Dole bondage? Up yours! An account of Wales against the JSA

Originally a pamphlet written by a comrade who resigned from Wales Against the JSA. It chronicles the rise of the left in WAJSA and the consequent decline of that campaign. From Subversion #22 (1997)

"There was stunned disbelief at the Wales TUC organised 'Right to Work' rally in Cardiff on Saturday when an anarchist strolled from the crowd and hurled a custard pie at their deity on the stage - Tony Benn. It was almost worse than Pieing the Pope at the Vatican. So great was the shock of the assembled Lefty hacks, that our comrade was able to deliver a short speech along the lines of 'Fuck the Right to Work' before being personhandled away by stewards. After this and a brief fingerwagging from the Law, he made a hasty exit from the scene of the outrage...which was just as well because by the time the Lefties recovered consciousness, they were looking annoyed. After this brief highlight the pathetic rally droned on, sending everyone to sleep with its 'No return to the 30s...most reactionary Tory government since...' garbage." (Freedom 2 October 1982)

It is now about two months since I ceased my involvement with the "Wales Against the JSA" (WAJSA) group...and two months since the JSA started to come into force. As I write this I still feel anger, disgust and disappointment at the path that WAJSA has chosen to take. I know other activists who dropped out at the same time share many (but not all) of my feelings. 1

The Decline and Fall of Wales Against the JSA

There had been several repeated attempts in the last 18 months or so to establish a anti JSA/unemployed action group in Cardiff. Activists around the local Trades Council had attempted to start a campaign, and the handful of local anarchists and Earth First!ers 2 were planning to try an set up a "Groundswell"3 group. Amongst the Leftist groups in Cardiff, Militant Labour, the Socialist Labour Party, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Cymru Goch were all planning their own anti JSA activity. However, due to a crossover of activists/contacts the various initiatives were combined to form 'Wales Against the JSA' 4 during the summer.

At first things appeared to auger well for the new group. Sectarian differences between the competing politicians seemed to have been put aside. For once it seemed that the ideological trenches had been abandoned 5. Even more hopeful was the apparent acceptance of the concept of direct action that had been brought to the group by the younger activists with experience in the recent anti-roads, anti-fascist and anti-Poll Tax struggles. Over 10 000 leaflets and posters were produced and distributed outside Job Centres; several thousand homes, in the area of Cardiff that several of us lived in, were leafleted door to door.

However once this routine had been established the first cracks in WAJSA's "unity" started to appear. Now that propaganda was being distributed proposals to back up this "promise of opposition" by starting direct action, were made. These suggestions were not (yet) rejected outright. Instead the political specialists of the various Leftist groups showed a reluctance to get involved themselves or to attempt to get information (such as the location of JSA implementation managers' offices) that might have enabled the rest of us to take some form of action despite our lack of numbers. Pickets/disruptions of Conservative MPs' and councillors' surgeries were discussed. When the relative scarcity of Tories in the area raised logistical problems it was suggested that we target Labour MPs and Councillors nearer by - this idea was hastily postponed by the Leftists who were/are still clinging to their ideas of "putting pressure on Labour" (not very much pressure obviously!).

Although still giving the idea of direct action some sort of lip service the Leftists began arguing for caution and deferment and were slipping back into their tried and tested (and failed) methods of protest. Concentrating instead on "building a demo" and winning support from the Trade Unions. Crucially the Leftists saw the CPSA (the Union of many Benefits Agency and Employment Service workers) as the key to success - not us unemployed. At this stage we still hoped to get numbers of unemployed people into the campaign, hoping that such an influx (even a small one) could swing the balance of WAJSA towards a more pro active and less mediated strategy. Therefore, those of us arguing for action compromised for the sake of "unity".

As time progressed, it became clear (to some of us) that WAJSA hadn't. The date of the demo, and of the implementation of the JSA loomed closer. WAJSA were facing a potentially disastrous demonstration. Most of those arguing strongest for the march (as opposed to direct action) seemed to be the least to build it. There was (not surprisingly) little support from the Trade Unions 6. Given this, it was suggested that because of a very real possibility that a minuscule turnout for what was being built up by WAJSA as an "All Wales/National demonstration" it might be less damaging to the anti-JSA campaign to either cancel the demo or consider alternative plans. A tiny march would be a display of weakness by WAJSA which could result in a total lack of credibility which we desperately needed. However for many of the leftists the demonstration was, in effect, both the culmination/peak of the campaign in some ways and the campaign itself amounted to the demo, and pleas to the "labour movement". As it turned out, around 150 people, mainly members of the various Leftist groups, trudged around Cardiff city centre in a pathetic spectacle, that at best bemused the Saturday shoppers.

CPSA? NO WAY!

By this point, an even greater problem had developed within WAJSA. Myself, and most of the other activists had effectively dropped out in disillusion and frustration.

Efforts to woo local CPSA activists by the leftists had finally paid off and several Union reps turned up for the weekly WAJSA meeting. This was seen as good news by the many who hoped it would herald a new phase for the campaign. BUT it actually caused the effective death of the sickly since birth WAJSA group.

The CPSA reps showed up and almost immediately launched into an unprovoked and hysterical verbal attack on me and other activists. They accused several of us of plotting physical assaults upon their union members and refused to listen to attempts on our part to explain ourselves. It was obvious that they were reacting to circulars they had seen about "Groundswell" and the "3 strikes" policy 7. WAJSA was technically part of the Groundswell network - although in practice all this meant was that Groundswell mailings were passed around at the start of meetings. The "3 strikes" tactic had never been mentioned in WAJSA before, never mind discussed or actually planned 8. The CPSA seemed to take little comfort in this. They then responded equally negatively to all prospects for mutually acceptable action. The idea of BA/ES workers refusing to do JSA work was dismissed as "ultra left nonsense" by a CPSA member and ex-SWPie 9, who then declared that she would rather union members implemented the JSA than scabs. Suggestions to target the (mutual enemy) management, and perhaps occupy their offices, were denounced as "Mickey mouse terrorism" by a Militant member. The CPSA then stated that they would call the police if we leafleted inside the Job Centre. The Leftists who had previously supported the idea of "direct action" backed the CPSA all the way...

In a scenario that reminded me of arguments with 'fluffies' during the anti CJA struggles - it seemed that those preaching unity and tolerance the loudest were those causing the most division and being the most intolerant of other peoples ideas.

I found myself the secretary of a group whose strategy, tactics, (and the ideology behind it) I was becoming increasingly opposed to. WAJSA's near fetishisation of the CPSA and its 'struggle' had placed it in a position that, it could be argued, was open collaboration with people who: on one hand were willing (reluctantly or not) to carry out the latest of the Government's attacks; and on the other hand acting as a bureaucratic block upon militant action (by us and perhaps by workers in the BA/ES). The CPSA has instead embarked upon a series of one day strikes. Such a strategy is near useless as effective resistance - it does however provide a way of making militant workers harmlessly let off steam 10. These strikes were also not against the JSA but for security screens to protect them from us. At the same time the CPSA were distributing circulars denouncing the Groundswell network, happily playing along with the Government's divide and rule tactics.

It would obviously have been to our advantage to have had good operational links with the BA and ES workers. But abstract calls for "unity" and "solidarity" are futile unless there is something concrete to base that unity on, and mutual actions of solidarity. No matter how many empty gestures of support and platitudes are made, the reality of the antagonistic relationships between claimant and dole worker remains to be overcome.

Effective solidarity between claimants and dole workers may well be possible, and I genuinely hope that this is happening in other anti JSA groups. Such hopes, however, cannot be allowed to confine or define the activities of these groups as they have in Cardiff. Any grounds for building such solidarity here seem to have been sabotaged by the CPSA. The attitude of the CPSA representatives was disgraceful. They showed little or no interest in trying to actually stop (or even disrupt) the JSA. At best they were merely concerned with saving their own skins from justifiably angry and desperate claimants. At worst they got involved in order to neuter the campaign and prevent any sort of militant action. Instead of solidarity they seemed to arrive with a totally hostile attitude to the campaign.

The Leftists in the campaign (with the exception of the younger SLP members) fell in behind the CPSA. This was partly due to their own Party lines of "pressure the Unions" etc., but it was also down to the composition of membership (actual and potential): white collar, public service workers. When it came to the crunch they chose to side with their own kind as opposed to the "lumpenproletariat" unemployed.

One argument used in defence of the CPSA and BA/ES workers is that they should not be held personally responsible (either individually or collectively) because "they are only doing their jobs". "Only doing my job" has never been a justification or an excuse for anti working class behaviour - which implementing the JSA indisputably is. The same Leftists making excuses for BA/ES workers have no hesitation in (rightly) holding scabs, bailiffs etc. responsible for their actions. I realise that BA/ES workers did not choose to implement the JSA when they first took their job. However they should not have been in much doubt as to the repressive nature of their job (although I accept that they were probably not aware of just what degree of repression). I also accept that using this line of argument, it could be claimed that anyone who engages in any economic activity (waged labour, buying, even stealing) may be playing a role in the "reproduction of capital" and therefore acting in a manner which is (ultimately) anti working class. But there are obviously degrees of intent and consciousness of the nature of my particular activity. Scabbing is qualitatively and quantitatively more consciously and explicitly anti proletarian than working for the dole has been. However the comparison between dole worker and scab or bailiff will, and has, been made by claimants who the BA/ES workers by their actions act in a repressive manner toward.

I am not arguing that, because of this, BA/ES workers should bear the full brunt of anti-JSA resistance. Rather, that while I would welcome any BA/ES worker who is genuinely interested in fighting the JSA; the CPSA have no right and are in no position to turn up to anti-JSA meetings and start making demands of the people that they are going to be attacking as their job (and then have the arrogance/ignorance and insensitivity to deny they are doing anything " wrong"). They cannot simply pass the buck to "The Tories". They have to accept responsibility for the position that they are in and the function they will perform i.e. the nature of their work, before there can be any basis upon which to plan meaningful mutual action and solidarity.

Unfortunately in Cardiff such solidarity, as we have seen, has been made near impossible by the stance of the CPSA. WAJSA was left with a choice as to whose side it was really on - it seems to have chosen to act more like a CPSA support group than an anti JSA group.


The Role of the Cardiff Unemployed Workers' Centre

Another point of confusion (but not outright conflict) was the nature of the relationship with the local TUC Unemployed Workers' Centre which was being established simultaneously by several people in WAJSA.

Whilst some WAJSA activists had reservations about the Centre, most of us raised no objections and, indeed, saw the Centre as a potentially good thing and even got involved. It was, however, agreed to keep the Centre and WAJSA strictly separate in a formal sense, despite the overlap in personnel. Unfortunately some people could not keep the two separate - using WAJSA to build the Centre. This caused a problem (as well as general confusion) when it was realised that some of the actions being proposed might jeopardise the centre's desired funding from the TUC and the local Labour council. It was suggested that people involved in the Centre "refrain" from anti JSA activity - when it became clear that people would, if pushed, drop the Centre rather than campaigning this matter was dropped.

Unfortunately the illusions that some involved in the Centre had in the Trade Union movement - to the virtual exclusion of everything else - meant that the dispute within WAJSA was reproduced at the Centre with the result that some of those who had walked out of WAJSA also quit the Centre.

I'm So Bored With the JSA

In addition to these problems the Leftists within WAJSA seemed hell bent on turning campaign activity into a chore. Meetings and activity became boring and lifeless. Suggestions of getting a "pop group" to play at an anti JSA rally were accepted - but the Leftists showed more enthusiasm when they were discussing which politician or bureaucrat they wanted to give a speech. They seemed to be under the impression that a Labour MP would be more of an attraction than the Manic Street Preachers...How can we expect anyone else to get involved in our campaigns if we make our own activities so mind-numbingly boring and banal?

Career Opportunities

"Is it worth the aggravation, to find yourself a job when there's nothing worth working for?" 11

Another potential source of dispute within the anti JSA movement(s) is the issue of work.

Those anti JSA campaigners orientated towards the TUC (and therefore this includes most of the Leftist groups) are campaigning around the slogan of "Jobs Not JSA". This may seem like a reasonable demand to many liberal/Leftist campaigners who are in work. However most unemployed activists realise that (because of the experience of our daily lives) the JSA is designed to give people jobs. One major plank of the JSA is force the unemployed into work. Albeit not the kind of work that the TUC et al would campaign for. Jobs with such poor conditions and low wages that even those who believe in the dignity of labour would see the (pre JSA) dole as a preferable option. In such circumstances to "raise the demand" of "Jobs Not JSA" is both in bad taste and patently absurd.

However, we do not have a scenario of the mass refusal of work. Benefit levels have been pushed so low that living on social security is not something that is commonly done out of choice 12. Never Work! is not an option - just an unpleasant reality for many who have been left 'on the scrapheap' by capitalist restructuring. More than 20 years of such restructuring has created vast number of enforced unemployed and simultaneously has driven down benefit levels.

It must also be noted that if the current attacks are successful and the experiments in workfare are generalised - then we will be working even when we are on the dole.


Do They Owe Us A Living?

Obviously any campaign/group/movement that hopes to develop a successful strategy to resist the JSA has to have some analysis of the JSA and place it in context. Without this any strategy against the JSA will also be out of context and therefore almost certainly doomed to fail on its own terms.

Unfortunately too many liberals and Leftists involved in WAJSA have made little attempt to place the JSA in context. Some merely see it as an unprovoked attack upon the unemployed/low waged, made because of malice upon the part of "The Tories" and/or as a means of reducing social security spending in order to give pre election tax cuts. No doubt the government will milk as much electoral propaganda as it can out of "cutting spending - cutting taxes" and "clamping down on dole scroungers". But the JSA was not introduced in an attempt to swing a few floating votes - this is merely a bonus.

Others have identified the JSA as the latest in a series of attacks upon the working class. Unfortunately this analysis was not followed through and was left as an almost moralistic view. Only seeing it as an attempt by 'The Tories' to drive down wages and conditions with no explanation as to why...other than painting it in simplistic "Tories and Bosses versus labour movement" battle terms. Viewing it on this level has left the Leftist groups pursuing the usual tortuous arguments about pressurising the Labour/TUC readerships and talk of "anger at the Tories". Given the Labour Party's (and TUC's) current and historical support for measures along the lines of the JSA 13, the bankruptcy of this strategy and analysis should surely be obvious.

I make no claim to present a complete, or even particularly incisive analysis of the JSA. But, I will make a few observations that will hopefully provide a modest contribution to the debate.

The JSA is only a part of an international trend. Across the world governments are introducing various forms of "austerity measure"; we only have to look at recent struggles in France, Greece, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Canada and Australia (to name but a few) to see how widespread and varied these measures are (and the resistance to them). In the EU these measures are often in the guise of striving to meet the self-imposed conditions for EMU - the reality of this is an attempted crack down on wages, conditions and spending across the EU. The JSA is one part of the British governments' strategy to shift to a lower waged economy with a smaller and more restrictive welfare state.

This international shift by Capital follows the destruction of the post war "Keynesian' compromise. In an attempt to pacify the "revolting" international working class Capital pursued a policy of "full" employment, rising living standards, higher wages etc. However the revolts of the late 60s and early 70s wrecked this policy. Proletarians had TVs, fridges and holidays in the sun but they still weren't happy! The combativity of the working class forced Capital into a crisis. Capital has responded with "long term austerity with the purpose of enforcing work".

"The purpose of the capitalist strategy is to tilt the relationship between unpaid and paid labour, between capital and wage, back to a position that forcibly re establishes the pre eminence of unpaid over paid labour." 14

More work - less money.

Capital launched a massive attack upon wages and conditions coupled with the deliberate creation of mass unemployment. Simultaneously an equally massive attack was launched upon the rapidly increasing levels of benefit.

Given the militant resistance some governments are facing to their austerity measures - and the memory of the way in which working class revolt destroyed the Keynesian compromise before it - the JSA is also useful for the British government in the way that it will divide and weaken the working class. The relationship between some claimants and some dole workers illustrated in this letter is a graphic example of this. The JSA will also, as has been seen by the Left, weaken collective action by workers because of increasing pressure upon the unemployed to take any job, including scabbing, and the increased fear of unemployment for those in work. Such a weakened and scared working class will prove easier to inflict further attacks upon.

It is interesting to note that most of the effective struggles in recent years have been outside (and sometimes against) the traditional cops of the Left/Trade Union leaderships. In Britain the anti-roads, anti-Poll Tax, anti-Live Exports movements, the Liverpool Dockers, Reclaim The Streets, postal service wildcats etc. (and lorry drivers actions EU wide) show hints of a small, but potentially significant shift towards struggle outside the agreed lines of the TU/Left methods of one day strikes and days of action. These trends and the links/generalisations being made between the various struggles could prove an explosive headache for the Government when the next wave of attacks are introduced.

Of course, the current "crisis of representation" does not mean that the Left and the Unions have lost their ability to recuperate struggles - as the example of the Miners in 1992 or the CPSA's current strategy show. Indeed the Unions and the labour movement are capable of a shift "left" if they need to, the Unions seem to be doing this in the current Renault dispute. The launch of the SLP in Britain may possibly provide a left cover for such during a Blair government...then again it may not.

The JSA cannot be looked at in isolation:

"to fight on single issues in isolation is to fall into a carefully prepared trap - we cannot even win the argument." 15

The JSA is part of a generalised attack upon our class. Our response has to be equally generalised.

The conclusion I have drawn from all this is that the implosion of WAJSA (as a campaigning group) was a product of the political poverty of the Left. As such its failure is liable to be reproduced in any similar "united front". Each of the conflicts about tactics, the CPSA, the Labour Party etc. sprang from ignorance of the reality of everyday life in the social factory for large sections of our class who do not work in stable, organised, unionised workplaces ( or who do not work at all) coupled with a failure to place the JSA within the context of an international, generalised and long-term strategical assault upon the working class. The vacuum left by this lack of analysis was filled by the tired ideas of the Leftists that have made many a struggle impotent. The lack of understanding of the intra-class conflicts that the JSA was designed to inflame led to the application of so-called workerist ideas. Unfortunately the only workers the Left seemed to see were the CPSA and their "struggle". WAJSA's tactics were also designed to appeal towards the TUC/Labour Party and those who have illusions in them. Unfortunately decades of pandering to such illusions has left the Left unable to raise themselves above "Trade Union Consciousness". Such a futile strategy has left WAJSA unable to win even its own limited goals - the defence of the status quo...and they wonder why the unemployed and low-waged ignore them.

"there is a certain kind of professional who claims to represent us...the MPs, the Communist Party, the Union leaders, the social workers, the old-old left...All these people presumed to act upon our behalf. All of these people have certain things in common...THEY always sell out...THEY are all afraid of us...THEY'LL preach towards keeping the peace...and we are bored...poor and very tired of keeping the peace...To believe that OUR struggle could be restricted to the channels provided to us by the pigs, WAS THE GREATEST CON. And we started hitting them." 16

Wales Against the JSA is dead, the Left carry on - ever get the feeling you've been conned?

Stuart Bracewell
(ex-Secretary, WAJSA)
December 1996

  • 1. Of a group that never consisted of more than 20, 7 or 8 of us quit more or less simultaneously, over roughly the same issues. Unfortunately our experience with WAJSA has left us with little enthusiasm or energy to establish any alternative.
  • 2. Unfortunately there were not enough anarchists or EF!ers to re-launch the by now dormant Cardiff EF! group let alone anything else.
  • 3. "Groundswell" is an autonomous 'national' network of anti - JSA and claimants action groups.
  • 4. Although the activists were almost exclusively based in Cardiff the couple who weren't and the various groups involved (using their contacts/numbers) hoped to spread WAJSA across Wales (this never really happened, although the group remained in contact with scattered people across South Wales).
  • 5. Possibly to the small sizes of each group and a specious unity in opposition to/competition with the absent SWP and perhaps due to the turns many of these groups are making to woo the "young eco - warriors" to their side. Groups "represented" included: Alliance for Workers Liberty, Anarchist Communist Federation, Cardiff Anarchists, Cymru Goch, Earth First!, Militant Labour (now the "Socialist" Party), Socialist Labour Party, Workers Power and WRP (Workers Press). The rest of the left (CPB, SWP) and the likes of the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru were also approached.
  • 6. Apart from (as we've seen) the trades council and ironically the MSF branch that some of us who had placed no emphasis on the unions at all belonged to.
  • 7. For example the CPSA's "three strikes and you're out" memo to their ES section in Leeds condemning "various fringe anti - JSA groups around the country operating under the banner of Groundswell".
  • 8. Having said this, I discussed three strikes with some of those who dropped out and the feeling amongst many of us is, maybe we should have advocated three strikes from the start!
  • 9. Despite the SWP's (relative) strength in the CPSA in Cardiff, they were conspicuous by their absence from WAJSA apart from the usual placards and papers on the demo. They did have a couple of members show up, but only as representatives of the CPSA. One long term SWPer explained to me that their absence was due to the fact that they'd "had enough of meetings and that during the poll tax".
  • 10. I was put on JSA during one of these one day strikes so they are obviously not that effective!
  • 11. Oasis "Cigarettes and Alcohol", Creation Records.
  • 12. Currently changes to Housing Benefit are proving equally effective in attacking the unemployed. In my case I can handle the JSA (so far!) but housing benefit changes have effectively cut my giro by around ten pounds a week. It is also interesting to note that these changes follow hot on the heels of the squatting laws in the CJA.
  • 13. Both the Labour Party and the TUC have supported "work camps" for the unemployed in the past.
  • 14. Midnight Notes, "Midnight Oil" Autonomedia, 1992, p122.
  • 15. Larry Law, "The Bad Days Will End", Spectacular Times, 1983, p13.
  • 16. Angry Brigade Communique 7, March 18th 1971.