The economic squeeze that is being imposed on most working class people will ensure that any first anniversary celebrations for the Unite/National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) community centre in Barnsley will rightly be muted. Far too many people are struggling against a barrage of government attacks on welfare benefits, rights at work and public services for champagne corks to be popping in honour of the many successes achieved by the Unite Community members who have provided welfare advice services to local people on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 10am to 3pm since it opened in June last year.
By the end of April 2014, Unite Community members at the centre had dealt with 61 closed cases with 26 ongoing. Support for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants comprised almost half the cases. ESA, which is paid because of an illness or disability, has been heavily criticised by many organisations, including the Citizens Advice Bureau, due to the fact many claimants have been found fit for work after being selected for the Work Capability Assessment. (WCAs) Following campaigning – in which Unite Community members have participated – by disabled organisations, the Department for Work and Pensions has recently stopped outsourcing company ATOS from carrying out repeat assessments until another company can be found to do WCAs.
The centre at Barnsley has helped 6 claimants appeal against an ESA decision to restrict their benefit. Four were won including Ms P whose successful tribunal hearing helped increase her benefits by £28.45 a week. By helping Mr R with his Working Tax Credit the centre helped him recover a total of £4,795.68. Five bedroom tax appeals helped ensure two people had more money in their pockets and with Ms C’s success also being combined with a successful claim for Personal Independence Payment and carers allowance then her benefit levels rose by £184,80 per week, She has joined Unite.
“We have helped many people raise their income, By doing so we have raised people’s hopes that there are people on their side,” said Richard Vivian, a life-long trade unionist and retired professional benefits advisor who volunteers at the centre.
Richard and Mohammad Tariq, who got involved in the centre in October 2013, designed the two-day welfare advice-training course, which was held for 16 Unite members from across Yorkshire earlier this year. All aspects of welfare rights and benefits were covered including protecting client’s rights and data protection. Unite Community members have also undertaken two days training on welfare rights provided by the Child Poverty Action Group. “People need representation but we can only provide it if we are properly trained and familiar with the complexities of the benefits system,” said Mohammad, who since joining Unite has become much more conscious of the widening gap between rich and poor. He now wants to particularly encourage young people and ethnic minorities to join the union.
In addition to providing welfare right advice the Barnsley centre, which is based in the NUM Headquarters that is the world’s first purpose built trade union headquarters, (see below) also runs computer classes. People have attended ‘Learn My Way’ computer basics classes and others have come in for assistance in setting up an e-mail address and help with writing a CV. “We are giving people opportunities to improve their skills. All benefit applications now have to be done online and the government wrongly assumes everyone has got a computer and internet connection,” said Brian Clarke, a former engineer who has been a trade union member since 1955 and whose last job before he retired was general manager at Wortley Hall. Brian became an active volunteer at the Barnsley centre after seeing an advert in the Morning Star and is enjoying helping people.
The professional advice provided by Unite Community members to the folk of Barnsley is becoming increasingly important in an era when many advice organisations are struggling to survive and cope with the increasing demands placed on them. Maximising people’s benefits is vital work but it cannot be a long-term solution, especially when benefit levels are so low and are not even being increased each year to keep pace with the rate of inflation.
Unite Community members thus try to help people understand what lies behind the government’s austerity drive that has driven down people’s living standards and raised inequality levels back to those seen in the 19th century. There has been a conscious effort to challenge media misrepresentation that the jobs crisis can be blamed on immigrants.
Rather than sitting at home worrying, people are encouraged to get involved in campaigns around the effects of government cuts to working people. Centre activists have supported the local campaign against the bedroom tax, joined protests against the workfare programme and supported workers taking industrial action.
“Working people have power if they are organised. Unite Community members can help raise awareness and help encourage a culture of resistance. I remain optimistic we can change society for the better,” said Richard, who as a young man was forced to retrain when he was blacklisted by engineering employers across Scotland.
NUM Headquarters, 2 Huddersfield Road, Barnsley S70 2LS
Opening times: 10am to 3pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays
- The NUM Building in Barnsley was the world’s first purpose-built trade union headquarters when it opened in 1874. It was designed by Wade and Turner of Barnsley in a Scottish Baronial style and featured a tall, French-Gothic entrance. The moving force behind the centre was the secretary of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association, John Normansell, who said at the time of the opening: “you are most welcome into a house that is built by your fellow miners at their own cost and expense in every way.” Normansell died soon afterwards and is commemorated by a monument outside the building. A meeting hall, the windows of which record major elements of miners’ working lives, supplemented Wade and Turner’s design in 1912. In more recent times a statue has been erected that commemorates those miners who lost their lives in supporting their unions in times of struggle. These include David Jones and Joe Green, who lost their lives during the year-long strike in 1984-85 and who every year in March are remembered in a special ceremony.
View report in PowerPoint: Annual Report1 Barnsley Center
Information taken from Buildings of the labour movement by Nick Mansfield and published by English Heritage.