By Gerry Bates
Civil service workers staged their biggest strike for a decade on 16 and 17 February, stopping work in the Department of Work and Pensions and the Driving Standards Agency to demand better pay.
Despite the loss of momentum because the PCS union's DWP Group Executive Committee postponed the action from its initial date of 29-30 January and thus broke the link with other sections such as the Department of Constitutional Affairs, the strike was extremely strong.
The union has now called a work to rule in the DWP, and is holding a meeting of branch delegates in Leeds on 6 March to discuss further action. The campaign both pursues unfinished business from the 2003 pay rounds and leads in to the 2004 pay campaign, in which the union plans to submit one pay claim on behalf of all civil service workers instead of 172 different claims for the different bargaining units in departments and agencies into which successive governments have divided the workforce.
London strikers gathered in Bloomsbury for a rally. After union officials had spoken at length, the chair promised fifteen minutes for "questions".
Strikers, however, used the time to do more than just make requests. Charlie McDonald called for a national strike committee of accountable delegates, and a cross-department strike committee in each town or city.
He argued for starting a serious discussion on how to develop the dispute. To beat the Treasury we need escalation, in one way or another.
Maximum coordination with other departments'action is vital. After two days' strike action, next three days, then a week, then, if the Treasury still does not budge, indefinite?
The union leadership, however, is sluggish. PCS president Janice Godrich used her summing-up in London to attack Charlie McDonald, to seek to smother all criticism under demagogic appeals for unity, and to try to defuse debate about further action by saying that she "ruled nothing in and nothing out"and the responsible committees would decide in due course after full "consultation".
Whether DWP workers are ready for bolder action, we still don't know. There is no way of finding out other than making proposals and starting a democratic discussion.