In October 1980 the first Unemployed Worker’s Centre in Scotland was opened against the background of the highest unemployment figures since the 1930’s. It aimed to offer training and support but also had a remit around campaigning to highlight the effects of unemployment on both the individual and local communities. The Sentinel reported on the new centre in December 1980.
The Unemployed Workers Centres were a national network, set up predominantly through the TUC in response to the soaring unemployment rates. Established within a grass-roots model, they were able to be flexible and responsive to the situation of their immediate community. At the height of the movement, there were 200 across the country but funding remained an ongoing issue for many, resulting in a gradual reduction of active centres.
Wester Hailes opened its own centre in 1981, based in the TU Hut at the Venchie and reported on by the Sentinel in August 1981. Unemployment for the area was estimated to be over 50%, with young people facing a 70% rate. Like other centres across the network, it was run by unemployed local residents and had a programme of support, advice and campaigning. A wide range of activities was also in offer including the Unemployed Writers Workshop.
As in so many issues affecting Wester Hailes, it was the local community that tried to find solutions rather than the politicians. In 1983 the Wester Hailes Representative Council and Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd joined forces to apply to the Manpower Services Commission for Management Agency status. This gave them the power to create up to 250 full and part-time jobs under the Government’s new Community Programme. The Wester Hailes partnership was only one of 5 voluntary bodies in Scotland to be awarded Management Agency status. You can read more about this story by clicking here on Sentinel May 1983.
The Unemployed Workers Centre sought to raise funding to build premises of their own. Premises for groups in Wester Hailes was an ongoing issue. There was no infrastructure of older disused buildings that could be renovated or converted. Every new premises required either had to be built or brought in as a unit from elsewhere. The Unemployed Workers Centre received funding from the Manpower Services Commission in 1984 and purchased two huts from Polkemmet School in Whitburn. The Sentinel reported on their efforts in April 1984. Sadly, the resulting centre ended up being demolished in 1986 after vandalism and fire had left it unsafe.
The term “unemployed worker” sounds almost old-fashioned in today’s current climate and seems to have fallen out of favour, with the term “workless” seeming the top alternative amongst politicians and sections of the media. A lot can be conveyed in a word and it is probably no coincidence that with the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through the Westminster Parliament, a word with arguably a more disparaging sound has become standard. The Unemployed Workers Centres were articulate in challenging myths and stereotypes about unemployment, recognising the inherent dangers in misrepresentation and the resulting isolation of whole sections of society. As Malcom Mcphee who helped set up the centre in Wester Hailes said to the Sentinel in 1981
When you are unemployed you are treated like a second class citizen; the reason you are unemployed is because there is no work and not because you are another species.