New wave of organisation among unemployed
UPM in Adelaide marks second year of struggle
by Bob Briton All over Australia, unemployed and underemployed people are organising on a scale not seen for many years. Some of this organisation is focused on the painstaking work of advocacy and lobbying. Some involves "culture jamming" stunts like the hoax recently carried out by the Dole Army on Channel Nine's A Current Affair program. The group convinced the producers, who regularly insert "dole bludger" stories as part of the standard fare, that swarms of anonymous welfare cheats live in caves and the sewers under Melbourne's streets. In Adelaide there is the Un(der)employed People's Movement Against Poverty Inc (UPM). For two years now it has been combining its advocacy and lobbying role with an eagerness to take its message to the streets. Among its many recent achievements is the publication of a booklet to assist people who have had their Centrelink payments suspended (see review opposite). To mark this second anniversary and to get an insight into the thinking that guides unemployed groups today, The Guardian spoke with group representative Monika Baker. Monika spoke about the origins of the group (from discussions "around this very kitchen table") through to today's plans to get an information bus on the road to visit the Centrelink offices around Adelaide. Like many such organisations, the impetus "came from our own problems — we were being breached*, forced into work for the dole and so on". Among Monika's friends, there was the need to combat the loss of confidence and anger that is associated with unemployment. Monika had been involved in an employment creation support group in the southern districts of Adelaide and found that she still had energies to commit to the issue. From the early days of the group, networking has been a major task. The organisation believes that the unemployed and underemployed will not be able to achieve the objective of meaningful work for all on their own. While the group's viewpoint is "not coming from a radical or Marxist position", there is also a consensus that this aim is not obtainable in a society and economy dominated by transnational corporations. "We cannot have a harmonious society with capitalism. We all agree on that." UPM has been involved with and been represented in the FairGo Network, Inner City Agencies Network, South Australian Anti-Poverty Working Group, M1, NOWAR, the United Trades and Labor Council (UTLC), the Australian National Organisation of the Unemployed, the Welfare Rights Centre Council, the National Coalition against Poverty, the Human Rights Day Committee and May Day Committee. UPM uses its opportunities to get its opinions across in a creative way. Aside from the constant letter writing and sending of delegations to speak with politicians, it has used public forums to get its concerns addressed. UPM was one of the forces behind SA Council of Social Service and the UTLC's Jobs Forum earlier this year at which the representatives of the major political parties answered questions about their policies concerning job creation. In the UPM's newsletter Upwords, Monika made the connection between the topics considered at the International Workplace Bullying Conference and the treatment of the unemployed at the offices of Centrelink and the Jobs Network. Upwords is very successful in showing the links to the issues of unemployment in Australia. In a recent issue a connection is made between the faltering Argentine economy where people suddenly find themselves without income, the ruthless way in which the US social security system treats people and the "breaching" of Centrelink clients in Australia. The relevance of working hours is not lost on the group, either. Many articles and now a major part of the UPM's website (http://au.geocities.com/upmapoverty) is devoted to the campaign for a thirty-five-hour week. There is extensive treatment of the experience in France where the introduction of the shorter working week in many sectors of the economy without loss of pay, and without increased overtime, has produced positive results. These results include the creation of 250,000 jobs and increased spending. Monika is realistic about the clout that a group like UPM can have. She notes that many of the unemployed themselves are totally absorbed in keeping their spirits up-trying to believe that the dream job is just around the corner. Only relatively small numbers will divide their time between the often- frustrating tasks associated with job hunting and organising for better treatment and prospects for the unemployed. While many people will happily accept the newsletter and even pass it on as highly recommended reading, the UPM concedes that it will continue to be only one part of an alliance for social change and for full employment. True to this analysis, UPM has been represented at many local demonstrations like the May Day and M1 events, rallies against the war in Afghanistan and for the humane treatment of the refugees. The job facing the new generation of unemployed groups like UPM is about the long haul. Optimism must be maintained, "we must hold the vision of an ideal society in our heads", as Monika puts it. There's been the realisation, too, that the quest for social justice cannot be left to the most oppressed and marginalised groups, it's "going to be a movement of the whole community".
* * ** Adminstrative breach arises from not declaring income, not returning forms or not attending interviews. Activity breach comes mainly from failing to fulfil mutual obligation requirements when looking for work. Penalties involve a reduction in the rate of payment. Three breaches can mean no payments for at least eight weeks.