We can't win alone

A united campaign across the public sector is needed to break through the government's pay limit, writes PCS militant Dave Vincent. But Labour-loyal union leaders are holding back the struggle

In a Channel 4 Dispatches programme this week it was revealed that child poverty is as bad as it was in 1997, 73% of people are concerned about their financial future and personal insolvency has gone up by 336% since New Labour was elected to the theme tune, ‘Things can only get better’. Personal credit debt has gone up from £84 billion to £231 billion.

Unemployment is now rising fast and house repossessions have doubled since 2007. Pensioners are in dire straights. RPI inflation is 4.7%, but the cost of living for many people has increased by far more than that. For example, the food bill for a family has gone up by more than £1,000 over the past year.

Low paid civil servants who oversee benefits and tax and run every government department face these pressures too. Their union - the Public and Commercial Services union - is currently balloting them on the question of taking further strike action to achieve pay rises to at least match inflation, with the result to be announced in mid-October.

The national executive’s proposed strategy requires members to take three separate days of unpaid strike action on as yet unspecified dates over the coming months, and the NEC asks to be given maximum tactical flexibility in a variety of circumstances. There will be the usual initial national day of action across the civil service, followed by coordinated action with other unions (hopefully) and possibly multi-departmental action on a rolling regional basis.

In recent years PCS has called more strike action - and carried it through - than any other union. However, four years into the PCS ‘national campaign’ under a continually re-elected left NEC and socialist general secretary, we seem no nearer to securing a return to national collective pay bargaining. Whilst the NEC boasts of its ‘job protocols’ agreement with the treasury (supposedly making compulsory redundancies harder to implement), tens of thousands of jobs have been lost (and continue to be lost) by simple natural wastage, with no opposition from the union.

By contrast it has continually called action over pay, but the tactics employed have not produced any real victories. This has resulted in a situation where there is now a huge risk of falling support for the next action (some departmental managements are already claiming this is the position now). It is easy to foresee a vicious circle where the left loses credibility, activists become demoralised, we register further defeats and support for industrial action further diminishes. There is an air of desperation both in the circulars and publications issued by the NEC and in the various activist meetings called - with long-serving (long-suffering?) members querying the effectiveness of the overall strategy. PCS does face a number of difficulties compared to other unions.

Firstly there is often very little coverage in the national media when members do take action. This is not for want of trying on the part of the union - the PCS press office issues dozens of press releases in advance of any strike. PCS members saw, for example, the National Union of Teachers getting substantial coverage just for its announcement of a ballot. That was followed by full reporting of the result and lead-up to the action, and blanket coverage  on the day. The Prison Officers Association action (admittedly illegal) was front-page news and featured prominently on television bulletins. PCS members see hardly a mention of the repeated action they take and start wondering aloud why they should lose another day’s pay for so little publicity and even less result.

Secondly, PCS is not affiliated to the Labour Party (and I agree it should not be). That means there is less scope for the behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealing that occurs with unions affiliated to Labour.

Thirdly, we are directly employed by the government itself - unlike, for instance, those public sector workers who are employed/funded by local authorities, which have a degree of leeway in fixing council tax rates and deciding on spending priorities.

Brown and co see it as essential that their pay policy is fully imposed on civil servants. Even during an economic upturn above-inflation pay rises would see everyone else demand parity with civil servants. Then, when the economy takes a turn for the worse, it becomes even more imperative for the government to prevent a decent pay rise - it must be seen to be keeping down its own employees’ wages when urging ‘restraint’ for everyone else.

Fourthly, the fact that the left controls the PCS makes the government even more determined not to give in.

That we need to break through the two percent limit and fight for a real pay rise is not in doubt. But there is a world of difference between action taken enthusiastically and that undergone out of resigned loyalty. The latter is finite. In the department for work and pensions (DWP) members have had 21 separate days of action and, despite the rosy picture continually painted by Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party comrades, all the non-party activists I know tell me members are getting fed up. Imagine the difference if those 21 days had been taken all in one go (would 21 days have been necessary?). Members are also up for paid selected action - used intelligently. But the NEC will not sanction it anywhere in the civil service.

Why let the employer know what weapons you will not use in advance? We saw what could have been achieved during the public sector pensions battle, which was abandoned far too soon, when just the threat of united action had obtained concessions.

What is really needed, however, is united, public sector-wide action - as PCS continually calls for, of course. I have held 30 workplace meetings of members in my area of the ministry of justice and the only action they have had any enthusiasm for is public sector-wide. The mood is against PCS going it alone.

But the fact that most unions remain affiliated to the Labour Party, in defiance of the wishes of their membership, militates against such united action. They continue to hand over millions of pounds in subscriptions, whilst holding back industrial action against attacks by that party in government. How else can you explain the fact that Unison, Unite and the GMB called for united action in Scotland, where there is a Scottish National Party administration, on September 24? This followed a similar action on August 20. Yet the same unions refuse to act in England, keeping their members in the dark for months on end.

The NUT is also balloting for action over a similar period as PCS, which means that both unions could be on strike simultaneously, as occurred on April 24. But this time twice as many civil servants can be brought out. So why don’t the other unions call out council workers alongside teachers and civil servants now, while the government and Gordon Brown are on the ropes?

Labour-loyal union tops are loath to do so in case it harms the party’s chances of re-election. If there were a Tory government, however, they would still be reluctant, because their association with Labour might be used to harm its chances of replacing the Conservatives. Knighthoods for retired union bureaucrats is the reward for a long career of betraying their members’ interests.

When economic circumstances are now causing millions of working class people to question capitalism’s priorities, the left is in a mess and cannot provide any electoral alternative. Time and again attempts at left unity have either split (Respect, Scottish Socialist Party) or been sabotaged (Socialist Alliance), all the while keeping out anything approaching revolutionary socialist politics. No wonder we are unable to carry much weight with union members.

Numerous left organisations keep calling for the rebuilding of a shop stewards movement and town committees to be set up to facilitate closer links between unions. The SP has supported the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), while the SWP went for Organising for Fighting Unions (OFFU), but both of these were token attempts to organise.

I have attended events in Manchester called by both NSSN and OFFU, but they have been top-down talking shops. No motions are called for. Platforms are staffed by union tops, contributions from the floor are limited.

A real shop stewards network, organised by rank and file activists, is needed. It must be independent of party control and union leaderships. It should be free to discuss the Labour-union link, the anti-union laws, and how to win disputes. The NSSN operates on the basis that it must not interfere in the affairs of individual unions - which is exactly what is wrong with it! We should all be ‘interfering’ where the interests of the working class are concerned.

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