Well, we're not taking it anymore. We want to see a group set up that'll fight for our rights and put an end to harassment and unfair treatment. It can be really hard even just getting through the paperwork to claim the benefits we're owed, so we need to stick together if we're going to get anywhere. If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, contact sheffdoleys (at) gmail (dot) com
To find out more, and hear stories from other groups that've successfully fought for the rights of unemployed people, come to our launch meeting at the Quaker meeting house at 6pm on Thursday 28th January. It'll be at 10 St James Street, just off Church Street and a few minutes' walk from the Cathedral, with speakers from the Disabled People's Direct Action Network and Hackney Unemployed Workers.
Anyone is welcome to join us, particularly people claiming benefits of any sort (e.g. JSA, ESA, DLA, Incapacity Benefit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Carers Allowance, Child Tax Credit, etc.), unemployed workers, unwaged people, etc.
What is a Claimants' Union?
At its simplest, a claimants' union is a group of people who are claiming benefits who come together to give each other mutual aid and act collectively to solve problems with the benefits system.
These may be individual problems, like a member's benefit money being stopped.
These may also be collective problems, such as treatment of people at a Jobcentre.
Solutions could be anything from members giving each other informal advice about how a similar situation has been handled before by other claimants, members accompanying each other to benefits interviews, writing letters of complaint from the union, organising leafleting sessions, or participating in direct action (for example, a group in Hackney, London, have occupied their local Jobcentre on behalf of individual members whose money had been stopped and also for collective problems such as not being allowed to take their children into the Jobcentre), or anything that members can think of.
The actions taken are decided by everyone involved.
For example, Newham Claimants' Union say:
"We are a Union, not an advice bureau with professional advisers in the office and clients queueing up outside. So, if someone has a problem everyone gets a chance to help. The answer may come from someone who's had to claim for a while and knows how the system really ticks. Or it might be a wild idea from the newest member that works! Or we'll just look up the Welfare Benefits Handbook! If a letter has to be written or a form filled in, we try to do it that same meeting. We are a collective & we work together. The benefit business is so complex that one person can't possibly hold it all in their head; we need each other's brains!" ( http://www.newhamclaimants.org.uk/Newham1.htm)
A Claimants' Union isn't like a Trade Union, they are not restricted by the anti-Trade Union laws, and are run non-hierarchically and
Why a Claimants' Union?
On 12 November, it became legal to force unemployed people to work for their benefits – to do 40-hour-weeks for under a third of the minimum wage. The Government's Welfare Reform Act introduced 'Work for your Benefit' pilot schemes, which once completed can be rolled out without any further debate. It also attacked single parents – who face sanctions if they fail to prepare for work outside the home as soon as their child turns three – and people with impairments, disabilities or severe and enduring illnesses. Recent reforms to the benefits system have also attempted to drive people off sickness benefits and into unsuitable work, and have forced people to attend patronising courses and "work-related-activity". In addition to this, the recession means that there are now a large number of unemployed people, and we suspect that the Jobcentres and benefits offices haven't got any more fair and efficient at handling claims.
Lots of people are going to get a lot more hassle around their benefits, and Claimants' Unions are one way of supporting each other and fighting back.
Are there Claimants Unions anywhere else?
Yes, several, such as Newham Claimants Union, in London, and Edinburgh Claimants. There were groups like this all over the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Other groups do similar things but have a slightly different emphasis - such as Hackney Unemployed Workers Action Group and Haringey Claimants' Action Group, or the Unemployed Workers Unions which have recently been set up in several cities across the UK. Coalitions Against Poverty (there's ones in London (LCAP) and Edinburgh (ECAP)) work on the same issues through direct action casework. There's also the groups set up to oppose recent welfare reforms, such as the national No To Welfare Abolition network, which we could work with. We could also work with relevant unions, feminist groups, single parents' groups, disabled people's groups, pensioners' groups, asylum seekers' groups, the local Centre Against Unemployment, the local IWW branch. The Claimants' Union model is suggested because it is relevant to the widest range of people, and is flexible, non-hierarchical, and collective.