Three strikes and you're out - building claimants' counter power

News and analysis from comrades in Edinburgh, detailing the 3 Strikes and You're Out policy, since adopted by many Anti-JSA Groups.

(Subversion article from 1996 on resistance to bullying benefit office officials.)

THE FREE RIDE IS OVER FOR BENEFIT OFFICE BULLIES

Edinburgh Claimants and The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh have launched a new direct action policy to resist bullying benefit office officials. It's called 3 STRIKES AND YOU'RE OUT. This is how it works.

  • If an official harasses you or cuts your benefit report them to Edinburgh Claimants - ring 332 7547.
  • Officials found guilty of harassing claimants will be given a written warning. STRIKE ONE!
  • A second complaint against the same individual will result in a final written warning. STRIKE TWO!
  • Any further complaints against that official and details of their offences, along with a massive photo of them, will be transformed into a poster to be distributed throughout Edinburgh. Offending officials can also expect an angry demo against them in their own offices. STRIKE THREE - and OUT!

If you want to resist dole harassment:

- ring us if you are harassed - join us in the fight back - get together with your mates, accompany each other to interviews, go together and complain to the manager if you are harassed

This is an excerpt from Edinburgh Claimants' latest leaflet, published spring 1996. At the latest conference in Sheffield on 25 May the Groundswell network of independent claimants' groups decided to implement 3 Strikes activity Britain-wide.

Edinburgh Claimants activists delivered a 3 Strikes first warning letter on 16th May. The target was one Alistair Mathieson, restart interviewer at Torphichen St Unemployment Benefit Office. At our anti Job Seekers Allowance demo on 9 April a claimant had told us that he had just been forced onto a Jobplan workshop by Mathieson, who threatened his benefit. This despite the claimant's protests that he had no wish to waste his time on this useless activity. Mathieson's name was familiar, and a check on our previous Dole Harassment Exposed leaflets revealed that he had already committed at least 2 previous anti claimant offences. In the circumstances a first warning letter was the least we could do.

Our first task was to track Mathieson down - we didn't know what he looked like. The receptionist tried to mislead us, but after a few minutes we'd fingered him. Six of us strode purposefully through the staff section of the open plan office towards Mathieson's desk, where he was grilling another claimant. The Great Harrasser went ballistic. Jumping up, he dramatically pointed and shouted "Don't move! Stop right there.". We explained our mission. Mathieson waved his hands wildly, yelling "Call the police! Call the police!"

At this point manager Mr. Thomson turned up. This was fortunate, because we had a warning letter for him too. (Our policy is that managers must be held responsible for harassment by their staff) Thomson fumed and raged, threatening that if we returned to deliver another letter he would punish claimants by stopping signing on. We resumed our leafleting outside, well satisfied with the impact we had made.

Hopefully this gives some idea what the 3 Strikes policy practically involves. In my opinion it should be seen as much more than an imaginative stunt or a publicity device. It should be seen as part of the process of building a Claimants' counterpower. An ambitious project, but a necessary one - not just around the benefits system, but in all areas of social life where capitalism and patriarchy reproduce relationships of oppression and exploitation.

The medium term aim is that any significant acts of harassment or benefit cuts at any benefit offices should be known about and practically resisted. The benefit office management and restart interviewers etc. should know that if they force someone onto a cheap labour scheme, cut their benefit or whatever, then there is a good chance that there will be direct action against them in their own offices. They will then be more reluctant to clamp down on claimants. The balance of power will start to change. They will be more scared of us than we are of them.

The initiative is particularly important at this time with the Job Seekers Allowance starting in October 1996. The state can pass repressive new laws attacking the working class - but whether the new law can function or not depends on what happens everyday in real life, it depends on the extent of resistance. Remember the poll tax!

To enable the 3 Strikes policy to have a real effect the claimants' groups will need to establish a tangible presence at particular benefit offices, through regular stalls, leafleting, flyposting, stickering, demos etc.. There needs to be an address - better still a phone number - where claimants can get in touch with info about how they've been harassed. The claimants groups will need to seek out info on harassment, asking fellow claimants who are friends and/or fellow activists in different struggles if they've been hassled. We need to spread the consciousness - we don't need to worry alone, to be humiliated, to accept being treated like shit. There is something we can do about it.

The 3 Strikes policy is just an early step in building claimants counter power. When we deliver a warning letter to an official guilty of harassment we should also be trying to get the decision changed in the claimant's favour. This does require some knowledge of benefit rules etc.. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of becoming welfare rights professionals. The aim should always be to collectivise the struggle.

The public delivery of warning letters, reporting acts of harassment in news-sheets like Edinburgh's Dole Harassment Exposed, going in numbers to the benefit office to back up a wronged claimant, and of course the 3rd Strike and you're out flyposting and demos - these are all tactics which can help develop the consciousness and practice of claimants resistance.

Simultaneously with our groups operating the 3 Strikes policy we need to encourage a general climate of resistance among claimants. This already exists to a degree, as those who have been forced onto Jobplans and Restart courses know. Our groups can't begin to deal with all cases of benefit cuts and harassment, we need to spread the idea that you always go to tricky interviews with a mate, that if you are harassed or your benefit cut you go to the office with a few friends, demand to see the supervisor/manager and get it sorted out.

We definitely want claimants to report cases of harassment to the claimants groups - but we want to go further and see more and more claimants getting active in resistance, whether in the formal groups or with their friends in a more informal way. We certainly don't want to be seen as the super-activists who will zap the benefit office baddies on behalf of a mass of passive claimants.

But despite this limitation the 3 strikes practice has a lot to recommend it. For a start - it's fun! Virtually all claimants we've talked to think it's a great idea. It's the sort of action which can enthuse people to participate. This is important if lots of people are to get involved. (Too much political activity is like a chore or a duty which only fanatics like me will get involved in.)

3 Strikes focuses on an important real point at which the state attacks claimants - the imposition of discipline and benefit cuts ( e.g. compulsory schemes/crap jobs/ Child Support Act harassment/ fraud investigations) in Benefits Agency and Unemployment Benefit offices / Job Centres. 3 Strikes is a way in which collective direct action can be mounted to win some small - but real - victories for claimants. If the Groundswell decision to practise 3 Strikes Britain-wide becomes a widespread reality then 3 Strikes could play a part in making the Job seekers Allowance unworkable. Finally, it's not enough to struggle just to stop things getting worse, we need to be developing a strategy to challenge the ruling class's monopoly of power and wealth. 3 Strikes can be an important element in an ongoing process of struggle to build up claimants counter power. Claim what's yours - the world.