What role can trade unions play in fighting welfare attacks?

Youth Fight for Jobs statement

The PCS civil service trade union, a key supporter of Youth Fight for Jobs, has come under severe criticism on Twitter from Boycott Workfare for not organising its members to refuse to implement the government’s attacks.

These misguided attacks raise important questions for the entire labour movement about how we can stop the Con-Dem austerity juggernaut.

Youth Fight for Jobs explains that, with over six million members, fighting trade unions are central.

The PCS has spelt out its anti-austerity credentials in words and practice. It is ridiculous and false to claim that “PCS have done nothing” to oppose Con-Dem austerity and accuse PCS of “implementing Tory policies” and “letting [the] government off the hook”.

It is a mistake to oppose a strike over pay by PCS members who work for Atos, arguing that “PCS union support Atos workers who abuse the disabled community”.

Boycott Workfare has even suggested that the problem is that DWP workers do not understand the guidance they have been given from management.

This puts the blame for a disastrously draconian welfare system directly onto PCS members and away from the Tory government – this is “letting the government off the hook”!

PCS’s record

PCS is one of Britain’s most effective anti-cuts organisations and fighting trade unions. PCS was an initiator of coordinated strike action against attacks on public sector pensions in June 2011.

This led into the tremendous two million strong public sector strikes in November of that year. PCS has since campaigned for that action to be continued, as well as taking action alone. They have won victories which can inspire others to fight the cuts.

A clear distinction has to be made – PCS is not the same as the Con-Dem Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) headed by vicious Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith.

PCS does not get to decide government policy. If it did, we’d all be in a much better position! PCS opposes the horrific treatment of disabled people by the Con-Dem welfare system and has challenged the labelling of unemployed and young people as ‘scroungers’.

Demands have been raised for civil service workers to refuse to participate in administering Con-Dem policy.

The reasoning is understandable, but every strategy needs to be thought out carefully in terms of offering a good possibility of winning the objective.

While this kind of action by PCS members may sound attractive, it is fraught with pitfalls. The job of some civil service workers entails administering many brutal and disagreeable procedures, badly affecting all kinds of people such as welfare claimants, migrant workers, even those convicted of crimes.

But to refuse as individuals to carry out their job, or part of their job, would put workers immediately in jeopardy.

In today’s climate it could get them the sack. 25,000 workers have already lost their jobs in DWP since the Tories were elected in 2010.

Trade union facility time is being undermined. Despite these threats some jobcentre workers have bravely blown the whistle on the sanctions being peddled by the Tories.

It is also worth remembering that the trade unions led many successful campaigns to change objectionable laws and practices, such as ending legalised unequal pay for women or excluding racist activists from workplaces.


It is a mistake to join the chorus of hate being thrown at the trade unions by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Tories – the job of activists should be to fight for maximum unity in action between the trade unions, workers, unemployed and young people.

Duncan Smith, Francis Maude, and the rest of the Tory cabinet would like nothing more than to see the back of PCS, a massive block to achieving their austerity policies.

It is far better for the anti-austerity movement if Atos and jobcentre workers are in a strong union.

Boycott Workfare has said it’s impossible for workfare to be administered without the unionised workforce of PCS.

But recognising the potential power of the union is only part of the task. To refuse to participate in welfare reform as a whole trade union is by no means straightforward.

A case would have to be put that was generally agreed by PCS members as a realistic way forward. There would be understandable questions about why PCS members alone should bear the brunt of defeating this government on benefits.

Even if there was confidence in this idea, while not an absolute obstacle, thanks to the anti-trade union laws it would not be possible to get a legal ballot, as the issue is ‘political’ and not a strict trade union grievance.

‘Civil disobedience’ and ‘direct action’, can be important elements of any campaign, but central to a movement capable of bringing down the Con-Dem government and ending austerity must be mass workers’ action, starting with a 24-hour general strike.

PCS has been one of the main trade unions to make the call for coordinated strike action. Instead of attacking PCS we need other trade unions but also community campaigns and young, unemployed and disabled people, to come behind this call.

See http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/17601/22-10-2013/how-civil-servants-should-fight-government-attacks-on-welfare for an article by John McInally, vice president of the PCS