Joanne Stevenson writes about organising against youth unemployment and with those in precarious employment who all too often are an afterthought. This article first appeared in Communist Review. Unemployment amongst young people in particular is skyrocketing.  With cuts in both secure and insecure employment, the reliance on precarious, marginal, peripheral, insecure or unstable work within the British economy has meant that, with the credit crunch and economic crisis now hitting, the effect on working people will be disastrous.

The official figures for April 2009 show registered Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants - not the same as unemployment - at 1.65 million, the highest since 1997.  Most predictions are that it will pass 3.25 million by the end of 2010.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who were in precarious work - women, youth, ethnic minorities - are the same groups that are now flooding to the JSA.  Furthermore, the Commission for Employment and Skills predicts that after the recession men will take both the majority of newly created jobs and the largest share of jobs in previously female-dominated industries.

We must not view this development with the eyes of the past.  It is important to understand the context of mass struggles around unemployment in the 1930s and 80s but we must also fully understand that the nature of work and employment has changed dramatically over the last two decades.

It is estimated that almost half of the unemployed workers are and will be under the age of 25.  Employers are apparently looking for experience; but if you are under 25, how can you have experience, given that everything on offer has been precarious work, dead-end jobs?  How much worse is joblessness compared to part-time, temporary, fixed contracts, so-called flexible, insecure employment?  Few young people who have one of these jobs think they are better off on the dole.  That is why the Young Communist League has  put forward the slogan “No more McJobs!  Give us decent work now!”

Joanne Stevenson writes about organising against youth unemployment and with those in precarious employment who all too often are an afterthought. This article first appeared in Communist Review. Unemployment amongst young people in particular is skyrocketing.  With cuts in both secure and insecure employment, the reliance on precarious, marginal, peripheral, insecure or unstable work within the British economy has meant that, with the credit crunch and economic crisis now hitting, the effect on working people will be disastrous.

The official figures for April 2009 show registered Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants - not the same as unemployment - at 1.65 million, the highest since 1997.  Most predictions are that it will pass 3.25 million by the end of 2010.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who were in precarious work - women, youth, ethnic minorities - are the same groups that are now flooding to the JSA.  Furthermore, the Commission for Employment and Skills predicts that after the recession men will take both the majority of newly created jobs and the largest share of jobs in previously female-dominated industries.

We must not view this development with the eyes of the past.  It is important to understand the context of mass struggles around unemployment in the 1930s and 80s but we must also fully understand that the nature of work and employment has changed dramatically over the last two decades.

It is estimated that almost half of the unemployed workers are and will be under the age of 25.  Employers are apparently looking for experience; but if you are under 25, how can you have experience, given that everything on offer has been precarious work, dead-end jobs?  How much worse is joblessness compared to part-time, temporary, fixed contracts, so-called flexible, insecure employment?  Few young people who have one of these jobs think they are better off on the dole.  That is why the Young Communist League has  put forward the slogan “No more McJobs!  Give us decent work now!”

Reaching out to the millions

It is not going to be easy to reach out to millions.  Most trade unionists, perhaps as many as five out of six, have full-time and permanent jobs.  The proportion of unionised full-time workers is 50% higher than the proportion of part-time workers, but temporary and agency workers show the lowest level of organisation.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that they have little power, and that the movement is structured only to concentrate on trade unions’ own members and not to fight for “precarious” workers.  In fact, often there is a generally condescending attitude that all precarious workers are migrant workers who do not know any better, or are prejudiced against us, because employers use precarious workers to undercut wages and conditions in unionised workplaces.

Union density drops to about half that of older workers amongst those under 20.  It is not that young people are resistant to unions: indeed, wherever a union is prepared to fight, the activists are drawn from those under the age of 40.  The problem is that a whole generation has hardly any hope that they too can have a union - and the responsibility for this must lie with the unions themselves rather than with the unorganised workers.  This is especially prevalent in the private sector where union density is way below that in the public sector.

It is not just a problem in smaller workplaces but larger ones as well.  Think of the massive warehouses that are now being developed all over the country.  Where are the unions?  They are going to have to scratch and understand the world of work as it is today, how the economy is structured and how bosses look for weak links in workers’ situation.  Capitalism has its weak links too, and it is long past time that workers and trade unions looked for them.

Weak links in the chain of capitalism

We need to know where our power is and use it to our advantage - for example, the way all major retail outlets depend on a tight supply chain to bring in their goods.  Few firms operate on large-scale local warehousing.  How often have you been to a big store in a retail park and been told they haven’t got something you want but that it is in stock at some branch 10 miles away?  Almost everything that is on sale has to be transported somewhere.  Almost all commodities for sale are brought to these islands from abroad.  They pour in to a handful of ports in massive containers and then are cascaded by road, rail, occasionally by water and too often by air.

Take Merry Hill Shopping Centre in the West Midlands, for example.  This entire site was once one of Europe’s largest steel works, Round Oak.  At its height it employed many more workers than the number that work there now but there are still some 9000 workers in a complex of more than 300 shops and leisure facilities.  Many of the stores were sucked out of the surrounding towns and cities leading to further decay of the area.  This site is a virtual fortress of capitalism, physically separated - except by private road access - from nearby places such as Dudley, which have practically lost their town centres.  Despite a long history of trade unionism in the Black Country, how many in Merry Hill are organised?  Hardly any.

How do the goods get there?  Competition between unions such as USDAW and Unite is fierce yet nothing has been done to consider organising this group of workers. The economic power retail and transport workers would have, if they combined, is tremendous but fragmentation, union rivalry and an inability to reach out to the mass of particularly young people and women seems to stand in the way of realising this.

Unions have a point to prove

It is not just a question of solidarity.  A union that can demonstrate its commitment and power to young people, by action across the board on peripheral work going beyond lobbying government for aid or legalisation, could earn tremendous kudos amongst the non-unionised and precarious workforce.

Despite the growing experience around the world and some limited success, even here in Britain, there are still trade unionists that claim that organising precarious workers, such as in call centres, is virtually impossible to achieve.  That was said about women workers in consumer goods manufacturing before World War 2.  I daresay it was said about the teenage girls working in Bryant & May in the 1880s.  It may seem difficult to accept, but Austin car workers were precarious workers when they carried on working during the 1926 General Strike.  However, three years later the Great Depression began and although they were still unorganised some 800,000 workers went on strike.  It took several more years for them to become the tightly organised workforce that history remembers now.

Yes, there isn’t an easy way to recruit and organise precarious workers.  At first sight it may seem that the ever-rising job losses will make the task next to impossible; but if we don’t accept the challenge then we will be giving up an entire generation to virtual slavery.  So what is to be done?

The first task is to recognise that the notion of unions only existing to protect their current membership is flawed.  Unions need to reach out to the mass of young people around the slogan “Decent work for all now!”  If they grasp this chance to speak to millions of young people in a language they can understand then the possibility for mobilising them is unstoppable.

An issue throughout the industrialised capitalist countries

Secondly, the slow-to-move British working class needs to learn lessons from around the world: the unorganised can be organised, be they unemployed this week or agency workers the next.  Italian unions have set up specific unions for self-employed and agency workers and are about to organise unemployed workers as well.  Tens of thousands have joined.  90% of agency workers are covered by national collective agreements.  Company-level agreements cover self-employed workers.  In call centres negotiations are conducted jointly by representatives of both atypical and stable workers.  Some 20,000 precarious workers, especially in call centres, have been brought into decent work.

Only a couple of years ago French youth rejected the “first employment contracts” introduced by the government, which would have made it easier to sack workers under the age of 26.  France was gripped by huge demonstrations and solidarity strikes that stopped the project.  A few months later a lengthy general strike in Denmark stopped welfare cuts that would have discriminated against young people.  The same year Latin American immigrants mobilised in all major American cities to stop punitive legislation aimed at their residential rights.  And of course around a million French workers once again moved into action by holding a one-day national strike to protest against the government’s economic, welfare and fiscal measures aimed directly at targeting households.

It is in the interests of capitalism to demoralise and distract workers, weakening any sense of collectivism.  Those who cannot see a way out of the situation, who feel powerless, are more likely simply to accept their lot than those who are emboldened by a sense of limited power.  It is in the interests of the organised labour to avoid the dangers of sectional thinking that makes unions and their leaders think that pay settlements are the beginning and end of their role.  Unions cannot organise single workplaces any more, or even a string of single workplaces owned by one employer; they have to think in terms of entire industries and how these interconnect with the communities they seek to serve.  If they don’t, then workers will do it for them, as the construction workers at Lindsey did.  Protests at Total’s decision to award a £200m construction contract to an Italian firm using Portuguese and Italian labour borrowed Brown’s obscene use of the slogan “British jobs for British workers.”  But it raised the question of the low costs of imported labour at a time when unemployment is rocketing.

The way to organise the unorganised is not to pass weak-ass legislation that deals only with the situation facing a minority of workers that most employers will ignore anyway.  Rather it is to show workers that they have the power to stop the slavery - not by walking away from the job but by standing up in solidarity against the injustice.  Trade unionists - our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our cousins - have the power to stop the employers, to stop the country, to cost capitalism millions and to make the capitalists treat us like human beings.  This approach needs to start here and now.