. It didn’t take vertical central committees, party leaders or millions of pounds to produce. It took people working together collaboratively, not for personal or political gain, but for the greater good of others. A new paradigm. Be the change. Boycott Workfare.

By Warren Richards | @BoycottWorkfare


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