This Saturday the biggest march against the government’s austerity measures since the ‘March for the Alternative’ will make its way through the scenic streets of London towards the awaiting Labour party leader in Hyde Park. Why? The TUC has cleverly titled the march ‘A Future That Works’ to answer this very question. It represents a twofold demand on the government to provide ‘ordinary British families’ with: (1) an economy that functions and (2) jobs. The various inconsistencies of this double demand have been discussed elsewhere. Here I would like to concentrate on what this demand actually entails given current government policy. Namely I will make the argument that calling for jobs to fix the economy without a proper critique of what it means to work in Britain today is an implicit demand for the proliferation of welfare-for-work type programmes.
The TUC likes work. This is patently obvious from reading their pamphlet which heavily criticizes the current policy of deficit reduction for its lack of job creation. They note that ‘In a recession spending on unemployment goes up and money from tax falls’1 – so the presumption is that if the government are not creating jobs, their plan to reduce the deficit is hampered by reductions in tax revenue and spending on unemployment benefit. However, this explanation conveniently forgets the reason that unemployment rises during crisis in the first place: workers are no longer seen as profitable, so the size of the workforce is reduced.
Nevertheless, alongside this economic rationale the TUC have a more self-interested reason for liking work. Namely that as the umbrella organisation for most of Britain’s trade unions, people are mostly relevant to the TUC only when they are in work. The greater the number of people employed, the easier it becomes for unions to organise them. The smaller the size of the unemployed, the easier it is for unions to win concessions against bosses. So it is clear that a person being in work is beneficial to the TUC and it is therefore entirely understandable for them to demand job creation.
But it is not only the TUC who like work; capitalists also do (as long as it is profitable for them). What is even more germane however is that the state as an entity with the interests of capital in mind does not want to support a large number of unemployed who it sees as having little chance of contributing meaningfully to its economy for much of their lives. More and more people find themselves out of work for longer and longer – at the moment many are superfluous to the needs of capital. Yet this surplus population has to be dealt with somehow – this is probably something that plays on the mind of the current government as much as it does for the TUC. Their interests are aligned on this level, so when the TUC make their demand for more jobs to get ‘the economy growing’2 the government has a response: ‘workfare’.
The Conservative-led government has during its time in office expanded on earlier forms of forcing people into work by developing various ‘work experience’, ‘mandatory work activity’ and ‘training’ programmes. Refusing to take part in these schemes or not meeting the standards expected can lead to sanctions including the removal of benefits. You truly have a system where one must work for their welfare. Those social democratic mechanisms that existed for ameliorating the effects of capitalism are being taken away and replaced with the technologies for drilling and disciplining the reserve army of labour. The unemployed – and underemployed with the introduction of Universal Credit – will be used as unpaid labour where possible, paid labour where needed and a means by which bosses can bring down wages, provide worse terms and conditions and break organising in the workplace.
Immediately this seems like a method of getting people employed that the TUC should be taking issue with. It undermines their own work and what interest they had in the conditions of actual people should lead them to stand fiercely opposed to the schemes. Of course that isn’t what they do. As we have seen they call for more jobs, without for a moment critiquing the existing government response to that demand. For the TUC ‘young people who don’t get a job can be scarred for life’3; apparently it is unemployment, not forced work and lack of welfare that leaves you scarred. But unfortunately it goes beyond simple negligence on the TUC’s part not to critique what the government is actually doing – they wouldn’t want to come across as anti-work after all. Instead they make the following policy suggestion:
‘We should give every young
person who is unemployed for
more than six months a job
that pays at least the minimum
wage, or quality training.’4
There is a call for a minimum wage which is quickly qualified with the get out of providing ‘quality training’. Here we have precisely the rhetoric of current government policy which treats a person’s inability to get a job paying the minimum wage as a personal issue for the labourer that needs to be remedied with more training and disciplining in the art of waking up for a 09:00 start. But what is most pernicious of all in the above is that every young person should be either working or training after six months of unemployment. We already know that the TUC agrees with the government that people should be working, but it seems they also agree that one simply shouldn’t be allowed to be unemployed. There is no agency; you must put your ability to labour on the market as a commodity or presumably you stop being one of the ‘ordinary British families’ the TUC cares about.
We have known that the TUC isn’t an organisation of the left for some time and here we see in great detail just how its interests lie in the continued immiseration and exploitation of the class that it half heartedly pretends to represent. For various reasons those on the left who really do care about this class will continue to respond to this organisation’s calls for demonstration. Why exactly this is cannot be explored fully here. But what we must not forget to do however is to critically examine these calls to action and where their real interests lay. The TUC march will not lead to revolution. Their general strike, If it does happen, will be the political and not revolutionary one, this history has shown. Genuine struggle is still down to us as workers and the unemployed.
This is why the TUC march and the labour leader’s speech are not the only choices this Saturday. You can shutdown workfare too – 14:30, Oxford Circus.
This piece comes out of discussions at the ‘No future in “A Future That Works”’ event held at the Cuts Café on Tuesday evening. Two presentations were given in response to the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ pamphlet (PDF) – which serves as the economic argument for why the October 20th demonstration has been called – as well as a more general discussion on the politics and economics of the TUC and trade unions in general. I did not aim to reproduce the discussion here, but the critique by The Wine and Cheese Appreciation Society of Greater London which was the basis for their presentation at this event can be found here.
1. “Austerity is failing. We need a future that works.” p. 3
2. op. cit. p. 9