How can we defeat Workfare?
PCS (civil servants trade union) was one of the first national trade unions to affiliate to Youth Fight for Jobs. Since we were founded in 2009 to fight growing and mass youth unemployment, and following the election of the Con-Dem austerity government in 2010, PCS has been one of our most vocal and consistent supporters. It is therefore a shock and a surprise that PCS has come under severe criticism on twitter from Boycott Workfare, a group that claims to fight the Con-Dem welfare cuts.
PCS members on the final leg of the Youth Fight for Jobs 330-mile Jarrow March for Jobs
We are proud to describe PCS as one of Britain’s most effective and fighting trade unions. PCS has been at the heart of the anti-austerity movement since the Tories were elected. PCS initially took strike action with a small number of other trade unions in June 2011. This eventually snowballed into the tremendous 2m strong public sector strikes at the end of that year.
Boycott Workfare’s misguided attacks on twitter do raise important questions for the entire labour movement about how we can stop the Con-Dem austerity juggernaut, which PCS and YF4Js do think is beatable. Youth Fight for Jobs explains that, with over six million members, fighting trade unions are central. PCS opposes all the government’s austerity measures, all attempts to make ordinary people pay for the bankers’ crisis. PCS have spelled out their anti-austerity credentials in words and practice. It is ridiculous and false for Boycott Workfare to claim that “PCS have done nothing” to oppose Con-Dem austerity and accuse PCS, one of Britain’s most effective anti-cuts organisations and fighting trade unions, of ‘implementing Tory policies’ and “letting [the] government off the hook”. In fact, PCS members in the Department for Work and Pensions and DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) are striking this Friday (25th) against privatisation!
A clear distinction has to be made. PCS is not the same as the Con-Dem Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) headed by vicious Tory Iain Duncan Smith. PCS is the trade union that represents ordinary workers in DWP and the rest of the civil service. Unfortunately, PCS does not get to decide government policy. If they did, we’d all be in a much better position! PCS opposes the horrific treatment of disabled people in Con-Dem Britain, and have challenged unemployed and young people being labelled as ‘scroungers’.
How can the Con-Dem welfare counter-reforms be fought? Boycott Workfare demand that civil servants should refuse to participate in administering Con-Dem policy. The reasoning is understandable, but every strategy needs to be thought out carefully and agreed that it is the best road to take and one that has a good possibility of winning the objective. While this kind of action by PCS workers may sound attractive, it is fraught with pitfalls. Firstly, it would not be a strike. The job of some PCS workers entails administering many brutal disagreeable procedures to all kinds of people like welfare claimants, migrant workers, even those convicted of crimes. To refuse as individuals to carry out their job, or part of their job, would put them immediately in jeopardy. In today’s climate it could get them the sack. Nevertheless some job centre workers have still bravely blown the whistle on the sanctions being peddled by the Tories.
It is also worth remembering that the trade unions led many successful campaigns to change objectionable laws and practices, such as ending legalised unequal pay for women or excluding racist activists from workplaces.
Boycott Workfare has said it’s impossible for workfare to be administered without the unionised workforce of PCS. But 25,000 workers have already lost their jobs in DWP alone since the Tories were elected in 2010. Trade union facility time is under being undermined by this government, and PCS have been singled out for particular attack. It is a mistake to join the chorus of hate being thrown at the trade unions by the Tories and their friends in the Daily Mail. Iain Duncan Smith, Francis Maude, and the rest of the Tory cabinet would like nothing more than to see the back of PCS, a massive block to achieving their austerity policies. It is far better for ATOS workers and civil servants to be in a strong united PCS, the backbone of the labour movement in Britain.
To refuse to participate as a whole trade union is by no means straightforward. A case would have to be put that was generally agreed by PCS members as a realistic way forward. Is this possible? PCS members might argue that, why should they alone bear the brunt of defeating this government on benefits? Even if PCS action was a popular idea, thanks to the anti-trade union laws to get a legal ballot would most likely not be possible, as the issue is ‘political’ and not a strict trade union grievance. Mass action is key to defeating the cuts.
PCS have won numerous local disputes even in the midst of the Con-Dem onslaught. Just the threat of strike action beat 43 compulsory redundancies in DWP this year. When PCS have taken national and sectional strike action, often alone and without co-ordinated support from other trade unions, PCS have always balloted over pay, jobs, pensions, and conditions; i.e. cuts and austerity, to broaden the struggle out as much as possible. It is obvious workers will be most keen to strike over the direct issues affecting their living standards and work.
ATOS is the controversial private company used by the Con-Dems to determine whether disabled people are fit for work. Disabled people incapable of working in Con-Dem Britain have been kicked off benefits by profit-hungry ATOS. Some staff at ATOS, including IT administrators are organised in PCS. ATOS workers organised in PCS have voted to take strike action over pay. Disgracefully, Boycott Workfare has taken the decision to oppose this strike under the misleading headline ‘PCS Union support ATOS workers who abuse the disabled community “Shame on the PCS”’. Boycott Workfare echo the arguments of Tory attack dog, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, who says public sector workers like those organised in the PCS have ‘never had it so good’ compared to the rest of us. One Boycott Workfare supporter suggested PCS members should leave ATOS and get a better job. How is that possible when 2.5m are out of work, 5.5m on zero-hour contracts? Boycott Workfare have even suggested the problem is DWP workers do not understand the guidance they have been given from management. Boycott Workfare are putting the blame for a disastrously draconian welfare system onto PCS members not the Tory government!
PCS members at the Department for Education striking in March 2013
‘Civil disobedience’ and ‘direct action’, can be important elements of any campaign, but central to a movement capable of bringing down the Con-Dem government and ending austerity must be mass workers’ action, starting with a 24-hour general strike.
PCS has been one of the main trade unions to make the call for coordinated strike action. Instead of attacking PCS we need other trade unions but also community campaigns and young, unemployed and disabled people, to come behind this call.
Teachers, lecturers, postal workers, fire-fighters, and university support staff are all taking strike action this autumn, a united 1 day national strike of even just these workers could inspire a renewed fight back against all the cuts and attacks on the welfare state.
Youth Fight for Jobs spokesperson