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Civil servants strike back at Blair's cuts agenda
MEMBERS OF the PCS civil service union held two days of strike action in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on 26-27 January, affecting JobCentres, benefit offices, pension centres and the Child Support Agency.
As PCS general secretary MARK SERWOTKA told the London rally on 26 January:
"The strike has been the best-supported so far, and it's the third national strike in the DWP since 2001 - over a million days of strike action."
The two-day stoppage followed cuts of around 15,000 jobs in the DWP. As our reports show, these cuts not only threaten workers' jobs but are bringing services to the verge of collapse in many areas.
Mark Serwotka commented:
"Management and the government could have met our demands but they have a wider agenda for cuts and job losses. They want to make £1 billion of annual savings regardless. At present 67 DWP staff are forced to leave work each month because of sickness.
"We must put maximum pressure on the government. There should be meetings with members in every area and there will be a national meeting of reps on 11 February to discuss how to take the struggle forward.
"1.5 million workers in the local government pension scheme are being balloted for a strike on 28 March. We must link our dispute with this. But we aren't waiting for 28 March for the next DWP strike.
"If NIPSA (Northern Ireland public-sector union) votes for an all-out indefinite strike they may try to transfer DWP work from Belfast. We must be clear we haven't the staff to do our normal work anyway, let alone any transferred work."
KATRINE WILLIAMS, DWP Wales Secretary (personal capacity) reports on an excellent turnout for the industrial action across Wales.
SUPPORT FOR strike action was even higher than for the national strike against the cuts in November 2004. In Wrexham pickets nearly outnumbered the 38 staff who went into work in the benefit-processing centre of 400 staff.
Half of the 39 staff who went into work on the strike days in Pembroke Dock contact centre were brand new staff who had just started training last week. The JobCentre in the small coastal town of Cardigan had its first DWP picket line ever.
The issues of privatisation of support services, the threat of handing over the advisors and other frontline staff to the private 'new deal' provider in Bridgend RCT district and the latest threat of 'offshoring' has concentrated members' minds on the real battle we face.
Services to the public have already been badly hit in Wales with the loss of over 700 experienced staff but management's vision of the future is even worse. Strike action has increased members' confidence and determination to fight to maintain services and vital jobs in our communities.
AT THE huge Swansea Pension Centre, Roger Langley, PCS branch Secretary and Gloria Tanner, PCS branch organiser told Alec Thraves:
"Workers are angry at the job cuts and fear for the future. There is a lot of stress on our members.
"Management's attendance policy is used to disguise job cuts by dismissing people rather than give them redundancy packages and our members are left with more and more work with less staff.
"The last straw was the news that contact centres are going to be centralised with jobs going offshore to countries such as India. Claimants are the poorest section of society and most cannot even afford a phone to make their claims. Our members are determined to keep our jobs, conditions and a service that genuinely helps the most needy".
Gloria Tanner will be a platform speaker at the Swansea launch of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party on 16 February.
No-one's job is safe
IN LEICESTER Paul Vizard, PCS Branch Chair of Yeoman Street pensions centre, and Regional PCS Chair of Leicester DWP said: "We have had brilliant support, about 90% on strike, despite the fact that this office is one they have said they are keeping.
"Even though a lot of people's jobs aren't at risk for the time being, members have supported the union. They know that no-one's job is safe in the long run and also that this is about defending the welfare state."
STRIKERS AT Totton DWP office in Southampton told Nick Chaffey and Will Schafer-Peek: "Not that long ago there were 1,000 staff in Hampshire processing claims, that's down to about 200 now with a computer system that doesn't work.
"We know what this is about, they're cramming people into our office with plans to close us down in a year or two and move everything out of the South-East.
"The service is horrendous for vulnerable people. We can't contact the call centres, let alone the public. We have staff here with 30 years experience being replaced by staff given four weeks' training."
Activists in the PCS met with UNISON members in Southampton recently to discuss developing links between public-sector workers to fight this government. Plans are underway to build a Public Sector Alliance in the area. Trade unionists from CWU also supported the picket line, annoying management.
"A charter for intimidation"
AT WESTMINSTER JobCentre, Christine and Mark, PCS reps spoke to Mick Philipsz, (PCS assistant branch secretary, Department for Education and Skills):
Staff are being threatened with dismissal just for being sick. After only eight days off sick, they face a formal warning. It is a charter for management victimisation and bullying. This is exacerbated by the 'Red, Green, Amber' appraisal system that also threatens staff with disciplinary action.
Westminster's workforce has already been cut from 76 staff to around 50 with no recognition of the extra workload. JobCentre clients who apply for emergency loans now have to apply months in advance, defeating the whole idea of 'emergency'. Staff see the attack on employment as part of a much wider agenda.
The petition for a new mass workers' party received a favourable response.
PCS PICKETS told Sheffield Socialist Party members that privatisation and off-shoring were raising fears for the service. A claimant whose benefit had not arrived was advised to try the Salvation Army to get a food parcel. "Little did we know that the Sally Army could end up administering the entire Social Fund in a few years time!"
At the local rally there was support for mass picketing to enforce the overtime ban at week-ends. "The contact centre has been on emergency operations for months. Overtime is the only thing that keeps Sheffield district going." Others called for targeted action at contact and processing centres to supplement further national strikes, and for the jobs and services dispute to be extended throughout the civil service.
IN LINCOLN PCS pickets told us how government cuts meant that people in need were waiting up to six weeks for benefit payments to be processed, Mark Glasscoe reports. So the number of 'interim payments' - to people in need whose claims have yet to be approved - had increased massively.
Workers now deal with more interim payments in a month than they were previously getting in a year. If the claim is then not approved, for whatever reason, they have to pay the money back.
This particularly hit migrant and seasonal workers, a major part of Lincolnshire's local economy. Meanwhile management freeze recruitment whilst trying to implement the government's cuts programme and while Lincolnshire's unemployment figures were increasing!
ON THE picket line at Alfreton DWP office in Derbyshire, the steward Gary said that a regional manager from Nottingham was sent to keep the office open but all she could do was cancel appointments. When Gary asked if she'd be turning up next week to actually deal with claimants, there was a stony silence!
AT READING'S JobCentrePlus, PCS member Shaun McFadden confirmed that a dozen workers there had joined the union in the previous week. Senior managers seemed to think everything can be done using computers but people using the service expect to speak to qualified staff. This strike is primarily about saving a public service and is in everyone's interest.
In The Socialist 2 February 2006: