Over 75,000 workers in job centres and benefit offices are being balloted to join a strike by 2,500 fellow workers across the country. It could be the biggest challenge from public sector workers that New Labour has faced since 1997.
The government has tried to whip up an atmosphere of scapegoating around the dispute. Tony Blair and work and pensions secretary Alastair Darling have made it clear they want to smash the workers' PCS union and its left wing leader Mark Serwotka.
Yet the root cause of the strike is New Labour's attacks on benefit claimants. Already these had led to many vulnerable people having their benefit cut. New Labour's plans will mean other people, single parents and the sick, can be robbed of their benefits. Some people's anger and despair can lead them to lash out physically at workers in the benefit offices.
The workers do not want the safety screens in the offices removed, as the government wants to do in its new Jobcentre Plus plan. Some 2,500 workers are already on indefinite strike. Workers at offices in Brent and Streatham in London began the strike over two months ago. More workers in around 50 offices joined them on 22 October. A further 75,000 workers began a ballot last week to join the dispute for up to five days a month. This would pull in every job centre and benefit office in Britain.
New Labour is extremely worried by the lively and militant strike. Alastair Darling is organising a strikebreaking operation involving bussing in scabs from around the country, paying people £14 extra a day to cross picket lines, and giving people £35 overnight allowance and other expenses. Management inside the job centres and benefit offices have set out to intimidate the strikers and those workers being balloted.
They have called staff in for individual interviews and denied the union facility time to hold meetings about the ballot. At the same time management have been holding screenings across the country of a propaganda film about the new offices.
Blairite journalist Polly Toynbee wrote a witch-hunting article in the Guardian two weeks ago against the strikers. Both management and the government are concerned at the rise in confidence among many PCS union members over the last year.
The current strike is just one example of this. There are also disputes in the former Ministry of Agriculture (DEFRA) and the Inland Revenue. Union members voted last year for Mark Serwotka, a rank and file member and socialist, as general secretary. He explains, 'There is a big undercurrent of disquiet in the PCS. The worst fears that the government and the employer had about my election are beginning to come true.'
New Labour is targeting Mark in an attempt to scapegoat the left in the union and break the strike. The right wing on the PCS union's national executive had tried to sell out the dispute before it went national. They were stopped after protests from strikers. Alastair Darling tried to play up the divisions on the national executive in a TV debate last week to try to undermine Mark and the strike. The national executive of the PCS has already gagged Mark to stop him speaking out against the war.
But these dirty tricks have not dented the strikers' determination to fight.
Action builds union
The strike action is encouraging other workers to fight. Some 230 workers in Makerfield in Lancashire voted to join the strike last week. They were furious at management transferring work to their office in an attempt to get people to scab.
Only 39 voted against joining the strike. Other offices are holding large meetings during the ballot to pull out the 75,000 other workers. 'People are very angry, and are trying to find out the truth behind management propaganda,' said Claire Donnelly, the branch secretary of Sheffield and Rotherham PCS Employment Service branch.
'We're recruiting hand over fist into the union because of the dispute. I recruited ten people in one day at one job centre. And this is in the Employment Service, which is the group that management and the government are trying to divide from people in the benefit service by saying that they're 'militant' and we're 'moderate'.'
Paul Murphy, a Benefits Agency worker in London, said, 'This dispute isn't just about screens. It's got every issue lined up behind it-pay, conditions, privatisation. Management want to do whatever they like without any opposition.'
Every trade unionist and activist should back this strike against bullying and union bashing from management and the Labour government.
SOLIDARITY WITH STRIKERS
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