Industry matters: Strike in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS)

On Wednesday 31 January, the PCS called a one-day strike to protest against job losses in the civil service, as well as against below-inflation wage rises that will inflict greater poverty on its members.

Although the PCS is a white collar union, 83 percent of its members are earning less than the national average wage. Over half earn under £20,000 a year, and a quarter earn less than £15,000. Large numbers are forced to claim benefit to top up their meagre wages.

The government is nevertheless carrying out its privatisation agenda in the civil service, which means that jobs are being axed by the thousand. There have already been 35 compulsory redundancies in DEFRA and the DTI, but the government is seeking to ‘lose’ another 50,000 by 2008. Of course, redundancy packages are being offered, but these are not particularly generous and for many will not cover their debts, as a result of which the take-up rate is not high. Failure to fight would mean hundreds more compulsory redundancies.

In fact, of course, the posts are not really redundant. The work is simply handed over to agency staff for whom the government pays up to 10 times as much as it paid the workers who previously did the job. Massive sums are being paid to ‘consultants’: for instance, Revenue & Customs have announced that they are going to cut 12,500 jobs (in addition to those that have already gone) and that they are closing hundreds of local offices. This will bring about a saving, they say, of £105m. But £106m has been spent on management consultants advising on this closure programme! Equally, work farmed out to contractors costs up to four times what it costs for it to be carried out by permanent staff. However, big business is happy that the government is spending taxpayer’s money on boosting its profits.

Public service workers, who are essential for tax collection, the running of the courts, the assessment of benefits and pensions etc, are in a strong position to put pressure on the government. Provided that the union and its members keep their nerve, there is no reason why the PCS could not fight off the government’s proposals for reform – proposals for reform for the worse for the public, to say nothing of public service workers.

The one-day strike had the support of some 200,000 of Britain’s civil servants. It closed several courts, the British Library, the Tate Modern and the Welsh Assembly, while none of the 500,000 tax returns expected to be submitted could be processed until the staff returned to work. The union has also called for a two-week overtime ban, and is considering a variety of other actions that cause ‘minimum hardship to their members’ while helping to educate the public as to what is happening to the civil service.

Many PCS members, however, are unhappy with the low level of action. One-day strikes are the favoured method of protest of today’s toothless union leaderships, enabling them to give the appearance of ‘militant’ action while causing minimum disruption for employers before quietly caving in on almost all the important issues.

Phased pension attacks

There is also concern over concessions that have already been made on pay and pensions (concessions that the PCS leadership has presented as a ‘victory’). Most important is the acceptance of a measure whereby new employees’ pension contributions are to be greatly increased and their retirement age raised. This tactic of ‘softening’ the blow and undermining resistance to serious cuts in pension provision by applying it only to ‘future’ members of staff is divisive in the extreme, and is by no means limited to the civil service.

Broadcast union BECTU recently allowed the BBC to set up a new, far worse, pension scheme for future employees, with hardly a murmur raised, despite the fact that the working class has plenty of experience to show that allowing such divisions to be created between sections of the same workforce makes it all too easy for the employers to come back and attack the rights of the more ‘privileged’ sections a few years down the line, when staff turnover means there are plenty of employees in the new, inferior pension scheme who will have no interest in supporting strike action to defend the more adequate pensions of their colleagues!

Despite the fact that this phased approach to pension cuts is clearly a serious issue for all employees, not only those who will immediately be joining the inferior pension scheme, union leaderships hide their sell-out of workers’ interests by blaming member apathy – an apathy that they do everything to encourage by giving their members the impression that the new pension plans are only an issue for future employees, and that their own pensions are safe!

Illusions in Labour

In the forthcoming council elections in May, if the dispute is not by then resolved, the union will be organising to interview every candidate from every party as to his or her views on civil service reform, and to publish the results to all members with a view to ensuring that only those people prepared to defend the civil service are elected. We would suggest that it is not necessary carry out this exercise, as all candidates elected will follow their party’s line on this issue – it would therefore suffice merely to ask the various parties where they stand and publish that information. That would in most cases, no doubt, leave PCS members bereft of anyone to vote for, but this is better than having them vote for people who claim to support their cause but who are bound to a party that does not – and, of course, this will overwhelmingly be Labour Party candidates.

The union would do better to take a firm stand against the imperialist Labour Party, recognising it for once and for all for what it is – there has surely been more than enough evidence of this by now – rather than continue to try to spread the hope that somehow, by voting for the right people or whatever, the Labour Party is going to change.