1970s >> 1971 >> no-801-may-1971

Editorial: Another Anti-Strike Bill

Payments by the State to workers who are old or disabled or sick or unemployed or on strike are useful, if only in the sense that they are better than nothing. But such social reforms as may in a small way benefit the working class under capitalism are always precarious, as the history of the National Health Service has shown.

Now other State doles (sometimes called “social benefits”) are under attack. At the end of March the Secretary of State for the Social Services, Sir Keith Joseph, announced cuts in payments not only to sick and unemployed workers but also to the families of strikers.

In 1968 Roy Jenkins as Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer had proposed to abolish the retrospective payment, after two weeks, of benefit for the first three days of unemployment, sickness or industrial injury. Tory spokesmen pointed out, quite correctly, that this would be “the first occasion since 1931 when a government has cut sickness and unemployment benefit” and, under pressure from the TUC and backbench MP’s, the Labour government dropped the measure. It was revived last October by the Tory Chancellor Anthony Barber and is now incorporated in Sir Keith Joseph’s Social Security Bill. The measure would, Sir Keith boasted, save £19m. a year which — he didn’t add — can be used to reduce the burden of taxation on the profits of the capitalist class.

The Bill also provides for the families of men on strike to be reduced below the government’s own poverty line, at the moment £8.50 plus rent a week for a married couple. A striker cannot get anything for himself (except in cases of desperate personal need) from the State, but his family can. To calculate her “supplementary benefit” (a silly name since its supplements nothing and is not much of a benefit) the wife of a striker is treated as a “non-householder” and her income made up to the appropriate poverty line of £4.15 plus rent. But offset against this is any money her husband gets while on strike over £4.35 a week, the difference between the poverty line of a married couple and that of a non-householder.

This means that at present a striker can get up to £4.35 a week as tax refunds or union strike pay without reducing his family’s benefit. Since in many cases a striker’s income will, for a few weeks at least, be around this figure the effect of the present procedure is, as Sir Keith Joseph told the House of Commons, that “the total household income is often brought up to the full supplementary benefit level’’, that is to the poverty line!

This is precisely what he said. He really did mean to imply how disgraceful it was that a family should not fall below the poverty line when the breadwinner was on strike. This may seem a strange sentiment coming from the man in charge of “the social services”, but then the modern Poor Law he runs was not brought in to benefit the poor. Its task is rather to provide a back-to-work and labour-maintenance service for employers. From their point of view, Sir Keith’s complaint is perfectly logical: the less financial hardship strikers and their families suffer the more often and the longer will they be able to strike.

The answer, too, is logical: the families of men on strike must be made to suffer more. The government plans to achieve this vicious aim by disregarding only £1 (or in some cases £2) instead of £4.35 of a striker’s own income when calculating his family’s benefit. This means that in future the State will be obliged to make up the income of a striker and his wife to 60 per cent only of the official poverty line.

The extra suffering this will cause should please employers like Lord Stokes who from their well- upholstered boardrooms have been complaining of strikers being featherbedded. Extreme poverty will once again become an important factor in weakening the workers’ side in strikes. How useful financial hardship amongst the strikers can be to the employer was well shown during the Post Office strike and the postmen would undoubtedly have had to give in earlier had this new Bill been in operation.

The government’s Social Security Bill is a vicious anti-working class measure which is intended to hurt the wives and children of workers in order to discourage strikes and force strikers back to work. Like the Industrial Relations Bill, it will strengthen the overall position of the employing class in its struggle with the working class over wages and conditions. For this reason the Socialist Party of Great Britain is opposed to this Bill.

But in doing so, we have no illusions about the role of governments in capitalist society. We do not really expect them to subsidise strikes against their masters, the capitalist class, and are not surprised that the present government is taking advantage of working class apathy and ignorance to cut back on some social reforms which, however marginally, favour the working class. This apathy and ignorance is partly the result of the failure of reformist parties like Labour and of the propaganda of the capitalist press. The old socialist saying that the best way to get or defend reforms (if that is what you want) is to build up a strong revolutionary Socialist movement remains true. That is our policy for dealing with the current Tory attacks on long-standing social reforms.