Britain: PCS challenge government attack

Following the announcement of an unprecedented offensive by the government on its own employees in the civil service the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) is mobilising its entire membership to take the government head on.

Following the announcement of an unprecedented offensive by the government on its own employees in the civil service the PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) is mobilising its entire membership to take the government head on.

Over the summer we were confronted with a scene that would have been almost comic if it was not so serious. A Labour government vying with the Tories in a bizarre upward spiral of promise and counter-promise over who could deliver the greatest number of job cuts in the civil service.

Gordon Brown announced in July that the government plans to cut 104,000 jobs, one in five, from the service over the next three years. This will cause total chaos. In addition 20,000 jobs are to be relocated from London and the South East. The closure programme has already begun; the DWP announced the closure of the first 40 jobcentres and social security offices last month.

All this comes on top of years of attacks, the latest include changes to terms and conditions, longer hours, and an increase in retirement age to 65. Over the years attacks have been coupled with a vast increase in workload – this has had an effect on morale; in many departments it is at rock bottom and people are taking record amounts of time off work because of stress. The government wants to change sick absence arrangements and not pay for the first three days of sickness – however it is not possible to cure a disease by denying the symptoms.

The union swung into motion by attempting to open negotiations with the employers while building up and preparing their members for a national ballot of all 265,000 members. The union set the first strike action for November 5th, and called for a strong yes vote to give their negotiators more weight. And they got exactly what they were looking for with two to one voting to take action (Yes 64.5%: No 35.5%) on a 42% turnout. The union is trying to build up a strong campaign and they are getting off to a good start by showing the bosses that they mean business and are prepared to take action to back up negotiation.

Through the media the government are trying to drive a wedge in peoples mind between backroom ‘skivers’ and the people in the front line ‘who do all the work’. A cabinet spokeswoman justified the cuts by saying “Our decisions mean more police, teachers, doctors and nurses. We will not be diverted from this essential investment and we hope to continue to discuss with the unions in a constructive way.”

This distinction between frontline staff and backroom staff is a nonsense it is obvious that one depends on the other to provide a service –cuts are not going to improve the service.

Exact details of how the cuts will be distributed have not been given but a rough breakdown between department’s show that all will be hit and the impact will be greater in some than others.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), is one of the biggest losers – it is an easy target because of the constant tabloid onslaught against benefits claimants. In the DWP, as in all other departments these cuts are going to result in closures, and place a greater workload on remaining staff. It is also a painful irony that many of those who are sacked will end up sitting on the other side of the desk claiming benefit.

The union is prepared to negotiate but is standing by the principle of total opposition to any involuntary job losses or relocations. At the moment departments looking at the numbers they have to cut will also be keeping an eye on their budgets by trying to force out those who are cheap and easy to sack. And it is not only the issue of jobs – if the government succeeds in carrying through these sackings they would be able to revise the terms and conditions of the entire workforce at will.

The union has so far planned a one-day strike and developed a programme of rallies and meetings in every area. This will build morale among members, a large number of whom are going on strike for the first time.

The example of the recent firefighters strike showed that the Blair government will try to use all their power to defeat and crush a union into submission. The civil servants will have to wage a hard struggle to defend their jobs and conditions. Negotiation is absolutely necessary, as is the tactic of a one-day strike. However if these do not change the governments mind the union will have to up the stakes by building up the campaign. The most effective tactic will be to pull out key sectors for longer periods to put the squeeze on the government.

The firefighters strike showed that the Blair government was not only prepared but was eager to take on the unions. But it also showed that public opinion, and the trade union movement as a whole will get behind this kind of struggle. Support from the movement will play a key role in the dispute if it is to be successful, and its outcome will be important for the rest of the movement.

This dispute also has a strong political aspect to it – these workers are directly employed by the state under a Labour government that is attacking workers in the interests of big business. That shouldn’t be tolerated any longer. The trade unions must open up a struggle against the Blairites for control of the Labour Party to return it to socialist policies that reflect the aspirations and interests of working people.

Note: PCS activities are taking place in every area of the country. For full details consult the PCS website: www.pcs.org.uk

From the British Socialist Appeal,