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A space for people to come together and know their rights: the Bristol Unemployed Workers’ Centre

Unemployment has soared during the pandemic, and things are probably going to get worse. The organisers of a new project for people who have lost their jobs say they’ll offer practical support – and solidarity at a time when many are feeling ‘atomised’.

Edition 26

It’s been a tough year and a half. Besides the staggering death toll, Covid-19 has hammered the economy, and unemployment has soared. 

People are being made redundant at record levels. Once furlough ends, the UK unemployment total is expected to more than double from pre-pandemic levels to 7.5% – more than 2.6 million people. 

There have been “widespread predictions of the worst recession for 300 years”, according to the Bristol Poverty Institute, a research project within the University of Bristol. This means more job losses, lower wages, and rising poverty and debt.

This new unemployment crisis has inspired a solution from the past. Several Bristol organisations have joined to form the Bristol Unemployed Workers’ Movement, based loosely on the Bristol Unemployed Workers’ Movement formed in the 1920s, and are fundraising to create Bristol’s first Unemployed Workers’ Centre. It’s a space they say is urgently needed, in the context of the pandemic’s isolating effects and the uncertain future many now face. 

Lessons from the past

The centre will provide practical support for unemployed people – free-to-use computers, and CV and benefits advice. Jack Moran, one of those behind the initiative, says it’s about “addressing material needs that come with unemployment.”  But members also want it to be a rallying point, a space for people to come together, learn about their rights and lobby for change.

“People are displaced and stuck in the middle of the whole system”, says Moran – who was made redundant last year. His background is in recruitment and employability, and he’s working on fundraising and website design.

The new Bristol Unemployed Workers’ Movement, which is still at the fundraising stage, and is volunteer-run, is being put together by members of Bristol Trades Union Council, Bristol West and South Labour Party branches, and Bristol Unite Community. 

Bristol was the first city in the UK to have an Unemployed Workers’ Movement, which the Bristol Trades and Labour Council created back in 1921. The association worked with churches, councillors, and charities to support unemployed workers and their families who were living in poverty. They were also politically active, organising protests and campaigns.

In the 1970s, unemployed workers’ centres one again started popping up across the UK in response to rising job losses. But Bristol has never previously had one. 

The importance of a physical space

Moran describes the new project both as a place for people to be supported – practically and emotionally – and for them to come together, learn about their rights, campaign and lobby. 

“[It will be a] safe, secure environment… where people know we are objectively on their side”, he says. “You can just come in and we’re here for you – we’re not going to report you to the job centre.”

It’s important for the Centre to be a physical space “where people can come together and rebuild that sense of community”, Moran continues. The digitisation of many job centre functions, and the context of repeated lockdowns, have left unemployed workers isolated and “atomised”, he says. 

The very nature of being unemployed means you’ve not got the support of colleagues – or, in many cases, a union. You may not have anyone to have your back if there’s been a problem with your claim, or you suspect you’ve been unfairly treated – and job centres are not always the most supportive of places. 

“Once people end up on universal credit, a lot of them can feel like they’re to blame in some way”, Moran says. “Having a place where the heating’s on and there’s a cup of tea waiting for you can help.”

He says there’s been a dividing up of the working class over recent years, with “cracks worsened by economic failures [being] used to fracture the working class, telling us there’s this difference between us – but it’s untrue”, and says that the centre will help to bridge these divides by dealing with issues at their root. On an individual level by offering practical support, and on a community level by educating about unions and building worker solidarity. 

“And then, to punch upwards, we’ll be advocating for a society which addresses the needs of its populus directly to local and national government [by] lobbying against local authority cuts, and for a union and community driven Unemployed Workers’ Centre to be resource-supported.”

The Bristol Unemployed Workers’ Centre is staging a Bristol March for jobs on Saturday 30 October, during which they’ll deliver a petition of demands to Mayor Marvin Rees.

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