Tens of thousands of civil servants were due to strike this week. Behind the strikes is a fight to stop government attacks on the welfare state. Workers in benefits offices and job centres across Britain were set to strike on Wednesday and Thursday, after PCS union members voted 16,770 to 14,659 to strike against the government's decision to remove safety screens.
Thousands of PCS members in the Home Office were to strike on Friday after they voted by a two to one margin for action over pay. The benefits offices and job centres strike comes after some 2,500 workers in Pathfinder offices have been on all-out strike for over three months. The Pathfinder offices are part of the government's plan to reorganise benefits offices and job centres.
Labour's secretary of state for work and pensions, Alastair Darling, claims the plan is to help the poor and unemployed, and has attacked the strikers. 'A national strike will hit vulnerable people,' he said last week. 'The union must know this will not be a pain-free dispute.' The truth is that it is the government which is attacking the poor and vulnerable.
The government's new system is targeted at stopping disabled people from receiving Incapacity Benefit and forcing them into work. 'We have to implement laws and regulations for benefits that are not in favour of the poorest people in society,' one benefits worker told Socialist Worker.
Government policies leave some people so desperate that they can take it out on the workers. That is why workers oppose the plan to remove screens from offices. 'We are dealing with desperate people,' says one worker. 'Screens are necessary because successive governments have failed to address social problems like unemployment, health, education, alcohol and drugs.'
This week's strike in benefits offices and job centres is due to be followed by up to five days action every month. The government is taking on a union which dared to elect a left wing leader committed to resisting its attacks. 'This is an intensely political attack,' says Phil Pardoe, branch secretary of PCS Inner London.
Mark Serwotka, a rank and file socialist, won the election for PCS general secretary last December. That has given different sections of the union the confidence to strike against the government.
'For the government this fight is not about the issue of screens,' argues Phil Pardoe. 'They want to smash the union, and particularly the left in the union.' Unfortunately the escalation to a national strike was accompanied by the PCS national executive deciding that strikers in the majority of Pathfinder offices should return to work this Friday.
This is due to the strikers being on 85 percent strike pay, which has drained the union's strike fund and was used as a reason to send the strikers back. 'We appreciate what the national leaders are saying about the strike fund but they should have tried some forward planning,' says one striker at the Pathfinder office in Greenock in Scotland.
That office is among those that will be kept on all-out strike. 'We have 270,000 members,' says the Greenock worker. 'There should have been a levy on all of them. The mood is for still going forward.' The union now faces a major test. Union leaders need to throw their full weight behind the strike. Strikers also need to link up with claimants. The government must not be allowed to divide workers and the unemployed.