The management of the government's new Jobcentre Plus scheme have made a new offer to civil servants in the PCS union working in job centres and benefits offices. Ballot papers were sent out this week. Union leaders are recommending that members accept the offer, but it falls far short of what members need. The dispute was centred on New Labour's plans to scrap safety screens in the newly amalgamated offices.
The strikes forced management to change their original offer. But it does not concede fully screened benefits offices. Instead there will be just one screened office in each area. Benefit claimants who are seen as 'dangerous' will be sent to screened ones, 'normal' clients to unscreened ones.
This is a nasty attack on claimants who could be labelled as 'problems' and treated accordingly. It will also lead to more travel, expense and frustration among claimants. Union leaders say only people who volunteer will have to hold face to face interviews with clients. The union will also have more access to a review process that will consider how the new arrangements are working. But who can trust a management and government that have been determined to undermine the union throughout the dispute? 'The proposal for volunteers only protects existing staff, not new staff,' says Phil Pardoe, the branch secretary of PCS inner London.
'It also depends on the strength of the union organisation in each workplace whether people feel confident enough to refuse to do the work. There will be even more attacks on staff, as inexperienced people will be delivering New Labour's miserly and vindictive benefits system. Management have never shown any intention of consulting with the union before. They're bringing in name badges, a dress code, new sickness rules and other vicious things, and nobody's spoken to the union about it.'
Tens of thousands of people struck for two days in both December and January against the plans to scrap screens. Hundreds of others have been on all-out strike since September and October in the trial Pathfinder offices.
'There was undoubtedly a weakness with the strikes,' continues Phil. 'Support was very weak in job centres, where people have never had to use screens. 'But the union leaders had an opportunity to rebuild support for the strike after the meeting of branch secretaries in February. People agreed that there had to be action to coincide with the official launch of Jobcentre Plus next week. There were five weeks to build for the action, but our group executive committee, which runs the strike, did nothing and allowed the right in the union to undermine it.'
A number of branch committees have decided to recommend rejecting the offer. They include east London and inner London. Dave Owens, from Liverpool Employment Service branch, which covers job centres, says, 'My branch committee is recommending rejecting the offer because there was a feeling that there wasn't a very great improvement. We had good support during the strikes in Liverpool job centres for the action because we were political and concentrated on New Labour's attacks on the union.'
The strike was so narrowly focused it failed to catch a wider mood against privatisation, low pay and poor conditions. If the offer is thrown out then more action should be held around such questions. 'Every vote against the offer is a vote for a fighting union and a message to the employer,' says Phil Pardoe.
BALLOT PAPERS were due to be issued on Wednesday of this week to elect members to PCS's national executive committee.
Left Unity wants the PCS to be a union that stands up for its members.
For more information on the campaign, policies and candidates go to www.voteleftunity.org.uk