Unite Community have recently launched their Universal Discredit campaign, aiming to pressure the government into providing more support for those who claim Universal Credit (UC). Introduced by the Tories in 2013 to ‘simplify the benefits system’, the welfare scheme is infamous for the misery it has caused to the millions who rely on it.
In the first two weeks of the lockdown, 1 million new claimants applied for UC, as workers across the country saw their incomes squeezed – or cut off altogether. Since then, an additional 800,000 have made claims.
Due to the scandalous five-week waiting period for the first payment, many were left destitute by the Department of Work and Pensions. A survey by Citizens Advice reports that 14% of claimants were unable to afford food and heating during this period.
Faced with the potential anger of millions of laid-off and furloughed workers experiencing the harsh reality of the welfare system for the first time, the government hastily increased the weekly UC payment by £20 per week – albeit to a measly total of £94, which is roughly 1/6 of the average weekly income.
In addition, they suspended the brutal sanctions regime altogether, which has previously been used by the state to punish the so-called ‘deserving poor’.
The speed with which the Tories introduced these changes made it glaringly obvious that we have the resources in society to support the unemployed and to allow the most vulnerable in society to live with dignity.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Unite’s Community section – whose campaigns centre around unemployment and welfare cuts – have taken up the fight to make these changes permanent.
The demands of the campaign are straightforward: a permanent increase of the weekly UC payment by £20, to be extended to all benefits claimants, not just those on UC; an end to the five-week wait for receiving UC; and an end to the draconian benefits sanctions.
Unite are building towards an ‘online day of action’ this week on Wednesday 15 July, and are encouraging supporters of the campaign to share posts on social media and write to their MPs.
On Wednesday @Unite_Community are holding an online campaign day with 3 key demands on Universal Credit:— Howard Beckett (@BeckettUnite) July 13, 2020
-End 5 week payment wait
-Increase payment by £20
-Halt Benefit Sanctions
Please, please, do come and join us & help us spread the word https://t.co/vDne0U4pWU pic.twitter.com/Z46x3RgMvz
Work or full pay
While giving support to this campaign, we should also point out its limitations, with respect to both its demands and tactics.
The labour movement must demand work for all, or full-pay for those prevented from working.
Contrary to the lies of the establishment press, the overwhelming majority of those claiming welfare are forced into unemployment by the logic of the market. When the bosses can no longer profitably exploit us, we’re thrown out onto the streets. We should not settle for an insulting £94 per week, but a living wage for all.
Also, Tory MPs can simply ignore any number of nicely worded letters or posts on social media. The power of the labour movement – the organised working class – lies primarily in workers’ ability to withdraw their labour from production. For this reason, the struggle of unemployed workers must necessarily be linked to the struggle of those still in work.
Unite Community could utilise their vital link to Unite – the second largest trade union in the UK – to raise these issues and demands amongst organised workers, and crucially to enlist their support.
Unite the Union, in turn, should use their significant weight and influence within the Labour Party to push for Labour to come out clearly and militantly against UC, and the whole Tory programme of austerity and attacks. In place of crumbs and cuts, Labour should be fighting for the demand of “work or full pay!”
Just a year ago, workers who process UC applications went on strike in Stockport over attacks on working conditions. The strike drew in support from workers across the country, highlighting how widespread such conditions are.
The Universal Discredit campaign could seek to use such divisions in the DWP to drive a wedge between workers and the top-ranking bureaucrats.
The PCS union, who represent public service workers, has repeatedly called out successive Tory governments for their shameful welfare cuts, proclaiming that “any future system must be based on need not moral judgements”.
Indeed, in times of crisis such as this, we must look beyond the limits of this rotten system. Capitalism offers no way out for the millions of unemployed workers and vulnerable people in society.
To tackle unemployment, we must demand that the available jobs are shared out, so people can work fewer hours for no loss of pay. If the employers claim they can’t afford to do so, we must say: “Open up the books! If you can’t manage your business properly, let the workers see the accounts!”
But to genuinely plan out the necessary work in society, we need an economy that is under the control of the working class. This means addressing the question of economic ownership. As the old saying goes: you cannot plan what you do not control; and you cannot control what you do not own.
The slogan of “work or full pay” must therefore be combined with a fight by the labour movement for bold socialist policies – to nationalise the key levers of the economy, under democratic workers’ control, in order to plan production in the interests of the working class.
The truth is that we have the resources in society to provide decent jobs for all. It’s the capitalist system – built for profit rather than need – which prevents us from rationally planning the economy for the benefit of humanity.