Article published: Tuesday, March 2nd 2010
MULE spoke to Alex Halligan, one of the founders of the first modern-day Unemployed Workers’ Union, in Salford. The phenomenon is now sweeping the country, 80 years after the Battle of Bexley Square.
MULE: Why was the UWU set up?
AH: We are suffering from an epidemic of unemployment and places like Salford are hit hardest at times like this. We were involved in Salford Unemployed and Community Workers Centre which does great work to help unemployed people, but because of the way they are funded, can’t engage in anything that could be seen as controversial political activism. Unions don’t do as much as they should do either; if you don’t have a job you can’t hold office in a trade union.
MULE: What’s the situation now?
AH: We set up the Salford branch in July 2009 and now there are twelve fully functioning branches across the county. Another 25 are on their way. The national office is in Salford and it’s really amazing how fast it’s taken off. Although it’s difficult to coordinate nationally and the groups generally operate autonomously, we’re going to have a national conference soon to bring it all together.
MULE: What do you hope to achieve?
AH: We want to give unemployed people a voice. Fighting the government over attacks on welfare, like the Welfare Reform Bill, is really important. We also want to be a catalyst in forcing the unions to take unemployed workers more seriously. We do lots of practical stuff too, like helping people with tribunals and help finding work.
MULE: Are you working with trade unions at all?
AH: Yes. We regularly support unions when they’re taking industrial action. We go down and show solidarity at the pickets – after all, we can’t be touched by the anti-union legislation. We can have all the flying pickets we want. Anyway, we see our interests as wrapped up with those in work.
MULE: Is it just people on Jobseekers Allowance that you
AH: No. We see pensioners, people on incapacity benefit and students as unemployed too, and we work with them all. We’re setting up campaigns at the moment to work specifically with these kinds of groups.
MULE: Have standards of provision dropped with the privatisation of the benefits services?
AH: There is a fundamental difference between Jobcentres and private companies like Action 4 Employment (A4E). Jobcentres are generally staffed by people who want to help. A4E are just driven by profit. They force people into totally unsuitable jobs.
MULE: Do you see fighting for unemployed workers’ rights as an end in itself or as part of a wider struggle?
AH: I don’t think you can really just look at this within a bubble. We believe in the right to work and this is only really possible if there is a much wider change within society. There has to be a move away from the profit motive.
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