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Programme of action to fight unemployment is needed
When Tony McNulty, New Labour's minister for (un)employment was asked by the TUC if the government would consider increasing unemployment benefit because of the number of workers now losing their jobs, he said no - because it would stop people looking for jobs if it is set too high.
Even the normally insipid TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said in response: "Unemployment figures are seen as the scrounger count by some and poverty level benefits are considered a way to drive people back to work. While always wrong, this argument now looks desperately out of touch".
Emphasising the growing social crisis of unemployment, Lambeth council has announced a modern version of the 1930s soup kitchen, with its plans to set up food cooperatives on estates and in community centres.
McNulty's callous response to rising levels of unemployment is an echo of the infamous 'stop moaning and get on yer bike to find a job' comment made by Tory Norman Tebbit, who was a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.
Under New Labour, the value of so-called unemployment benefit has nosedived to a level that has not been seen in generations. There is no unemployment benefit, just job seeker's allowance, which is only £60.50 a week for over 25 year olds. This is what the tens of thousands who are weekly being thrown out of work, are expected to survive on.
What jobs exactly does McNulty expect the jobless to be chasing? With the rising levels of unemployment, the number of vacant jobs is dropping. It was down by 49,000 to 589,000 in October. New Labour's response to those thrown on the stones is: 'to hell with you, starve if you have to but we are not going to help you'.
Redundancies and job loss forecasts are now a daily occurrence. In the press last week it was reported that more than 20,000 workers have been told they are to lose their jobs. BT has announced 10,000 jobs are to go. JCB in Staffordshire announced another 400 job losses, despite the craven acceptance by the GMB trade union for the workforce to reduce their working hours and therefore their pay (see article below).
Virgin media is cutting 2,200 jobs. Taylor Wimpey, reflecting the deepening crisis of the building industry with the near collapse of house building, is telling 1,000 to go. Yell, Glaxo and Leyland trucks together are getting rid of over 2,200 workers.
Economists are vying with each other as to who can predict the biggest rise in unemployment. Some say it will reach two million by Christmas and at least three million by 2010. In the City of London last week, most building activity had come to a halt and the financial giants, Citigroup and RBS, announced 13,000 jobs are to go. A City economist, responding to the loss of City jobs, said: "This is going to get much, much worse".
Job losses are having a disproportionate effect on 18-25 year olds, people over 50 and amongst men. The number of unemployed men in October was 1.07 million, up 85,000 since last year. 750,000 women were unemployed in October, up 55,000. But the 18-24 unemployment figure grew by 16%. Brendan Barber has pointed out that 500,000 young people are not in work, education or training.
The scourge of unemployment is one of the greatest disasters to hit the working class. It can make people feel useless and unwanted. Just look at what happened to the unemployed in Longbridge in Birmingham once the Rover car plant closed. The government did not nationalise the company, unlike the banks. Instead it set up a "task force" to find jobs for the sacked workers. The average pay of the workers who found jobs fell by around £6,000 a year from £24,000, as they were shunted into all sorts of low-paid service type work. Their morale fell, not just because of the lower wages but as the author of the report, professor David Bailey said: "Workers rated highly the camaraderie they had at MG Rover".
45% felt that their new jobs were worse than their old ones (and working on the car track was no picnic). Sam Kendal, 38, who has been made redundant three time since Rover closed said: "There are a lot more Rover workers still out of a job than the authorities are letting on. People lost their homes and some committed suicide".
It is clear that the labour movement now has to face up to its biggest challenge for 50 years and more - how to respond to the prospect of long-term mass unemployment. If the union leaders do not give a lead but just wring their hands in despair, some of those who they abandon could turn, not to the labour movement, but to the false prophets of the BNP. The BNP seeks to blame migrant workers for the problems of unemployment and demands that they be 'sent back'.
Derek Simpson, the joint general secretary of Unite and Paul Kenny of the GMB have both made vague calls on the government to 'intervene'. But these calls are not enough, what is required is a worked-out programme of action to force the government to intervene.
All three main parties have the same policies on the crisis, a few tax cuts here and there, propping up the banks but precious little else - just hope that eventually things will get better. The trade unions, with all their authority, should organise mass demonstrations now against the growing threat to jobs and living standards. As a starting point they should demand that companies making cuts open their books to the workforce for scrutiny. Where have all the profits gone? Instead of cutting jobs, work should be shared out, based on a maximum 35 hour week with no loss of pay.
As well, there should be a programme of government spending on publicly works - such as the construction of public owned housing - to provide new jobs and meet people's housing and services needs.
The union leaders should make a clear call for the government to take over all industries and services that are insisting on redundancies, with compensation to shareholders paid only on the basis of proven need. The entire finance industry should be nationalised and energy companies such as British Gas that are ripping off the poorest sections of society should be brought back into public ownership.
The unions' programme should also include the renationalisation of rail and other forms of transport, including the bus companies. They should make a clarion call that they will stand behind all workers fighting for their jobs at plant level, such as in the Ford Southampton plant, including if necessary physically stopping machinery being moved, by the occupation of those plants.
The trade unions have massive industrial muscle, which should be used. But as well, they need a political voice - a new workers' party - which they do not have at the moment, as an auxiliary weapon to the fight against the bosses in the workplace.
The ruling class will oppose with all its might a programme like this. But a call on union members and other workers to back it would gain huge support. A call for action to save jobs and to end the nightmare of mass unemployment and poverty under a worn-out system, will receive a tremendous echo.
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In The Socialist 19 November 2008:
No Job Cuts
Post office closures
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis