Teesside Marchers Teesside activists protested outside job centres on Wednesday to build the march. A vibrant and passionate march through the centre of Middlesbrough on Saturday drew media and public attention to punitive "sanctions" (the denial of benefit money) against social security claimants. Around 100 people took part in the protest.

Protesters in Middlesbrough voiced opposition to the government’s scapegoating and cuts on Saturday

Speeches were given by unemployed people made homeless by cuts and by activists – waged and unwaged – who had leafleted job centres to build the march.

The #TeesNo2Sanctions demonstration was organised by the Teesside branch of Unite Community, the membership scheme for unwaged people in Unite the Union. It was supported by activists in the People’s Assembly and the Teesside Solidarity Movement network. At the end, food and warm beverages were served to cold protestors before the crowd dispersed.

Every protest has a reactionary passer-by who shouts “get a job” – in this case, the comment couldn’t have been more inappropriate. One woman, on her first demonstration, was visibly and vocally angry at this throwaway remark.

The government argues sanctions are a last resort, used as a stick to beat ‘shirkers’. But locally, job centre staff tell of pressure from managers to punish claimants with the withdrawal of their income. The flimsy reasons given for sanctions – incorrectly filled forms, being late in arriving at the job centre – seem to confirm this.

Punishing unemployed people does not create new jobs. It just increases demand for help from food banks. Teesside People’s Assembly’s Steve Cooke said: “People who are unemployed, who are sick or unable to work for various reasons, are being stigmatised, scapegoated and punished, having their benefits withdrawn for the pettiest of reasons”.

Pro-cuts politicians like local Tory MP James Wharton champion sanctions for benefit claimants, while saying nothing about the tens of billions of pounds lost to wealthy tax dodgers every year. It is in fact a form of scapegoating that accompanies the cuts to services and welfare.

On Wednesday, a protest had been held outside the job centre to coincide with the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in which billions of future spending cuts were announced – including the freezing of in-work benefits. Rising Tory MPs are calling on George Osborne to extend the attacks even further with demands for cuts to the state pension.

Academics at Teesside University have studied the local labour market, finding no evidence that unemployed claimants were “living a life on benefits” as politicians and the press have suggested. Britain’s flexible labour markets – for employers, not workers – mean that a more typical situation is a cycle of short periods of employment and unemployment.

With Labour “opposing” the Tory-Liberal coalition with their own form of workfare, there was little hope amongst protestors that a change in government would end the attack on those on low incomes. The protest’s organisers are clear that they intend further demonstrations, and in neighbouring towns, in the run up to the election – challenging the austerity myths on the streets.

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