London Coalition Against Poverty

Direct Action Casework

This is an article about the history of direct action casework, and some of the ideas behind it.  If you are looking for advice, support, or solidarity with an injustice you are facing, please see our Advice and Support page.

‘Direct action casework’ is a name LCAP uses for a number of different tactics used by poor and working class people for decades, all over the world. As long as there has been unemployment, homelessness, poor housing, and other institutional disfunction, people have often found that acting together, disruptively if necessary, is the only effective way to win improvements to their conditions, and that of their families.

Direct action casework, or ‘direct action advocacy’, is about using direct action to pressure an institution to accept the demands of an individual, family, or small group. That institution might be a housing office, a job centre, a local authority, a landlord or perhaps an employer. Though they might not have used the name, direct action casework was used by the unemployed workers movement in the US during the Great Depression.

Some people came to believe that if there were no jobs if the factories and offices and workshops turned them away, then they had a right to the income they needed to survive anyway. Fired by this new indignation, crowds of jobless men and women descended on relief offices, cornered and harassed administrators, and even took over the offices until their demands were met, until money or goods were distributed to them.

(LCAP does not support ‘harassing’ individual workers: we practice institutional disruption, and look for solidarity with all workers – we operate in a very different context.)  According to a 1937 report by the American Public Welfare Association:

Relief offices were approached by large committees, numbering ten, fifteen, twenty, and sometimes more persons, which demanded immediate audience, without previous appointment and regardless of staff members’ schedules. . . – Frequently these large committees were buttressed by neighborhood crowds which gathered outside the relief office and waited while committees within presented “demands”.

Unemployed workers also fought evictions, which could also be characterised as ‘direct action casework’. The numbers involved ranged from ‘small bands’ to more than a thousand. According to two academics, 77,000 people were restored to their homes in New York during the Great Depression by this method. Here is an excerpt from a newspaper in Washington State during the period.

Together with street mobilisations, many of which turned to riots, this ‘casework’ was the basis of the unemployed workers movement. Together with the industrial workers movement, this forced Roosevelt to institute the ‘New Deal’ – a product not of the benevolence of politicians, but of the activity of unemployed and working people.

The unemployed workers’ movement in Britain during the same period had a rather different character; based on mass campaigning to the exclusion of individual casework.  Wal Hannington, in his book Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936, describes how mass delegations of the unemployed targeted the meetings of the ‘guardians’ – the officials charged with setting the ‘relief’ rates locally.  On more than one occasion, the guardians’ meetings were occupied.  The unemployed workers also carried out ‘raids’ against companies which were sacking workers unnecessarily, paying below union wages, or using over time when they should have been hiring more workers, occupying the factories and demanding meetings with management.

In the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, direct action as a response to individual need reared its head again.  Welfare rights organisations on both sides of the Atlantic rose up from below, in the form of claimants unions, and the ‘law centres movement’.   Independent welfare rights action was recognised as a threat by governments on both sides of the Atlantic who took what seems now like an unusual step – one which was also toward the end of the ’30s movements.  Community organisers who had been organising direct action casework and campaigning were employed by government and local authority as a sort of official, internal opposition.  They were still allowed to take direct action on a certain level, but ultimately – as with the law centres – reliance on government funding removed the movement’s independence and, in the long run, its effectiveness.  As a law centre worker, up until very recently, taking some form of direct action with a client – e.g. refusing to leave an office – used to be relatively commonplace.  Nowadays, it is quite likely that the office manager would complain to the council, who adminster the funding for which the law centre competes, against equivalent bodies.  This governmental co-option of the welfare rights movement is part of the reason that independent, unofficial organisations like LCAP are necessary.

During the victorious anti poll tax struggle in Britain (1988-1991) resisting bailiffs was a mainstay of the movement.  In his excellent account of the struggle, Poll Tax Rebellion, Danny Burns recounts how numbers ranging from a dozen to several hundred would confront bailiffs, turning them away from the houses of non-payers, or preventing the ‘poindings’ as the sales of confiscated goods are called in Scotland.

Throughout Britain, city-wide bailiff busting groups were formed.  Activists in Edinburgh formed a group called ‘Scum-busters’ which was equipped with CB radios and squadrons of cars.  Telephone trees were organised; bailiff companies were monitored; their car registration numbers were taken and distributed to activists in all the local areas. (p152)

At the first attempt by bailiffs to force entry to a house in Scotland, in Glasgow, over three hundred people turned up.  The bailiffs went home.  This pattern was repeated around the country, hundreds of times over.  And it was certainly effective.

By April 1991 (after the Poll Tax had been introduced for a year), few bailiff companies had recovered enough to survive on.  Bristol City Council for example had only received £54,000 in response to their threatening letters from a total of over 120,000 non payers. (p161)

The purpose of this article is not to claim that all solidarity and direct action by working class people over the last century can be gathered under the label ‘direct action casework’.   Certainly, taking on individual problems one by one is in no way sufficient, and in all the cases given casework took place as part of a mass movement.  Collective organising, and mobilising for broader change is its neccesary complement.  But casework does allow us to engage with people on the basis of direct action and solidarity in a way which we would be difficult when their confidence is low, and they are preoccupied with day to day concerns.

LCAP picked up the method of direct action casework from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, based in Toronto, Canada, after two future LCAP activists visited OCAP, and saw their work first hand.  You can read a short history of OCAP here.  OCAP have refined and formalised the practice of direct action casework since their formation in 1990, and currently employ three full time organisers.  Welfare offices in Toronto are now so used to direct action tactics that a fax on OCAP headed paper is frequently enough to cause the office to change its position.  Peterborough Coalition Against Poverty, a sister organisation to OCAP, says that direct action advocacy is based on four principles.

  1. To combine legal work with disruptive action
  2. Not to duplicate the work of legal clinics or other agencies
  3. To forward political goals but never compromise the interests of those you are working with in the process
  4. To empower those you are working with, rather than simply provide a service.

That legal work is combined with disruptive action does not mean that direct action advocacy can only be used to enforce leegal rights, though that is certainly one of its uses.  The potential application of the approach is essentially unlimited, as this account by OCAP of two of their actions shows:

When a Hollywood movie production drove sex workers from a downtown street without compensation (which had been given to small businesses for lost earnings during the shoot) we disrupted filming with a contingent of people. The next day an envelope full of bills arrived at our office for the workers. When a restaurant owner successfully lobbied to close a downtown shelter we ran an ongoing picket at his business until he asked the City to allow the shelter to be reopened.

One of LCAP’s first cases also illustrates the potential synergy between legal work and direct action:

LCAP was approached by a woman whose application for housing had been turned down. Because of this her temporary accommodation had been withdrawn and she and her child were facing homelessness. LCAP brought 10 people to the Housing Office to demand that her accommodation was extended for one month to allow her time to approach social services for help. After LCAP refused to leave, the Housing Office grudgingly backed down, stating “That wasn’t a request it was a threat”! Social Services refused to act to keep the family off the streets so LCAP went around to their hostel room and helped them to resist eviction by changing the locks and refusing to leave. This gave the woman’s solicitor time to enter a Judicial Review of Social Service’s refusal to act and obtain an interim order preventing eviction.

LCAP is by no means the only group taking direct action to defend day to day life from assaults by bureaucracies and bosses.  A sister organisation of LCAP, the North East London Squatters Network, operates an emergency phone tree.  If a squat is at threat of eviction, a decent number of squatters can be mobilised within half an hour to face down bailiffs or heavies.  The group has resisted around a dozen evictions in the past year.  The Disabled People’s Direct Action Network and a Birmingham based group known as Housing4All have taken direct action on individual cases.  For example in the case of a wheelchair user made homeless by Birmingham City Council.  After the action, we understand that the man was housed.  You can also read a report of a meeting between the group and the Council.

Although on a smaller scale than in the past, direct action casework is alive and kicking.  LCAP is frequently contacted by people who want to take direct action to defend themselves and their families.  If that’s you, or if you’d like to work as an organiser with some of those people (we provide training), please get in touch or come to a meeting – LCAP is for you!

If you know of any stories of ‘direct action casework’ either today, or in the past, please send us an email to let us know.  We’re keen to spread stories of direct action being used to improve everyday life.