A national strike by tens of thousands of civil servants in the PCS union on Monday and Tuesday of this week defied New Labour and bullying management. It is the second two-day strike by workers in benefits agencies and job centres. The first one was in mid-December. They are challenging the government's plans to remove safety screens in the newly merged benefits agencies and job centres-Jobcentre Plus. Reports were coming in as Socialist Worker went to press that strikers were holding firm.
Most areas where people struck in December stayed solid this time, such as Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. In some places the strike bit harder. In Hemel Hempsted a Benefits Agency (BA) call centre that stayed open last time was closed on Monday. 'If anything, there were more people out this time in Edinburgh,' says striker Martin Walker. 'There were about 80 percent of BA workers out last time. This time it was more like 90 percent.'
In the Brighton area seven out of ten offices were either closed or badly disrupted.
But there are a number of problems with the dispute and the strategy of the union leaders. While Benefits Agency workers massively support the action, only a minority of workers in job centres, who work without screens, are prepared to strike over the issue.
'The union has focused too much on the issue of screens,' says Phil Pardoe, a striker in central London. It should have talked about what this means to the union.'
Alastair Darling is the government's minister for the new Department of Work and Pensions. New Labour wants to seriously weaken the civil servants' PCS union. It is worried that the election of rank and file socialist Mark Serwotka as general secretary in December 2000 has increased the fighting confidence of union members.
Darling attempted to organised a strikebreaking operation against the Pathfinder workers who were on all-out strike from September through to December. He has given the green light to civil service management to intimidate and threaten people with losing promotion if they continue to strike. 'The government has a specific agenda for Jobcentre Plus,' says Phil. 'It wants to weaken the union for new working practices such as Saturday opening, centralising benefits assessment, and bringing in more private sector management.'
These issues, plus the low pay civil servants suffer, and the attacks on the union and the welfare state, need to be raised to increase the level of job centre workers' participation in the dispute. The union also failed to make good use of the six-week gap between the two strikes.
Activists told Socialist Worker they didn't receive union circulars informing them of the action until Wednesday or Thursday last week. Areas such as Edinburgh produced their own leaflets, raising the issues to build the strike. But the union should have thrown itself into winning the argument with job centre workers about why the strike is important to them and the union. But the six weeks were wasted.
Many people on picket lines were worried about the direction of the strike. The union leadership still has time to turn the dispute around. The Left Unity socialist group dominates the PCS group executive committee, which is responsible for running the strike. It needs to escalate the action quickly to put more pressure on New Labour and management.
Unfortunately, some sections of the union leadership are talking about organising a rolling programme of regional action or sectional strikes. The way to win the strike is to raise the general issues that every civil servant cares about, escalate the action and begin to argue for an all-out strike.
Workers are fighting for claimants as well
JobCentre Plus is an attack on the welfare state. It will remove claimants' as well as workers' rights. It is about forcing people off benefit and treating everybody as if they are available for work.
This attack will hit some of the most vulnerable people in society. Those the goverment is targeting include disabled people, lone parents and people who are ill. Workers are striking in defence of the poor. 'Every day we are faced with desperate people, who do desperate things,' says Jane Aitchinson, who is a PCS branch secretary and striker in Leeds. 'We have been threatened with knives and guns in my office.
'The claimants aren't to blame for this situation. New Labour has continued with Tory benefit levels, and it has even cut benefit levels for some claimants.' Staff in one of the new Jobcentre Plus offices in Harlesden, west London, have already seen their safety suffer as a result.
One claimant who had had enough smashed ten computers with a chain. 'We were taken to the new Streatham Jobcentre Plus office, and they won't allow homeless people in there now,' says one striker. 'Who's going to look after them if they're not allowed to come into these new super- plush offices? They are members of the public who need the services we can provide if we are allowed to.'
MEMBERS OF the PCS union now have the opportunity to elect a socialist majority on the national executive committee, in this year's elections. Nominations have opened and there will be a united left list of candidates standing for the 2002 PCS NEC elections.
The first step in the campaign is to secure nominations for socialist candidates at annual general meetings taking place in PCS branches from late January to late February.
KEVIN KELLY, national assistant secretary PCS Left Unity
For more information go to www.voteleftunity.org.uk or email the campaign on [email protected]