In January, Boycott Workfare found out that the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) had signed up to support DWP “Work Experience”, a workfare scheme, which would see 10 forced unpaid workers in each region of the Royal Mail. Deeply concerned that a national union was supporting workfare, we and others started to publicise this shameful fact.
In just a few weeks, the CWU backtracked and the scheme has now been radically changed. The CWU claim that those sent on the scheme will not be forced to do so, will now be paid, and will be added to a waiting list for a job at the end of it.
A victory? Not quite.
By fudging its response, the CWU has helped legitimise the government’s workfare plans. In backtracking from forced unpaid labour, it has created a scheme which is notable for the fact that those in the know reckon it is near-unworkable. Even Tesco’s workfare fudge acknowledged that the “opportunity” to come off jobseekers allowance for a month of paid work often means weeks of hardship with no income and delays in reclaiming. Bizarrely, the CWU leadership seems to think people will both be claiming jobseekers allowance and being paid. Perhaps if they’d spoken to any claimants they might not be so confused.
We know from countless examples and explicit statements of ministerial intent that voluntary work experience schemes are often presented to the unemployed as far from voluntary. Even though on paper some sanctions have temporarily been suspended, people are still told they will lose benefits if they do not take part, or are threatened with other mandatory schemes.
By blurring the boundaries between compulsion and volunteering, paid and unpaid work, and accepting even more temporary workers in the Royal Mail, the CWU has done claimants and posties a disservice. So it is deeply disappointing to see that the TUC has explicitly welcomed the CWU workfare fudge as a model example of “work experience schemes”. They seem to have missed the point on compulsion as well and are actively campaigning for Labour’s so-called “Job Guarantee“, which sees people face destitution through sanctions if they do not wish to accept whatever work they are given at below minimum wage (10 hours of the scheme is compulsory unpaid training).
At a time when so many of their members face redundancy, it is shocking that some in the union movement, whilst decrying austerity and cuts, are perversely paving the way for a policy that sees people claiming social security forced to work for no wages upon threat of destitution. Union members’ job security, wages and terms and conditions are under attack.
There can be no middle ground when it comes to workfare. Either you believe in people being paid to do a job or you do not. The union movement should be leading the way in fighting forced labour and in defending the principle that work should be paid, rather than fudging a compromise. We strongly urge union members to raise this issue with their leadership.
Workfare represents an easy ethical, moral and political test for anyone who truly believes in the idea of an egalitarian society. Sadly it is a test that a some in union leadership roles have yet to pass.
Fudging on workfare just doesn’t work, as those worrying that their jobs may be substituted in Birmingham hospitals know. It probably wasn’t explicitly highlighted that the pilot scheme being trialled in Sandwell and Birmingham hospitals trust was workfare when Unison initially agreed to it. However, now the union is faced with the task of dismantling a much larger scheme, which looks set to fill some of the gaps to be left by 800 redundancies. Boycott Workfare will work with them to do so.
While the CWU leadership lets members and claimants down and the TUC applauds, grassroots trade unionists are building strength against workfare in our workplaces. When workfare was proposed in Brighton and Hove Council, Unison and GMB members put a stop to it pretty quickly. When the Home Office was considering mass workfare, PCS members did the same. Boycott Workfare is building support at the grassroots and at a national level.
You can help! If you are in a union, download this leaflet to share with your colleagues, and adapt this motion to sign your branch up to the pledge that reads: “We the undersigned commit to refusing to participate in compulsory work-for-benefits placements. We want volunteering to remain just that!” If you‘re not a union member, you probably know someone who is, so please pass it on!
One of the posties to actively challenge his union over its support for workfare, reflects here on what was achieved and what can be learnt from the campaign…
What went well?
People from across the UK emailing and ringing CWU to ask questions and inform the union of their outrage that Communication Workers Union should endorse a Tory slave labour scheme that helped put the Union bosses in panic and force a change in how the scheme would be run.
Members from two different SolFed locals, the IWW and Boycott Workfare from across the southeast corner starting from scratch, organising a protest picket outside of Communication House and then working with other SolFed members and CWU members from as far away as Bristol that managed to leaflet the CWU conference before the conference vote on Royal Mail’s work experience scheme… all in just a
What did not go so well?
Because we were working with quite a few others from different SolFed locals, Boycott Workfare the IWW, Wessex Solidarity and CWU members, who hadn’t worked together before, and came from across a large part of England, communication was a bit hit and miss at times.
What were the failures in the campaign against the CWU’s active participation in the Royal Mail work experience scheme, what have we learnt, and where do we go from here?
Ultimately we failed to stop the use of the work experience scheme in Royal Mail after conference had a vote on if the Union bosses should stop working with Royal Mail on this issue. It should be remembered that although we lost this one and the scheme is still going ahead the CWU and Royal Mail panicked and gave terms and conditions that are far better than any other scheme from the DWP, including half of the four week scheme spent training with a Union Rep and a Health and Safety Rep and then shadowing an Ordinary Postal Grade (OPG) before spending the last two weeks of the scheme doing normal duties of an OPG at agency rates. (Normal training for a new employee is about three days.)
Because of the huge costs involved I feel that this Royal Mail scheme will be dropped but with hindsight we should have had a big demonstration outside of the CWU conference inviting all interested parties to join including Boycott Workfare, UK Uncut, all radical workers, unemployed workers and other people interested. With an online petition, letter writing and even a phone zap instead of the low key leafleting that happened on the day.
In the mean time we need to monitor as far as we can how unemployed workers are treated on these Royal Mail schemes and look at ways to educating unemployed workers about rights they may have before they take up these schemes. We also need to begin a big national campaign against the TUC and their endorsement of the CWU / Royal Mail scheme.