We are not Alone: defending welfare benefits in the age of austerity

By: Delbert Francis

The Ontario government has announced that it will end the Community-Start Up and Maintenance benefit (CSUMB) for recipients of Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) on December 31, 2012. Considering the real value of a welfare cheque has declined by nearly 60 percent since the mid-nineties, doing away with community start-up amounts to kicking the poor while they’re already down. To stop this cut poor people and public sector workers in Ontario will need to fight back together.

What is the CSUMB?

CSUMB can be accessed for housing-related needs such as emergency moving costs, first and last month’s rent for people coming out of homeless shelters or fleeing domestic abuse, utility arrears, and basic household items. A single person can get up to $799, a family $1,500. While the cut will save the government a mere $55 million, more than 16,000 people in Ontario who access the benefit each month will now have to go without. This reveals the ideological nature of the cut – while the money saved is pocket change thousands of poor people will hurt for it. The message here is that the poor must suffer even greater indignities in the interest of paying down the provincial deficit.

The Campaign to Save the CSUMB

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) along with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario have started a campaign to save the community start-up. Part of their strategy is to encourage as many people as possible to apply for the benefit while it is still available in order to flood the welfare administration. In Toronto a walk-in clinic where more than 50 people were assisted in applying for the benefit was held on October 17th. They, and their supporters, then marched to the head welfare administration office where people put in their applications together.

The strategy of mass applications for welfare benefits is not without precedent and some merit. In the mid 2000’s OCAP’s Special Diet campaign was successful in getting millions of dollars into the pockets of poor people in Ontario. The Special Diet campaign publicized a relatively unknown benefit, which allowed welfare recipients to receive up to an additional $250 per family member. The campaign involved a series of clinics throughout the province where welfare recipients met with medical practitioners who filled out forms for them to receive the allowance. Thousands of people were signed up at OCAP’s Special Diet Clinics, even as the government made several changes to restrict the program. At this point, eligibility for this allowance is severely restricted.

Despite its success in providing financial relief for poor people, the Special Diet campaign mostly failed to build sustained mobilization in poor communities. With the notable exception of a small group of Somali women in Etobicoke, few if anyone who attended Special Diet clinics remained active in the campaign. Another shortcoming of the campaign was that it did not, for the most part, link up with the workers who administer welfare benefits. Although workers in some welfare offices may have been more sympathetic or resisted cutting people off Special Diet, there was no concerted province-wide organizing by workers.

Public sector workers must join the fight

The lessons learned from the Special Diet campaign must be applied to the current struggle. That is, the campaign to save CSUMB can win if poor people and public sector workers unite in struggle. Workers and people on social assistance must recognize their shared interests. A structure for joint decision making needs to be set up and a readiness for collective action needs to develop. Only then can we build working class power capable of defeating this cut.

OW and ODSP workers are particularly well situated to have an impact in this struggle. Workers issue welfare cheques and deal directly with people who receive benefits. They are typically under pressure from management to cut people off or at least withhold benefits. This pressure brings them into conflict with recipients. Workers may resist this pressure, not only because they generally want to be helpful to their clients but, because it is in their own interests to do so. Hardly anyone wants to be a welfare cop, and reducing welfare caseloads justifies layoffs.

Systematically kicking people off the welfare rolls and eliminating benefits and services is a move toward the privatisation of the welfare administration. Privatisation is what would allow the government to break the OW and ODSP workers’ unions, and to roll back wages, benefits and improvements to working conditions. Cast in this light, workers have every reason to fight the cut to community start-up. Solidarity between welfare workers and recipients finds precedent in the struggle against the Job Seekers Allowance in the mid-nineties centred in Brighton, England1.

England’s Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) was a mid-nineties welfare reform designed to tighten up eligibility for welfare by putting more pressure on recipients to find work. The JSA was consistent with, though not as harsh as, the deep cuts to welfare being made at the same time in Ontario under the Harris government. In England, organized welfare recipients (referred to as ‘claimants’) and job centre (welfare) workers both opposed the JSA legislation. For claimants the new law threatened their very subsistence. Job centre workers opposed the increased policing role they would take on under the new law. Joint work against the JSA was undertaken on this basis.

In the campaign against the JSA, organized claimants encouraged the job centre workers to resist management demands to deny benefits. In turn, job centre workers shared information and discussed tactics with claimants groups. On the day that the legislation was introduced hundreds of claimants and their allies occupied the job centres. Job centre workers responded with work stoppages, paralyzing the administration. While the movement was ultimately unable to prevent the legislation, Brighton job centres maintain a reputation of being the most lenient in the country. There is much to be learned and applied from the movement against the JSA to the struggle to save the CSUMB in Ontario.

To begin with, OW and ODSP workers can resist pressure from management to deny applications for community start-up. They can inform their clients and co-workers about the benefit and how best to access it. They can defend their co-workers who are disciplined for refusing to deny applications. They can continue to process applications for expenses the community start-up formerly covered if the benefit is ended January 2013. This kind of activity would not only support the demand to reverse the cut to the community start-up benefit, it would also put workers in a much stronger position to defend their own working conditions. To win this struggle outright may take a greater level of organization.

A joint assembly of public sector workers and people on social assistance needs to be built in order to struggle effectively against cuts to benefits. By definition this assembly would need to be autonomous from the public sector unions to ensure people on social assistance could participate on equal footing with workers. The assembly would also need to be willing to engage in disruptive actions capable of throwing the welfare administration into crisis. A directly-democratic body committed to direct-action would have a chance of defeating the government’s move to end the CSUMB in this time of austerity.

1 Aufheben (UK) (2000). Stop the Clock! Critiques of the New Social Workhouse. Unemployed Recalcitrance and Welfare Restructuring in the UK Today. http://libcom.org/library/aufheben/pamphlets-articles/stop-the-clock-critiques-of-the-new-social-workhouse/unemployed-recalcitrance-and-welfare-re

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