By a PCS member
THE 1st May “Labour Day” strike by PCS, the largest civil service union, saw action by 200,000 civil and public servants disrupt the administration of Britain - a bitter farewell to Tony Blair and a “enough is enough” message to Gordon Brown.
It was the second national one-day strike over pay, job cuts and privatisation by PCS members and all the signs are that the support for the second day was as high as it was for the first. The action hit jobcentres, benefits offices, customs, tax offices, the courts (including the Old Bailey where only three of 20 courts were open), the wider criminal justice system, museums and galleries, driving tests.
The jobs of PCS members are not the images of a civil servant normally seen on television - and nor is their pay, job security or social class. Huge numbers of PCS members struggle to get by on low pay whilst delivering key services under the threat of job loss, rising workplace pressures, and privatisation.
PCS’s demand for a guarantee of at least inflation proof increases for all members runs directly counter to Brown’s public sector pay slashing policy (pay bill increases limited to 2% when RPI inflation is nearly 5%) and should be supported and built upon by other public sector unions.
Without discounting any of the difficulties (the politics of the union leaders, the different pay arrangements and pay structures, etc), there is a material and political basis for public sector trade union unity, with all the main public sector unions adopting positions of opposition to Brown's pay policy.
It is up to us, the members and activists of the different unions in the civil service, education, local government and elsewhere to fight for pay unity and where necessary impose it on our respective union leaderships.
Brown combines his pay slashing policy with a continuing commitment to culling jobs and privatising the public sector. The whole public sector is under attack. PCS’s demands for a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies and for no further privatisation without agreements that protect the transferred workers are right, as far as they go, but are limited. We need a halt to the job loss, to the transfer of services, and to the rising work burdens. A wider public sector agenda for the unions would help in cutting across the real or perceived differences.
A public sector wide campaign, coupling industrial action with positive political campaigning against Brown's public sector agenda and regressive taxation policy, would generate a great deal of confidence in its ability to force real, material concessions from Brown. A lot more public sector workers would be confident about taking action if they knew that it would be alongside other public sector workers. Indeed thousands of non-members would be recruited into the different unions.
Of course whilst we live in eternal hope for the souls of the various public sector union leaders, PCS members cannot and should not rely on them to lead a serious united fight. The same people called off the joint pensions dispute, settling for a reserved rights deal and some loss of benefits in some of the current schemes, without a single shot being fired. It is the job of serious activists to forge links across the unions, to formulate common demands, map out a line of march, fight for that within each union, and keep the union leaders under pressure. The PCS leadership should be encouraging such links across the country.
As Mark Serwortka, PCS General Secretary, has pointed out, it would be great if other unions join a common fight but the PCS leadership launched the dispute and has the responsibility for winning it. These issues and others will dominate the political agenda of PCS conference (16th-18th May).
The PCS Executive has hitherto rejected the idea of a national levy and selective action to go alongside national action. Yet they rightly do not believe that members are about to vote for all out action and they are unable to set out what happens next.
Brown will not concede on major demands such as a guaranteed rate-of-inflation increase for all and a “fair pay system” that takes us some way to a restoration of national civil service pay rates and national pay bargaining, on the basis of PCS’s periodic one day national strikes. The national days of action have to be supplemented by highly effective, highly painful, selective action.
It is a fact that the most successful pay dispute of recent years, in terms of pay outcomes and irrespective of criticisms that some activists had at the time, was in DEFRA, before the Left Unity Executive, and was won on the basis of selective action.