|Issue 3 - March 1972|
|A Lesson Learnt|
the introduction of the 1971 Social Security Act, it has become impractical
for Trade Unions to pay strike pay, as all but £1 of such payments
will be claimed back by the SS from Supplementary Benefits payable to
Thus the SS has become the only official strike fund that strikers can draw on. Obviously in situations like the miners' strike the holders of the strike fund purse strings - the SS - were in a very strong position to smash the strike by restricting the level of benefits paid out in an attempt to starve strikers back to work.
It was certain that miners were going to have a hard time getting their full weekly benefits while the strike lasted.
Despite this the NUM officials agreed to provide stewards in most strike claims centres to protect SS officials from angry miners who were systematically robbed of benefit entitlements throughout the strike. So 'protection' was offered to the SS handling claims in Armstrong Hall (Harton and Westoe Miners' Lodge), South Shields. The hostile treatment meted out to strikers claiming supplementary benefit resulted, on the second day of claims being made, in the setting up of a Strike Claimants' Committee, organised and functioning with the intention of obtaining as much money as possible for every striker. The Claimants' Union was invited to send advisers to this body, which it did, and which gave the miners valuable background experience on the Social Security Acts.
The Committee was representative of all the lodges involved in the dispute: in retrospect this was perhaps not the best structure, for it is essential that such a committee be aggressive, militant and self-confident, and a strictly representative body does not necessarily meet such a need, for the best known members of the various union branches tend to be their officials - often not the most assertive of people outside of the formal structure of the branch. And, in fact, some of the Shields committee members were too liable to pressure from the NUM area office, who on several occasions ordered its members who desist from "causing trouble" with the SS and to disband the committee.
In spite of this the committee did work; but had, at the start, it been composed entirely of militants relating to the SS in a similar way as to the NCB (which, in the Shields area would probably have meant a disproportionate number of Mechanics delegates), then it undoubtedly would have been more effective more rapidly. Although the striker experienced the need for collective action (and a committee to make it possible) very quickly, it took some time for many of them to realise that the SS is not a welfare agency and cannot be responded to as such. It seems important from this experience, therefore, that the normal role of the SS as a means of oppression by the state, plus its special implied position as potential strike-breaker in disputes where there is no strike pay or no tax rebates, be widely and swiftly discussed in order to determine from the outset the aggressive role of any Strike Claimants' Committee that may come out of the struggle. This is especially necessary in smaller local strikes, where the pressures on the strikers to return to work on a sell-out area so much stronger and more insidious.
The existence of the Strike Claimants' Committee made many important gains from the SS for all strikers; hundreds of strikers are being deprived of even their basic rights and would, no doubt, have done so throughout the strike through their own ignorance of the system, and the committee's involvement ensured their financial gain. Elsewhere in the country - even in the county - strikers were being robbed blind without being any the wiser. There is a desperate need for an efficient means of distribution of knowledge and experience, as it was only in the last two weeks that other areas were beginning to realise what the Shieldsmen had seen from the beginning.
The most important issue was that of single strikers:
The single men were at first refused any benefit at all, under the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966 Section 10 disqualification. As a result of the committee's intervention, the vast majority received regular payments of £4 per week under Section 13 ("urgent needs"), from the end of the second week, which is far earlier than the SS have been broken on this issue in any major strike hitherto. The Wilberforce offer prevented the development of the campaign in the throes of being organised to get single strikers' needs met in full. That is all single people, whatever their real personal needs, were getting only £4 a week; many had rent to pay on top of their own requirements for food and so on. In any future strike, drawing from this experience, getting the £4 regularly (the SS's code limit) should not take so long to get established, and full payment can be fought for at an earlier stage. It is known that elsewhere Section 13 payments were difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and were certainly not the norm they became in S Shields.
It is perhaps indicative of the concern of the NUM nationally that the edition of the 'Miner' that appeared in the second week of the strike stated that single men could claim in urgent need under Section 13: no explanation of how to fight for such payments, and no further mention for the duration of the strike, and certainly no indication that they should be expected as a matter of course by most single people.
Another important issue settled as a result of strike claimants' committee intervention was that of the 'Rents ceiling': the SS refused to pay rent allowances of more than £4.30p. The committee forced a reversal of that decision resulting in many hundreds of pounds being paid out. Shields is not the only area where rents are often higher than £4.30p: it would be interesting to know what happened elsewhere. The means by which this problem was solved was by redirecting a busload of pickets with claimants' committee members to the Regional Controller's office where the numerical strength of the miners frightened the regional officials into reversing their decision on the rents question (backdated to the start of the strike!): thus an important example to the miners of the value of collective action. More of this sort of mass action is needed to break down the blind faith in union leaders - national and local, often ignorant, sometimes downright opposed to the interests of their members.
As time went on, the committee's relevance and importance were seen by everyone - including those who had at first succumbed to pressure from the NUM reaction. It was seen in and by practice; therefore it is clearly important that such a body be not a complaints committee, but a co-ordinating group to assist as many people as possible into coming into direct confrontation with the SS.
The SS forced counter-representation as an important issue, even though it has long been tacitly accepted as normal procedure for 'ordinary' claimants. Possibly this was balked at by the SS only because the staff at the claims centre were largely inexperienced people drafted in from Longbenton. But in any case, despite such ploys as the SS acting manager twice persuading his staff to withdraw their labour, the claimants' committee won acceptance for all strikers to be represented at the counter. The initial tendency was for only committee members to gain experience of this aspect of the struggle; had the strike lasted longer, more and more people would have been actively representing fellow strikers. But had the composition of the committee been different from the onset (as indicated above) then this point would have been appreciated at an earlier stage of the process. More widespread involvement and sharing of experience could have been completed even within the six weeks.
However, whatever its shortcomings due to lack of experience, the strike claimants' committee's existence, information and pressure, financially benefited the Shields miners, embarrassed the SS, and opened the eyes of many strikers and their families to the iniquities of the Social Security system and its tactics.
It seems clear that whenever a strike takes place, be it national or local, official or unofficial, the setting up of a Strike Claimants' Committee (or similar) should be simultaneous with that of the Strike Committee and the organisation of pickets. South Shields area SCC members are preparing a claims manual for strikers, for use in conjunction with the CU's Strikers Handbook, as a practical guide for those who are inexperienced in dealing with the SS strike breaking machine.
A small supply of the leaflets issued by the committee in Shields to
the miners is still available from South Shields Claimants' Union -
4, Lawe Road, South Shields.