Salford’s Unemployed & Community Resource Centre: workers’ rights, anti-racism and gender equality

Everyone knows that a good thing is worth fighting for and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to workers’ rights. On paper, a plethora of laws may claim to protect workers against unfair dismissals and redundancy but in reality they are often left to singly-handedly fight big corporations to enforce their basic rights. In Salford, this is where the radical Unemployed & Community Resource Centre comes in.

Set up in the 1980s, the centre was officially the third Trade Union Centre to open in the UK and has been offering free advice on employment law and representation at tribunals ever since. The centre has also gone on to introduce a computer education course, debt management advice and to launch a radical ‘Salford Prison Scheme’ to mentor offenders from the area. It has also been involved in some of the biggest unemployment cases to hit Manchester, such as the infamous ‘Accident Group’ which made its workers redundant via text message.

Thatcher and Unemployment in Salford

“Salford was one of the workshops of the world,” explains Alec McFadden, an active unionist and anti-fascist campaigner who runs the centre. “There was a massive engineering industry which employed thousands of people and you had very active docks. Thatcher came in 1979 and started a campaign, very very quickly, against the manufacturing industry and the reason was that in manufacturing you had very strong trade unions.” A couple of years later came the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 along with increasingly weakened unions and then, recession and mass unemployment. “The pound was weak and as the whole economy of Salford which was based in manufacturing and engineering went, unemployment shot up and a lot of young people went 5 to 10 years without ever having a proper job.”

The centre was subsequently funded by a government quango (the Manpower Services Commission) as McFadden puts it, “to reduce unemployment- not to solve the crisis of capitalism but to hide the number of unemployed people.” As well as rising unemployment, the radical activity in the area ,especially in Eccles, which had the biggest Communist Party in Britain at the time, made the centre an obvious choice.

When the centre first opened there were around 20 part-time workers running it but by 1995, when McFadden joined, it only had three workers. One of the first cases McFadden was involved was trying to stop the council shutting down a nearby social security office. “By closing the office, the unemployed had nowhere to claim for social security except the main benefit office which was three miles away and then you had to go on two buses.” It was occupied by around 46 supporters and gained a lot of publicity. Three months later, however, it was shut down.

Salford’s Fourth Emergency Service

Despite this minor setback, the centre has been involved in thousands of cases since, many more of which have ended successfully. “We classify ourselves as the fourth emergency service in Salford after the police, fire services and ambulances, because we keep people alive. We’ve stopped people from committing suicide by getting them their benefits and their rights for them,” says McFadden.

“We’ve done a whole host of cases for workers who are being exploited and sacked. One of the big ones that I spent a lot of time on was against P&A Packaging when five young men were made redundant by their employer.” The company had recruited 10 East European workers, trained them and then got rid of the higher-paid original workers. “We appealed and I explained to their employer, Peter Smith, that he had flaunted the laws of Britain… You can’t just sack and make workers redundant… He said he didn’t believe me and that he could do what he wants with his workers.”

On the eve of the tribunal, after being told by the company’s solicitor that the centre would lose the case, they were approached and offered thousands of pounds in settlement for the workers. Negotiations took place under a confidentiality clause and so the settlement amount was not disclosed although newspapers were reporting around £25,000. As a result of this success, more and more cases came through the centre’s doors and the staff are always happy to help.

“We are completely different from the CABs (Citizen’s Advice Bureaux). Its like whether you are from Afghanistan or Eccles is irrelevant to us- you’re a human being with a problem and we are exactly the same about whether its fundable or not.” Just the previous week, McFadden successfully won a case for a young Latvian girl who was mistreated at work. “Two of the girls were working for a hotel and one of them was sacked and the other one was threatened with disciplinary action for nothing. They were both very well educated and their mother tongue is Russian and they were disciplined for speaking their mother tongue at work.

“I rang the company and said that I was going to deal with the case and they were dismissive of me and I said ‘before we enter this situation, write my name down and go on to google and ring us back’. They rang us back and the girl who was given the final written warning, that was withdrawn immediately and the other one, I was allowed in to represent her and on Thursday they apologized for sacking her. They agreed to pay her two months wages after sacking her and she starts back at work today.” A real success story and, McFadden insists, “I have never lost a single case and I think for the community to have this resources is great.” He also added that anyone going to a solicitor and paying for their services when they are freely available at the centre ‘must be crazy.’

Mass Education Campaign

In 1997, the council put forward a ten-year plan for Salford to resolve certain social, housing and financial problems. “Salford was poverty-stricken, as it is now, and derelict, was just one hell of a state,” says McFadden. “You had major problems with Ordsall which had the highest negative equity levels in the UK… there was the issue of housing as the council had so many properties that were in disrepair- they weren’t repairing them- and people were living in horrendous conditions.” The centre decided to take time and consider what its contribution to this ten-year plan could be.

“We came up with this strategy in which we would continue to look after people’s welfare benefits but also look after debt. We would start defending workers in short-term jobs and their employment rights because if you’re not in the union, there is no one to represent you at work.” Another issue that the centre decided to tackle was education and training as a lot of people were alienated from colleges and universities and had only secured low levels of education. “So we started this mass education campaign which over the last 10 to 11 years, I would say, has been incredible.”

After a couple of false starts in which the centre was ram-raided and 4 computers stolen, a computer course was launched with the help of lottery funding. “We had people on the course who had never worked for years. We had a woman who had been involved in the sex trade for eight years, sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes on the sex lines.

“She took to the computers very quickly and was the third person to pass. And not only did she do that, she ended up as a volunteer helping other and when the tutor was ill, we employed her for a month. With that experience she got a job as an admin assistant and two year later was an admin officer in the national health service- so that was something very positive to come from the course.”

Salford Prison Scheme and Male Widowers

As well as supporting those with troubled backgrounds by teaching them new skills to help them move forward, the centre has initiated a new project to rehabilitate offenders. The Salford Prison Scheme “is a project for young men who are in Manchester prisons, come from Salford and are coming back into Salford after less than a year in prison.” They centre employs a full-time worker who works with the short-term prisoners while they are still in prison to resolve issues such as welfare needs, benefits, education, housing and employment.

“One of the main issues is getting them off drugs,” explains McFadden who started the project as he felt that offenders’ educational and employment needs were being ignored. Those serving shorter sentences for crimes like theft and burglary receive no support, such as probation officers, on release, and yet research shows that they are most likely to re-offend. “It’s an area which is completely neglected and I am hoping to announce by the end of September that we have funding for another two years.”

Alec McFadden has also led workers’ rights campaigns on issues very close to his heart. McFadden , who was widowed in 1997 after his wife Berit died of cancer, led a campaign along with another widower Alex Love to enforce the rights of male widowers to benefits. “The law at the time was the if a man died in a marriage, the woman would receive a pension and a lump sum but if the woman died in a marriage, the man got nothing.” The official reason given to McFadden and hundred of thousands of other male widowers was ‘sorry, you can’t receive any state benefits because you are not a woman’!

“So I campaigned in 2001 and the law was changed so that bereavement benefit was established – I now get £599 a month as I have two children to look after. That alone has provided billions for people across Britain.

“We have a reputation at the centre that when everyone else in the country says no, people can ring us and we say yes.”

Unemployed Workers Union

The centre has also recently announced that they are seeking to establish the first Unemployed Workers’ Union (UWU) for 25 years. “We have reached a stage where officially there is 2.5 million unemployed and the reality is that it is nearer 3.5 million. There are loads of young people who can’t sign or have decided not to sign because of the hassle, the stigma- there is no one looking after them. In fact, there is no one looking after the unemployed who are living on £64 a week, which is a scandal,” says McFadden.

Campaigning on issues such as the right to work, an increase in the minimum wage and free public transport for the unemployed (“when you’re unemployed how can you afford bus fares?” says McFadden), the UWU hopes to look after the unemployed who are currently ignored by the trade unions. “There is something that Tony Benn says and that is ‘If you want something done, do it yourself’ and so we thought it’s time to re-establish an unemployed workers’ movement to try and get unemployed people to work together.”

McFadden explains that he seen the impacts of unemployment on a community many times in his life – domestic violence, alcohol and drug-addiction as well as an increase in crime are only some of the implications – “The key thing to give these people is some hope.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Link:
Salford Unemployed & Community Resource Centre

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Sam Wild and Bessie Berry – the Spanish Civil War, Communism and Feminisn

Sam Wild, born in Ardwick, was one of the Manchester men who fought in the Spanish Civil War, eventually becoming the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Bessie Berry, his wife, was a pioneering women activist in British Communist circles.

Dolores Long, Sam Wild and Bessie Berry’s daughter, described their lives and politics in an interview in June 2009.

Unemployment in Manchester

My Dad was a working class man who had a really poverty-stricken childhood. He was born in Ardwick and left school at 14 with no skills and found it very difficult to get work. He got involved in the unemployed workers’ movement because he couldn’t find work in Manchester and so he joined the merchant navy. And he always said, I joined the merchant navy because I knew I’d get accommodation and I’d be fed.

His political education was in the merchant navy, I think, because when he was going round the world he began to be aware of the officer class and the ordinary sailors and the difference in their facilities, different food and so on. Also he began to read, and so he always said that was his political education. He became a bit of a rebel and started agitating for better conditions on ship, he wasn’t popular with the officers, and he actually jumped ship in South Africa and came back to Manchester and started getting involved in the issues around unemployment in Manchester at that time.

The Spanish Civil War

Sam had a sister at that time in Manchester called Hilda, and Hilda had a boyfriend called Bert Maskey who was a Russian emigre. He was more political than my father. Bert and my dad became friends and when the Spanish Civil War broke out Bert decided to go to Spain. He was much more politically aware at that time than my father and he explained what Spain was all about and why democracy was at stake, and he realised that what was happening in Spain could be happening in the whole of Europe. He persuaded my father to go with him, so my father went out to Spain with just a kind of gut feeling. His politics just came from his experiences, he wasn’t particularly well read at that time or sophisticated politically, but he just had that kind of gut feeling that there was something wrong with the world.

So Sam and Bert Maskey went out to Spain together, and Bert Maskey was killed very early on in the war, which was a real loss to my father, but my father through his experiences in Spain became much more political, that was where he really began to form his ideas.

He was in his late 20s by that time. Because he’d been in the merchant navy he’d had a little bit of experience of discipline and organisation, but Spain was also where my father realised the skills that he had. His skills were leadership skills, and he was just a very, very inspirational leader and amazingly well respected by other people he was fighting with and very, very brave, so eventually he became the commander of the British battalion. One of my memories of childhood is when I met International Brigaders who’d been with my father, every one of them would just say I’d had total respect for your dad, he was a really democratic and efficient and effective leader, and very inspirational.

So by the time he came back from Spain – he joined the Communist Party while he was in Spain – and by the time he came back he was a changed person. During his time in Spain – he came back several times and went round the country giving speeches – he just became a confident, political, effective leader and a political leader.

The Communist Party

He stayed in the Communist Party all his life. I think with reservations, I remember when the Khrushchev speech happened, there were long discussions in the family. He stuck with the Communist Party, but he always had problems, he had issues. I think that that was to do with the kind of rebel qualities in him, he never reacted very well to the kind of discipline that the Communist Party instilled in people, he always had a problem with being told what to do by people. So he stayed in after all the revelations came out but I know never with the same enthusiasm. He stayed a socialist all his life though, without a doubt.

My mother who was also political, she had the organisational skills, but my dad was such a rebel, slightly wild and undisciplined, and I don’t think he fit into the Communist Party. My mother did, my mother became one of the first women elected to the Executive of the Party, but my dad was a man of action and the business and discipline that the Party required of people, he really couldn’t be bothered. He was also a drinker as well, I don’t think that helped.

I don’t think it was his kind of interest. The logical thing for my father to have done would be to have moved up in the Communist Party, but he never did that, he wasn’t very interested in it at all, so he spent the rest of his life in and out of work and never, ever finding something that interested him, used his skills, challenged him. I think it was a very sad life. Whereas my mother, who also came from a working class background, a very tough childhood, she got her act together and she had no education at all, or very basic education, but she was very active in the Communist Party. She went on delegations to Russia and Bulgaria, went on lots of delegations and trips. At the age of 40, with 4 kids, she took herself off to college and trained as a teacher, and her life kind of took off whereas my Dad’s never did.

Life after Spain

When Sam came back from Spain he was just another unemployed working class man and the experiences he’d had in Spain meant nothing really. He worked for the Communist Party, he went round and gave lots and lots of talks around the country about Spain and the Aid Spain movement. He stood as a Communist Party councillor in the local elections, and so he was active in all the political campaigns in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Eventually he got jobs on building sites, scaffolding, he was always elected the shop steward and he was very active in the TU movement for building sites and building workers, on safety issues, that usually ended up with him getting sacked eventually. In Spain, though, the situation used the kind of natural skills and abilities my father had and I don’t think he ever really found a role afterwards for himself. And I think that was really sad, because I think he had exceptional qualities but that for a working class men at that time, what would anyone do with the fact that he’d been an inspirational leader in Spain?

Bessie Berry

She got involved in the Communist Party I suppose in her mid to late 20s, and she and my father met when my father came back from Spain. He was giving talks about Spain and that’s how they met. I think that my father respected my mother for what she managed to do but I think he was very aware that her life had gone upwards and his downwards…

We lived in Longsight in a council house on Birch Hall Lane, a very small council house. My memories of growing up are two parents who were always busy, at meetings. There were always posters in the window of this little council house, there were always people visiting the house and kind of interesting people. Black people came to the house, which was really unusual – this was the late 1940s, early 1950s, and they were Africans coming to meetings in Manchester, Indians.

And we were taken to the Moscow State Circus and the Red Army Choir when they came to Manchester, and the Chinese State Circus, so although I didn’t realise it at the time there was a real sense of internationalism which even at that time I began to realise was unusual for someone living in a council house in Manchester.

And the other thing that was interesting is that I had a mother who at a time when most women were staying at home looking after the kids, being housewives, was out at meetings. She was talking at meetings, she was in the Co-op movement, she was in the Communist Party, she was active in anti-apartheid and boycotting South African goods. I can remember being totally embarrassed every time we went into a shop, my mother would ask where goods came from and when they said South Africa she’d say ‘oh no, I’m not going to buy that,’ and I can remember being totally embarrassed by that.

When we went to the cinema, which didn’t happen very often, but they used to have the Pathe news and I’d just cringe because I knew my mother would be complaining or disagreeing with something on the news. And we never stood up. In those days you used to stand up at the end of the cinema for God Save the Queen and my parents would never stand up. So an unusual and not an easy childhood, because particularly after the Cold War started there was, when people, people just had this fear of Communists, so the neighbours were always very suspicious and confused about what was going on in this little council house, and some were very hostile and didn’t want their kids playing with us because we were communist.

When my mother was elected onto the Executive Committee of the Communist Party the Manchester Evening News ran a massive hate campaign, because by this time she was a teacher and the angle they took was that this woman must be indoctrinating her pupils with communism, but fortunately her headmistress went to the Education Committee and defended her and said no, this woman’s just a great teacher.

So it was a very, very unusual, different kind of upbringing. At the time all I wanted was a normal kind of household and a mum who made cakes and wasn’t always out in the evening. As I got older I’ve kind of realised gosh, what an amazing childhood that was and what I gained from having two people as parents who were interested in the world and were active and also totally non-materialistic, just not interested in possessions and things, and having a mother who, although I didn’t realise it at the time was an amazing role model for what women could do.

Links

Working Class Movement Library information on the Unemployed Workers’ Movement
International Brigades Memorial Trust
Working Class Movement Library information on the Spanish Civil War
An ANC history of the British Anti-apartheid campaign
The current British Communist Party’s own history website
Basque Children of ’37 Association

Article by Sarah Irving