Charlie McDonald, Public and Commercial Services union DWP Group Executive (personal capacity)
TENS of thousands of Public and Commercial Services union members in the government’s biggest department, Work and Pensions, struck on 2 and 3 May against Gordon Brown’s job cuts.
The cuts started with the 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review. 30,000 posts were to be cut over a three-year period. Management have openly admitted that they are making significant progress towards this target. In a letter to all staff prior to the strike, permanent secretary Leigh Lewis stated:
“We are also now nearly 60% of the way towards our headcount reduction target of 30,000. By the end of March (2006), the total reduction had reached 17,700. And we have done this without compulsory redundancies save in one single, isolated, case.”
“Constructive talks”, according to those who had access to such information, had taken place following a successful two day strike at the end of January, but at the last minute management drew back from agreeing the key union demand of an agreement on no compulsory redundancies.
When “voluntary” redundancy schemes are advertised they are invariably over-subscribed as DWP workers are sick to the back teeth of management’s bullying, target-driven regime, the punitive sick procedures which have seen over 1,000 staff sacked in the past year, the understandable grief they get from claimants due to system meltdown through lack of staff and the miserly pay they receive.
One of the problems in the stop-start nature of the campaign has been that negotiations have been taking place in virtual secrecy. No reports were issued during the negotiations as to how these were progressing, what where management likely to concede etc. If we are to ensure that the membership feel ownership of this campaign it is essential that they are given as much information as possible and are involved in every aspect of planning.
The gap between the January strike and the calling of action in May meant many activists were worried that the momentum built had been lost but, thankfully, this proved not to be the case, with anecdotal evidence from picket lines and leaked reports from management suggesting that slightly more workers joined the strike this time round. Socialist Caucus supporters, who form a minority of 6 on the 36 seat Group Executive argued that we must name dates whilst negotiations were ongoing, in order to pressurise management, but this was dismissed by the Left Unity majority, dominated by the Socialist Party and it’s satellites, as being an act of bad faith.
So much for the good faith of the bosses! An overtime ban is in operation but picketing of overtime appears to be patchy, with two notable exceptions of Sheffield and East London, where picketing has happened almost every weekend since the overtime ban was implemented at the end of January. PCS has calculated from a recent staff survey that the equivalent of 5,300 full time posts is being worked in overtime every year. This was at a point when the job cuts had reached 15,000 (and of course the figure is now 17,700). The Union should demand, as a minimum, the immediate recruitment of 8,000 staff to ensure that a proper service is restored and that stress is relieved.
At the London strike rally General Secretary Mark Serwotka said that he felt that the reason management were not prepared to settle the dispute was because they had even more
unpalatable news for the DWP workforce in the pipeline, possibly the privatisation of the complete network. This would put the bosses back into dispute with PCS, so why settle now?
Serwotka also said that the National Executive were keen on a national ballot for discontinuous action across all Civil Service departments with the action likely to start in the Autumn of this year. He added, however, that should Unison, which recently carried a motion at its Health Service Group conference to “find ways to take national industrial action against the cuts”, ballot for national strike action over job cuts in the NHS, PCS should co-ordinate action with them. Rank and file activists in Unison and PCSU should work to build the pressure to make these calls realities. PCS branches should invite Unison health representatives to their meetings and vice versa.
The PCS DWP Group Executive now wants branches and regions to have discussions on targeting workplaces for local action. They will be meeting on 23 May to discuss the next stages of the campaign.
Socialist Caucus believes that we can win this campaign, but if we are to do so we need strategy that so far our Left Unity leadership in the DWP and PCS as a whole has failed to provide.