New Labour is determined to break the national dispute involving tens of thousands of job centre and benefits office workers. The government wants to seriously weaken the strikers' PCS union. An internal document for MPs and managers says that the dispute is a 'matter of principle' and that the government will not negotiate.
Around 40,000 people struck for two days last week against government plans to remove safety screens in the new Jobcentre Plus offices. This was the second national two-day strike. The first took place in December. In some areas, such as Edinburgh, Brighton and Liverpool, the strike was highly effective, despite heavy management intimidation.
But the strikes also exposed the weakness of the union's strategy. The vast majority of job centre workers crossed picket lines during both strikes. The union's focus on the issue of safety screens means that many people do not see the strike as about issues that are important to them.
Job centre workers do not have to work behind screens. Activists are now discussing what way forward for the dispute. The union's group executive committee, which runs the strike, was due to meet on Thursday of this week. It will then pass recommendations to the PCS national executive committee.
Many activists on the left are arguing for a rolling programme of regional selective action as the way to win. At a meeting of PCS London branch secretaries on Friday the majority voted to have one-day regional rolling strikes. This means strikes will take place in different areas on different days.
The vote was also for a one-day national strike this month. The group executive committee is dominated by the socialist Left Unity group. Left Unity union leaders want to win the strike, but this strategy falls short of what is required.
Activists need to go all-out to build whatever strikes are called. But the strategy of rolling action and keeping disputes confined to certain offices has almost always led to demoralisation and defeat. In the civil servants' national pay dispute of 1987 left wing union leaders delayed the ballot for a national strike and the vote was then lost. Regional action in the current strike, which is already weak, would lead to increasing isolation.
The way to overcome the divisions between different sections of the workforce is to link up all the issues that civil servants care about. Most job centre and benefits office workers are furious about low pay, privatisation, attacks on the union, and the increasingly draconian nature of the benefits system which hits claimants hard.
Only an escalation of the action and a move towards a ballot for national strike action can effectively put the pressure on management and New Labour.