Delegates voted overwhelmingly for a motion on non-cooperation with sanctions at PCS Annual Delegate Conference. However, whilst welcome, this only marks a beginning. The task now is to win the argument for and build an explicitly political, rank-and-file led campaign on the ground.
The debate on the role of DWP staff in the sanctions regime has been brewing for a long time. However, thus far the leadership of PCS have side-stepped the debate, suggesting both that non-cooperation wasn’t deliverable and that it wasn’t being called for by staff directly involved. This position has already been forced to shift dramatically in the space of months.
Ahead of conference, several branches submitted motions on non-cooperation with sanctions. When it was revealed that, on legal advice, all were omitted from debate under the union’s rules it caused an uproar that thrust the issue to centre stage.
Claimants groups including Boycott Workfare, Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle all questioned the decision. As did PCS members. The PCS National Executive were at pains to point out that the decision was not theirs – yet, tellingly, argued against the tactic. And so the debate raged.
The various motions on the subject included several from supporters of the Civil Service Rank & File Network. Emergency motions were submitted after their omission to thrust the issue back onto the agenda. This was backed up by the call for a rally outside conference which was supported by DPAC, Boycott Workfare, Brighton Benefits Campaign and the Disabled Activist Network Cymru.
The demonstration itself saw disruptive action in the form of a road block, drawing stark attention to the issue. Delegates received CSRF bulletins outlining what was on the agenda, why it was so important, and the task of fighting with or without PCS.
By the time the debate came, the impact of rank-and-file intervention and pressure from claimants was evident. The motion on non-cooperation carried without opposition. Resistance from the leadership had become qualified support. It is safe to say that without the uproar of late, we would not be where we are. All who helped push to this point within the DWP and without should be commended.
However, the motion which passed only instructs the NEC “to explore the possibility of including non-cooperation with benefit sanctions in the next ballot for industrial action which arises from an appropriate and legitimate trade dispute.” Whilst a step forward, this is clearly not enough in itself.
Sanctions against claimants are an explicitly political attack on the most vulnerable section of the working class. The response to that attack must also be explicitly political, and sanctions must be boycotted not only to win gains for DWP workers but in order to destroy the sanctions regime itself.
Such action will not happen overnight. Getting the motions heard and passed at conference was only a means to open up the debate and underline the fact that doing so was not impossible.
There is now a political argument to be won with workers in Jobcentres against sanctioning and for a practical unity with claimants that uses direct action to take on austerity. We also need to explore how direct action by claimants can support this. This has to start with public meetings in local areas promoting the issue and building links between claimants and rank-and-file workers to devise campaign strategies.
The Civil Service Rank & File Network intends to do just that in the coming months. We are under no illusions that the passing of two motions has inspired genuine radicalism in the PCS leadership. This is a fight which rank-and-file workers and claimants will have to take the initiative on for ourselves.