DSS staff strike for safety

After two days of strike action in December the dispute between PCS members and management has reached a critical juncture. Mark Fischer spoke to Lee Rock, the PCS London regional organiser and CPGB member, about the origins of the dispute and the way forward

After its election victory in June 2001, the Labour government sought to continue where it left off - with welfare state reform a key area of policy. Immediately, the Department of Social Security was abolished and a new government department was created, the Department of Work and Pensions. On the ground this brings together Employment Service Job Centres (ESJs) with Benefits Agencies (BAs). While this has obvious benefits for the public in concentrating the two services in one building, it also has important repercussions for the safety of staff. Workers at ESJs and BAs are front-line civil servants. While screens between worker and claimant disappeared from ESJs over 10 years ago, they have remained in Benefits Agencies. BAs have to reject claims more frequently and also deal with claimants that have mental or social problems more frequently than ESJs - therefore BAs were considered more dangerous and screens remained. The removal of screens from the ESJs had a predictable effect. Every month ESJs see a number of horrific assaults - stabbings of security guards, the trashing of offices, etc are on the increase. Given the precedent set by the ESJs, it is not hard to imagine what effect the removal of screens will have in the new facilities. Unsurprisingly, in response to this threat to their safety, PCS members have taken action. It began in December, with a walkout from so-called Pathfinder offices, - those that were the first to remove the screens. Offices in Brent and Stretham were the first 'Pathfinders' but they were soon followed by the creation of 57 others across the country. Initially strikers were able to claim the equivalent of their full pay from the union strike fund. However, that soon dried up and most went back to work on the December 14 - though those working in Pathfinder offices without screens remain out on strike. Though 40,000 PCS members supported the national strike on December 12-13, it also revealed a split between the two workforces - support from BA staff was solid while support from ESJ staff was decidedly patchy. Only 3,000-4,000 ESJ staff participated in the first action out of a potential 20,000. Less than 400 came out in Scotland. Probably the most solid support from ESJ workers came from the London region, which saw 750 to 800 workers down tools - out of a total of 3,000. The strike comes after a prolonged period of industrial peace within the civil service. It is the first strike within the employment service for five or six years; meaning that for many this is their first experience of a strike. Management that has always been aggressive - despite the fact that at times concessions were offered to BA staff under the old regime - has remained intransigent and we are now facing another two days of action on January 28 and 29. Our experience of the first round of strikes has presented us with a couple of problems. Firstly, the non-involvement of large numbers of ESJ members is a significant handicap. To involve them the strike must be widened out to include broader issues other than screens, like pay, conditions and the whole privatisation process. Secondly, despite the left leadership of the union, the dispute has lacked a coherent strategic vision. The majority on both the Benefits Agency and Employment Services group executives belongs to Left Unity. The national executive is dominated by the right wing. However, so far it has been happy to let its two subsidiaries make all the running. It has not wanted to be seen selling out the strike in an election year and has given the two sectional executives their head in the hope that the blame for any failure will not be laid on its doorstep but that of Left Unity. This strategy obviously has potential benefits for the right. The Socialist Workers Party has pursued a confused line. When the return to work of some strikers was proposed the SWP itself criticised this action. For them it "let New Labour off the hook" (Socialist Worker January 5). They proposed that union members be levied a pound a week - a totally unworkable proposal. If half the union had given that then that would have added up to £100,000 with the required amount being nearer two and a half million pounds a month. They also advocated the sale of union assets - shares, buildings, etc. However, even this would only delay the inevitable, the original strike fund consisted of some £7 million and that dried up in a relatively short space of time. Important sections of the left within the DWP are organised in the Socialist Caucus which - recognising that the dispute will only be won by deepening and spreading the action - is proposing that instead of two-day national strikes a rolling programme of regional action is adopted. This would effectively mean you could have strikes on four days a week for four weeks with only two days loss of pay.