Unemployment statistics released on 18 March last year confirmed that there are now two million people without work. Those claiming unemployment benefit increased by 138,400 in February - the biggest rise since records began in 1971. This could be the worst employment situation of the whole of the post-war period in Britain. Unlike other recessions where job losses were concentrated in manufacturing regions, job losses are hitting workers across the country, with architects and lawyers losing their jobs as well as construction workers, shop workers, etc. With unemployment expected to reach three million early in 2010, this is the most damning aspect of this recession and will have consequences for many people over a long period.
Many signing on for Job Seekers Allowance for the first time in their lives are shocked to find that they are expected to live on just £60.50 a week, with hardly any jobs to seek. The PCS union has attacked James Purnell (work and pensions secretary) for ignoring a moratorium on the closure programme of job centres.
Unemployment can bring a range of problems including homelessness, health problems, suicide and a lower life expectancy. 40% of the unemployed are under 25. This will increase when 600,000 young people leave school in three months time. Young unemployed people will be particularly badly affected as lack of work experience can impact into later years - hence the reference to the 'lost generation.' Not content with the miserly benefits allowed for those out of work or ill, Labour is going ahead with welfare reforms that will make life even harder for benefit claimants. Those still arguing that the Labour Party can be shifted away from its pro-capitalist policies should note that last week's third reading of the Welfare Reform bill in the house of commons was opposed by only 30 Labour MPs. The car industry is still in decline - UK car production fell by 59% last month alone. LDV (the Birmingham-based van maker) is still trying to find an investor to save the plant. The CBI reported that factory orders across the whole of manufacturing declined at the fastest rate for 17 years in February.
The government is now warning that public sector workers must also suffer the pain of unemployment. Chancellor Alistair Darling is predicting a public sector deficit of £150 billion by next year. Council chiefs are rolling out a "doomsday study" of which services would have to be cut and are not ruling out local authority cuts of 30% in 2011 which would devastate jobs and services. Threatened with the prospect of losing their jobs many workers are accepting shorter hours and pay cuts in the absence of their unions leading a struggle.One reason why the job losses have increased so rapidly is because laws have allowed more 'flexibility', including workers being employed on short-term contracts. These workers can be laid off quickly and without redundancy payments. Many are angry, especially young people and trade unionists who feel as if they have been sold out - and all those who are angry at these devastating figures need to map out a strategy and programme to fight back against unemployment and offer an alternative.
There have already been many examples of fighting back against redundancies and worse working conditions. Workers at Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Prisme in Scotland have occupied their workplaces in protest at job losses while Lindsey oil refinery workers in England took successful unofficial action to protect their conditions and jobs. At a car parts factory in Canada workers occupied the plant, welding the doors shut from inside. They won double the redundancy payments that they were originally offered. Three million French workers joined a national strike last week against attacks on jobs and public services. Trade union leaders will have an opportunity at the anti-G20 demonstration in London on 28 March to build on this anger and raise the sights of trade unionists, their families and especially young people. Local days of action against job losses should be organised which can highlight those jobs that have been lost or are under threat and give people confidence to resist job losses and demand action from the government.
Work should be shared out on the basis of a maximum 35 hour week with no loss of pay. New jobs could be created if a programme of building social housing is instigated, improvements to the health service, more teachers trained to allow smaller class sizes as well as policies to tackle climate change. A one day general strike should be planned and built for to show the government and the bosses that working class people will not pay for their crisis. With no major party representing working class people, a groundswell of anger could be released through riots instead of organised struggle, if the union leaders don't give a decisive lead. However, so far most trade union leaders have simply expressed their sadness at redundancies, taking the attacks lying down and refusing to lead struggles to save jobs. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, described job losses as "individual tragedies", which of course they are. But Unison and other unions should use the strength of the unions, made up of seven million workers, to avoid 'individual tragedies' by taking action to defend jobs, including the nationalisation of struggling factories in a socialist, democratic fashion, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.