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The Claimants Union

click for more info.The definitive story of the Claimants Unions (CUs) must be left to another writer. It is intended here simply to record what is relevant for the understanding of the events of 1969-1976 in South Shields.

Claimants Unions were first formed in the London area in the late 60s. Their membership was at first confined to those claiming state benefits (chiefly social security or unemployment benefits) i.e. the unemployed, pensioners, single parents, and later, students.

The CUs arose naturally from the culture of that period - they embraced grass-root direct action as an instrument of change; they confronted the establishment and its values; they were nominally apolitical; they represented an underclass in the face of what they saw as capitalist exploitation; they sought revolutionary change.

As the CUs grew they attracted the support of the sympathetic professional workers - teachers, lecturers, lawyers, doctors - as well as the politically motivated. However, while CUs attracted the usual political suspects, they successfully resisted all take-over attempts - possibly because of their lack of formal organisation structure. There was, in an organisational sense, nothing to take over. However, the leading activists were never members of any political group.

The CUs operated on an open, democratic basis, without officers or officials. Decisions on action were taken, not on a majority basis, but on a basis of discussion and debate until a unanimous decision was reached. They have been described, amongst other things, as anarcho-syndicalists and independent neo-Marxists.

One of the founders of the CU movement was a youthful Joseph Slevin. In 1968 he returned from London to his hometown, South Shields, where he founded the South Shields' Claimants Union (SSCU). In the fertile soil of high unemployment and social deprivation the SSCU took root. It is not surprising that it soon formed an alliance (some would call it 'unholy') with the newly independent South Shields Trades Union Council.

The weekly meetings of the CU were 'open' and attended by some 10-20 social security claimants seeking advice. They were encouraged to discuss their experiences openly in an attempt to destigmatise their status as claimants and it was from these meetings that issues were identified and campaigns developed.

In addition, social security claimants were offered representation at Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) appeals tribunals. It was in this way that several important national precedents were established concerning the interpretation and implementation of social security regulations.

The other activities of the CU included proselytising visits to strikers, pensioners, students and other community groups, who were encouraged to set up their own claims groups to assist their colleagues.

At its peak the movement consisted of something like 120 CUs situated in the major industrial areas; independent bodies but loosely federated in the Claimants Union Federation. In the North East, South Shields was the most active CU, but others were established in Durham, Jarrow/Hebburn, Gateshead and Newcastle.

It is not known how many of these CUs (if any) survive but it is suspected that many metamorphosed into establishment 'rights' organisations.

The South Shields CU could claim a major role in three important achievements:

    • Establishing the right of unemployed students to claim social security benefit while attending college.
    • Establishing the right to heating allowances for pensioners.
    • Setting precedents for trade union, community, and student based, social security 'Claims Committees’.

At national level CUs succeeded in demystifying the bureaucracy of a major agent of social control-the Department of Health and Social Security-and exposed a government department operating with its own internal culture and rules (the notorious secret 'A' code), largely outside parliamentary accountability. The definitive story of the Claimants Unions (CUs) must be left to another writer. It is intended here simply to record what is relevant for the understanding of the events of 1969-1976 in South Shields.

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