Tens of thousands of job centre and benefits office workers across Britain in the civil servants' PCS union struck on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. The union estimated that 40,000 people took strike action over the two days, while management claimed 32,000 struck. This is out of around 65,000 union members in the workplaces affected.
Union activists ensured that the two-day strike was as successful as it could be. But the union leadership's decision to rule out all-out strike action and to end the strike of 2,500 Pathfinder workers is wrong and has created problems. In many areas benefit offices were only operated by management, and a number of job centres were also closed for the two days.
'The strike has exceeded our best expectations,' one striker in central London told Socialist Worker. 'And it's exceeded management's worst expectations.'
'It's been a brilliant strike in the west of Scotland and Glasgow,' says union member Robert. 'Every office has been technically closed-they've had senior management on the counters but the service they provided was zilch. 'They were telling people to come back on Friday. Altogether there's been about 7,000 people out in the whole of Scotland.'
Dave, a PCS member from Liverpool, reports that 'every benefits office on Merseyside was closed except three that were kept open by management. Strikers also closed at least nine job centres across the area. I work at a call centre for unemployed people where we have no direct contact with people, but out of the 160 people who work there, only 40 went in during the strike. Around 50 people joined the union there in the lead-up to the strike and on the picket lines. It shows the strike is about more than just the screens.'
'In Sheffield the strike was solid in the benefits offices,' says benefits worker Martin. 'There were 90 percent plus on strike. The strike wasn't as effective in the job centres, but there were still significant numbers on strike.'
The strike was a show of defiance against management bullying backed up by New Labour. Benefits workers are fighting the New Labour government's attempts to remove screens from the merged Benefits Agency and Employment Service offices, to be called Jobcentre Plus.
However, the strike is not just about screens. It is also about 'Labour trying to introduce a new kind of benefits system in which the long term sick will be pushed back to work,' said a striker from east London.
The union leadership's strategy of narrowly focusing just on screens is a mistake. It fails to tap into potential support and solidarity from benefits workers and civil servants who are not affected by screens being removed, and from claimants who hate the benefits system.
Workers in the Pathfinder trial offices for this scheme had been on all-out strike since the beginning of September. New Labour minister Alistair Darling has organised a strikebreaking operation in all of the Pathfinder offices.
In the run-up to the strike management wrote to every job centre and benefits office worker telling them they would lose two days pay and possibly be demoted if they took part in strike action. In some areas management even threatened to sack strikers.
New Labour wants to seriously weaken the union. It is outraged that the fifth biggest union in Britain, with 260,000 members, elected rank and file socialist Mark Serwotka as general secretary last year.
His victory has given many different sections within the PCS the confidence to fight for better pay and conditions, after accepting years of low pay and increased workloads.
New Labour wants to deliver a major defeat to the union while pushing through more attacks on the rights of Britain's unemployed to claim benefits. Union leaders face an important test. The decision to send a majority of the 2,500 strikers in Pathfinder offices back to work from Friday of last week is flawed, and has caused a lot of anger and bitterness.
'People are very disappointed,' said a striker in Aberdeen. 'Management have a lot of problems with undone work. If we'd just held on for three weeks longer they would have been in serious problems.' Pathfinder strikers were on 85 percent strike pay from the union. This drained the union's strike fund. But if union leaders had laid a national levy of £1 a week on every PCS member the strike could have continued. Strikers could also have collected from other groups of workers and supporters.
This decision demoralised many Pathfinder strikers. Strikers at the Bridgend office in South Wales, one of the most solid of the Pathfinder offices, were so angry that many of them spoke about continuing out on strike unofficially.
Sold out on pay
By a Home Office worker
Home Office workers in the PCS union were devastated last week to hear that their planned one-day strike over pay had been called off by the PCS National Disputes Committee (NDC) with less than 48 hours to go. The NDC suspended the strike following complaints about the turnout in the ballot from the branch leadership of PCS Home Office North branch. The North branch leadership also sent all members circulars disowning the strike.
Barry Reamsbottom, the union's outgoing Blairite general secretary, seized on these complaints to rubbish the strike. A fight over pay in the Home Office would have added to the headaches for the government in the civil service.
The decision is a betrayal of PCS members who voted by two to one in favour of strike action. Members in North branch had delivered an 80 percent vote in favour of strike action with a 65 percent turnout.
We now have a precedent being set where any right wing controlled branch in the union can undermine a strike ballot. Union bureaucrats at headquarters have flouted the democratic decision of ordinary members. Those responsible for undermining this strike need to be brought to book by ordinary members.
Rank and file activists must channel their anger into organising a demonstration at PCS HQ during the next group executive meeting to demand the strike action is reinstated. Union branches should demand that Reamsbottom is forced to quit now.
To win, rule nothing out
Union leaders are now relying on a strategy of national discontinuous strike action of up to five days a month to win this dispute. The first two days of strike action have forced management back to negotiations, which began as Socialist Worker went to press.
While this shows the success of the strike, the negotiations could be used by the right wing in the union to claim some kind of hollow victory and call off the strike.
'If the strike develops into a long war of attrition then two days a month is not going to win it,' says a striker from central London. 'What's needed is all-out indefinite action,' says Phil Pardoe, the branch secretary of PCS Inner London branch. 'We have to start talking with members about this now. We've also got to talk about pay and conditions, because if we lose this dispute you can forget about any of our other problems. The best thing you can do for better pay at the moment is join this strike.'
'We're on strike for our health and safety, but we're also fighting for better terms and conditions,' a striker from east London said. 'It's about the future working of the union.'
A chance to raise a raft of other issues
The union has focused solely on the issue of safety screens. It could have also used the raft of other issues that civil servants are concerned about, such as low pay and the government's attacks on the union and the welfare state, to increase solidarity.
This has allowed the government to exploit the divisions between the different parts of the new Jobcentre Plus. Workers in the Employment Service have not had screens in their offices for many years. Management has used this to present the strike as not their dispute.
The Employment Service has lower levels of union membership compared to the Benefits Agency. Management's propaganda also contributed to much higher levels of scabbing amongst Employment Service workers last week.
Activists will have a short period after Christmas before the next round of strikes will be due.
They will have to use that time to get out to PCS members in the Employment Service and argue with them about why they have to support the strike. The experience of Liverpool last week shows that significant numbers of staff in job centres can be won to the strike.