A strike by around 80,000 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 and Friday of last week.
The PCS union members were striking against job cuts, office closures and other issues. The solid strike shocked management and the New Labour government, who want to push through 30,000 job cuts inside the department, severely affecting the service that workers can deliver to people.
PCS members in the DWP struck solidly for six days over pay and cuts in 2004. Union activists from across the country spoke to Socialist Worker about their latest strike.
“The strike went very well in my office in Kirkcaldy,” said Steve West, campaigns coordinator in the DWP Fife branch. “Only about 20 out of 170 people went in. At the social security office in the town only the managers went in. The same story was repeated throughout Fife.”
Dave Owens is the PCS DWP north west regional organiser. “There has been massive support for the strike across Merseyside,” he said. “The majority of the offices have been closed.
“Only a dozen of 155 workers went into the Employment Direct call centre where I work. Given that the cuts are taking place in the offices, not the call centres, this is a very good response.”
Kate Douglas, branch secretary for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire DWP, said the strike was “absolutely fantastic” in Oxford. “We had our first picket line at the Worcester Street job centre and eight people came. Only five out of 70 people went in. It was a wonderful showing and we had really good local press.”
Ian, a workplace rep in Sheffield, reports a similar reaction there. He said, “This was the best supported of any of our recent strikes in Sheffield. There were pickets on all the main buildings in the city, which is the best we’ve ever done.”
Margaret Rose Garrity from Glasgow said, “There were excellent pickets across Glasgow, followed by a rally of 100 strikers addressed by Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan and PCS president Janice Godrich.”
Some 23 people were on the picket line at the Kingsheath job centre in Birmingham – nearly half of the PCS members in the office.
Bill Geoghan, the PCS rep for the office, told Socialist Worker, “This strike is about defending our jobs. People joined the union to strike and came on the picket.
“There’s more hassle in the offices these days – half the people here are working seven hours or more extra every week just to get the job done.”
Phil Pardoe of the PCS DWP group executive, told Socialist Worker, “In general 80 to 85 percent of people were on strike. The vast majority of offices were very strong. Some 60 members attended the rally in London where PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka spoke, congratulating us on the strength of our strike.”
Strikers made it clear that their action was about defending public services.
“We aren’t able to support our customers,” said one picket at a Cardiff job centre. “The system is falling apart – people can spend three days on the phone trying to get a ‘crisis loan’ or a ‘social fund’.”
Darren Sidney, a picket at in Cardiff, said, “Our jobs are being moved to Newport. That means some people will face a journey of one hour 20 minutes each way. Face to face services will just be gone. The service has never been so poor.”
To win this dispute the union has to step up the action and link up with other workers in struggle, such as the 1.5 million public sector workers set to strike at the end of March over pensions.
“Last week was a very good start,” said Dave Owens. “The important thing now is that the momentum isn’t lost as it was after our strike against cuts on 5 November 2004.
“We need a planned programme of industrial action. There’s a meeting for union reps in Leeds on Saturday 11 February. We need to get a commitment for more action from that meeting. We should link up with workers striking at the end of March, but we can’t leave it until then – we need more action soon.”
Around 100 trade unionists attended a recent DWP Left Unity conference in Newcastle. There was a debate on the industrial action now underway in the DWP.
Some delegates believed that it should involve both national action and targeted, paid, selective action. But the majority of the conference felt that action involving all members was more effective than that involving only a minority of members.
Nahella Ashraf, the Respect candidate for the Rusholme ward in Manchester for the council elections in May, visited the DWP picket line at the office in the ward.
She told Socialist Worker, “This strike was about what Respect stands for – defence of public services – so it was good to go down to the picket.”