On 5 November civil service workers in the PCS union will be taking part in the first civil service-wide strike since 1993. They will strike against the Government’s proposal to axe 104,500 civil service jobs — one in five of all civil service jobs. Members of the union voted two to one on a 42 % turnout for the strike.
By a Civil Servant
At the end of October 3,000 non-union members have joined PCS as a result of the planned strike. Every time the union fights on key issues existing members are enthused, new reps come forward, and non-members join by the wagon load. What is the background to the dispute and can the union win?
Contrary to Government’s pious claims these cuts are not about “shifting resources to front line services.” Closing 42 offices in the Department of Works and Pensions will mean claimants having to travel further, for a service being delivered by far fewer people struggling to cope with an already heavy workload. One of the DWP offices targeted for closure is Durham — selected because the short length of service of most of its staff will result in a low redundancy cost!
Most civil servants are engaged in either the direct delivery of services (the payment of pensions and benefits, provision of coast guard services, etc) or in the tax gathering that pays for services (Inland Revenue etc).
The TUC has calculated that the civil service job cuts will save under £1 billion a year, yet the public sector savings target set by Brown is £22 billion. Therefore Brown still has to find £21 billions of cuts. In the fine print of his plans are cuts of £6 billion each from Local Government and the NHS.
ATTACK ON THE SICK
This level of cuts mean compulsory redundancies, more workplace stress, more insecurity, lower job prospects, and more pressure on the sick to come into work. Indeed Gordon Brown has also announced a proposal to curtail “uncertified absences” (which is code for forcing ill people back to work as the NHS does not provide certificates for short term absences). The PCS understands that Whitehall mandarins are looking at the new sick pay arrangements at Tesco where workers are not paid for the first three days of work.
These attacks will fall squarely on lower grades workers. It has been long established that among civil servants the lower the grade, the higher the sick and death rate.
As well as a slash and burn job cuts policy the Government wants 20,000 jobs to be relocated out from London and the south-east. The Government cover story, talk of “regeneration” and “efficiency”, is again dishonest. The Government wants to move jobs to cheaper parts of the country (not those necessarily most in need of regeneration), looking for cheaper accommodation and lower wages. If it were all about regeneration, why is the DWP shutting an office in one of the poorest parts of Liverpool?
NATIONAL PAY AND PENSIONS
Ten years ago there was one set of civil service terms and conditions of employment, negotiated between the national unions and Cabinet Office/Treasury. Now there are over 190 different sets of pay and other terms applying within “delegated bargaining units” all working within Treasury’s tight pay-bill controls. This centrally-driven divide and rule policy has resulted in wild and arbitrary variations in pay across the civil service for the same grade and tens of thousands of members stuck on chronically low levels of pay. The differences in pay feed into different pension lump sums, different pensions and different redundancy entitlements — a lifetime of inequality.
But New Labour is not content with savings from its divide and rule pay policy. It also wants pension rule changes that will to compel staff to work until 65 or see their pension reduced for retiring before 65 (the current pension age is 60).
Some two years ago the Government argued that “savings will accrue from increasing the [civil service] pension age from 60 to 65 and will help ensure pensions remain affordable.” The veiled threat is that the civil service final salary pension scheme would become “unaffordable” unless we agree to work to 65. However reports emanating from within the civil service, combined with a leak to the Sunday Times, show that the Government wants in any case to end the final salary scheme.
WHERE NEXT AFTER THE ONE DAY STRIKE?
It is a great thing that the PCS is asserting itself against the arrogance of New Labour.
However our enthusiasm for the strike needs to be tempered with realism. A one day strike will not defeat the government.
For its part, the Left Unity-led PCS National Executive Committee intends to use the one day strike as a spring board for political campaigning on the issues and for industrial action in bargaining units where they think they can deliver it. It is a strategy resting on the confidence and industrial muscle of members in the different bargaining areas.
On one level this is sensible. If DWP members are prepared to fight on cuts they should not be held back by members in departments where the cuts are considerably smaller.
However, members in departments such as DTI and DoH, where the cuts are also severe, have no real tradition of industrial action and it will be difficult to defeat the job losses if they have to fight alone, albeit with the mantra of “co-ordination.”
In any case, the policy of “back to the Groups” (the separate PCS organisations in the 190-plus delegated bargaining units) will not deliver the action necessary to defend a civil service wide pension scheme and win a return to a national pay system. Pay and pensions are the glue that will hold the national membership together in a common fight in a way that the attacks on jobs and sick leave cannot because those attacks will hit different members in different ways, at different times.
The inclusion of pay as one of the issues in this dispute reflects the serious efforts of NEC members allied to the Socialist Caucus to argue that pay has to be part of the fight (Socialist Caucus is a grouping of left activists within Left Unity). But pay remains far too peripheral in the material the union is issuing. One way to take the pay issue forward is for PCS to submit a national claim to the Treasury and to fight for it if Treasury simply reject it.
The lack of a pay and pensions strategy signals an unjustified lack of confidence and will hinder the union’s ability to win the wider public sector unity it wants on pensions. We need national action combined with an intelligent campaign of selective action.
To win the PCS has to put itself on a war footing, and one element of that is to start raising a levy amongst the membership to boost the strike fund. The need for a levy has been raised repeatedly by Socialist Caucus NEC members. It has finally been agreed but we await the full details of its operation. This needs to happen quickly if the union leadership is to lead a serious battle. If the dispute is led with imagination and boldness there is no doubt the PCS can win.