A strike by civil service workers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) brought job centres, benefit offices, the Child Support Agency and call centres to a halt on Thursday, the first day of a two-day strike.
The PCS union members are striking against Gordon Brown’s below inflation pay offer.
The two-day stoppage adds more pressure on a government already surrounded by controversy.
The strike was triggered by a pay offer imposed by the DWP which will see approximately 40 percent of staff receiving 0 percent pay increase next year.
“An estimated 70,000 PCS members supported the first day of the two-day strike over the imposed below inflation pay offer,” said a PCS spokesperson. “Many reps reported a better turnout than the excellent national action in May.”
Steve West from the PCS’s DWP group executive reported an upbeat mood among strikers in Edinburgh. “I’ve just been to the PCS rally in Edinburgh – there were around 80 people there,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We got the message that the strike has been very well supported in Scotland, with around 90 percent of members coming out today and tomorrow.
“The permanent secretary of the DWP got a pay rise of £14,000 this year, while we have members earning just 24 pence an hour over the minimum wage
“In Edinburgh there’s been massive job cuts and office closures on top of the pay cuts. There used to be 10 job centres and social security offices in the city, now it’s only four.
Strikers on the picket line in Watford at the DWP’s Exchange House office spoke to Socialist Worker. “There’s a reduced service at Watford job centre with 120 people out – the majority of the staff,” said Jim Robertson, PCS branch chair. “There were also picket lines at Letchworth and Stevenage, with 30 out and 20 out respectively.”
Kate Douglas, joint branch secretary of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire PCS, told Socialist Worker that the strike had gone really well across the region. “The strike was very solid at the Oxford job centre where I work,” she said.
“We were also really pleased to hear that there were strong pickets at both sites in Aylesbury. Milton Keynes, where there are about 250 DWP workers, also had an excellent turnout for the strike.'
In Manchester the DWP strike was buoyed by links built with striking nurses in the city. Yesterday 40 PCS members from Trinity Bridge House handed out leaflets in the city centre in support of victimised nurse Karen Reissmann. Three DWP workers from Chorlton in the south of the city visited Karen’s picket line.
This morning Karen and other nurses returned the solidarity by visiting the DWP picket line at Graeme House in Chorlton. After picketing their own workplaces, some 10 DWP strikers joined the nurses’ picket.
The DWP strike was very strong across Manchester. At one of the biggest workplaces, Albert Bridge House in the city centre, pickets said that 115 out of 120 workers had supported the strike.
In Walthamstow, north east London, six people joined the picket line at the job centre. Pickets felt the strike was having a real impact, with managers drafted in to attempt to run a very limited skeleton service.
Shane Convey, chair of north east London PCS, told Socialist Worker, “We have to stand up now to make difference. We are not going to accept low pay.”
Job losses over the past few years have put increasing strain on workers, he added, and made the service more dangerous. Service users are being forced to wait longer and get a worse service because of short staffing.
“The job centre is a very important government service and we work very hard,” said Shane. “but we don’t get recognition for what we do. Government policies mean costs are all going up – bills, council tax, housing, inflation. But they don’t pay us at a level where we can afford these price rises.
“We’ve had a lot of support from other workers. A number of people from other offices and workplaces have been down to the picket line to wish us well.”
A similar picture of solid action could be found across the country. For instance, only 31 people went to work out of a workforce of 700 in Liverpool’s DWP call centres.
Dave Owens, a member of the PCS DWP group executive, spoke to Socialist Worker. “At the call centre where I work only 12 out of 120 went in – and they were nearly all managers,” he said.
“It was the same at the big call centre in Garston – a really good turnout. This will have had a very big impact. The strike has been well supported – but we need to be discussing what we do next to crank up the pressure on management and the government to break Brown’s pay freeze.”
From the picket line in Swansea, Carrianne told Socialist Worker, “While the strike is primarily about pay the other main issues are office closures and the cut in services. Cutting costs is not just affecting members – unfortunately it is also affecting the most vulnerable people in society.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka joined the picket line at Caxton House in central London. He told Socialist Worker, “The pay offer is a shameful betrayal of hard working people who have delivered on every target they were set.
“It is the government trying to lay down an example to everyone else. Ministers are saying that this is what they do to their own workforce, so all others must follow suit.
“That’s why it is more important than ever for unions to join together and campaign for public services as well as decent pay and conditions for those who work in them.”
One of the pickets added, “We’re hoping that our strike will ignite a fire in other unions and that we can take action alongside others. I’m going to a teachers’ pay rally tonight to see if their activists feel the same.
“And there are plenty of other civil service workers who feel the same with pay ballots in the home office, revenue and customs and the met police.”
Dave Kearsley, vice chair of the PCS Blackpool branch at Warbreck Hill, said, “This is yet another example of our government attempting to undermine the hard working civil servants.”
The strike ends on Friday at 7pm and will be followed by a two-week overtime ban.
For more coverage of the DWP strike go to » 80,000 strike back at Gordon Brown’s pay freeze