Employment service strikes

An article by Subversion examining the employment service workers' strike of 1995-1996, and arguing for benefit claimants to support the strike.

Since the end of November 1995, a small selection of Employment Service Workers in various offices around the country, have been on indefinite strike against a miserable national pay offer and a further extension of performance related pay systems. This was before the recently announced budget cuts with their implications for jobs in the Service.

Up until February `96, the number of offices called out on strike, was being slowly increased alongside short "all out" regional strikes as part of the CPSA unions strategy of escalating action. Of course at this rate, it would have taken a further 12 months at least, to build up to anything really effective. Although the employers marginally increased the pay offer just prior to the first strikes, they haven't budged since. This is hardly surprising since the government, driven by the needs of a profit orientated economy in crisis, is determined to reduce the burden of state expenditure on profits. That means attacking the unemployed and the employed simultaneously. The connection between the two attacks is no more starkly shown than in this particular dispute.

In order to reduce the number of unemployed claimants and the amounts of benefit paid out, the state needs to force them in to any old crap, low paid job or else into the cut-throat competition of `self-employment'. By doing this, the state also, at the same time, increases pressure on those in work to moderate their demands and do as they're told.

To be effective, the new Job seekers Allowance and associated regulations need to be strictly enforced by ES workers at minimal cost. This means attacking basic pay and the collective action in support of general pay claims and introducing more individual incentive pay, based on targets for `benefit disallowances', `suspensions' and so on. Ironically, the `states' ability to do this, is strengthened by ES workers own fears of becoming unemployed themselves!

Ludicrous as it may seem, the state has sought to develop the ideology of a "customer based service" even though the unemployed "customer" clearly has no `choice' to go anywhere else. One small reflection of this has been the revamping of offices on a more `user friendly ` layout. Given the shit `service' the unemployed get - and despite some bastards who get a kick out of humiliating the unemployed, this isn't the fault of ES workers - it's inevitable that some will occasionally lash out and not just with a few verbals! This in turn, helps promote a "hate the punters" mentality amongst some ES workers and a greater willingness to go along with their employers need to screw the unemployed even more. The unions are happy to enter into the fray at this stage, arguing for a return to screens and high level security etc, avoiding any serious confrontation over the real causes of the problem.

The `Customer Service ` ideology, is clearly an attempt to weaken existing or forestall the emergence of collective action by both ES workers and the unemployed - to get both to see their problems and the `solutions' in individual terms, at the same time reinforcing the division between the two groups. This whole process forms a vicious downward spiral that can only benefit the employers and their state.

Such a spiral cannot be broken by Labour Party type reforms to the system or moral appeals to be nice to each other. The `system' may not have been created by ES workers, but part of their job within the system involves `policing' the unemployed whether they admit it or not. In normal every day circumstances, when unemployed claimant meets employed ES worker, there is a real and immediate conflict of interest which cannot be wished away by abstract appeals for class unity, however much the interests of both may be the same in the long term.

It is only in the abnormal circumstances of a strike, when ES workers are no longer carrying out the states function, that a small opening appears through which divisions can start to be broken down. That still won't happen if the real differences between the situation of the employed and unemployed are simply glossed over. It can only come through face to face confrontation of ideas and the building of mutual support based on an understanding of each others situations. It requires the building of common objectives and common `demands', not just moral support for each others `demands'.

In this process, the trade unions are a barrier. They have their own interests to pursue within the established order that require them to maintain sectionalism and parochialism within our class. This they typically `appeal' to the employers on the basis that a contented work force will do the employers bidding more enthusiastically. They actually reinforce the division with the unemployed by pointing out to employers and the `public', that failure to settle the strike is resulting in `over payments' to the unemployed. A good reason,if for no other reason, where it's true, for the unemployed to support the strike in our opinion.

Since the unions really do want to get back to `normal' working as soon as possible, they do their best to avoid any really effective action. The CPSA, under pressure from its members to extend the strikes, has decided to call a ballot whilst at the same time stopping the existing strikes! - effectively enforcing its own `cooling down' period. We'll see if ES workers fall for that one! - or decide to take control of, and extend the strike themselves through their own direct action (both within the Employment Service and to others in the public sector threatened with performance related pay).

A move outside the control of the trade unions and an opening out of the strike to other workers, employed and unemployed, would be the most positive thing that could happen. In this situation, opportunities for some real class unity might emerge.

We are not saying that understandings and links forged in such a situation between ES workers and the unemployed are going to create any permanent basis of solidarity, but they can demonstrate what might be possible within the framework of a much more widespread escalation of class struggle in the future. Even in the shorter term, a victory for ES workers won in this way, with the support of the unemployed, could be beneficial to unemployed workers by making ES workers less reliable agents of the state for a time.