Terry Liddle looks back on a life working at the Department of Health and Social Security
Having graduated from university on to the dole and then working on a short-term Community Enterprise Programme, which I tried to organise into the NUPE union with little success, I was back signing on. One day the counter clerk at the Unemployment Benefit Office asked: “How would you like to come and work for us?” The “us” was the local DHSS office in Lewisham. After a literacy test, I started work on a Monday morning as part of the lowest grade – clerical assistant.
The work consisted of linking letters to claimants’ files which were never where they were meant to be often being buried under piles created by overworked Clerical Officers. It was boring and the pay lousy, but better than the dole!
I joined the union on my first day. This was the Civil and Public Services Association, nowadays the PCS, and was then under the control of the right. In a little while the existing union rep was promoted to Executive Officer, this grade and above had its own union –the Society of Civil Servants. There was an election for a job most people didn’t want to do and I won.
I got a day a week facility time which was spent working on individual cases of which there were many and distributing union literature. I was also on the branch executive which was dominated by Militant (nowadays the Socialist Party) and the SWP who were part of the Broad Left. Within the Broad Left there was also the Socialist Caucus: this was the AWL and independent socialists. It was obvious none of these factions were interested in raising the political consciousness of members and helping run and win disputes for themselves. It was about control freakery and recruiting paper sellers. I felt very isolated. Later the SWP sent a member into my office, but he couldn’t cope and spent lunchtimes in the park getting stoned! Eventually he went sick and vanished.
Most of the union activists had degrees while most of the management had hardly an o level. This was the cause of much conflict and resentment. At one point the acting manager told me to fuck off out of his office. I replied that the next day I’d call a meeting and recommend strike action. He came in very early next day, apologised and told me how his family, like mine, were miners and had been in the Communist Party. My answer was “it doesn’t seem to run in families!”
Management would often lie to union reps about what was in the staff code even when the union rep had it under his arm!
Even with national disputes over pay, beyond the odd leaflet, little effort was made to win rank and file support. Picket lines would be very thin: once six bedraggled pickets had a van load of police each!
One dispute that did have widespread support was a strike against the employment at the neighbouring Hither Green office of BNP activist Malcolm Skeggs, who had been sacked by Lewisham council for using their photocopiers to produce BNP material.
Also popular was refusal to co-operate with the Poll Tax.
Hardest of all was trying to build solidarity between the staff and the claimants. Many staff saw the claimants as stereotypical scrounging scum and the claimants saw the staff as potential recruits to the SS. Any information I had about crack downs on claimants I passed on to the Catford and Woolwich Unemployed Centres.
Having been promoted to Clerical Officer I was sent to work on the fraud section! Management claimed this gave union reps greater leeway but I suspect the real aim was to break them. I discovered one fraud officer had been in the Young Communist League and another chaired a constituency Labour Party: but they were still steeped in the ‘claimants are scum’ attitude. I was often told I was ‘a social security officer not a fucking social worker!’
Eventually the DHSS reorganised much of the work being removed from local offices to large centres in areas of high unemployment like Glasgow. I moved on too becoming the welfare rights worker at Pensioners’ Link in Deptford. Some of those involved in it were veteran Communists and we had many interesting discussions. Some still supported Stalin’s tyranny! Pensioners Link then had offices scattered over London and I became steward for Deptford and then joint shops convenor. Management was corrupt to the core and accused the staff of being racists. The Victorian view of lady bountiful distributing improving tracts to the deserving poor persisted, and we were expected to tolerate poor conditions. The office where I worked didn’t even have a gents’ toilet! The full time TGWU official had no idea about the voluntary sector, he had worked in a power station.
After a bitter dispute about the willingness of colleagues to take a pay cut to save jobs I left. After suffering a near fatal heart attack, I am sure work-related stress was a major factor, I have ended up as a benefit claimant myself.