Strikers in the government's new Pathfinder job centre and Benefits Agency offices are continuing their determined action. New Labour has launched attempts at strikebreaking and union busting. Around 2,500 civil servants in the PCS union are on all-out strike against the government's plans to remove screens in the new amalgamated offices. Screens are important for staff supplying benefits because of the increased harshness of the government's system.
'This is not just a strike about screens,' Paula Walsh, a branch official and striker in Exeter, told Socialist Worker. 'Management seem to think that by doing up the offices the level of violence towards staff will go down. But the key issue that makes people turn violent is the benefits system itself. That hasn't changed. It's still crap. The government wants us to force people into job interviews, to target people on Incapacity Benefit and get them into work. It's outrageous. We're all sick of that.'
A national ballot of the other 70,000 workers in Britain's job centres and benefit services began this Tuesday. If successful they will join the Pathfinder strikers for a number of days each month. Workers in offices in Brent and Streatham in London have been striking for over ten weeks. PCS members in around 50 other offices have been on strike for over two weeks.
Colin Hampton, coordinator of Derbyshire's unemployed workers' centres, backs the strike action because, he says, 'Until we have a just benefits system which treats people with dignity and respect then the screens must stay.'
The lively and active strikers are worrying the government and its supporters in the media. Alastair Darling, minister for work and pensions, is organising a strikebreaking operation. New Labour is bussing in scabs from across the country to work in the offices on strike.
The government is paying £14 extra a day, plus an overnight allowance of £35 a night and other expenses, to those willing to break the strike. Blairite journalist Polly Toynbee wrote a disgusting article in last Friday's Guardian attacking benefits service workers for being 'rude' and having no reason to strike.
She also said, 'This is a cynically political strike, designed to give the government a bloody nose at the expense of the poor.' But the new Pathfinder system will not be an improvement for Britain's unemployed. 'The real problem with benefits are that they are set at too low a level,' said Jules Cousens, an Exeter striker. 'It is amazing that Polly Toynbee can accuse us of taking it out on the poor. It is the government that sets the benefit levels, that wants to force people into low paid work. Why don't they increase the level of the minimum wage? Polly Toynbee says there were 'only' 159 violent assaults on staff last year, but it would have been much higher if it hadn't been for screens.'
'The majority of workers who deal with clients are on strike,' says PCS member in Exeter Jim Lee. 'Most people are relieved that they can finally take action.' The importance of screens was shown by an incident in an office in Leyton, east London, on Monday of this week.
A violent claimant stabbed a security guard, who is seriously wounded. Across the country there are large and militant picket lines. At Exeter on Friday of last week there were around 60 strikers picketing. Over 80 people came to a mass meeting later that day.
'We have had a lot of support from claimants,' says Paula. 'It's very good to be out on strike,' said John Broom, on the Exeter picket line. 'I've only just joined the union. I was tempted by the money to break the strike, but I would have been on the wrong side. If you don't make a stand for what's right no one else will.'
'They're spending money on offices, not people,' says Clare Llewellyn. 'They should be increasing benefits. It's shocking it's happening under a Labour government. We do get a lot of grief from claimants, but when I tell them how much I get paid they become more sympathetic. This strike is part of a wider thing-if we don't make a stand for our own and other people's safety, we would look silly striking over other issues.'
PCS members' new urge to fight
'We see this as the first major dispute in the PCS in a long time,' said striker Paula Walsh. 'It's our chance to protest about pay and conditions for staff. Management has hardened. If we lose this battle it will be very difficult to improve terms and conditions for everyone when every job centre and benefits agency merges in April 2002. If we lose this, management will railroad through anything they like.'
'This is an issue we can win on,' says John Puttock, a PCS union member in Manchester. 'All the other grievances we have are lined up behind this one-pay, conditions, management's attitude, working arrangements.'
'Management are press-ganging claimants on Jobseeker's Allowance to come for job interviews at the Exeter office,' says Paula. 'They've got to accept this scab job, otherwise their benefits will be stopped.'
'The government see this as a strikebreaking opportunity,' says Konrad Peutherer, a PCS official in Devon. It's all about breaking the union. Blair wants to break us to send a message to the rest of the trade union movement to keep in their place.'
The key to winning this important dispute is winning the national ballot of all job centres and benefits agencies that began this Tuesday. Activists are organising meetings in every workplace. 'We've had unprecedented meetings in Manchester,' says John. 'Because management won't allow us to have any time for meetings, we've had to have them in lunch hours. 'At the Wythenshawe office 60 out of the 120 staff came, and they are up for the strike. There is massive solidarity and anger there.'
Scare stories show Labour's fears
Guardian writer Polly Toynbee attacked the PCS union's new 'hard left Socialist Alliance' general secretary elect, Mark Serwotka. She said the PCS has a 'long, warring, leftist history'. But Mark was elected in December of last year after long term right wing control of the union.
His victory was fuelled by disgust among many PCS activists at their union leadership's failure to defend members' pay and conditions under both Tory and New Labour governments.
Toynbee and many Blairites are worried about the resurgence in confidence and fighting mood that Mark's election has seen among rank and file PCS members. As well as the Pathfinder offices, there is also current industrial action by PCS members in DEFRA, formerly the Ministry of Agriculture, and in the Inland Revenue.
Toynbee also said there is a division between the 'moderate Employment Service and the militant Benefits Agency'. In the Pathfinder strike the Employment Service staff have been more likely to cross picket lines. These workers are less likely to be unionised.
Staff in the Employment Service do not have the job of stopping claimants' benefits, after which most violent assaults occur. But under the new Jobcentre Plus scheme they will take on this role as well.
They will find themselves more likely to come under attack. Joining the strike for safety is in the interests of all staff in all job centres and benefit offices.
Solidarity with strikers MASS DEMO
Friday 16 November from 7am Harlesden House, 161-163 High Street, Harlesden, London NW10 4TJ (Willesden Junction tube and station)
Called by Brent UNISON, PCS (BA) Central and West London, PCS (DWP) North West London, PCS (ES) Harrow and Brent
Civil Servants Against the War meeting
The national leadership of the PCS union has disgracefully gagged national full time officers from speaking out against Bush and Blair's war in an attempt to silence the left inside the union.
Civil Servants Against the War has organised a public meeting to speak out for free speech and against the war.
Monday 12 November, 7.30pm Assembly Rooms, Westminster Central Hall, London SW1 (Westminster tube)
Speakers include: Janice Godrich PCS vice-president (personal capacity), Alan Simpson MP, John Foster general secretary of the journalists' NUJ union, Pathfinder striker and Lindsey German Stop the War Coalition