The PCS national dispute is a necessary strike against a gratuitous government pay policy that is squeezing public sector workers at a time of sharply rising costs. It is a fight we have to win if civil servants are not to have their living standards slashed this year and in coming years.
PCS organising defensive industrial action across many tens of thousands of workers challenges the very logic of British politics today that sees workers wages squeezed while the rich get richer and bankers get bailed out. There is a great deal of potential to build on the dispute, recruit new members, defend our living standards, inspire members of other unions, and challenge the kind of politics that seeks to make workers pay for the current financial crisis.
Undoubtedly the build up to the strike has been affected by the financial crisis, as many members have expressed anxiety about the future. Nevertheless it was right to call the strike action in the light of the clear majority vote and wrong to suspend it with nothing on the table. The alternative is to roll over and see our living standards slashed. Indeed, we can be certain that Brown is looking to cut civil service severance terms and will do so if he senses weakness.
In truth the dispute goes to the heart of what is rotten about present day Britain. After years of Thatcherite and New Labour rule, Britain is a land where the gap between the super rich and the rest is growing wider by the day. We live in an age of grotesque inequality in which incredible wealth is more publicly flaunted than it has been for many decades. That remains true despite the Government forking out billions of pounds of our money to shore up banks brought low by speculation, complex financial scams and sharp practices. It is not the homes of bankers, city spivs and wide-boys that are now being repossessed.
The Sunday Times Rich List estimates that the richest 1,000 richest people in the country now have more than £400bn between them. Last year the Washington Post reported, “They call themselves "the haves and the have yachts": rich London bankers and traders who drop tens of thousands of dollars for an evening of cocktails...”
Former Independent on Sunday Editor, Peter Wilby, pointed out in September, “Over the past five years alone, the average earnings of chief executives of FTSE-100 companies have doubled to £3.2m. Their pay has been rising five times faster than their employees'. The top 1 per cent of the population now enjoy 23 per cent of national wealth, while the poorest half share a mere 6 per cent. For most of the 20th century, Britain became steadily more equal. For the past three decades the movement has been in the opposite direction and it is estimated that Britain's wealthiest person, Lakshmi Mittal, is worth more than twice as much as anybody in the past 150 years.”
Yet the income Gordon Brown is determined to hold down, to cut in real terms, is the income of public sector workers. As PCS has pointed out, “...a quarter of the civil service [earn] less than £16,500 and thousands [earn] just above the minimum wage.” Earlier this year, responding to Tory attacks on senior civil service bonuses, a Cabinet Office spokesman stated, “The average civil service salary is £20,010 and this represents excellent value for money in delivering world class public services such as paying benefits, pensions and running employment services. These include hard working families that are facing the current difficult economic climate like everyone else. They should be rewarded for their
efforts in ensuring our public services continue to improve.” £20,010 is such good value the Government wants to cut it and get even better value.
In the meantime a Permanent Secretary can earn some £270,000, Gus O'Donnell, head of the Civil Service, has a pension fund of more than £2million, and MPs are entitled to claim up to £24,000 on the “John Lewis gift list” for furnishing their second homes - £4000 more than the “excellent value for money” civil service average salary (it is a good job the mandarins get so much or the average civil service salary would be lower still).
The PCS dispute throws these realities of our society into sharp relief. According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust, based on 2007 statistics, “the public sector is a large employer of workers earning less than £7 per hour, accounting for a quarter of all such employees... the public sector employs relatively few adults of the age group where low pay is most prevalent, namely those under the age of 25. If this age group is excluded then the share of low paid workers who are in the public sector rises to 30%. Just about all of these are women.” (The £7 per hour low pay threshold is commonly used; it was, until recently, roughly two-thirds of median hourly earnings in Great Britain.) These workers are facing a real inflation way ahead of the Government’s RPI and CPI figures. The Daily Mail calculates, “…someone spending £100 a week on food last year will have to find another £712 this year to put the same items on the table.”
However the Rowntree figures exclude those employed by contractors in the state sector — including tens of thousands of cleaners, catering and security staff, messengers and others on very low pay and denied the occupational pension schemes, sick pay rights and annual leave granted to directly-employed public sector workers. When these workers are included New Labour’s responsibility for low pay rises even more.
A national fight back on civil service pay has to include the politics that underlie that dispute and ought to lead the unions to the need for a workers’ alternative plan that will answer the most immediate concerns of workers and stop the crisis being dumped on workers backs. It is impossible to speak of the civil service without speaking about low pay, inequality within and without that employment sector, inflation, the struggle to keep going, and the privatisation and regressive taxation policies of the government.