Unite Community members in the north east of England today mobilised in good numbers as part of the union’s biggest ever day of action against benefit sanctions.
Protest rallies were held outside Jobcentres and at the constituency office of Stockton South Tory MP, James Wharton, a former public schoolboy made infamous in 2014 when he denounced Durham Unite Community for launching a clothes bank to assist anyone on benefits.
Helping people is not something that comes naturally to Wharton, who despite being appointed as the Northern Powerhouse Minister, remained inactive when Teesside steel workers were looking for the Government to safeguard their industry and jobs late last year.
The result, in an area that has contributed untold wealth to the nation’s coffers from its steel, coal, shipbuilding and chemical industries, is the demise of the steel works at Redcar, where Unite community members launched off the day outside the job centre.
A joint Unite and PCS, (the union which represents benefit workers,) four page leaflet titled Claimants – know your rights on sanctions was distributed.
While no one disputes that job seekers should fulfil certain obligations in order to receive unemployment benefit the sanctions system has spiralled out of control since the Tories came to power.Half a million people have had their benefits stopped in the last year including cases involving people not applying for a job while waiting to start one.
Emma, a Sunderland Unite Community member, spoke of her annoyance that “one of my friends has twice had her benefits sanctioned for four weeks because she missed an appointment because the letters she was sent failed to arrive. She had to borrow money to survive.”
Sanctions have plunged people onto the breadline – and worse in some cases with some preferring to end their lives rather than starve to death – and led to the rise of food banks.
Despite the government’s claim there is also no evidence that sanctions are making people more likely to get into employment, especially where the unemployment rate is 10 per cent in places such as Redcar.
Sunderland is still suffering from the battering it got under the Tories when they were last in power in the 80s and 90s when they failed to support British manufacturing and thus helped shut down its coal and shipbuilding industries.
This has ensured that many people have since had to rely on welfare benefits. Durham Unite Community members brightened up the outside of the Job Centre with their placards and banners.
Trevor Bark, chair of the Durham Unite Community branch, said “we want claimants to know there is an organisation they can turn to for help and which they can also join to collectively fight back alongside others.”
One of the groups hit hardest by benefit sanctions has been disabled people. Unite’s David Allan is president of Sunderland Trades Union Council and sits on the Trade Union Congress’ national disabled workers committee.
He said “we have seen people who don’t have the support of their community starve themselves to death after being sanctioned. Unite Community is helping people through its food and clothing banks while also highlighting the fact that these are deliberate attacks on welfare rights by the government.”
In the afternoon the protest outside the Jobcentre in Middlesbrough, where passers by could clearly hear the cry of ‘benefit sanctions no way, we want decent jobs and decent pay,’ was followed by one outside Wharton’s office. This was good humoured but it’s no laughing matter when it comes to the MP’s failure over the steel issue.
Like many Tories, Wharton comes from a privileged background. This perhaps explains why he is content to see taxes for millionaires cut to 45 per cent while also being silent as his party has let the UK’s steel industry wither rather than act like the German and Italian governments.
Both of whom have challenged China over its dumping of its excess steel output and produced policies, including lower energy costs and extended bridging loans, that protect their steel producers and jobs, which being well paid help boost the local economy.
Places like the north east need a government committed to boosting its manufacturing base but instead of which those unfortunate enough to find themselves needing to find work are under attack.
However as Unite Community members in the region demonstrated with some success today, there is an organisation which can be trusted by people to help organise the fightback against benefit sanctions.
Pic by Mark Pinder