By a civil servant
When PCS, Unison and other public sector unions called off their planned 23 March strike over pensions (and jobs and pay in the case of PCS), Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of PCS claimed “…it is on the basis of meaningful negotiation, in giving people real choices and a real flexibility about their pensions, that the decision to postpone Wednesday’s strike has been taken”.
However, New Labour has given no sign of granting any such thing. Even worse, it is now clear that the PCS leadership had not even truly “suspended” the industrial action but called it off altogether.
Under New Labour’s anti-union legislation industrial action must be taken within a set period of the ballot result or any subsequent strike ceases to be legal. The law does, however, allow employers to agree to an extension to the legal deadline. Serwotka told the PCS National Executive on 22 March that the Government would be conceding such agreement. It now transpires this was not true.
Serwotka’s statement was based on a belief that Unison had been granted such an extension. In fact Unison had not been given this.
When this was discovered, and the Cabinet Office therefore refused to grant an extension, the union did not kick up a fuss and just accepted the Cabinet Office dictat. Thus the legal ballot expired on the 8 April. PCS now has no strike mandate. We did not suspend our action — we lost it.
The PCS leadership did not even ask for the employer’s agreement to an extension until 24 March, days after it had called off its strike action.
The PCS leadership appears utterly relaxed about this, and saw no need to tell the Executive let alone the PCS rank and file, that the “suspended strike” had ceased to be both suspended and a strike.
Within PCS the Socialist Party (the dominant influence on the Executive) is suggesting that calling off the strike and losing the ballot mandate — in exchange for negotiations on the single issue of the government’s proposed increase to the pension age — is the best possible tactical move in the best possible of trade union worlds.
The SP’s role within PCS contrasts with the pompous, ponderous editorial of the SP journal, The Socialist, on 19 March: “Correctly, the PCS civil service union is keeping its ballot for action in place, and only suspending the strike scheduled for 23 March, to wait and see if the government delivers on its promises before the likely general election on 5 May.”
In fact the SP members on the PCS Executive were very clear that there would be no substantive negotiations until after the general election.
The Socialist editorial continued: “Other unions that were balloting for action, such as education unions Natfhe and the NUT, should have continued with their ballots to ensure they have a mandate for action. Both these unions have now called off their ballots which we think is a mistake. The threat of action before a general election is still needed to ensure the government departments start genuine negotiations immediately.”
We will all be dead, however, before the Socialist declares that the PCS leadership has made a mistake — because that would mean reproaching a union leadership in which the SP is central. Serious and consistent people, however, can only conclude that the SP members on the PCS Executive do not believe that the “threat of action”, let alone the strike that members actually voted for, is required to keep New Labour on the straight and narrow.
Meanwhile, PCS members have already been issued with formal notices of compulsory redundancy and one Department of Work and Pensions branch is having to discuss taking all-out indefinite action against office closure. But that will be in total isolation from wider national action.
Having backed the SP all the way down the line on calling off the strike for 23 March, the SWP (whose two PCS NEC members voted to call off the strike) are calling for all-out indefinite strike action of civil service offices threatened with closure!
Of course PCS was not the only union to call off its planned action. It is, however, the only union led by a would-be radical executive majority with would-be Marxist senior full-time officers.
Delegates at the National Union of Teachers annual conference agreed to ballot for industrial action if New Labour does not abandon its pension attacks. It would be preferable if such action were taking place now and not waiting on New Labour to carry through its assault on pensions. Nevertheless, the NUT decision points in the right direction.
Activists across the public sector unions now need to build to relaunch the campaign to defend pensions link that issue to the wider defence of public services, jobs and pay.