For Izzy Parrott, the J30 day of action was about more than pensions: but it didn’t have the feel of a wide, grassroots movement.
I went to the strike with Hackney Welfare Action, a benefit claimant and unemployed workers’ group in Hackney, where members support each other with problems at the Job Centre, take action collectively and campaign against ‘work for your benefits’. This is sister group to the Hackney Housing Group, which I’m personally involved in.
Hackney Welfare Action members first went to the picket line at Hackney Benefits Centre, which was a useful show of support for the three workers on the picket line, including one trade union representative. Only fifteen out of three hundred workers crossed the picket that was made up of three workers and roughly thirty supporters. The workers were pleased to have the support and the dialogue we had reminded me that the picket line is still a great place to have conversations!
In Dalston only nine out of of sixty JobCentre staff came into work, including one manager and one person who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and who was therefore forbidden by her religion to join a trade union. Was this a victory? In a sense it was. Many of these workers had never been on strike before. Many had recently joined the union to go on strike. Others had recently started turning to the trade union representative for advice at work. For a workplace that has less time and money to train, and which often operates on a casual contractual basis and for a generation unaccustomed to strike action, this is progress.
It was certainly useful work for Hackney Welfare Action members who made links with the trade union representative and who should now find it easier to broach the issue of ‘work for your benefits’ with the JobCentre union. But I couldn’t help wondering whether claimants in Hackney were not better organised, more politically conscious, and more committed than most of the staff at Hackney Benefits Centre and Dalston JobCentre.
At the end of 30th June I felt like I had made concrete and useful links with two trade union representatives. Especially because I had visited pickets with Hackney Welfare Action, an important show of solidarity as it is often workers in Job Centres who make claimants’ lives difficult. But I didn’t feel like I was part of a strong labour movement capable of stopping the cuts. Nor did I feel part of a grassroots labour movement, organised from below.
The fact that the picket at Dalston JobCentre was only staffed by a seasoned trade unionist and Hackney benefit claimants, that Hackney Central had no picket and that Hackney Benefits Centre had few workers on the picket made me ask questions about the militancy of the rank and file. It suggests that most members of the union are likely to be less radical than the PCS bureaucracy, which has called for no cuts and UK Uncut style actions.
As part of a movement where we are used to praising the militancy of the workers and the staid conservatism of those “bureaucrats”, how then should we respond to a strike which in some workplaces was organised from above, either by the trade union bureaucracy or by a single hardworking local representative? How can Hackney claimants link up with workers in the labour movement, when “the labour movement” hardly exists in some workplaces? The contrast between the words of the PCS leadership and the lack of support from workers for pickets reminded me that a radical trade union leadership doesn’t always reflect the general mood of workers.
It was only really at Hackney College where I felt like a larger group of workers had confidently led the strike. Despite this, the day was immensely worthwhile, and the workers at the places I visited, Bridge Academy, Hackney Benefits Centre and Hackney College were surprised and pleased to have such an unusual level of support and the courage to have come out on strike.