Youth Fighting Back by Unite Community’s Tom Costello

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Lancashire Unite Community Youth Officer, Tom Costello, has written a very good  pamphlet, Youth Fighting Back: Young Workers and Trade Unions. This brief but clear and well written account analyses why young people need unions and what unions can do for them. It includes examples of inspirational young people recently taking industrial action at McDonalds and TGI Fridays.

Tom also links trade union activity to the need to get rid of the Tories and to support Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

There is also practical advice on what individuals can do to take forward the struggle against exploitation and unfairness experienced by young people.

Tom’s pamphlet makes a great campaigning tool in order to recruit young people to Unite Community and the wider union movement.

How to obtain a copy

A pdf version of the pamphlet is available here and hard copies can be obtained from Tom himself by contacting him on email at: tom_costello1@hotmail.com

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Branch publishes food aid guide

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The Sanctions Working Group of Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch has just published an online version of A Guide to Food Aid in Leeds. A sign of austere neoliberal times. Thank you to Leeds-based Unity in Poverty Action for all their considerable help with the guide. A  hard copy will be ready soon. Further details of the guide are available here

How Gramsci’s ideas can help us in campaigning against benefit sanctions

Unite Community member, Gerry Lavery, considers how the ideas of  Antonio Gramsci, one time leader of the Italian Communist Party and political theorist, have helped to inform the work of the Sanctions Working Group of Unite Community Leeds and Wakefield Branch. The harsh yet ineffective sanctions regime stubbornly remains. Until popular perceptions of working-age claimants are challenged in a more strategic way at a local and national level, then the hostile climate that supports sanctions is likely to persist.

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Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Benefit sanctions have had devastating consequences, including death. They have often been applied to the most vulnerable, but have also been linked to poor health, worsening family relations, debt, homelessness and crime. Nor is there much evidence in the UK that they work. But, through Universal Credit, they will remain and be extended to those working and previously receiving tax credits. This policy is known as ‘in-work conditionality’, i.e., unless claimants can justify working a certain number of hours or not pursuing better paid jobs, they could also be penalised. Trials of the policy have already highlighted its potentially damaging impact.

Campaigning against sanctions has understandably often focused on policy and its impact, however, to understand the drivers of such policies, we also need to consider popular attitudes towards claimants. An unlikely figure whose work might help us in this regard is the former Italian communist leader and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).

Common sense and benefit sanctions

Gramsci’s great contribution was, following Lenin, to develop the concept of hegemony, outlined in his Prison Notebooks. He used it to understand how the ruling class maintains its power and the need for subordinate groups to forge alliances in order to change the balance of forces to transform society. While control of the economy was key, Gramsci also understood that ‘leadership’ in the political and ideological spheres was necessary in securing hegemony.

Hall and O’Shea draw on Gramsci’s idea of common sense to understand ‘common-sense neoliberalism’, including popular negative attitudes towards social security claimants. Like Gramsci, they see common sense less as practical wisdom but more as a framework of meaning for people. It is distilled over time from multiple influences, relies on simplified, often contradictory, ideas to understand the world and is expressed in everyday language. For example, the idea of the ‘benefit scrounger’ is often invoked but without much reflection or evidence to support it.

Such attitudes are also amplified by politicians to justify benefit reforms while tax cuts go to the rich. In a speech, George Osborne referred to ‘the shift worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits’. Following the speech, government research revealed that over a four year period four out of five claimants spent three quarters of their time off benefits.

While Hall and O’Shea observe that common sense is often socially conservative, it is not irredeemably so. Gramsci states that it contains a ‘healthy nucleus’ or ‘good sense’. For example, in their research into Sun readers’ comments at the time of social security reforms, Hall and O’Shea report not only stereotypes about claimants but also progressive elements. While claimants are referred to as ‘lazy’ and ‘living in luxury’, there are comments that those on tax credits are also in work, and that cuts to disability benefits are ‘cruel’. It is this kind of terrain that can be built upon by the left, they suggest.

From common sense to good sense

The union I am a member of, Unite Community, includes and supports unemployed people. In some parts of the union, help is often given with welfare rights and there may also be discussions about unemployment and the nature of the social security system. This is not necessarily straightforward as claimants may have internalised some of the stereotypes which abound about them. Some may also regard themselves as ‘more deserving’ than others and so on. Common sense, then, can work in harmful and contradictory ways and alternative explanations need to be gently posed. Opportunities may also present themselves for challenging the views of non-claimants, whether at home, at work or in the community. Consciousness-raising can be difficult work, so it is important that it is undertaken skilfully and in a spirit of dialogue and in a way which does not seek to impose an alternative view. In saying this, however, pragmatic judgements about what is achievable, especially in relation to the intransigent, may have to be made.

We might be encouraged by a YouGov poll cited by Hall and O’Shea. It reported that respondents thought that 41 per cent of the welfare budget on average went to unemployed people, whereas the actual figure was only 3 per cent. There was also a perception that just under a third of the budget was wasted by fraud; however, the real figure was 0.7 per cent. Such views are then tied to market common sense – ‘you can only have what you pay for’ – and that benefits must be cut to counteract the deficit. Hall and O’Shea comment on the instability of common sense because the polling they refer to reveals that when respondents were given the correct figures, they became more sympathetic to claimants. Common sense, it seems, is not always fixed and can shift.

Anti-sanctions campaigning as a war of position

As well consciousness-raising, there is also a need for a wider political strategy. In complex societies, Gramsci observed, the state is surrounded by a powerful system of ‘earth works and fortresses’ of organisations in civil society which influence the nature of the state. Gramsci was referring to the private realm here such as voluntary associations and political parties when not in office. If power is to change hands, then any successful counter-hegemonic project would need to dismantle those earthworks and fortresses, to influence civil society, to form alliances, to shift the balance of forces. He called this strategy ‘a war of position’. Although Gramsci was a revolutionary, his strategy might also inform more contemporary politics and Labour’s struggle against neoliberalism and, indeed, anti-sanctions campaigning.

My own branch of Unite Community has formed a sanctions working group with a brief to support local claimants but also to counter the dominant narrative on social security and to build alliances with local groups. We have, for instance, made links with church-related organisations such as an anti-poverty project, which includes a food aid network. In collaboration with the project, we have published a food aid guide which takes an anti-sanctions stance. We have also produced a campaigning leaflet for outreach work, which challenges stereotypes about claimants and points to the state benefits that accrue to the rich through subsidies, tax cuts and tax avoidance. There are also plans for media training and further campaigning.

At a broader political level, we have devised a model motion to go to local trades councils and constituency Labour parties. It asks Labour to prioritise a relentless fight against sanctions by backing ‘an urgent, vigorous and high profile campaign’ against them. It calls for a challenge to popular stereotypes about claimants and to promote an anti-sanctions culture. It further asks Labour to challenge the dominant narrative wherever possible, including in the media, and to contrast the situation of claimants with the preferential treatment for the rich. Finally, it calls upon Labour MPs and their allies to demand an end sanctions at every available opportunity.

Anti-sanctions campaigning is not just important in its own right but can also play its role in the emerging counter-hegemony to neoliberalism. Both require an understanding of common-sense neoliberalism and the adoption of a political strategy of the kind once advocated by Gramsci.

 Gerry Lavery is a member of Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch and can be contacted via: unitecommunityleedswakefield@outlook.com

This article is based partly on an earlier, lengthier paper written for Unite Community available at: https://unitecommunityleedswakefield.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/sanctions-campaign-discussion-paper/ I am grateful to Barry Ewart, also a member of Unite Community, for his comments on an earlier draft of the article.

Universal Credit Day of Action – Thursday 24th May in Morley

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Despite knowing Universal Credit causes serious problems for claimants, the Tory government is pressing ahead and rolling it out to thousands of people who will have to wait weeks to receive any money. Claimants are descending into debt, relying on food banks, getting into rent arrears and in many cases getting evicted from their homes because of in- built problems with Universal Credit.

Unite Community, the community wing of Unite the Union, will be holding a national Day of Action on Thursday 24th May to highlight the problems with Universal Credit.

Details of local event

A local event will be held in Morley in Leeds. A stall will be set up in the main shopping precinct on Queen Street in Morley from 11am-1pm where campaigning will take place, leaflets distributed and signatures collected for a petition demanding a stop to Universal Credit.

There will also be a public meeting from 1.30-3.30pm in the Morley Labour Rooms, 2, Commercial Street, Morley, LS27 8HY for anyone wishing to join in a discussion about the issues involved and to consider taking the campaign forward.

Please join us.

 

 

With Banners Held High and Collective Spirit Festival

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With Banners Held High is an annual event to mark the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 and the solidarity shown to the striking miners. Members of the Unite Community Leeds & Wakefield Branch will be in attendance with our new branch banner. If you would like to join us, we will be assembling at Wakefield Cathedral to start marching at 9.30am. on Sunday 20th May. Further details here.

The Collective Spirit Festival, which part is of With Banners Held High, is already underway and will last up until the With Banners Held High event itself. It is ‘a week-long festival of progressive poetry, performance, and culture’ Further details here

Protest over cuts to school transport for vulnerable young people

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Unite Community members supported the parents of students with special educational needs and disabilities in a protest yesterday against cuts to their children’s school transport for their post-16 education.

The parents’ organisation, DEAL (Disabilty Empowerment Action Links), staged the protest outside Leeds Town Hall. Parents and their families were well represented as were a range of trade unions and members of the local political parties. TV and press were also in attendance.

The protest was a great success and the parents made their case well through speeches and through their rightly oft repeated chant of ‘No ifs, no buts, no transport cuts’! Leaflets were also given out to the public and many signatures collected for the DEAL petition. Unite Community congratulates DEAL for a very impressive first ever demonstration and for mobilising so many people.

Trade unionists and members of the local Labour Party and the Socialist Party also made speeches in support of DEAL. We also understand that a resolution backing the parents’ case will be going to a local branch of the Labour Party in the near future.

DEAL, with the support of Unite Community, will be carrying on their campaign. Their cause is just and we urge Leeds City Council to think again about the cut to school transport for such a vulnerable group.

In the meantime, here are more pictures from Saturday’s protest.

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