The images most synonymous with the Great Depression are those of unemployed workers. These queues of cloth-capped men, all anxiously hoping for a day’s work to stave off hunger, have been etched into our collective memory.
2020 marks the start of a new great depression. Like that of the thirties, mass unemployment will be a feature which defines it. So too will be the struggle for work. Already, this is a struggle taking place on a huge scale. At present, however, it is being waged almost entirely at an individual level. It is a lonely battle played out in the invisible queues of the online era – the gig economy apps, recruitment websites, and pending Universal Credit applications.
But this struggle has the potential to assume a collective character. It has the potential to feed the mass revolts that are brewing. Ultimately, it can become part and parcel of the wider fight to transform our society along socialist lines.
This possibility is understood, at least partially, by the representatives of Britain’s capitalist class. When Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak emerged onto Downing street to announce the government’s Job Support Scheme – its replacement for the existing, more substantial furlough subsidy – he did so flanked by a carefully selected duo. To Sunak’s left, stood the head of the CBI bosses’ club, Carolyn Fairbairn. To his right, was the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, Frances O’Grady. The symbolism was well calculated. On the one hand an unapologetic representative of capital. On the other, a (very much more apologetic) representative of labour. In this way, these two natural foes appeared united in their support for the Conservative chancellor’s plan.
Later the same day, Starmer’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds was interviewed by the BBC. Asked to respond to Sunak’s announcement, she offered just one concrete criticism: that it should have been made sooner to provide certainty to businesses. The announcement’s actual contents she “welcomed” with little caveat. Her attitude typifies Labour’s response to the government’s Covid strategy, particularly on economics. It’s the tepid Toryism of the party’s now triumphant right – devoid of ideas and fittingly represented by the specially dull Dodds.
Class war by the super-rich
All this chumminess and apparent consensus masks the bitter class warfare currently being carried out by the super-rich against the poor in Britain and around the world. This is the reality that faces working-class people. O’Grady and Dodds demonstrate the complete vacuum of leadership, both industrially and politically, that exists for working-class people facing the consequences of the economic devastation Covid has triggered.
The depth of the economic catastrophe that is unfolding has indeed forced the Tories, along with governments around the world, to intervene in the economy in a way which would have been unthinkable just months ago. The Furlough scheme is expected to have cost over £100 billion by the time it comes to an end at the close of October. Sovereign debt has reached record-breaking levels. This was understood as necessary by the capitalists in order to defend their system, protect private profit and stave off mass revolt. But all this intervention, despite its scale, has failed to prevent a jobs massacre. With Covid’s second wave now well underway, this calamity is gathering pace.
The first Covid lockdown is estimated to have precipitated the destruction of 750,000 jobs. This was despite the government’s offer to pay employers 80% of the wages of furloughed workers. The ending of that scheme will inevitably lead to a new tranche of lay-offs across the economy.
Like in 2008, the resulting unemployment crisis will fall hardest upon the young. But unlike in that period, its scope will be much wider. It will take in older workers, skilled workers, and, very importantly, unionised workers, in a way that the unemployment crisis that followed the financial crash did not.
Despite much of the country now facing renewed lockdown-type restrictions, other than for businesses actually forced to close by the rules, as of 1 November, the maximum subsidy available to employers will cover 22% of wages.
‘Rethink, reskill, reboot’
What’s more, this scheme is only available to help retain jobs deemed ‘viable’ on the basis that the employee works 33% of their normal hours. In those industries worst affected by Covid – such as hospitality, travel, or the arts – this will likely mean huge lay-offs. The recent ‘rethink, reskill, reboot’ government ads have understandably sparked outrage at the way they present jobs in these struggling sectors, which the Tories refuse to properly fund, as ‘unviable’. Even for businesses that have actually been ordered to close as part of the most recent round of restrictions, only a reduced furlough subsidy covering 67% of wages will be available from 1 November. Swathes will join the dole queues as a result.
Those ‘lucky’ enough to keep jobs based on the Job Retention or Job Support Schemes are expected to accept crippling pay cuts with minimal notice. As of November, the most ‘generous’ of the government’s subsidies is based on a model in which the employee takes a 22% pay cut. Unsurprisingly, there are no corresponding reductions in rent, food, or travel costs.
Meanwhile, the laws of capitalism continue to apply. Big business does not exist to provide jobs. Nor does it exist to provide people with necessary goods or services. The raison d’etre of any large capitalist company – despite what the saccharin Covid adverts might have you believe – is to make maximum profit for the people who own it. It is therefore of little importance to the likes of Ryanair or British Airways that the tens of thousands of workers they plan to sack will face extreme hardship in the midst of a pandemic. The bottom line is what concerns them. In fact, Covid has actually provided useful cover to some of the most ruthless employers – a handy excuse to make already-planned cuts designed to squeeze their workers and boost profits.
Workers’ movement must respond
The gathering unemployment crisis in one to which the workers’ movement must respond. Our starting point ought to be that no one should lose their job because of Covid. Rather than chumming up to Sunak, trade union leaders should instead be issuing a call to arms. They should be pointing out that both the Job Retention and Job Support schemes are essentially subsidies for employers not workers – and that they are utterly insufficient in staving off mass job losses.
Instead, workers threatened with job cuts need to organise. The trade union movement should demand all large capitalist companies that threaten their workforce be required to open the books to show what money is available. If they are genuinely unable to pay staff, then they should be nationalised to protect workers’ livelihoods, with compensation paid to shareholders only on the basis of proven need. Small businesses should be entitled to zero-interest government loans should their accounts show that this is necessary for them to stay afloat in the context of Covid-19. But any wage subsidies that might be needed should be paid directly to workers, not employers, and should account for 100% of lost pay.
With mass employment set to become the new normal, it should be emphasised that there remains work to be done. Human need has only increased as a result of this pandemic. Our planet faces ecological disaster unless there is a drastic reorganisation and transformation of the economy to end the reliance on fossil fuels. Tens of thousands of people in Britain desperately require decent, affordable housing.
The problem is that the capitalist system, based as it is on blind market forces, sees fit to put people to work only where there is profit to be made in doing so. In fact, a certain amount of joblessness is beneficial for the capitalist class. This is because the threat of unemployment, as well as the ‘reserve pool’ of workers it provides, can be used to undermine trade union struggle among the existing workforce. Indeed, unless the workers’ movement takes a conscious approach to organising the unemployed and bringing them together with the labour movement in the struggle for decent jobs, there is a real danger that a situation of mass unemployment can have a significantly demoralising effect on the working class as a whole.
The trade union movement has a responsibility to take up this question. Online meetings, actions and street demonstrations, safely stewarded to allow social distancing, could be organised in every local area to demand an urgent programme of job creation and an immediate end to the lay-offs. Employed and unemployed workers should be called upon to fight alongside each other, with this demand linked to those of the trade union movement more generally – for safety at work, decent pay etc.
The development of such a united struggle is crucial for avoiding the potential that exists for the capitalist class to pursue a ruthless divide-and-rule strategy. Indeed, the Tories may well attempt a return to the poisonous rhetoric that has been directed towards people who claim benefits in recent years. But the scale of the economic crisis and the numbers forced out of work, combined with the bitter experiences workers have had over the last ten years of Tory rule, mean there is perhaps much greater scope for this to be cut across.
Another unique feature of unemployment in this era will be the increasingly blurred line between those in and out of work. The rise of the gig economy – complete with its army of hyper-precarious workers – means official unemployment will only form half the picture. A modern movement to fight for the right to work would need to urgently take up this question, placing as central the struggles of these workers to end bogus self-employment and win job security, a living wage, regular hours and so on.
But perhaps most crucial of all to the success of such a struggle, is the need to organise around a clear political alternative to capitalist crisis and the mass unemployment it generates: a socialist programme.
Jobs needed and necessary
A good starting point for such a programme is the need to urgently address the most serious crises humanity faces – from the pandemic to global warming. For example, to protect the planet, a good beginning would be if the energy companies were nationalised and taken under democratic workers’ control and management. On this basis, tens of thousands of workers could be employed and trained to assist in transforming Britain’s energy network to run exclusively on sustainable renewables.
This kind of approach could be applied far more widely. It could take in the crisis-ridden social care sector – the weaknesses of which have been compounded by the Covid crisis. It could address the housing crisis,
– by initiating a huge council-house building programme to provide genuinely affordable homes for all. Overall, a massive, publicly funded job creation scheme could put unemployed people to work in secure, decently paid, and socially useful jobs.
Indeed, genuinely ‘reskilling’ Britain’s workforce to meet society’s needs would require an overall plan for production. Such a plan would be impossible on the basis of the chaotic market system whose highest law is profit. The big monopolies which currently dominate the economy, which are failing dramatically to keep workers either safe or employed in the face of Covid-19, should be nationalised. But this should not be Tory-style nationalisation – designed to underwrite failing capitalist businesses while leaving the same failed captains in charge of the ship. Instead there needs to be democratic control by workers over every aspect of industry. This would allow the development of a plan that could generate new apprenticeships and training opportunities for workers of every age and skill level. It could pave the way to utilise developments in AI and other technologies to rapidly reduce the length of the working week – immediately moving to 35 hours a week without loss of pay, with the aim of rapidly reducing it further. Sharing out the work, again without loss of pay, would be an equally vital part of achieving this.
The carnage facing the working class – both as a direct result of this killer virus and of the economic crisis that has followed in its wake – can mean that workers feel temporarily shocked, and take a little time to begin a fightback. But beneath the surface the seeds of mass revolt are being sewn by the inability of the capitalists to solve the situation. Almighty movements loom on the horizon – in which the massed ranks of unemployed workers will have the potential to play an important part.