The Claimants Union
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
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
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
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
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