With attacks on claimants and the unemployed escalating, campaigners and trade unions have made numerous calls for “unity” between workers and the unemployed. But too often, this “unity” is a purely theoretical one. How can we go beyond words to build a practical basis for solidarity across our entire class?
One of the most high profile examples of this unity of words is the joint statement signed by the PCS Union, Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle. It is significant in that PCS represents around 84,000 staff in the Department for Work and Pensions including front line staff administering benefits.
The government is trying to divide people: between those in work and those out of work; between disabled and non-disabled people, between those in the public sector and those in the private sector. The key to defeating these welfare cuts, and austerity more generally, is unity.
PCS, DPAC, and Black Triangle members have a common cause in defeating these welfare cuts and in building a decent welfare state. We are united.
In principle, this is a worthy statement. The welfare state is, after all, a concession to the working class and one we seek to defend as long as capitalism prevails. Key to rolling it back is slashing the jobs of those who administer it, hence the common cause between workers and claimants.
The problem comes when, in practice, those same workers are required to carry out the government’s reforms. This means denying people benefits, forcing them onto workfare and generally policing the unemployed as policy dictates.
The antagonism this creates between Job Centre staff and claimants has manifested itself in a number of ways. From the man who set himself aflame outside a Job Centre to the one who dumped dog shit in the office, we have seen people lash out at those serving the regime which is attacking them. It has also been suggested that PCS members have set the police on benefits campaigners1 and DPAC has very recently documented frankly appalling treatment of claimants by DWP staff.
All of which makes the “unity” called for by the joint statement above seem more than a bit abstract. It’s all well and good to argue that those behind the counter are “just doing their job,” but it falls down against lived experience2 .
Despite all of this, PCS has been extremely reticent to argue for non-cooperation with workfare and benefit sanctions. The union has come out in opposition to pressure from management for staff to meet hard targets on sanctions, but it remains extremely wary of challenging the policy itself – except rhetorically. Its reasoning being that this would be industrial action and the anti-strike laws prevent such on a political basis3 .
However, there is precedent for this. A pamphlet by the now-defunct rank-and-file group Workhouse details protests, walkouts and strikes against attempts by the former DE and DHSS to implement “ethnic monitoring” of claimants in the 1980s.
Johnny Void also makes the point that, not being social workers or mental health professionals, Job Centre staff are not qualified to deal with vulnerable people in the way that is being asked of them. This not only puts the claimants at risk, but puts the staff at risk too if there is a backlash. It is for this reason that appointments are already risk assessed, and with the scale of the government’s assaults on the unemployed there is surely a strong case for an industrial response.
With luck, following this year’s Annual Delegate Conference, that case can be made. A motion is being put forward which calls for the union to move from theoretical to practical unity with claimants in the strongest terms:
[…]Conference rejects the government’s role for our members in policing the unemployed. If we are to build true unity between workers and claimants, it must start from a refusal to carry out the government’s dirty work.
Conference therefore instructs the NEC to initiate a policy of non-cooperation with the government’s welfare reforms. Members should not be forced to place sanctions on any claimant, force anybody onto workfare or otherwise make life worse for the unemployed.
The NEC should commit to full legal and industrial support for every individual worker who has any action taken against them by their employer for supporting this stance.
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 taking direct action in defence of their collective interests.
PCS members have been amongst those joining previous protests against Atos work capability assessments. The union formally supports the campaign against workfare and its members have been involved in many of those actions, too. But until workers are willing not only to protest government policy but also actively refuse to carry it out in their day job, “unity” and "solidarity" will remain mere words whilst resentment from those on the receiving end of welfare reforms grows towards those administering them.
- 1The veracity of this story has been challenged by some in PCS, but by the same token I’ve seen others try to justify it.
- 2Including, anecdotally, the lived experience by claimants who have also worked for the DWP.
- 3See, for example, the guidance issued here and this Twitter exchange between @PCS_union and @boycottworkfare.