It's time to fight benefit sanctions - with or without PCS

It's time to fight benefit sanctions - with or without PCS

Tensions between claimants and jobcentre workers over sanctions have been rising for some time. Now, with the Public and Commercial Services union stifling rank-and-file efforts to initiate a non-cooperation campaign, they threaten to boil over into active hostility. How can we avoid this – and resist sanctions?

Universal Credit is set to replace Job Seeker’s Allowance, Employment & Support Allowance, income support, housing benefit and tax credits. The single payment will be less than the five separate benefits, making it a welfare cut as well as a significant reform. It is going live with a trial at Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre from 29 April.

Payments for the new scheme will be monthly where most benefits are currently paid weekly. Claimants will also receive the money which previously went direct to landlords in the form of housing benefit. Whilst not addressing the issue of housing benefit being a landlord subsidy, this sudden change will make it harder to manage the money received, leaving more people at the mercy of private sector lenders such as pay day loan companies. Especially with the abolition of Department for Work and Pensions crisis loans.

Moreover, all of this occurs within the context of wider attacks on the low paid and unemployed. The government is using workfare in its drive to restructure the job market, allowing employers to reduce their wage bill at the taxpayers’ cost and undercut pay and conditions for their staff. Work capability assessments by the likes of Atos have also helped chuck people off incapacity benefit, nearly always unjustly, leaving them vulnerable and cut off from support.

The Bedroom Tax is another area of controversy under this umbrella. First introduced for private tenants by Labour, the Conservatives are now extending it to the social sector. In essence, it is putting more people at risk of eviction and/or financial hardship for “under-occupancy,” whilst there is usually no alternative accommodation for them to go to. All of which reinforces the concept of the house as a commodity rather than a domestic dwelling and a basic requirement for living.

None of this is being imposed without resistance. Direct action against workfare by the Boycott Workfare campaign, Solidarity Federation and others has brought that policy to the brink of collapse. Groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts have emerged to fight the attacks on disabled people. The Bedroom Tax has sparked grassroots campaigns comparable to those that emerged against the Poll Tax.

It is important to state that overwhelmingly such movements are led by those directly affected. As it should be. Tenants, disabled people and claimants can and should be the architects of their own liberation, not supporting players stripped of agency and relying on the paternalism of parties and trade unions.

I mention this because this sort of narrow workerism infects much of the left. It can be seen when leftists talk of the need for the trade unions to “lead” the fight (or, absurdly, claim they are already doing so rather than trotting along contentedly at the back of the pack!). Such talk is indicative of the bureaucratic need to bring rank-and-file initiative under its heel and stifle horizontal self-organisation. But it is also transparently self-serving given that the unions and PCS in particular have explicitly ruled out the one form of action with which they could decisively intervene on behalf of claimants.

A while back, I wrote why unity and solidarity with claimants should be practical, not just theoretical. In that blog, I detailed a motion going to PCS’s Annual Delegate Conference this year calling for non-cooperation with sanctions. But – as Johnny Void details – both it and a similar motion have been omitted from the conference agenda.

The reason for this is PCS supplementary rule 6.22(g). This stipulates that any motion “which the Standing Orders Committee consider (after taking written legal advice) may provide grounds for any legal proceedings against the Union or any of its officers or agents or printers” should be excluded. Unlike motions ruled as “out of order,” this decision cannot (as far as I’m aware) be challenged and voted upon by the conference delegates.

Legal advice provided by Thompson’s solicitors stated that these motions could give the government “material grounds” for an injunction against strike action since it would be explicitly political and not in furtherance of a trade dispute, as required by the law. However, as the Void writes in his blog, the second motion on the subject explicitly instructs the union to “include [non-cooperation] in any industrial action campaign.” In other words, to use it as a tactic in furtherance of a legal trade dispute.

The motion I penned doesn’t include that explicit instruction. But nor does it say anything on the subject of how to initiate non-cooperation, leaving room for debate. Especially as the legal advice from Thompson’s includes the caveat: “this is not to say that the NDC1 could never include such a tactic as part of a campaign of industrial action.” Which begs the question – why not allow the debate on how such could be lawfully implemented, if that’s the concern?

There is clearly more than legal cold feet at work here. There have long been a number of anecdotal reasons to suspect that the dominant Left Unity faction in PCS are opposed to a non-cooperation stance at all2. This has been backed up by crude side-swipes in bulletins from the union lamenting that “Disgracefully, it is PCS members who are at the forefront of criticism from claimants and welfare groups alike when failings of the system are highlighted across the national media.”

This stance is clearly disgraceful, and that is reflected by the reaction to the Void’s blog and criticisms pointed at PCS from Boycott Workfare, Black Triangle and others on Twitter.

It should be noted at this point that the union is not its members. By definition, the representative function of unions creates a divide between the leadership and the rank-and-file, the former having a concrete material interest in selling industrial peace and policing the workforce in order to maintain their position of privilege. In this specific case, what that means is that many ordinary workers do not share their union’s opposition to a campaign of non-cooperation.

Through many conversations with other active PCS members, in a variety of different settings, I’m aware that there are jobcentre workers who individually refuse to sanction claimants because it goes against their principles. I’ve also been told of jobcentres where staff have resisted management’s directive to meet the sanction targets that the DWP continue to claim don’t exist. Obviously these cases are to be celebrated, but whilst they are occurring in isolation the effect they have is minimal. The task has to be to generalise this action.

In terms of trying to get PCS to engage in official action over sanctions, I have submitted an emergency motion to PCS conference3. This motion condemns the decision to exclude non-cooperation motions from the agenda and contains the same instructions, reworded so they (hopefully) won’t fall foul of rule 6.22(g).

The Civil Service Rank & File Network will this week be discussing the idea of a demonstration at PCS conference. The explicit aim of this will be to put pressure on the union so that it takes seriously the need to show a real, practical solidarity with claimants beyond all its fine words. Details will be published on the CSRF website as soon as they’re known, but in the meantime I would suggest that claimants groups and other organisations discuss support for such a demo.

If the motion put forward passes, then it will be incumbent upon the PCS leadership to initiate non-cooperation. However, rank-and-file PCS members and other campaigners will still need to keep up the pressure so that they cannot go back on the conference decision.

Truth be told, however, I’m not confident that the motion will pass. Whilst the storm kicked up over the issue may embarrass PCS into making sure it is discussed, the level of sway that the leadership hold over the wider union membership in debates, not least because of their monopoly of communication, cannot be ignored.

That being the case, the alternative will be unofficial action by the rank-and-file. This will mean examining how workers can use their discretion over referring claimants for sanctions in order to not do so at all, and those who are already doing this sharing best practice with others.

It will also require huge support and solidarity across the workers’ movement. Specifically, it has to mean that anybody facing disciplinary action for not sanctioning claimants is supported through all varieties of direct action.

For example, from 29 April to 5 PCS is staging a week of campaigning over welfare reform. This will focus on the introduction of Universal Credit, but also prevents an ideal starting point for direct action targeted at the DWP.

Occupations of jobcentres can be as effective in shutting down work as a strike. Perhaps more so, since the wage bill for the time lost remains and the legal requirement for seven days’ notice disappears. Aimed at jobcentres where targets for sanctions are being rigidly enforced, this would also mark out a clear, militant position against sanctions.

Managers who are particularly proactive in pushing sanctions targets, or pimping out workfare to local employers, can also be targeted for communications blockades. Such people’s zeal for being an inhuman bastard would no doubt quickly disappear.

Undoubtedly, any or all of the above taking place will put plenty of noses out of joint. But it is both necessary and long overdue. The issue of PCS members implementing benefit sanctions is one that has been tiptoed around for far too long. It needs to be tackled head on in order to demolish the government’s attacks and build a practical unity across all sections of our class.

  • 1. National Disputes Committee, formed from the senior officers of the PCS National Executive Committee.
  • 2. As a matter of fact, I have received strong evidence that senior members of the National Executive Committee are opposed to the motion. But I won’t be going into detail on that front for fear of betraying my source’s confidence.
  • 3. The motion in full reads: This Annual Delegate Conference notes supplementary rule 6.22(g) which states that the Standing Orders Committee shall “Exclude any motion which the Standing Orders Committee consider (after taking written legal advice) may provide grounds for any legal proceedings against the Union or any of its officers or agents or printers.”

    Conference’s attention is drawn to the fact that this rule was invoked to exclude two motions from the order this year, both on the subject of welfare reform. Specifically, both motions called for PCS members to engage in non-cooperation with the government’s benefit sanction regime.

    Conference should note that the legal advice provided stated that this could give the government material grounds for an injunction against strike action as such action would be explicitly political and not in furtherance of a trade dispute, as required by the law.

    However, Conference needs also to be aware that – though affirming an explicit, political opposition to sanctions – the first of these two motions instructed the NEC to “include in any industrial action campaign” the tactic of non-cooperation. Thus, whilst drawing upon a broader principle, such action would still decisively be used only as part of a lawful trade dispute.

    The second motion “instructs the NEC to initiate a policy of non-cooperation,” which is perhaps harder to argue. However, Conference notes that the specifics of how such a policy would be initiated are not listed and would be up for debate.

    Conference is of the view that resorting immediately to excluding these motions from debate entirely is a disgrace. Especially in a climate where PCS members are called upon to implement sanctions at an increasing rate and coming into conflict with the unemployed as a result of it. A refusal to even discuss the issue makes it harder to protect members from hostility or convincingly argue that they are “just doing their job” and not culpable for its effects.

    Conference therefore instructs the National Executive Committee to investigate as a matter of urgency how PCS might initiate a campaign of non-cooperation without falling foul of the anti-union laws.

    This should be inclusive of, but not limited to:

    • Emphasising the discretion Job Centre Plus staff have in implementing sanctions and providing every possible support to those who use said discretion to avoid sanctioning;
    • Utilising the tactic of non-cooperation as an action short of strike in all national disputes;
    • Making an industrial case against sanctions based on it putting members in harms’ way;
    • Opposing the situation likely to arise under Universal Credit whereby Job Centre Plus staff may be forced to sanction their own colleagues.

    Upon finding it possible to lawfully not cooperate with sanctions, the NEC is instructed to incorporate this fact into the ongoing national campaign over jobs, pay, pensions and terms and conditions. The NEC also instructed to provide support to the DWP GEC so that similar action can be engaged at Group level.

    Conference further instructs the NEC to establish an unemployed workers’ section of the union. This section should be organised with the express aim of building greater unity between workers and the unemployed and of supporting direct action in defence of their collective interests.


Loony Lefty
Apr 23 2013 20:27

Brilliant post. Many many thanks for this. When the DWP stops our benefits, 73 disabled people a week die.

My background's in the South African liberation movement, where unions took up social-justice issues regardless of whether it was "legal" to do so. We always understood that the State has 3 arms by which it can implement its policies: the civil service, the police, the military. Government policy can only be implemented if workers carry it out. That's why the Anglican and Methodist churches in SA pressed their members hard not to work in any of the 3 arms of the state required to implement the Apartheid regime's policies.

But in the UK the Civil Service has the country's most powerful trade union. So rather than people in the civil service giving up their livelihoods, the union could organise a boycott of implementing the benefits barbarism, in the same way the teaching unions in Scotland refused to implement SATS.

PCS's position is a terrible shock. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised: I was until recently UCU Vice Chair in Wales and convenor of the disabled-people's anti-cuts movement in Wales. PCS set the police on me for campaigning against the welfare reforms, and I was forced out of union office because UCU's relationship with PCS was deemed more important than UCU's safeguarding of its disabled members' interests:

Apr 23 2013 21:37

Yeah, really good blog. Let us know how it goes at conference - although I would share your pessimism!

Just a couple of points on the comment above:

Loony Lefty wrote:

But in the UK the Civil Service has the country's most powerful trade union.

This is a minor point, but PCS is not the most powerful union either in terms of numbers or industrial clout.

PCS's position is a terrible shock. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised: I was until recently UCU Vice Chair in Wales …

now I don't want to start a derail here, but we reproduced some of this person's articles on libcom until we were contacted by numerous parties informing us that they were wildly inaccurate. So if we could just leave this to one side - if this poster wants to start separate discussion in the forums about her claims she is free to do so.

Loony Lefty
Apr 26 2013 14:09

Dear Steven,

I'm really interested that you have been "contacted by numerous parties informing you that [my claims] were wildly inaccurate". I am aware that bloggers who reblog my posts are contacted by people who played a part in the events I described. These people have never given me the reasons why my claims are "wildly inaccurate", and they are not prepared to put these assertions in the public domain, prefering instead to suppress debate by having my blogposts removed.

I am aware that these communications frequently include assessments of my mental health which, let's just say, do not correspond with anything in my actual medical history. I have clinical depression. I am not mentally unstable, unbalanced, a fantasist, delusional, attention-seeking, paranoid, psychotic, or any of the other "diagnoses" of me you may have been told. My mental health condition does not impair my capacity for rational thinking. The mental state in which I experienced the events described in my blog is exactly the same mental state in which I obtained a doctorate in astrophysics from Oxford and during the years in which I worked full-time as a researcher and lecturer, which has been for pretty much the entirely of my adult life.

Rather than remove my blogpost, why not publish it, and publish also the communications you receive. They tend, on the whole, to be absolutely hilarious to anyone who knows anything about me, the events I describe, or mental health generally.

If you need proof of my mental competence, I am willing to publish a statement from my psychiatrist which proves that these assessments of my mental health by these self-appointed experts of my mental health.

I'd also be grateful if you could send me all the communications you have received about myself. I make this request formally as a Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act.


Dr Liza van Zyl

Apr 27 2013 13:36

Here is one angle on opposition to these attacks - in this case ATOS calling the police when someone gets angry during a ESA interview... community solidarity has proved to be useful here (to get them out on bail) and whatever the final outcome, certainly a morale booster ...