Striking: but how effective is the strategy?

PCS strike: PCS goes it alone

Civil servants are striking for a decent pay rise and to defend pay and conditions. But, asks Dave Vincent, will the current strategy win?

I am writing this two days before 250,000 or so Public and Commercial Service union members will be supporting a national strike on budget day, Wednesday March 20, over pay and ‘reviews’ of our terms and conditions of service.

While, of course, we hope that the walkout is an outstanding success, my branch executive committee and myself have had real misgivings over the handling of this dispute from the start. I wrote to the national executive committee with a list of our concerns and hoping for convincing arguments back, but received no reply (although I have heard the NEC was given my email). Our concerns have not been addressed in any subsequent circulars, nor were they dealt with at NEC regional briefings for PCS reps.

As the Socialist Party in England and Wales has a dominant presence on the NEC, we even invited a leading SPEW speaker to our branch AGM, who had been advised of our concerns in advance. But none of them were dealt with in what I suspected was a stock speech aimed at the already convinced or non-questioning. Could I have done more to help the NEC understand and address our concerns before the ballot, held in late February and early March?

Perhaps we are seen as unduly pessimistic (defeatist?) in a union where the members are overwhelmingly up for action. Well, a 60:40 vote for a strike on a 28% turnout is hardly a thumping mandate, is it? As usual, there was more support for action short of strike - more of which later.

The NEC had called off an earlier fight over pay on the grounds that the public and members themselves would not understand why we were fighting for a pay rise when so many people were losing their jobs. There is still a continuing massacre of jobs, so why is it now acceptable to fight over pay - and civil service pay only, at that, rather than in coordination with others? No answer.

PCS is correctly saying how badly members have been affected by a two-year pay freeze, increased pension contributions and water, gas, electricity, rail, fuel and food price rises - all above inflation. So have workers across the public sector. Odd then, to not fight over pay during the two-year pay freeze, but to do so now - alone - as we are about to get a 1% pay rise from April. PCS is demanding a 5% or £1,200 rise, whichever is the greater.

Joint action?

Were other public sector unions offering unity over pay, then? No, the NEC says it wants such unity, but is going it alone, without waiting for a decision over possible action by other unions. After the ballot closed and PCS named the day for March 20 (to be followed by a further half-day on April 5), we now hear the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers are also calling for a strike over pay - regional action from June 27, then a national strike before the autumn term.

Of course, it was very frustrating for the PCS NEC to see the unity over pensions, which took two years to achieve and culminated in two million out on November 30 2011, shattered virtually overnight, as Unison, the GMB and Unite rushed to settle terms for their own members rather than going for escalation and calling out four million, together with a pledge that no-one would settle until we had all settled. But the awkward question remains - if two million workers could not move this government over pay 18 months ago, how can 250,000 civil servants do so now?

It is not as if the Labour Party is supporting PCS. After all, Labour voted for the public sector pay freeze, then the 1% cap. Why is any union still handing money over to these class traitors, who are not promising to reverse any of the cuts? Why is Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, calling a snap election for his own post two years early? Solely to avoid creating a diversion and damaging Labour’s chances in the 2015 general election - after all his windbaggery promising a fightback at the TUC anti-austerity march of December 2012.

Why on earth is SPEW calling for support for McCluskey instead of Jerry Hicks? It was a superb interview with him in the Weekly Worker, by the way (‘Not more of the same’, March 7). I note Jerry is making promises about only taking an ordinary worker’s wage if elected - a promise also made, but apparently long forgotten, by Mark Serwotka when he was going for PCS general secretary. Jerry is also calling for the election of all full-time officers and I think that too should apply to PCS, given the sheer number of SPEW members or sympathisers we have appointed to these posts. SPEW formally supports both policies - although no doubt it can cite plenty of reasons why they are not realistic in a union it happens to control.

What has happened to the much vaunted, so-called ‘joint working agreements’ PCS signed and declared at successive conferences - first with Unison, then with Unite? I recall a smiling Mark shaking hands with, I think, Dave Prentis and certainly Len McCluskey after each addressed PCS conference. Neither union is fostering closer working relationships with PCS activists at local level - not here in Manchester, at any rate.

The Independent Left within PCS had argued for action by PCS alone rather than waiting for other unions - a position rejected at conference by Mark, who said PCS could not win on its own and that members had given a clear message that they wanted joint action with other unions. Yet following the pensions sell-out it seems he has changed his mind. PCS cites successful departmental ballots - extra jobs were won in one, and the threat of compulsory redundancies removed in another. Both very welcome, but small beer compared to winning a civil service-wide pay rise in total defiance of the government’s austerity cuts.

There is no conference mandate for a fight over pay now (there was one for a fight that never happened in 2012). There was no consultation with members before the NEC suddenly announced we were to be balloted for such a fight. Yet for it to be successful two questions need to be answered - what sort of industrial action will realistically be necessary to defeat a government (rather than a profit-rich private company, say) and are we confident members are willing to take that action?


What is the strategy proposed by the NEC? Hold on to your seats, comrades - the action is to consist of three days in total taken over a period of three months. We all come out on March 20, then again from 1pm on April 5 (I am annoyed the NEC has already set the next action without even waiting to guage the actual support for March 20).

So that leaves another one and a half days - departmental PCS groups are to decide when best to take such action themselves. Mark states the aim is for the least action and cost to members, for the most disruption. It could be a series of two-hour walkouts. It could be coordinated across departments, so that action will occur on successive days. Oh, and there is an overtime ban from March 21 until June. So this time members losing pay through strikes will not be able to make good their losses - members already on the breadline, remember.

How will action by 250,000 PCS members succeed when we have 100,000 non-members, many of whom will come in to work regardless (and to do the overtime PCS members are not supposed to be taking up)? Will a two-hour walkout in one department one day, followed by another somewhere else the next, even be noticed by the media? And our action is set to finish, just as the NUT/NASUWT commence theirs.

Will it succeed? PCS has a ready answer - if the current strategy does not work, repeat it again for the next three months. So that means six days’ strike action over six months, nine over nine, or 12 over 12 until victory, does it?

Even if the government wanted to settle over pay with PCS (it does not), how could it? Would it then claim that civil servants (so popular compared to the nurses, doctors, firefighters …) are a ‘special case’? Its whole austerity package of cuts and pay restraint would be called into question. The media would not let the government go quietly. Even the Labour Party would condemn such a settlement!

The strike is also over the proposal that each department should separately review workers’ terms and conditions of service - amount of annual leave, paid sick leave, privilege leave, flexible working patterns and hours. Each department claims it needs to ensure that what it permits is in line with that of a ‘modern employer’ (cuts, in other words).

We could conceivably beat each department by taking enough action to force them to reconsider their individual attacks, but the level and strength of membership and the relative importance of their work differs from department to department - we would surely end up with civil servants, already on different pay rates, finding themselves with different terms and conditions as well.

The continual attacks on us - pay freezes, reduced redundancy pay, reduced pension benefits for increased contributions, reduced terms and conditions - are being made for one purpose: to make us more attractive to private companies, who have been told the public sector is open for (to) business. The lowering of labour costs obviously is a big part of it.

Now, I have to say that, despite my and my BEC’s pessimism, our members do seem up for action on the 20th. However, they are not considering whether this strategy will win: they are just fed up. So I expect March 20 to be a relative success in terms of members out on the day, although picket numbers may be down - a continuing trend I have noticed: members are increasingly treating strike action as an extra (unpaid) day off. I foresee real problems delivering the rest of the ‘some out here, some out there’ action afterwards.

PCS has missed an opportunity too. In calling strike rallies in major cities, we overlooked the possibility of making March 20 a focus for all those who want to resist austerity by calling on all anti-cuts groups to take part. What a chance to foster unity between the young and older, the unemployed, students, other public sector unions, NHS workers, teachers and those now fighting the bedroom tax! Instead the rallying call will be “Support civil servants’ pay claim and defence of their terms and conditions’. PCS is going it alone, I’m afraid.

What do I think should have been done? We should have waited a few more weeks until PCS national conference in May and then decide in light of what other unions are doing. Instead conference may now see a divisive and heated debate on the strategy of coming out alone and too soon rather than attempting an inspirational way forward, as some other unions finally start to fight back. Our members will only take so much action.

I have built support for this strike and will, as usual, be on the picket line. But I would rather be inspired by the possibility of victory, not left at a loss by the NEC’s top-down, poorly justified strategy.