Lessons from 2008: resisting workfare and the role of the unions
In a 2008 essay, I set out in some detail the policy implementation theory and empirical research to show that the then emerging Workfare programme would end up being entirely counterproductive:
[W]ith the ‘welfare reforms’ now proposed there’s a real risk that, given the additional bureaucracies inevitably involved, mechanisms will evolve that produce less flexibility, more ‘processing’ (i.e. dehumanising) of clients. In the US at least front-line staff’s starting culture was one geared to just processing benefit claims with no great expectation of what might happen next; in the UK, the invasive New Public Management techniques of the last 25 years mean that front line staff in Job Centre Plus already start from a more a negative standpoint, just as inclined to ‘process’ but to do so with more of a mind to benefit withdrawal.
[T]here is a huge risk that the whole plus side of the reform – and at policy-making level increased personalized support is seen as a plus – will be ignored in favour of the downside; this will be about pushing people into (for them) counterproductive ‘work related activity’ in order to meet the newly introduced range of targets…..
At the time, the essay received some praise from the left, while on the Labour right it was largely dismissed it as pseudo-academic esoterics irrelevant to the main debate about how we needed to deal with the “welfare problem”. Those same commentators now apparently have little to say about the abuses being heaped on the unemployed, the disabled the sick.
The Conservative regime has picked up from New Labour’s intellectual incoherence with glee, and my predictions about dehumanisation of welfare recipients have been fully borne out. Under a Labour government, the consequences of advisor “flexbility” might have been seen as unfortunate and unintended, and in time processes might have been adapted to make them more humane. Under the Conservative regime, there will be no such change of course.
The current adverse public reaction to the regime’s “slave labour” excesses is to be welcomed, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s anything other than a temporary setback for the government. Indeed, the signs are that the Coalition’s “job snob” narrative, while not currently effective, might well end up turning the current backlash to longer term advantage (this will be the subject of another blogpost). Once the backlash has faded from the headlines, the sanction rules will remain in place, as will the perverse-incentive contracts with A4E, Serco and the rest.
The key problem is that we are focusing our resistance at the wrong point.
At the moment, the focus of attention is on those parts of the Workfare system which are wholly under the control of the private providers. The private providers are an easy target it in the short term, but this ignores the fact that clients only arrive for abuse at their hands via Job Centre Plus advisers, who form part of a still largely unionised workforce.
This raises difficult questions for the unions, and in particular for PCS, the main union operating in this sector.
Why, we should be asking, are these unionised advisers apparently not telling young people that they don’t have to stick with work experience placements that they are not finding valuable? Why are unionised advisers using their discretion to impose “Mandatory Work Activity” on a much larger group of people than was originally set out in the government’s own plans. Why are unionised advisers not telling JSA claimaints that I have a right to refuse disclosure of their details to thirs parties, thus preventing their entry in the Work Programme, at which point unpaid work becomes mandatory.
Why, moreover is the only recent PCS press release concerned with Workfare, focused solely on the activities of A4E, rather than on the dehumanising tasks that his own members are being encouraged to carry out?
I am not seeking to blame individuals here. As I set out in my 2008 essay, the way in which job centre staff are now treating claimants is simply a reflection of the way in which they have been ground down by the forces of New Public Management, to the point that they see clamaints as part of their target, not as people. The New Labour ideal that they might, in the culture and with the resources they are now expected to work, offer a MORE personalised service than before, is more ridiculous now than it was in 2008.
This is how I concluded my 2008 essay:
So how should the Left react to the ‘reforms’? I’ve already indicated some ways in which we might seek to ameliorate the situation, given that the bill WILL go through and the ’reforms’ will be implemented, however badly. In general, I think alongside the protest marches and the opposition in totality, we need to be thinking about the best way to deal with what is coming. To a large extent, I think the responsibility has to lies with the unions, especially the PCS, not just to protest, but to get their members thinking at an early stage where their priorities lie.
In practical terms this means looking at the ‘detailed guidance’ that comes out in due course, arguing long and hard over the drafts to make them fairer, working to ensure that the performance targets imposed reflect real people, not numbers on a claimant count, and working with their staff and all their unions supporters to enable them to stand up to managers driving their ‘performance, by empowering those staff to say ‘No, these people have a right to personalized and appropriate support – it says so in the guidance. It also of course means arguing and if need be striking hard for extra resources – staff, time, office space – to do the job properly.
This will not be easy, and it will take a huge effort not just from the PCS but the whole union movement and its support to make, what for some branches at least will be a step change from arguing the vital but narrow case for member conditions, to a scenario where members realize that their conditions and fairness to clients are inextricably intertwined, and that some form of ‘strategic alliance’ is needed to combat what is bad in the ‘reforms’ and to bring out what might be good if it’s given a proper chance.
Time has moved on, and the details of what can be done are clearer. Yet I stand by the view that the only effective resistance to the demolition of this large part of the welfare state is through organised labour, in conjunction with the broader protest movement, in which union members come together, with the support of their leaders, to establish institutional legitimacy for their way of doing things – including respect for the people they are there to serve. In time, this institutional legitimacy must compete openly for primacy with the rules imposed from without (and a signficant aspect of this later stage will be unionising the private provider workforces so that the “sites of resistance” can grow)
2012 is a lot worse than 2008, but the same basic rules apply: organisation, organisation, organisation. I just hope Mark Serwotka and his PCS comrades takes note that public sector unions have two interrelated duties: to defend the interests of members, but also to defend public service.