Crunch time for PCS

Chris Ford, Central and West London (Benefits Agency) branch secretary of the Public and Civil Service Union, reports on the safety dispute in benefit offices

The national executive committee of our union met on February 12 to consider the next step in what is currently the largest industrial dispute in the country. It delayed any decision on further action pending the slim possibility of talks. We have now been engaged in a campaign of strike action since September 4 2001, when 154 low paid civil servants in Brent launched the union's campaign for safety at work. Since October 22 another 50 of the pilot offices came out on all-out strike, then national strikes began on December 13 and 14. On January 28-29 further national action took place, which although slightly down still held the line in terms of around 40,000 out. The strike has been the biggest in the civil service for 15 years, and accounted for half of all 'days lost' through industrial action last year. The longer it lasts, the greater the stakes in a set-piece battle that will decide a lot more than safety at work. For PCSU a decisive moment has arrived in this dispute, and for those who consider themselves the alternative left leadership it will be a major test of their ability. According to Alistair Darling, the only major difference between New Labour and the Tories is that they "talked the talk on welfare reform, but failed to deliver". This is simply a declaration to succeed where Thatcher and co failed. The fact that the welfare system puts at risk the very workers who have to deliver the services says a lot about the system itself. The current proposal on "welfare reform" puts the very idea of welfare itself in the pejorative. New Labour continues to spout myths of an "entrenched culture of welfare dependency". This is a view whereby benefits should be set at the lowest possible rates beneath wage levels and the welfare system's primary focus is to satisfy the needs of employers. It is a view that sets poverty as the natural condition of the unemployed. Despite the talk of 'full employment', global capitalism is entering a recession with mounting unemployment. Employers will always attempt to drive down wages and conditions with the argument, 'If you don't like it, there are plenty more on the dole'. They see welfare as a means to force people into jobs on their terms. This is the "work-focused" principle of Jobcentre Plus. The welfare system has two sets of claimants: those 'available' for work, who receive conditional benefits, subject to harsher rules; and all other claimants, such as disabled, sick, lone parents, pensioners, with benefits not conditional on availability. Jobcentre Plus will be based on a merger of these sets of 'working age' claimants. It is not simply the merger of the Employment Service and Benefits Agency, but a reconstituted system of welfare: the employers' suites in the offices show the priorities. This is a vision the PCSU opposes. Union policy is against compulsion and benefit sanctions. It is also opposed to the fusion of benefit work and job-broking on safety grounds. This contradicts New Labour's vision of merging all claimants, which is one reason ministers are so absolutely opposed to the union policy on safety. The union safety policy challenges New Labour's welfare reform agenda implicitly, but it is time we put forward ideas of our own in order to challenge it openly. This would require alliances with pensioners, claimants and unemployed workers to broaden the struggle and develop a different vision of welfare, based on more than the crumbs wrested from this bosses' government to fund the existing system. Despite policies which could underpin such a campaign, and statements as such by the socialist general secretary elect, Mark Serwotka, and an agreement with the TUC's national unemployed combines, no such campaign has been built. This has been a major factor in sectionalising the current safety campaign; nevertheless our dispute has won widespread sympathy where the case has got a hearing. The new agency began with 57 flagship pilot offices, seven of them in London. These set about merging the BA and ES offices and are part of a staged roll-out across the country. Since January last year we have been equipped with a policy that put us in a collision course with the government, but it was not until May that the union's BA group executive committee drew up a plan for national action. A few months later it was overturned by the ES group executives - both of which have Left Unity majorities and a strong Socialist Party influence. It was decided to go for a staged escalation, starting with all-out strikes in the seven London offices, followed by the other 50 pilots, then national action later if necessary. Straight from the start this fragmented the dispute. Straight from the start a gulf emerged between the strength of support amongst the ES and BA sections of the union, with latter being vastly stronger. Practically nothing was learned by the group executive committees in terms of getting more ES members out across the rest of the country. These leaders have buried their heads in the sand: rather than tackle the divisions in our ranks they have ignored them. It took until October 22 before the other 50 pilots were pulled out, and the same problem inevitably emerged again. It was not until December 13 before national strike action took place; a delay exacerbated by Left Unity, and particularly the Socialist Party activists, who initially argued against escalation. By the time of the December action the union had spent just under £7 million on strike pay and was facing busting point. With no alternative, strike action was suspended in those pilot offices that still had protective screens. With the financial situation stabilised, national action commenced. Against an intense management/government campaign the strike was a significant success. The fact that there were over 40,000 on strike, predominantly in the BA, ensured the campaign was launched on a strong foundation. The negotiations held the day after the strike lasted 15 minutes - clearly the bosses were hardening their position and wanted to test our resolve. Yet the momentum was not maintained: the group executives called no further action for six weeks, allowing the employers off the hook over the Christmas period, when maximum disruption could have been caused. No action was planned until January 28-29 in order to avoid a loss of earnings until the end of February. The logic of this - no more action for another month - was clearly not enough to win. A strategy needed to be developed that could resolve the problem of hurting the employer enough to win whilst being sustainable in terms of the financial losses of the low paid membership. The Brent strike committee proposed such a strategy of rolling regional action, and selective strikes in processing centres in November; it was opposed by the group executives (only getting a hearing on December 16!). Yet its main opponents have to date proposed no alternative strategy. We had a further two days of national strike action, combined with a lobby of parliament. The action was boosted by the South West Trains action, taken on the same day. It was relatively successful in terms of maintaining the numbers out, yet for the workers involved there was clear desire to know the next step in the dispute, with an expectation of more than was being offered by the leadership. The initial response of some sections of management was to reopen talks - Nick Brown, a DWP minister, was ready for a meeting - only to see the government line come down and pull the plug on it. There has been no further indication of the bosses backing down - indeed Blair's 'wreckers v reformers' speech is indicative of the stance being taken against PCSU so far - "not an inch", as Ian McCartney boasts. The ES and BA group executives met on February 7 to discuss the way forward. The rightwing-dominated NEC has so far allowed the left to run the dispute and they have been given more than enough rope to hang themselves. The recent consultation exercise was a shambles, with few branches responding and doubt expressed over whether some local officials even consulted their members. The decision of the group executives was to pass the buck onto the branches and the NEC. They have called for a fresh consultation exercise, to culminate in a delegate meeting on February 23. The options before branches are: * further discontinuous action * a five-day strike each month * a national all-out strike * rolling regional action * suspension of the campaign * re-evaluation of our objectives No recommendation is being made to branches. While some will trumpet this as a commitment to democracy, it is more a disgraceful abdication of leadership responsibility. If the group executives were so concerned about democracy, why was no such exercise conducted before the start of the strike? Annette Wright of the rank and file group Socialist Caucus was the lone voice calling for further action this month, in opposition to a request to the NEC for yet another two-day strike on March 6-7. Besides the fact that we have tried this tactic for the last two months and it has failed, there is every reason to believe that this proposal was made with the knowledge that it would not happen anyway. To approach a hostile management with a proposed compromise, without it being backed up with a definite action, is to give an impression of weakness. This is precisely the position we are now in. It is crunch time for the whole strike. What has been lacking on our side is not the guts amongst the rank and file - in many branches we have broken the mould of apathy that existed. A swathe of activists and members are facing victimisation: revenge acts against militancy. What has been lacking has been a counter-strategy to match the aggressive approach of the employer. Instead, our old left leaders thought they could have the same old style of dispute: a few strikes and negotiated settlement, as in the past. But the bosses were not interested in the old-style process of consultation: they want to defeat us. When a strategy was put forward by the strikers themselves, it was rubbished by the left executives. The principal left groups in the union have in reality played a very conservative role. The Socialist Workers Party favours an all-out strike - yet all SWP activists argue it is not achievable - the logic of this is that we have already lost, though of course they will never say that! Socialist Worker argues that, "Activists need to go all-out to build whatever strikes are called". This reduction of activists and the wider workforce to the level of sheep is followed by the bizarre statement that we need "an escalation" and "a move towards a ballot for national action". Sorry, we already have national action! The conservative essence of such abstract slogans was glaringly revealed at the February 12 NEC, when the rightist Moderate Group moved for the suspension of all action and a ballot for an all-out strike. In this approach the SWP and Blair's lackeys in our union are twins! The SWP, like the Socialist Party, is opposed to rolling regional action. It repeatedly lies when it says such a course is argued for by left activists - 123 Brent strikers proposed it. The Socialist Party and a large section of the Left Unity leadership increasingly appears to be playing a waiting - hoping that if the rightwing NEC call off the campaign Left Unity will be able to use this to its advantage in the forthcoming union elections. It will not be first time such an approach has been taken - at a recent Left Unity rally the way forward for the dispute was posed by the slogan, 'A Left Unity NEC'. So stuff the strikers - elect the left. Such opportunism is hardly what a fighting leadership is made of! What is utterly ignored by the SWP and SP is the fact that in the Department of Food and Rural Affairs we have just won a major victory in a pay dispute based on rolling regional strikes. Socialist Caucus - now a part of Left Unity - has been at the forefront of supporting this position. The problem we now face is that time is against us. Management intends to escalate its roll-out of Jobcentre Plus offices, yet we will not be in a position to respond in the same way as in September due to the lack of money. When that point arrives we will be losing the dispute - this is the question now facing the leadership. It may be the case that we are not in a position to win an absolute victory. However, we can still win significant concessions to prevent an outright defeat - the disarray in the union has to a large degree clouded the real weaknesses of the employer. The branches in London region have called for the commencement of rolling action. More significantly the Brent strike committee has called for a revision of the basic terms we would accept as the bottom line of settlement in this safety dispute, including revising key questions which have divided BA and ES workers in the campaign. It is entirely possible that through changing course to action capable of hurting the employer a major defeat can be avoided. The February 23 delegate meeting will be vital in shifting the union position in this direction. Instead of effectively rubber-stamping the suspension of the campaign, we need to turn the event into an organising meeting to reorientate the dispute. Activists need to ensure that full consultation takes place at members' meetings in every office, explaining truthfully the threat we now face as a union, the difficulties we are in and the necessity of action to halt the union-busting agenda.