THE NATIONAL strike by tens of thousands of Benefits Agency and job centre workers in the PCS civil servants' union has taken a major blow. This dispute saw 40,000 people strike for two days in mid-December against government plans to remove safety screens from the newly merged Jobcentre Plus offices.
This followed weeks of all-out strike by around 2,500 workers in the Pathfinder trial offices. Unfortunately the union sent the majority of the Pathfinder strikers back to work because the action drained its strike fund. Activists were expecting the group executive committee, which runs the union section involved, to escalate the action in January.
But the committee, which is dominated by the Left Unity grouping, has decided to call another two-day strike for 28 and 29 January. This lets New Labour off the hook at a vital stage in the dispute, and has created a wave of anger and dismay among activists.
Two other key disputes between the union and the government also took major hits just before Christmas. Union members in the Home Office voted overwhelmingly for strike action over pay. Union officials in the North Branch of the Home Office, however, complained about the turnout. The move gave current PCS general secretary Barry Reamsbottom the space to get a one-day strike called off.
Union members in the Inland Revenue voted to take strike action over pay in October of last year. But union leaders refused to sanction strikes. Management imposed a pay deal just before Christmas.
New Labour is out to seriously weaken the union after the election of rank and file socialist Mark Serwotka as general secretary elect in December 2000. His election has given different sections in the union the confidence to fight. Mark does not take up the full responsibilities of his position until later this year.
Key decisions on the current disputes are taken by either the right wing dominated national executive or the group executive dominated by Left Unity. The actions of both right and left wing union leaders on those bodies is playing into the government's hands.
The right want to ensure that Mark Serwotka is left isolated and the key position in the union returns to them as soon as possible. New Labour also wants this. Left Unity union leaders want to resist the right and New Labour. Unfortunately their strategy is assisting those forces.
Some on the left are advocating regional strike action in the Benefits Agency and job centre dispute. This would be disastrous. The national strike, while successful in many areas, showed the weakness of the union. Many job centre workers, and some Benefits Agency workers, crossed picket lines. The narrow focus of the strike upon the issue of safety screens in offices led to scabbing. Regional action would lead to people feeling isolated and demoralised. This is what happened in the national pay dispute of 1987.
The way to overcome the division between the different sections of the workforce is to link up all the issues that civil servants are concerned about. Most job centre and Benefits Agency workers are angry about low pay, the privatisation of offices, the increasingly draconian nature of the benefits system, and the continuing attacks on the welfare state.
Activists will need to organise for the strike at the end of January and ensure the group executive committee escalate the action in February towards the all-out action that can secure victory.