The role of PCS members in the bullying of benefit claimants

Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country. The evidence can no longer be denied and the union’s leadership must now take steps to educate its members that solidarity is more than just a word on a leaflet during a PCS pay dispute, or else face the accusation of collaborating with the government’s vicious assault on the most economically vulnerable in society under the rubric of austerity.

The upsurge in the number of claimants having their benefits sanctioned for increasingly minor infractions correlates to the upsurge in the demand for the services of the nation’s food banks. This shocking revelation was contained in a report by MPs in January, the result of an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for an independent review into the rules for sanctioning claimants to ensure that the rules are being applied “fairly and appropriately”.

Among its findings the report stated:

Evidence suggests that JCP staff have referred many claimants for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would dictate that discretion should have been applied.

The report continued:

Some witnesses were concerned that financial hardship caused by sanctioning was a significant factor in a recent rise in referrals to food aid. The report recommends that DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by sanctions.

The majority of Jobcentre staff are members of the 270,000 strong PCS, the sixth largest trade union in the country, which represents thousands of Britain’s civil servants and public sector workers. The PCS has been a strong critic of the coalition’s austerity policies, making the case for an investment led recovery from recession and calling for mass opposition to spending cuts that have ravaged the public sector and been accompanied by a concerted campaign of demonisation of the unemployed and economically vulnerable that is unparalleled in its viciousness. This only makes the role some of its members are playing in intensifying the hardship faced by the unemployed and people on out of work benefits even more deplorable.

It is unconscionable that any trade union would allow its members to engage in the wilful and systematic sanctioning of benefit claimants without offering any meaningful resistance. It flies in the face of the very principle of social solidarity that is the cornerstone of a movement founded on the understanding that the interests of working people – employed and unemployed – are intrinsically the same.

The human despair not to mention humiliation being inflicted on people in the nation’s Jobcentres is evidence that the Tory campaign of dividing working people section by section has borne fruit. It has reached the point where the oppressive atmosphere found in your average Jobcentre is on a par with the oppressive atmosphere associated with a district or sheriff court. Jobseekers are not criminals and those sanctioning them so readily are not parole officers, yet you could be easily mistaken in thinking they are after spending just a few minutes in a Jobcentre anywhere in the country.

Enough is enough.

This culture of bullying, harassment, and intimidation against the unemployed must be confronted by the leadership of the leadership of the PCS as a matter of urgency. By no means are all PCS members working in Jobcentres guilty of this shameful practice – indeed many are low paid workers reliant on various benefits to survive themselves – but enough are involved in the practice to leave no doubt that we are talking about an institutional problem rather than the actions of a few rotten apples.

Many of those being sanctioned are being trapped due to mental health issues or language issues making them more vulnerable to violating the plethora of rules regarding the obligations they must fulfil when it comes to searching for work. Many are being sanctioned for turning up five minutes late to a scheduled appointment, regardless of the reason why. In some cases suicide has been the result.

You would hope that the leadership of the PCS would at least acknowledge the despair their members are inflicting on the most economically vulnerable people in society. You’d be wrong. In an article which appeared on the PCS website back in February, addressing the volume of criticism being levelled at the DWP over sanctioning, the union denied culpability in the process. On the contrary they assert in the article:

PCS believes our members do the best job they can in very difficult circumstances. Rather than face criticism, this work should be recognised and valued by management and they should start by ensuring a proper pay increase for DWP staff in 2014.

Any trade union member who allows him or herself to be used as an instrument to attack the poor and the unemployed is deserving of contempt. And any trade union leadership that fails to act to prevent it happening is reactionary.

83 comments on “The role of PCS members in the bullying of benefit claimants

  1. red mole on said:

    It might have helped if you’d read the actual report, which can be found here – http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news/jcp-rpt/ .

    “89. The PCS union reported that Jobcentre staff were being put under pressure by
    management to increase sanctioning rates. DWP has strongly denied the existence of any
    national or local targets for sanctioning—following an investigation and report to the
    Secretary of State on the issue carried out by Neil Couling. However, PCS believed that the
    Department had “expectations” about the appropriate level of sanctioning and that these
    were “targets by another name”. The PCS also highlighted that Jobcentre staff whose
    sanctioning rates were not meeting expectations were subject to an “improvement plan”—formal performance management proceedings. The Minister for Employment recently
    confirmed that the number of sanction referrals made by Jobcentre Advisers is part of a
    “variety of performance data” used to monitor Advisers’ performance.”

    What this does tell us is that PCS have attempted to highlight the invidious position in which many of their members have been placed.

  2. Vanya on said:

    This is a very important question and I know that there are PCS activists who are very concerned about it, including some (possibly most) who work for the DWP.

    As a Unite the Union Community membership activist I have been involved in campaigning against ATOS and to defend claimants against sanctions.

    We cannot allow the fact that the current regime of terror is being implemented by other trade unionists to hold us back in our campaigning or support work, but nor should we ignore the fact that they are members of a union and one of our tasks in my opinion is to deal with this contradiction by positive engagement with the better elements within the DWP section of the PCS. The fact that most are in a union potentially makes it easier to challenge what they do, but this doesn’t happen automatically.

    Ask prisoners if the people dealing with them being in a militant union makes those people necessarily any better in how they behave towards them. The POA has in part improved because of conscious political choices by its leadership at a local and national level

    As I said during a protest outside the ATOS office in Manchester recently, I don’t want to slag off fellow trade unionists, but only obeying orders is not a defence that we can accept.

    And as I have said on a number of occasions on here, the left doesn’t tend to let coppers off the hook when they say this, so why should they a group of civil servants, just because they are in a union?

    Btw I attended a rally in support of the 2 day strike by NAPO last week. Interesting that they were supported by solicitors and barristers, some of whom find themselves frequently on the other side from probation officers. As I did myself when I was in the legal profession.

  3. Vanya on said:

    red mole: PCS have attempted to highlight the invidious position in which many of their members have been placed.

    I don’t know about John, but I wouldn’t deny this. I would however say that it’s clearly not enough and they need to do far more.

  4. At the last anti-Atos protest in Swansea one of the protesters was until recently a PCS member working in Atos & he gave full support. There is a debate you can have on this topic but this article is pretty disgraceful to be honest. It’s also blaming PCS members for a system that Labour introduced.

  5. Ben: There is a debate you can have on this topic but this article is pretty disgraceful to be honest. It’s also blaming PCS members for a system that Labour introduced.

    What’s disgraceful is people being delivered to destitution by trade unionists and being defended by socialists because they happen to be trade unionists. That’s disgusting to me, not forgetting grotesque.

    You stand with the camp guards if you wish, I’ll stand with the inmates.

    As Vanya rightly says, the option of hand wringing is not applicable. What those involved are engaged in is as anti working class as it gets.

  6. Vanya on said:

    Ben: but this article is pretty disgraceful to be honest.

    Why?

    Ben: It’s also blaming PCS members for a system that Labour introduced.

    So what? (a) It has become massively worse since this lot got in, (b) John isn’t a member of the Labour Party as far as I know, (c) the issue of who introduced it is irrelevant to the question of what the PCS should be doing about it.

    Where do you draw the line in terms of letting people off the hook for only doing their job btw?

    It’s a difficult issue. I suggest that if people want to engage in dealing with it they need to actually address it, not fire red herrings from a shotgun.

  7. Ben: It’s also blaming PCS members for a system that Labour introduced.

    Just to clarify, the article does not blame PCS members for the system. It challenges them and the leadership of the union to do more to resist it. It also doesn’t defend Labour’s record on welfare reform, which though not as vicious as the Coalition’s was also shameful.

    The article was written in solidarity with those on the receiving end of the barbaric practices being administered in Jobcentres up and down the country.

  8. Vanya on said:

    According to Michael Meacher, over 1 million people have been sanctioned over the last year.

    Most, literally, of the people that I know who are on JSA have been sanctioned recently.

  9. Vanya on said:

    Some of the far left, wrongly, believed that a mass movement akin to the poll tax could arise in response to the bedroom tax. I think this is different. There are just so many people affected.

    We need to aspire to a movement like the NUWM of the 30s. And PCS members in the DWP need to decide whether they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

  10. red mole on said:

    I think there’s two questions here, What should union members who work on the frontline be doing ? And what should the PCS as a union be doing about the situation ? I think the insinuation in the original piece that union members are responsible for going beyond their brief and victimising claimants is wrong. There may be examples of this, but I believe the PCS when they say it’s a case of staff being pressurized to take a tough line. It’s pointless condemning the staff who are doing their job – after all they didn’t invent the rules or write the guidance. And doubtless there are many who are sympathetic to claimants. This said, I personally could not do that job, I would rebel or resign rather than penalise genuine claimants. And I do wonder whether it’s one of these cases where people doing a certain job end up shifting their views as tends to happen with immigration officers, prison officers etc.

    The PCS has no such constraints. There’s no reason why the PCS can’t do more to publicly expose how the system is used to hound people off benefits, and to highlight some of the more outrageous aspects of the system.

  11. SteveH on said:

    We should extend this to the wider working class, who are very sympathetic to the attack on society’s most vulnerable.

    I am as outraged as John but to just pick on those following orders let’s off every other atrocious fucker.

  12. Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country.

    So it is PCS members are the problem according to Mr John Write and his friends in “Tough on Benefits” New Labour?

  13. John:
    You stand with the camp guards if you wish, I’ll stand with the inmates.

    The “camp guards” in John Wright’s analogy are the PCS members.

    Enough said…

  14. Tomski on said:

    How many would-be sanctions are not implemented due to the discretion of PCS members? What is the membership density of the Jobcentres that implement the most sanctions? How many sanctions are the result of automated processes?…

    It’s an interesting article but the stats are a little flimsy and one-sided. There is also the fact that you could build a similar case against most trade unionists – council workers harshly collecting rents from venerable tenants, dinner ladies complicit in feeding junk-food to kids, nurses doing little to roadblock creeping privatisation of the NHS. I don’t disagree strongly with the message but to single out PCS members’ lack of political conciousness is a little unfair.

  15. Vanya on said:

    Amnon: The “camp guards” in John Wright’s analogy are the PCS members.
    Enough said…

    So what’s your point? It was an over the top analogy, but to follow it, if the SS had been allowed to join a union and had mainly done so, would their defence of obeying orders been any more acceptable?

    Is the fact that the left is generally negative to the Police determined by attacks on working class people or by the fact that they aren’t in a union?

    Tomski: How many would-be sanctions are not implemented due to the discretion of PCS members? What is the membership density of the Jobcentres that implement the most sanctions? ……

    Those are good questions. Sadly I don’t think that density of union membership is what makes a positive difference. It potentially could, that’s the key point…

    Tomski: There is also the fact that you could build a similar case against most trade unionists – council workers harshly collecting rents from venerable tenants, dinner ladies complicit in feeding junk-food to kids, nurses doing little to roadblock creeping privatisation of the NHS. I don’t disagree strongly with the message but to single out PCS members’ lack of political conciousness is a little unfair.

    …sadly spoilt by this nonsense. I think you need to consider the effects of these sanctions before making such silly analogies. And given that they often involve people literally starving, the one with school dinner ladies is particularly crass.

    red mole:
    I think there’s two questions here, What should union members who work on the frontline be doing ? And what should the PCS as a union be doing about the situation ? I think the insinuation in the original piece that union members are responsible for going beyond their brief and victimising claimants is wrong. There may be examples of this, but I believe the PCS when they say it’s a case of staff being pressurized to take a tough line. It’s pointless condemning the staff who are doing their job – after all they didn’t invent the rules or write the guidance. And doubtless there are many who are sympathetic to claimants. This said, I personally could not do that job, I would rebel or resign rather than penalise genuine claimants. And I do wonder whether it’s one of these cases where people doing a certain job end up shifting their views as tends to happen with immigration officers, prison officers etc.

    The PCS has no such constraints. There’s no reason why the PCS can’t do more to publicly expose how the system is used to hound people off benefits, and to highlight some of the more outrageous aspects of the system.

    I don’t agree with all of this (apart from anything else it ignores the huge number of people sanctioned “by mistake” and who are now waiting to have their benefits reinstated, or those given quite obviously wrong directions with the threat of sanctions if they don’t carry them out) but I think it does attempt to look at the issues in a way that points to a strategy for dealing with the problem.

    I’m not ultimately interested in a debate about whether its right to criticise DWP staff because they’re trade unionists only doing their job (as daft in my opinion as not criticising coppers because they’re “workers in uniform”). And I appreciate that the PCS does have some difficulties given that its first duty is to defend its members.

    The point is to help the victims of sanctions to organise themselves to fight back, as I said above.

  16. There are difficult questions here which test the limits of trade unionism as a political movement, and thereforefore are at the heart of the debate about labourism.

    Trade unions organise the actually existing employees within a capitalist economy, and in so doing encourage collectivism, and the building of networks of actvists and communities of solidarity.

    In my view, because trade unions stress collective rather than individual solutions, rely upon solidarity, and act as a counterwieght to the disproportionate power of the rich and of corporations, then trade unions underpin all the possibilities of transformative and progressive change.

    However, trade unions also have to represent the interest of the members, and that interest can be inherently sectional. I have personally been in the position of vigorously promoting the sectional interests of workers involved in maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons capability, because it was my responsibilty to do so. Socialists engaged in trade union activity will be caught in such real world paradoxes, and the nly way to avoid that is to abstain from practical political or trade union activist in favour of pontificating from the sidelines.

    To be fair to the leadership of PCS, they have made their opposition to the overall economic and political thrust of both this Conservative government, and the previous Labour government abundantly clear. I have no doubt whatsoever that there is overwhelming opposition to the sanctioning of claimants from the leader of PCS.

    But the situation is complex. Although as vanya observes, experience of sanctions affects almost all claimants, and that touches on very many people, their famillies and friends. However, there is little popular opposition to an agenda driven by the Daily Mail and the Express, and generaly there is broad support or indifference for these punitive measures by much of the population. There is of course a debate to be had about the role of the Labour Party, and to what degree the party could or should be championing an alternative narrative to challenge that popular view of claimants. Neverthless, the sad truth is that the stereotypes of “benefits stret” have wide popular purchase.

    The PCS membership working in DWP are not only influenced by the broader political climate, but also under management pressure to support and implement the policy; and of course as we have seen with the various disputes that PCS have been prosecuting, their members are not industrially confident, hence relatively low patricipation in ballots, and what could charitably be described as patchy impact of industrial action.

    The capacity of the PCS to subvert or challenge the policy of the government, and its implementation by DWP would depend upon union members being open to an alternative narrative against the government’s policy, and also confident that such alternative narrative has resonance in broader society, and they would also need reps in every office who could carry that argument; and for their members to be industrially confident. I don’t believe that any of those conditions exists. Although the left leadership of the PCS have been able to see off electoral challenges within their union from the right, there still remains a disconnect (a situation far from unique to PCS) between the unions leadership and the membership.

    So what strategy could they adopt? Individual non-compliance by DWP staff would lead to disciplinaries and dismissal that the PCS would be powerless to stop. Collective non-complaince is industrially and politically unfeasible at the moment.

    Possible the best that could be achieved would be a campaign based upon the sectional interests of DWP workers that the current policies place the workers at risk, through stress and cliimate of confrntation with claimants; and also link that with a general propaganda campaign. This doesn’t seem a long way from what they are currently doing

  17. Tomski on said:

    Vanya: And given that they often involve people literally starving, the one with school dinner ladies is particularly crass.

    I guess my point is that the those who are feeling the full force of this unnecessary wave of imposed hardship and hostility usually have it delivered to them by poorly-paid and downtrodden workers, sometimes trade unionists, on the frontline. Jobcentre staff, energy company call centre staff etc. I agree that the trade union bureaucrats need to do more in the way of education and campaigning but to isolate and intimidate PCS staff, comparing them to camp guards, whilst the disadvantaged poor are being shafted from all sides seems too narrowly focussed.

  18. Or to put it another way.

    The bullying and sanctioning of claimants is done by DWP staff, acting in their capacity as DWP staff, supervised and set performance criteria by DWP managers, following policy set by a Conservtaive/LibDem government.

    To identify the agency of the bullying and sanctioning as being from PCS members may be technically true, although clearly PCS do not have 100% membership density, but the relative importance for the individuals concerned of their DWP employment and PCS membership will be heavily weighted towards being DWP employees. Few people – except in extraordinary circumstaces – look to their union to go beyond employment and industrial issues and expect their union to develop alternative objectives and policies for their employer. Even within DWP, I doubt whether PCS members are involved in drawing up strategic implementation, I would expect that to be done be staff at a level where they would more likely by FDA members, and where their union membership was even more peripheral to how they see themselves.

    I think that a very real dilema for trade unionists in DWP is that very few members would be prepared to put themselves at risk or even convenience in the interests of claimants. That is a hard reality that would constrain any approach from PCS.

  19. Tomski: I agree that the trade union bureaucrats need to do more in the way of education and campaigning but to isolate and intimidate PCS staff,

    *really*

    You clearly have no idea how hard working, dedicated and professional most trade union officers are, nor about the limits of what is possible.

    When you go to the newsagents or supermarket next, have a look at those huge piles of Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and Daily Star, those are being read every day by trade union members – people do trust their unions, and where there are good reps in the workplace, people are even more likely to take notice of the union; but do you really think that what you call “union bureaucrats” can turn the ideological tide by issuing a few more newsletters?

  20. Tomski: nurses doing little to roadblock creeping privatisation of the NHS.

    Do you actually know what a nurse does?

    To what degree do you really think that clinical ward staff are involved in such decisions?

  21. John: Just to clarify, the article does not blame PCS members for the system. It challenges them and the leadership of the union to do more to resist it. It also doesn’t defend Labour’s record on welfare reform, which though not as vicious as the Coalition’s was also shameful.
    The article was written in solidarity with those on the receiving end of the barbaric practices being administered in Jobcentres up and down the country.

    Despite my remarks above, which are just my own personal view on the limits of the possibilities of trade unionism, I think John’s article does highlight an important issue.

    Given the political complexion and professed combativity of the PCS leadership, it is reasonable to question why they seem as equally constrained by sectionalism as the leaders of other unions, who the PCS leaders have criticised as timid.

    However, I think the question might better be put to the whole of the trade union movement, given that the problem of sanctions rests upon the widespread suppot in broader society for stigmatising claimants. The claimants who are being sanctioned are our sisters and brothers (litteraly in many cases), our friends, our neighbours, our former colleagues.

    Generally, there has been some good work by trade unions, and the Daily Mirror frequently highlights the opinions of unions. The GMB did some very good work in exposing that the Royal Familly and Conservative MPs were huge beneficiares of housing benefit payments – that became front page of the Mirrror for two days.

  22. Andy Newman: This doesn’t seem a long way from what they are currently doing

    In principle you may be right. Maybe it’s just a case of getting them to do it a lot more.

    And in any case, while the PCS is there to look after the interests of its members, claimants need to have organisations of their own that look after theirs’, preferably integrated into the trade union movement. If the ultimate community of interest between both can be realised and acted upon then great.

    I’m planning on doing some study into the history of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Does anyone have any suggestions as to reading matter?

  23. stephen marks on said:

    I appreciate all that Andy says about the contradictions and limitations of trade unionism – not least as a former activist in the National Union of Journalists! But I would be interested in what people more in touch with current reality than me would think about the potential for a campaign around the single issue of management pressure on PCS members to achieve quotas of claimants sanctioned or denied benefit. This is something the government denies takes place, and which union members and others insist, with evidence, is daily practice. A campaign by the union leadership to demonstrate and oppose this evil practice would fit with no problems within a purely trade union agenda of defending the members conditions, and would also strike a chord with many members of the public who might still in general still buy into the negative image of claimants as a whole.

  24. Vanya: And in any case, while the PCS is there to look after the interests of its members, claimants need to have organisations of their own that look after theirs’, preferably integrated into the trade union movement. If the ultimate community of interest between both can be realised and acted upon then great.

    This is a very cogent point. There are unemployed workers’ organisatons and various groups focused on providing solidarity with benefit claimants up and down the country. There just isn’t enough of them and, yes, concrete links with the wider trade union movement would be a massive step forward in this regard.

    One of the most effective and politically sharp of these groups is the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty (ECAP), who do some excellent work in solidarity with benefit claimants and against workfare, etc. They run a drop in centre where people can go for advice and cheap food and essentials. It’s political orientation is anarchism, but they work with socialists, trade unionists and progressives in general in the various campaigns they get involved in and initiate. I’ve worked with them in the past and I think their model is one that can and does have an impact.

    http://edinburghagainstpoverty.org.uk/

  25. #23 Good points.

    One thing that also should be highlighted is that many of the sanctions are actually hindering or deterring people finding work. Sanctioned for turning up for a job interview when you should be signing on? For refusing to go on a course because it makes you unavailable for interviews?

    This is from Michael Meacher MP:

    “A million people have been sanctioned and deprived of benefit in the last year
    April 1st, 2014

    The scandal of wrongly sanctioning people and depriving them of all benefit for either 4 weeks, 13 weeks or (almost unbelievably) 156 weeks for trivial, ill-considered or utterly unjustified reasons is too little understood by the general public. I will quote a few examples from my own constituency experience or from Citizens Advice across the country:

    * A man had his JSA sanctioned because he had not attended a 2-day training session with a back-to-work scheme provider. The man insisted he had attended on both days, and the training provider had confirmed that.

    * A security guard at a Job Centre turned away a man with learning disabilities who had arrived 20 minutes early to sign on. He then returned 2 minutes late to sign on and had his JSA sanctioned for 4 weeks.

    * A man was sanctioned for 4 weeks because he missed an appointment with his back-to-work scheme provider. He hadn’t known about the appointment because the letter had been sent to an address he left over a year before. JCP were aware of his current address.

    * A woman claiming ESA had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and had given the back-to-work scheme provider a list of her hospital appointments. She was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment on the middle day of a 3-day hospital stay. The woman had 2 daughters and her ESA was reduced to £28 a week. She asked for reconsideration, but had heard nothing 5 weeks later.

    * A woman was sanctioned for 4 weeks for failing to attend provider-led training when the receptionist had rung to tell her not to come in because the trainer was ill. She was subsequently told that she should have attended to sign the attendance register.

    * A woman whose ESA was sanctioned had her benefit reduced from £195 to less than £50 per fortnight because she missed a back-to-work scheme appointment due to illness. Her sister had rung 2 days beforehand to say she couldn’t attend, and arranged another date which she did attend.

    * An epileptic man had his JSA sanctioned for 4 weeks because he did not attend a back-to-work scheme meeting because his 2-year old daughter had been taken ill and he was her sole carer that day. He rang the provider in advance, but was told this would still have to be noted as ‘did not attend’. During the 4-week sanction he suffered hunger, hardship, stress and an increase in epileptic attacks, but he was not told about hardship payments or food banks or how to appeal the sanction decision.

    * A man in Yorkshire & Humber was sanctioned for allegedly failing to attend back-to-work scheme events. He had in fact attended, and the provider had no record of any failures. His hardship request was not processed, his HB was stopped, and he fell into rent arrears and had no money for food, gas or electricity.

    Nor are these isolated examples. After the Tory government tightened the rules at the end of 2012, 875,000 persons were sanctioned in the following year including 305,000 who lost benefit for 3 months and 73,000 who were deprived of benefit for 3 years!”

  26. stephen marks: But I would be interested in what people more in touch with current reality than me would think about the potential for a campaign around the single issue of management pressure on PCS members to achieve quotas of claimants sanctioned or denied benefit. This is something the government denies takes place, and which union members and others insist, with evidence, is daily practice. A campaign by the union leadership to demonstrate and oppose this evil practice would fit with no problems within a purely trade union agenda of defending the members conditions, and would also strike a chord with many members of the public who might still in general still buy into the negative image of claimants as a whole.

    Very good question.

  27. #24 The Unite the Union Community branches have great potential because they are part of the trade union movement.

  28. Vanya: The Unite the Union Community branches have great potential because they are part of the trade union movement.

    It will be interesting to see how merger with Unite and PCS (back on again, I hear) affects things

  29. Tomski on said:

    Andy Newman: Do you actually know what a nurse does?

    Er… that was exactly my point. To make the argument against nurses would be ridiculous but could be made, nonetheless, by using the same logic of this article (nurses belong to unions, NHS management are enforcing changes that have a detrimental impact on the most venerable, therefore nurses are like concentration camp guards).

  30. Tomski on said:

    Andy Newman: It will be interesting to see how merger with Unite and PCS (back on again, I hear) affects things

    Indeed. When the (Socialist Party dominated) NEC and full-timers at PCS stop fluttering eye-lashes at (Militant Tendency sympathiser) McCluskey and finally secure their jobs in the Unite machine, then maybe they can get on with fighting sanctions policy and saving the low-paid jobs of members, such as those about to disappear in Shared Services Connected Ltd (the former civil service HR functions, part-privatised last year, who now face their jobs being out-sourced abroad)

  31. Tomski: Er… that was exactly my point. To make the argument against nurses would be ridiculous but could be made, nonetheless, by using the same logic of this article (nurses belong to unions, NHS management are enforcing changes that have a detrimental impact on the most venerable, therefore nurses are like concentration camp guards).

    Utter nonsense. The medicine nurses administer to patients in hospitals is with the intention of saving and preserving the health of said patient, while the sanctions being administered to benefit claimants is with the avowed intention of punishing them. Every DWP worker who sanctions a claimant knows beyond doubt that they are hurting that person and in many cases irretrievably hurting them. The immorality involved doesn’t take a grounding in Marx to understand. It is a matter of basic human decency. No pressure, no compulsion, can excuse it.

    It is revelatory that your sympathy lies with those dishing out the pain rather than those receiving it. You can call this many things but what you cannot call it is any kind of socialism worth fighting for.

  32. I don’t know what the attitude should be. Like most claimants I know, I have been sanctioned (for not putting a reference number against a few jobs I had applied for. They were with small employers and so there was no reference number!) although I eventually got it overturned. The point is, though, that this was done with ill-disguised glee by junior JCP staff (they have my cards marked through my frequently being assertive).

    I regret to say staff at that JCP are frequently unpleasant; amongst grim episodes I have seen them do are mocking a bloke with learning difficulties after he had left and ‘making eyes’ at each other when near-enough turning away East European gypsies enquiring about benefits. They particularly appear to pick on young people.

    But then I’ve worked for a council where some frontline staff would delight in being as difficult as possible with the homeless and working for a regulator where even junior staff would pride themselves in being ‘business friendly’ (that’s a line from the bosses) which meant that businesses would always be at an advantage against consumer complaints.

    I think there is no place in the workers movement for cops or the armed forces and I would extend that now to those doing roles that these once did e.g. PCSOs. I don’t know how I would draw the line but I still think it can’t go beyond what I could only vaguely define, not least because then there would be no end of trade unionists in the public sector who would be out because of the repressive actions they can undertake on behalf of the state. I don’t know how to define it, but I think there is a clear difference between a current prison escort, working for G4, who should be unionised, and the cops of yesterday year who always used to be the prison escorts.

    A good point is made by those who say claimants need to be organised. In researching my rights, I have come across some good local groups e.g. in Ipswich and Kilburn who have up-to-date info but there is a real lack of reliable info in some areas. Long ago, there used to be a national network and even a Claimants Handbook. Whilst self-organisation would be a lot better, it would be good if a body like CPAG instead of focussing their work on claimants’ advisers, or CAB doing individual casework and only skeletal public advice, also produced guides for claimants.

  33. Karl Stewart on said:

    I certainly agree with the argument that it’s perfectly reasonable for all members of the public to insist on and to expect at the very least basic human decency from public-service workers, and that the “but I was only obeying orders” excuse is disgusting.

    A job centre employee should use that position to try to help and assist members of the public who came in for help and assistance and should not impose sanctions that they know will cause them extra hardship.

    All and every single one of those disgraceful actions taken against claimants as highlighted by Vanya at post (25) in the quote from reported by Michael Meacher MP were as a result of conscious decisions taken by job centre employees and each and every job centre employee who took those decisions are complete and utter scum and fully deserve to be roundly condemned whether they belong to the PCS union or not.

    Every public-service worker – just like the rest of us – can choose whether to treat people fairly and with dignity, or as in the cases of Mr Meacher’s constituents, they choose to treat people disgracefully.

    But I think it’s something of a huge stretch to blame the PCS as a union for the disgusting actions of some job centre employees. As has been said earlier, while the PCS is the recognised staff union, it doesn’t have very much membership density – only some 16 per cent of staff took part in the most recent national pay ballot for example.

    So of course it’s quite right for claimants campaigners to urge the PCS to condemn the disgusting actions of some job centre staff against claimants, and to urge the PCS to issue perhaps a code of conduct, it should not be automatically assumed that job centre employees are necessarily also PCS members – going by the ballot turnout figure they’re statistically far more likely not to be.

  34. Karl Stewart: A job centre employee should use that position to try to help and assist members of the public who came in for help and assistance and should not impose sanctions that they know will cause them extra hardship.
    .

    But Karl.

    That is not the job they are employed to do. The job is to follow and enforce the policy set by the government.

    Karl Stewart: ge the PCS to issue perhaps a code of conduct,

    That may well be a good idea, but it doesn’t get around the fact that it is normally the management’s will which prevails during the ordinary working day, not the unions. Issuing a code of conduct which contradicted the management’s policy could expose individual activists to isolation and victimisation, and in the absence of industrial confidence would force members to choose between the union and their job discipline on an individual basis where they felt weak. The only way to avoid that is a collective response, where it is far from clear that PCS has sufficient capacity to deliver.

  35. Karl Stewart on said:

    Andy Newman: The job is to follow and enforce the policy set by the government.

    But even by that criterion, in each of the cases cited in Vanya’s conribution at post (25) quoted from Michael Meacher MP, the sanction appears to have been incorrectly (almost zealously) applied, even within the context of an extremely harsh and unjust government policy.

    Andy Newman: Issuing a code of conduct which contradicted the management’s policy could expose individual activists to isolation and victimisation.

    But couldn’t a code of conduct which clearly placed the recognised union in opposition to the type of arbirtray and patently unjust sanctions that have been referred to above, also be presented within the context of current legislation as well? While also spelling out the union’s disagreement with the legislation.

    Andy Newman:a collective response, where it is far from clear that PCS has sufficient capacity to deliver.

    That’s a fair point, and of course any response to this issue would need to reflect to a certain extent the ‘facts on the ground’ in terms of density and front line organisation. But by the same token, PCS cannot fairly be held completely responsible for the disgracefully unjust actions of employees who are more likely than not non-PCS members.

    ———————————————————-
    It is important that organisations and individuals who profess support for principles of equality, dignity of all, socialism, etc, that these organisations and individuals actually practice these same principles themselves.
    There have been recent examples of organised socialists seemingly completely unaware of inustices that they themselves have been responsible for with regard to others – and that indicates something of an abstract support for these progressive principles.

  36. Karl Stewart: But couldn’t a code of conduct which clearly placed the recognised union in opposition to the type of arbirtray and patently unjust sanctions that have been referred to above, also be presented within the context of current legislation as well? While also spelling out the union’s disagreement with the legislation.

    Yes. But I think that the reality is that the harsh regime of sanctions is driven by the management culture and priorities; and while a PCS code of conduct could highlight inconsistency between stated policy and actual implementation , it could also expose activists to the positin of refusing reasonabe management requests, and failing on capability criteria.

  37. Socialistv on said:

    Hi all,

    As a lay PCS rep and one who use to represent workers in the DWP (not a Jobcentre though) I do think this article is extremely harsh and they clearly have done no research into what the PCS has done around sanctions or asked them what their position is. Instead they just skip to the end, offer no actual strategy to what the PCS should do and just compares the union (not the members interestingly enough) to Nazi prison guards. I think its fair to say that this article isn’t balanced and is closer to hatchet job than anything else.

    The PCS regularly provides its reps & members with guidance and departmental policies, encouraging its members to push back against any attempts to enforce quotas or drive up sanction artificially. Our reps and members are at the forefront of pushing back against this in JCPs, but we obviously have our limits to how much sway we have in the workplace.

    We have repeatedly provided evidence to the employer, the media and to the Government committees on the existence of quotas and the realities of the sanctioning regime to ordinary claimants and our members. Much of the stats etc come from the union and again branches are asked to feedback evidence so we can provide it to others.

    Could the PCS do more? Perhaps, and that is a debate that can be had. PCS has regular meetings with DPAC & other groups to discuss joint campaigning and what we can do around this issue. However, to just throw out there that the PCS should demand its members not implement sanctions, without taking into account the realities in the branches and whether we would have the support of members who would be putting their jobs at risk (refusing to implement a reasonable request is a disciplinary offence), is harsh and unfair.

    Finally, a lot of the article and subsequent discussion blames the PCS leadership, which at the end of the day is a member led union (though I’m sure people might question that, but that’s another debate for another day!). There have been informal discussions about whether branches could deliver action on this and the reps & branches I know said that any industrial action around refusing to implement sanctions was likely undeliverable and end in getting members & activists sacked. Obviously one day we hope to be able to recruit and organise to the point where we could refuse to implement sanctions and win, unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re there yet.

  38. Vanya on said:

    #32′ I don’t know how to define it, but I think there is a clear difference between a current prison escort, working for G4, who should be unionised, and the cops of yesterday year who always used to be the prison escorts.’

    If you can’t define it how is it clear?

    I see no difference. But then I grew out of ACAB politics a long time ago. Getting angry about abuse of power is another thing. But then that’s also how I feel about the topic of this thread.

    In fact private security staff can be far worse than cops.

  39. Socialistv: Instead they just skip to the end, offer no actual strategy to what the PCS should do and just compares the union (not the members interestingly enough) to Nazi prison guards.

    I’m not sure I can take your comment seriously when you blatantly misattribute the comment I made during the course of this thread – ‘you stand with the camp guards if you wish, I’ll stand with the inmates’ – to the original article. Those words don’t appear anywhere in the article, which makes me wonder if you read it, and if you did read it if you took the time to read the links it contains to the source material I used to back up the assertions I set out.

    I stand by the comment re camp guards btw. It was made to highlight the apparent disregard for the victims of this vile sanctioning regime by certain contributors who, judging by the tenor of their comments, place a premium on defending those doing the sanctioning instead. I was obviously writing figuratively, so to try and use this to discredit the article is pretty thin, I’d say.

    I don’t know if anybody who’s contributed to this thread has ever been in a Jobcentre. I have. And I’ve dealt with bullying staff too. These bastards are the lowest of the low, plain and simple, and I have zero sympathy for them. There is clearly not enough being done, and I’m sorry I don’t accept that the PCS is doing much on this apart from hand wringing.

  40. John, perhaps if you can’t engage with what SocialistV wrote it would at least be right to admit you are angry, lashing out and havent thought your article through. Perhaps the PCS can do more but this article is not a contribution to that debate.

  41. Phil: John, perhaps if you can’t engage with what SocialistV wrote it would at least be right to admit you are angry, l

    I think I did engage with what he wrote, Phil. That is exactly what I did do.

    I’m angry? Well, yes, I’d say that is obvious. Aren’t you? Don’t you think there is much to be angry about over the fact that some of the most economically vulnerable in society are being delivered into destitution by these people?

    I’d say being angry is precisely what we should be at this sort of barbarity, wouldn’t you?

    What’s your point exactly? Are you going to mount a defence of these bastards too?

  42. John: I stand by the comment re camp guards btw. It was made to highlight the apparent disregard for the victims of this vile sanctioning regime by certain contributors who, judging by the tenor of their comments, place a premium on defending those doing the sanctioning instead.

    I think that this point gets to the heart of the paradox that trade unionism is inherently sectional. It actually is the job of PCS to represent the intetests of its members, who as you say are often the people carrying out sanctioning, and where arbitrary or unfair decisions are made, then that is contextualised by policies and “canteen culture” created by the management and ultimately the government.

    The leadership of PCS may oppose the sanctions regime, I am sure they do, and may have every sympathy for claimants, I am sure they do; but I don’t think the leadership of the union could take responsiblity for a campaign against a government policy that they do not have the capacity to pursue, and which may isolate and expose activists to risk.

    Trade unionism sometimes means playing the long game. The leadership of PCS have very limited capability for changing the ideas in the heads of their members in job centres. So the dilemma is a familiar one, of how a union seeks to pursue a policy agenda which does not have suffficient support of the membership for effective action.

    I am sure that the PCS leadership would wish that their members strongly opposed the sanctioning agenda, and wanted to oppose it, but to abuse Brecht, would it not be easier in that case for the union leadership to dissolve their membership and elect another?

  43. Actually, Vanya, there are many things that someone may not easily be able to define yet feel are correct. Unless of course you think everything is known and can be categorised already. We should, of course, seek to fill in these gaps – the scientific method is working to see if a hunch can be disproved or whether it can be elevated to a theory.

    I think the line is something along the lines that cops are “members of the armed bodies of (men)” and that makes them different. A cop, who may have functioned as a prison escort one day, may have been on ‘public order’ duties the next day attacking a demo, in a way that a G4 prison escort will not do (at present). As Trotsky put it, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.” No ‘private security guard’ has yet put someone directly before the courts, in the way cops do although there are sorts of shades of grey here (a demo attacked by private security guards is not unknown).

    So I think the line of the article is wrong – no matter how wrong a PCS member may be, no matter how repressive a Border Force person may act (I remember once there was just a person in a suit who may not even have bothered to check your passport at Heathrow if you just flashed the outside; now it can be the full paramilitary aggressiveness), no matter how unpleasant the school admin worker may be in levying a fine on you because your kid was late because she left her bag on the bus, they are still workers and not, as John maintains, someone “deserving of contempt” despite allowing “him or herself to be used as an instrument to attack the poor and the unemployed .” But I fully get what he is attacking.

  44. Jimmy Haddow on said:

    I think Andy Newman in post 43 hits the nail on the head, The problem I have with John Wight’s comments here and elsewhere on this subject, and it is why I am so angry with his comments, is he is doing nothing himself to help the people he is supposed to defend apart from writing supercilious words in articles. There is no concrete actions or demands from Wight on the question of the victims of the austerity programme. Crudely speaking he is just pissing in the wind!!!!!!!!!

  45. Jimmy Haddow,

    I have written an article speaking out against this brutality. I suggest it is far more than you have done in solidarity with those on the receiving end of it, In fact, your focus is on attacking those, like myself, who are speaking out about it. Again, it is revealing to witness so called socialists doing their utmost on here to defend the indefensible.

  46. Vanya on said:

    Southpawpunch: I think the line is something along the lines that cops are “members of the armed bodies of (men)” and that makes them different. A cop, who may have functioned as a prison escort one day, may have been on ‘public order’ duties the next day attacking a demo, in a way that a G4 prison escort will not do (at present).

    And the prison escort may be escorting someone arrested on a picket line. There isn’t a clear difference as far as I can see.

    Someone’s liberty is being removed and they are being held in chains. And they could be a latter day Ricky Tomlinson or Tolpuddle Martyr.

    And I see no difference between someone being battered in a police station and someone being battered by staff of G** when they refused to get into a sweat box for transport from the magistrates to jail because they were claustrophobic and officially listed as such (a real case I was involved in trying to sue over).

    The distinction between sending someone directly to the courts and escorting them in handcuffs appears to be an arbitrary one made up to prove a very shaky argument. And please don’t be under any illusion that quoting Trotsky is going to cause me to give your arguments any credence, even if your quote was relevant. Did he have anything to say about dole staff or private prison escorts? Or school secretaries?

    The point about UKBA staff changing the way they do their job is also irrelevant. Coppers can be nice as pie and helpful. They can be sympathetic if you’ve been the victim of a crime. Or they can be complete bastards. So what?

    And I ask the same question to the point, “they are still workers”. So what?

    In fact what is a “worker”? If you want to quote dead Ukrainians, how about dead Germans- do you think Marx or Engels would have defined any of these people as part of the proletariat?

    Is a probation officer a worker? As I said above, I attended a rally called by NAPO the other week in support of their 2 day strike. A probation officer can have someone sent directly to jail, without them even needing to go before a court, in the case of a licence recall. That gives them in that case MORE power than the average copper. But they’re in a union, they can go on strike. So other trade unionists go to their rally. The Trotskyists go along in solidarity with their papers to sell (the same papers that have called for the Police to be driven off our streets).

    Clarity, what clarity?

  47. Jimmy Haddow: is he is doing nothing himself to help the people he is supposed to defend

    The problem with comments like this is that generally it is difficult to know what people are DOING unless they tell us, as you usually do Jimmy.

    “I don’t have time to carry on this argument with you bunch of sectarian Labour supporting windbags, I’m off to a rally in support of whoever where I’m going to give our a leaflet produced by the Socialist Party Scotland which will tell everyone what could and should if they only would, and when I get back I’ll tell you all how many papers I sold.”

    This is a forum for discussion where people SAY things. Some of us contributing have made suggestions for how to go forward. I’ve made a few and John has seemed to agree with me.

    What do YOU propose? And what are YOU doing?

  48. John Smithee on said:

    First, a merger of the PCS and Unite would put community members of Unite, some of whom are claimants of Job Seekers Allowance and Employment & Support Allowance, in the same union as people who work in job centres.

    This would be a good thing if it led to the merged union leading a campaign against the DWP’s targets placed on job centres for sanctions against benefit claimants, one million of whom in the last year, according to Michael Meacher MP, have had their benefits stopped and then referred by job centres to food banks.

    Second, a merged union would be better able to publicise the petty nature of the sanctions regime in job centres. For example, some claimants have had their benefits stopped for being five minutes late for an appointment.

    Another example is the now famous case of a blind lady having her benefit stopped after she turned down a job as a window cleaner. Another example, as reported in April’s edition of Socialist Appeal, is of ex-offender job seekers in the North East having their benefit stopped for not turning up for non-existent appointments job centre staff have made up.

  49. Petter on said:

    ~44 Thinking, writing and discussing is very valuable. I presume from your comment that you are doing something that you consider to be a valuable contribution. Why don’t you describe it so others can comment on your efforts?

  50. Andy H on said:

    I think Andy N makes some very good points in his earlier comments. Some people join a trade union for purely sectional interests (collective bargaining, pay and conditions, access to help if they are up for a disciplinary etc) – just because they are in a trade union, that does not mean that they at all share the politics that we think they should – I’m sure there are plenty of UKIP voters in JCP PCS members for example.

    With such a large membership, it does cause an inherent tension within the organisation.

    I spent nearly two years working with JCP to implement ESA when it first came in, in October 2008. I ran teams working on all sorts of stuff, like IT, designing the business processes, training materials, online help etc etc. I spent a lot of time with front line staff from Job Centres, as well as the guys in the call centres and the big processing centres (called BDCs back then, not sure what they are called now). They were a pretty diverse bunch in their views about the stricter benefits regime – all across the political spectrum.

    After that, when I was a civil servant (not in DWP though), I must admit my thoughts on a union were purely for the sectional interest – I of course knew about the more political activities, but I didn’t for one minute think that my views on wider issues (such as austerity etc) had to be in line with the Union leadership’s. To me, the leadership were some remote group of people with a certain agenda, and as long as they supported my sectional interested I would have been happy.

    I’m not saying that any of this excuses the actions of the staff themselves on sanctions, but I would certainly hesitate when criticizing the PCS leadership for not doing enough to stop it.

  51. Interesting discussion. Where do we stand on the POA and Unite Union members in the Nuclear Power Industry and Arms Industry?

  52. Answers, what answers, Vanya? It is a shame that you always let your venom derail interesting discussions instead of contributing fresh points.

    I make some tentative points on who I think should be recognised as workers and who may be shouldn’t and, before yourself, identified the many grey areas that follow from that. John, as I understand it, would be be more likely to draw a smaller net or at least thinks more criticism of some workers should be raised. Of course, some, like the Socialist Party, think the definition of a worker is wider. It’s an interesting discussion and with no clear correct answers, I think. Do you have anything to contribute, Vanya?

  53. John,

    As someone who IS one of those “those on the receiving end of it”, I find your attitude unhelpful and I am tired of people talking over what actual disabled peoples groups are saying about this. Atos and the DWP are horrible employers who PCS have many disputes with. Clearly the current welfare regime is not working for disabled people and unemployed people AND it is not working for PCS members. So our interests are aligned. There is absolutely no contradiction between protesting outside jobcentres and Atos one day and supporting a PCS strike in Atos the next. Our enemy is Tory and Labour welfare policies, not PCS members campaigning against those policies. I can accept there is definitely a big space to debate the form and tactics of that struggle, but not the hatchet job that is this article.

  54. Andrew Grace on said:

    Useful Labour is the transformation of nature by humankind into things of useful value. Marx describes the change from manufactures to industrial capitalist production in the factory system. With joint stock companies and other forms of organisation money capital was used to create a system of commodity manufacture where the profit motive was the guide to production. Hence the relationship between money and goods was changed by the class system with the workers needing to earn a wage from the production of commodities for the market. These workers originally had land but with the clearances and enclosures and agricultural intensification they formed a new class, the proletariat.
    This system of alienated labour is based on dispossession and appropriation. It is really quite simple. Wages are only given for labour or services. These labours and services require a profitable margin by those who own the means of such works. Without margins or the extraction of surpluses there can be no further growth in the mass of capital.
    Benefits are cash payments from state taxation on primary production and transactions.
    Britain has 1% of the world population but 3% of world GDP.
    The exploitation of Labour Power in a class society like ours means that our present economy must continue to grow or otherwise decline unless there is a change in the social relations of production. As Marx and Engels explained however, this growth is only possible with the periodic creation of a large ‘Reserve Army of Labour,’ which is an impoverished mass of millions of people.
    Eric Hobsbawm interviewed shortly before he died was asked what he thought was a great impediment for the Left. He replied that it was a failure to understand the nature of knowledge as a Factor of Production in Capitalism.

    The bequest of Marx offers the possibility of a progressive heritage for both the ‘Green’ movement and labour movements if they act together because the body of work points to the central reality of our global human predicament. It is our accrued global social and physical capital of all kinds, generated by human work of all kinds, including scientific and medical and all other, that forms the present global store of value which can be used to develop the post-Capitalist socialist society based on common ownership and the sustainable meeting of needs.

    The ‘worker’ is the universal and the particular in this sense as we all share in the human needs that only the transformation of natural capitals can sustain, in other words our planetary environments and its’ wellbeing

  55. Rob Griffiths on said:

    Vanya,

    Vanya, one of the best and most recent books on the NUWM is We Refuse to Starve in Silence by Richard Croucher (see also his sources) – and there are some big files of Wal Hannington’s papers and newspaper clippings at the Marx Memorial Library that have not been utilised enough, IMO. Good luck.

  56. jim mclean on said:

    My view is that at this moment in time the majority of Jobcentre staff are fully behind government policy, I was threatened with sanctions three weeks before my pension kicked in. My daughters ex has just been sanctioned for not accessing the internet enough. He has no internet access and through government an local authority cuts there are only three computers in the library. He said they smiled when they cut him off. This fits in with my experience. ATOS are a dead parrot, not through organised political action, but by service users and their families taking direct action against the ATOS scabs, Fit to work checks have been halted over this and as the Left sat navel gazing the people took it upon themselves to deal with the matter. I have long abandoned the idea that the PCS is a trade union, it is merely a staff association representing an arm of the state.

  57. Karl Stewart on said:

    Ian:

    Interesting discussion. Where do we stand on the POA and Unite Union members in the Nuclear Power Industry and Arms Industry?

    The question of nuclear power is a whole other subject, and one which I don’t think doesn’t really touch on any of the issues in this debate. (And I think GMB is the majority union in that industry).

    I think your example of POA prison officers is more relevant to this debate. But I don’t see the issue as being a complicated one. We should support POA struggles for better pay, TS & Cs, but we should condemn any examples of gratuitous cruelty.

    And the same principle should be applied to job centre staff. The examples referred to in post (25) in the quote from Michael Meacher MP are clearly examples of gratuitous cruelty and are to be condemned – “I’m only doing my job” is not acceptable.

  58. Sam64 on said:

    Vanya,

    Match you and raise you Vanya: 4 different periods of unemployment over the last 4 decades (albeit the last one, 2012, brief and between jobs – I didn’t stress that point at the Job Centre). I can tell you, the similarities of the experiences far outway the differences.

  59. I would like to point out one petty detail that all comments and even the article have missed.
    the people in the Jobcentre are not the ones that put a person on a sanction.
    paperwork has to be sent to the relevent Benefit Centre, so that a decision maker (one of a small number throughout DWP) decides to sanction or not. the Jobcentre staff then have to tell the customer, who automatically assumes that they are the person who sanctioned them.

  60. Vanya on said:

    #63 Maybe, but presumably the decision maker has to have information on which to make that decision. Also, I am frequently being told by claimants that it is the jobcentre staff who are the ones who threaten to sanction, as if it is their decision.

  61. Scottish socialist on said:

    Jim McLean wrote:

    I have long abandoned the idea that the PCS is a trade union, it is merely a staff association representing an arm of the state.

    This is just semantics – I’m in Unison where all of my members are employed by the state! So what. We are still a trades union.

    As for the article – If John is out of work and on benefits, which I suspect he is, then the entire angry and personalised tone of the article makes sense. Material circumstances dictate thoughts and all that.

  62. I am sure Alan is correct but, as Vanya states, it the frontline staff who threaten sanctions and give the info to ensure such. So, in my case, it was whom I signed on with who said, ‘right I’m going to sanction you and get him over there to sign it off’. He then walked over to get it finalised by a colleague and that was that – no paperwork to me at all. On ringing the helpline later I was told I could be sent a form to state why I shouldn’t be sanctioned, which I completed and eventually received my money about 3-4 weeks later.

    On talking to a surprisingly helpful bloke on the phone he told me procedures hadn’t been followed but I think that is fairly standard in JCP – they often make it up, e.g. last time I overheard them telling a young person he must make his Universal Jobmatch account open to them or it’s a sanction – they were pissed off when I walked over and told him that is complete rubbish but sadly he believed them (a quick web search would show it is otherwise.)

    I could make a very long list of all the rules they have broken but I’ll give just one more – ‘On jury service, well you can’t get benefit as you’re not available for work, are you’. Expecting such a response, I had an FOI response stating that was completely incorrect – but still it took me maybe a month to get the money they refused to pay me at first. I suspect staff get grief if they do not sanction etc. but managers don’t care if claimants aren’t paid or are paid late, even if through an error.

    So JCP staff – do I think they are deserving of solidarity, PCS actions should be supported etc.? Absolutely.

    What would I do if one asked me for directions in the street? Send them the wrong way.

  63. Vanya on said:

    Scottish socialist: I’m in Unison where all of my members are employed by the state! So what. We are still a trades union.

    I think there’s a rather obvious difference between being an agent of the state and being employed by the state. That’s not semantics.

    Otherwise there would be no difference in 1984-5 between miners and cops.

    Southpawpunch: PCS actions should be supported etc.? Absolutely.

    I think as a political activist I do have to have priorities.

    If there was a PCS day of strike action I would definitely consider a visit to the picket line at the job centre (the one where I was late for a meeting because it was icy and the person who had promised to give me a lift was held up, and I had to explain in writing why I had failed to obey a reasonable instruction, and then I turned up for the re-arranged meeting on time but there was nobody at reception and they tried to say I was late again, and then a week later I turned up to sign on in the snow to find that there was nobody to sign me on because there was only skeleton staff because it was unreasonable to expect people to turn up for work).

    You do know they do re-runs of Minder and Kojak on ITV4 at the moment?

  64. jim mclean on said:

    Scottish socialist: This is just semantics – I’m in Unison where all of my members are employed by the state! So what. We are still a trades union.

    No, not semantics, a basic study of the PCS membership points to it being a very middle class membership unlike those unions representing industrial civil servants, GMB, Unite and Unison. It is more in line with the staff association form than that of a General TU. Things can change, TSSA being an example, in the 70’s it was 100% a bosses setup, look at it now.

  65. “Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country. The evidence can no longer be denied and the union’s leadership must now take steps to educate its members that solidarity is more than just a word on a leaflet during a PCS pay dispute, or else face the accusation of collaborating with the government’s vicious assault on the most economically vulnerable in society under the rubric of austerity.”

    In presenting this important question in this way John both identifies a key problem for the working class and trade union movement but lays the basis for a counterproductive approach to its solution.

    Firstly it is not PCS members who are “engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country” it is state employees.

    People working in Jobcentres are state employees who may or may not be members of a trade union. In the Benefit Agency union density, when I last looked, was about two to one union members to nons. It varies from time to time and from centre to centre and usually goes up when strike action is in the offing and declines when staff turnover is higher.

    But it is as state employees that they carry out their duties and their relationship to their employer is conditioned by law and by contract. Their individual views, or the policy of their trade union has no purchase (except in the highly problematic area of whistleblowing) on the way they carry out their duties.

    To suggest that state employees, in normal conditions of relative class peace and where the viability of the state is not challenged, should repudiate their obligations on an individual basis is to abandon the marxist conception of the state, the idea that social being determines consciousness or any grasp of the law of uneven development.

    John, rather, suggest that the principal responsibility here lies with the PCS leadership. Correctly, in my view, to “take steps to educate its members”.

    Where this discussion loses contact with reality and lapses into moralising is when it begins to conclude that decisive changes in the way the state operates, through the human agency of its employees, can proceed independently of the accretion of the class forces that can either compel the state policy to changes or replace the state machine with another.

    John is absolutely correct to focus on the increasingly coercive function of the benefit system. The bourgeois state is a machine for the coercion of the working class and to suggest that, especially in conditions of capitalist crisis, it can be anything else is reformist nonsense.

    Over the last three decades the sphere in which individual benefit staff have been able to exercise discretion has narrowed to invisibility. This has taken place in step with the diminution of the social consensus around the functioning of the welfare state, the weakening of the contributory basis of national insurance and the increasing inability of late capitalism to sustain social peace through concessions.

    The paradox here is that the social position of state employees in relation to the rest of the working population has radically declined along with their pay and working conditions. Benefit staff, especially those in contact with claimants work under increasingly oppressive conditions, under strict supervision, subject to sanctions while themselves may also be benefit recipients and often were claimants themselves.

    They have very little social power except when able to act collectively and even then will often find themselves politically isolated. (The public sector pensions campaign being a prime example where divisions between different sectors of public service workers and a powerful and effective media campaign against ‘gold plated’ pensions limited its effectiveness.)

    Of course, the PCS leadership and apparatus, and the predecessor unions, have worked hard to transform government policy as well as influence public opinion and sharpen the understanding of union members.

    John argues: “It is unconscionable that any trade union would allow its members to engage in the wilful and systematic sanctioning of benefit claimants without offering any meaningful resistance. It flies in the face of the very principle of social solidarity that is the cornerstone of a movement founded on the understanding that the interests of working people – employed and unemployed – are intrinsically the same.”

    Which raises the question how could the union ‘disallow’ such behaviour. Meaningful resistance in this context means action that has a chance of success in changing the policy and the internal regime that oppresses both claimant and benefit staff.

    To suggest that in present circumstances, with the existing level of social, class and political consciousness and the existing balance of class forces that the resolution of this complex of problems is in the gift of any one sector is utopian fantasy.

    We would be better off trying to revive joint campaigning between claimants, the organised working class movement and the unions that represent state employees rather than fantasising about exemplary actions that would at bets be a substitute for collective action by the working class a s a whole.

  66. Nick Wright: We would be better off trying to revive joint campaigning between claimants, the organised working class movement and the unions

    Which is another way of saying ‘do nothing’.

    Sorry, Nick, but I’ll take exemplary action over the fantasy of a mass campaign at this point in time – as I am sure would those on the receiving end of these barbaric sanctions.

  67. Scottish socialist: f John is out of work and on benefits, which I suspect he is,

    I’m not out of work and on benefits. I have been out of work and on benefits, but that was two years ago.

    My anger on this issue comes out of a strong sense of solidarity with working class and poor people who are being bullied, abused, and degraded on an ongoing basis by in many cases members of an avowed left wing trade union.

    I think this is one of those issues where theory is used as justification for inaction rather than a guide to action.

  68. Karl Stewart on said:

    John,
    I completely agree, of course, that there’s no excuse for wanton cruelty to claimants of the type highlighted in the examples at post (25) by Michael Meacher MP.
    Such arrogant bullying is an utter disgrace and those responsible are to be un condemned.

    But where I disagree with you is that is seems you’re holding the PCS union solely responsible for this, in a situation where they don’t have the membership density or workplace strength and organisation that you seem to think they have.

  69. Karl Stewart: But where I disagree with you is that is seems you’re holding the PCS union solely responsible for this, in a situation where they don’t have the membership density or workplace strength and organisation that you seem to think they have.

    Again, this comes across as hand wringing in service to some mystical status being accorded to a trade union. The thrust of the article is that PCS members are involved, not that they are responsible for setting the policy. But as trade unionists, and more importantly as a trade union leadership that has been a ‘vocal’ opponent of the cuts, they are obligated to do whatever they can to resist it.

    Some are, and they are to be commended, though the fact that the leadership of the PCS refused to countenance a proposal put by some of their members at their last conference of ethical non cooperation with the sanctions says it all.

  70. John: the leadership of the PCS refused to countenance a proposal put by some of their members at their last conference of ethical non cooperation with the sanctions says it all.

    I understand your frustration, but sometimes unions have to consider whether a policy can actually be delivered, before signing up to it.

  71. Andy Newman: understand your frustration, but sometimes unions have to consider whether a policy can actually be delivered, before signing up to it.

    Okay, so what is the alternative being proposed by the PCS leadership? If they decide this particular suggestion is unworkable, what are they proposing to do by way of an alternative?

    Are you saying they should do nothing? if so, what is the point of them? What is the point of the trade union movement and, more significantly, what is the point of socialism?

  72. Andy Newman on said:

    John,

    Well at the heart of this debate is the paradox that trade unions as complex social institutions have diverse and contested objectives. Fundamentally any trade union must represent the collective but sectional interests of its members. However, because trade unions, in pursuit of that sectionalism also incubate communities of solidarity they also can potentially transcend sectionalism.

    without knowing more about PCS organization in DWP I dont know what the union could achieve, but the first responsibility is to maintain organization.

    It seems to me that the union is somewhat beleaguered, and may simply not have capacity to do more than it is. But I dont know and could be wrong

  73. Pete Jones on said:

    I think some of this debate is a reflection of the lack of working class political representation, and a consequential demand for unions to fill the vacuum. Unions job is primarily to defend workers, and secondarily to lend a hand in the political struggle. What we actually need is a political party, not a move to syndicalism. McCluskyite syndicalism may be the trajectory of unite, but we need to learn lessons from history about this.

  74. John: Sorry, Nick, but I’ll take exemplary action over the fantasy of a mass campaign at this point in time – as I am sure would those on the receiving end of these barbaric sanctions.

    John
    I sympathise completely with the impulse behind what you say but I think that whilst a mass campaign on the lines I suggest is a big ask there is precedent and there are possibilities that such an initiative could have some effect.

    It is only fantasy to the extent that the political will and resources to carry through such campaigning are at a low level although I think a number of initiatives hold great promise. The People’s Assembly, Unite’s community organising, the changing tempo of local trades council action, willingness of unions to work together all hold the promise of a changed climate in some localities. Bids to prevent bedroom tax evictions should be a priority.

    On the other hand the prospects of exemplary action – ie individual actions in which especially principled and courageous state employees challenge their employer over the implementation of state policy – really is in the realms of fantasy.

    Appeals to the trade union that represents them to substitute itself for the authority of the employer in a context where no such power can reasonably exist is a counterproductive approach.

    Sectional, trade union consciousness is one thing. Consciousness of the working class as a class with interests that transcend sectional devisions is the product of an qualitatively higher stage of development and attempts to jump these stages is counterproductive.

    Of course,these processes proceed at different paces in different sectors and localities. Our task is to begin to make these advances.

    Work place power is not conjured out of thin air and in present circumstances is almost entirely related to sectional interests.

    We have to look at the intermediate stages in a process that could begin to change the character of working class consciousness to transcend sectional divisions. Giving real effect to united action at neighbourhood level through People’s Assembly-type initiatives should be our aim.

    The best example of union campaigning around benefits was the 80s and 90s Action for Benefits campaigning in which the PCS predecessor unions (mostly NUCPS) joined up with claimants groups, the Child Poverty Action Group and some Labour MPs to campaign for changes.

    In the end these efforts failed to make it into Labour’s governmental programme along with a million other bids to get Labour to commit.

    My view is that such efforts to persuade Labour to change its approach in office are without prospects of success unless the situation is radically changed on the ground and the temper of the working class is roused.

  75. kath gray on said:

    I know they have them by the balls, threatening their jobs and a 28 week benefit sanction for ‘losing a job willfully’- but the whole point of a union is to take on that which cannot be resisted by an individual- how the hell do you think you make people do unconscionable things? by making it clear theyre next if they dont. The PCS needs to expose the system and defend everyone from this appalling treatment.

  76. Kate pcs member on said:

    jim mclean,

    You must be kidding Jim M- basic studies show pcs membership is middle class- 25% of members are on benefits themselves, how is that middle class?
    No-one has done more than pcs to highlight the sanctions targets- who do you think told the Commons Select Committee mentioned in the article, who do you think told the press and leaked minutes of meetings where staff were threatened if they did not sanction?
    PCS have just published a survey of members- find it on the website- that showed that over 75% of pcs members think that sanctions do nothing to get the unemployed into non-existent jobs, over 50% of staff have been threatened by managers for not doing enough sanctions.
    We are not allowed by law to strike over government policy but we have been on strike in the DWP numerous times over austerity measures. It is pcs that produced the Alternative to Austerity pamphlet that so many other unions have taken up, it is pcs who has led the Tax Justice Campaign whilst our members in HMRC have been made redundant. It is pcs who sponsored the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. Yes, I would like the union to do more, but remember we’re not the enemy- the vast majority of pcs members in jobcentres do not sanction claimants. I never have but I am lucky not to be in a job where I am threatened with dismissal if I don’t.
    We are all workers, not middle class- my bank account hasn’t been in credit for 25 years- we need to fight together when we have a common enemy not squabble amongst ourselves. There’s only one winner when we do that.

  77. Vanya on said:

    #82 Yes I noticed that as well.

    Good policies but the thing is for PCS activists to make sure that they are implemented as widely as possible.