3 strikes and a funeral: comments on the anti-JSA struggle

A reply to the Brighton article by a member of Subversion who was active in the Manchester Anti-JSA group. From Subversion #20 (1996)

Elswhere in this issue can be found the article "The JSA and the Dole Workers' Strike" by a member of Brighton Autonomists. The final part of it is an attack on an article of mine entitled "Solidarity, Good and Bad" which appeared in Subversion 18. The controversy between us links-in to an important debate within Groundswell (the network of anti-JSA groups throughout the country) so I will use the Brighton criticism as the starting point for this commentary.

The first thing I want to say is that the bulk of "The JSA and the Dole Workers' Strike" was unexceptionable and indeed extremely interesting. Howecver, towards the end the tone was sadly lowered by the appearance of swear-words like "rigid" and "dogmatic", signalling the start of a volley of (in my view) hasty and ill thought-out criticisms lobbed in my direction.

There are four points I want to make in reply:

First, what's this crap about dogma? What dogma is it, exactly, that my article conforms to? I am not aware of anyone or any group having expressed the viewpoint that I put forward in it - it is simply an attempt to synthesize my own experience and thinking on the matter;

Second, the presence or absence of a mass of claimants refusing work is not relevant in my view. You might as well say that the police are not primarily a repressive body on the grounds that the majority of working class people do not break laws on the whole. The point is of course what happens if they DO break the law;

Third, I am of course as aware as anybody that there is no mass movement of claimants "able to impose conditions on its solidarity" but so what? Revolutionaries, and class conscious workers, shouldn't accept things which are unsupportable because we lack strength. We pursue our class interest to the best of our ability. Indeed, the article's own footnote on this point (no. 4) admits this, rather contradicting the main point.

And Fourth, the remainder of footnote 4 presents the further point that the determining factor should be an assessment of what is in "our immediate interest" rather than an "abstract ideological issue". On the contrary, if there is a conflict between immediate and long-term interest, opting for the former is precisely the definition of opportunism.

Having said that, I think it would be precipitate to accuse the article's author of opportunism. And indeed, the above exchange may exagerate the difference between us, since we both believe an attempt should be made to forge unity between claimants and (some) ES workers.

However, the devil is most certainly in the detail, and a fearsome devil it is.

Knickers in a Twist

Throughout the movement of opposition to the JSA there has been a ferocious disagreement between supporters and opponents of the "3 Strikes" policy which has been adopted by a number of local anti-JSA groups.

For those not au fait with this, it consists of the targetting of a particular manager (or in special cases an ordinary staff member) who goes out of their way to harass claimants. The 1st Strike is to send them a warning letter, the 2nd Strike is to send a final warning letter, and the 3rd Strike, if they still don't "mend their ways" is to put their photo and whatever personal details can be obtained on a poster which is then flyposted all over the place. This can be accompanied by demos against them personally or whatever, but the above is actually a quite "moderate" response.

And the Funeral?

The fact of the matter is that the greatest danger to ES managers (and other staff) will come from individual violent acts from claimants whose money has just been stopped.

Moderate or not, it has still got some people foaming at the mouth, most notoriously Militant Labour, who have openly sided with management over the issue (see the letter from CPSA official and Militant member Frank Bonner reproduced in this issue).

The existence of the 3 Strikes policy is naturally being used by the ES management to try to force a wedge between claimants and ES workers and combat any resistance among the latter to the JSA, but there's no reason for them to succeed in this, and anti-JSA activists have begun to issue leaflets explaining to staff our desire for a joint struggle, and countering management propaganda. In this, people like Bonner are an immediate enemy (openly siding with the ruling class is getting to be quite a tradition among Militant members).

Within the Left as a whole there is division over the policy, with some supporting it and some opposed. Sadly, this is also true of the revolutionary movement. People involved in the Brighton Autonomists/Aufheben "mini-milieu" have consistently opposed it from the beginning.

Groundswell

Groundswell was originally formed by anarchists, but now, and increasingly, contains people from the Leninist Left, such as the SLP, the RCG, various Trot groups and the like.

The 3 Strikes was adopted as a nationwide policy and publicised as such, but following this, letters were circulated within the network by Brighton Autonomists and Co. arguing for its rejection.

The argument was that it would frighten the ES workers and bind them closely to management. Subversion believes this is completely false because:

a) The policy is NOT aimed at ordinary workers but at particular individuals known for harassment of claimants, the sort of individuals moreover who are likely to be held in contempt by any workers who are (potentially) sympathetic to our aims;

b) It is a part of the strategy of Groundswell to issue leaflets which make this clear to the workers;

c) There is a "carrot and stick" element in decisions about whether to join a strike or other struggle. Fear of being attacked as a scab can balance fear of the bosses. The knowledge on the part of ES workers that compliance with the JSA will mean lining up with their own bosses against the unemployed, and being SEEN to do so, and thus being an object of class fury and violence, should in our view help to concentrate minds wonderfully.

Unfortunately, the following Groundswell conference abandoned 3 Strikes as a collective policy because of the arguments of Brighton. In this they were aided by some who invoked the autonomy of local groups against the idea of a nationwide policy . This rather fetishizes the concept of autonomy - if we can agree on something collectively we should do so. There's a fine line between autonomy and fragmentation.

The upshot is that the majority of groups and individuals in Groundswell support the 3 Strikes but that the policy has no "nationwide face" and thus will be less widely publicised and some of its potential targets will find it easier to ignore.

Workerism

The reasoning of Brighton and Co. derives from the fact that the Brighton against the JSA group has from early on had better connections with local ES workers than any of the other Groundswell groups. But this has led them to bend the stick too far in the direction of "caution" in their anxiety to keep the workers "on-side" at all costs.

This approach bespeaks a "workerist " mindset (something the comrades have not been guilty of in the past) - the simple fact is that we are all part of the working class (whether we be claimant, employee, housewife...) and the struggle of one part of our class must not be spurned in the (vain) hope another part of the class maybe struggling later on.

It is a sad fact that, of all the political tendencies in Groundswell, the Brighton people formed the most right-wing in the 3 Strikes argument. The result of their intervention was to partly demobilize this aspect of the struggle. Fortunately, all is not lost, as 3 Strikes is still supported by most activists, and is being implemented increasingly. Accordingly, we should be able to give it more and more publicity.

What a difference "A-Day" makes

This article has focussed on what is only a part of the struggle against the JSA. It will be for future issues of Subversion to deal with other aspects, such as reports of our activities, and more analytical pieces.

The 7th of October (A-Day) is the official implementation, but opinion is divided as to how big the change will be on that day, as the JSA has been gradually being phased in long before that, and this phasing in may continue until the spring.

This is a struggle that is going to escalate, so watch this space.

Comments

Steven.
Feb 8 2010 22:32

it seems to me that opposing the three strikes policy was not necessarily "workerist" - something the aufheben lot are not - but simply based on the practical idea that it would cause individual workers to feel threatened by the anti-JSA movement, and so bind them more closely to management.

Now this is all long over, what do the people involved think?

shug
Jun 27 2011 19:04

I agree with Steven. A month or two back we in ECAP were handing out the leaflet reproduced below to DWP staff and came up against hostility from one worker who remembered a colleague being targeted through this 3 strike policy back in the 90's. No doubt he bad mouthed us to his colleagues once he got in to work too. In my opinion this was a daft policy almost guaranteed to unite workers against a perceived external attack.
..................
An appeal to DWP workers.

Things are bad for the unemployed just now – and the ConDem government plan to make things much worse – just as Labour planned if they won (the vicious attacks on workers and unemployed in Spain and Greece are being carried out by Labour governments). It’s very easy for claimants, suffering the humiliations and attacks of a State desperate to protect its profits by screwing the poor, to see all DWP staff as the enemy, but as we’ve said before, most of these staff are poorly paid, overworked, and driven by a target-obsessed managerial mediocracy. Now, their wages are being frozen, their numbers being further cut, and their pensions (already crap – despite the public sector pension hysteria being whipped up by press and politicians) being threatened. And every day, when they face us across the counter, they are reminded of what awaits them when the State decides they are expendable and farms their jobs out to private companies like A4E.
We therefore appeal to DWP workers to tell us their side of the story – about the attacks on their working conditions, the pressures the bosses are putting them under, and the strategies that are being enforced to drive claimants off benefits and into non-existent jobs. We guarantee complete confidence. Remember, the ‘them and us’ way of thinking serves only the State’s interests, not ours. Unemployed or working – we are all under attack, and recognising our common interests is the first step we have to take to defend ourselves.
http://edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk/

communal_pie
Jun 29 2011 09:28

That's all true but they do have serious managerial pressure.

IMO fgrom personal experience when my claim has gone faulty, it's been best to phone the freephone Crisis loan number if you haven\t received your money within 2 weeks when you are entitled to ask for a Crisis loan which you'll repay very slowly (£5 every two weeks til its paid off) - they phone all the right people both at the JobCentre if necessary and beyond it (benefits delivery centres). This got my claim back on track in a single day (after phoning twice one time when my claim went faulty and on another occasion, three times, whiuch is still pretty good relatively speaking).

So although I agree with your criticisms of the them and us way of thinking, I think there is clearly bureaucracy at the JobCentre which claimants should try to avoid. Some people at the JobCentre are really helpful and if you can get direct telephone numbers thats perfect.