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1,000 at Strike Rally
Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) went on strike on 28 and 29 January, to demand a safe working environment. Government plans to remove screens from benefit offices is a big threat to the safety of the staff coping with a deteriorating benefit system.
At a well-attended rally and lobby of Parliament by 1000 PCS strikers on 29th January, the mood was to continue the strike. Mark Serwotka, general secretary elect said:
"The 10,000 incidents in the benefit offices and the Jobcentres last year, including three serious assaults each week, justified the strike alone.
"These assaults included attacks with guns, baseball bats, hammers, chains and knives."
He said Alistair Darling, Minister for the Department of Work and Pensions, was disgraceful when he commented that the assaults were just a 'drop in the ocean' compared to the millions of visits to the offices each year.
"One incident is enough to justify the strike, never mind 10,000. The national executive of the union was unanimous in calling the strikes in December and January and the membership responded magnificently.
"If the discussions with the government don't make progress we will have to escalate the dispute in February and March if necessary.
"We might have to have a short-term sacrifice for long-term safety."
Someone will end up dead
JOHN ROSS, PCS branch secretary and Dudley Allen spoke to John Ewers on the picket line at the Benefits Agency in Gloucester.
The strike was well-supported, even by claimants. They said that a police officer visiting the picket line was amazed that while the police are being more armed PCS members are having protection taken away.
TV cameras and security guards are not enough to replace the screens. One case against the attackers of a member of staff has already had to be dropped because the cameras didn't record the incident. In the Gloucester office there's been three incidents in the last fortnight where the police have had to be called.
"Management claim this is a 'once in a generation' opportunity to change the benefits system. This would hold some water if they actually improved the services rather than just tarting up the offices."
All the pickets thought benefits should be higher and the system should be simplified. Despite being at the sharp end they could see why people resorted to abuse. They warned this will get worse when sickness interviews are introduced.
MPs have put in security systems, following the attack on the MP for Cheltenham by someone armed with a sword. So it's OK for them but not government employees.
They were firm that the strike action should continue unless the government changed their minds. "Someone will end up dead if they take the screens away" a picket warned.
Five picket lines in Sheffield
SHEFFIELD SOCIALIST Party toured five PCS picket lines on 28 January, getting a welcome at each one.
Sheffield is home to the Employment Service head office - importantly there were pickets outside both offices we visited. At one, Steve told us that their divisional boss had said about the Pathfinder project: "Get the brainwashing of local offices done first." So much for being customer-friendly.
At another office, Fraser told us that quite a few staff, especially new starters, had joined the union in the run-up to the strike.
There was support for banning overtime and working to rule, on top of continuing strike action. "What's the point of going on strike if we make up all the work when we go back?" asked two benefits agency pickets.
All the strikers understood that their dispute had gone beyond the issue of safety screens - the management wants to break the union, especially since Mark Serwotka became general secretary elect.
At Steel City House, a Royal Mail van driver readily agreed not to deliver the mail. However Melanie told us that the same postie had crossed the picket line in December - perhaps a sign of the times, now postal workers are balloting for action themselves.
In The Socialist 1 February 2002: