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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 December 2006

300,000 workers in PCS strike Ballot

THE DECISON by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union to ballot its 300,000 members in the civil service and Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) for industrial action as part of its campaign against job cuts, low pay, attacks on terms and conditions and privatisation is one of the most important initiatives in the trade union movement in many years.

John McInally PCS National Executive Committee (NEC), personal capacity, looks at the issues, in this extended website edition.

The attacks on the civil service form a key part of the decades-long offensive by various governments, both Tory and Labour, to claw back the gains of workers won by struggle in the post-war period.

Labour and the wider political establishment, are inextricably tied to the idea only the market can deliver and that the welfare state, at least of the type needed and demanded by working people, is a luxury society can no longer afford. The capitulation of Labour to the profit system is complete and they have actually gone further in their attacks on the public sector than the Tories would have dared.

There is a crude, cynical and destructive strategy at the centre of Labour's "policy" for the civil service - cut resources to the bone, implement over-ambitious "change" programmes, drive down staff morale by staffing cuts and attacks on conditions, implement "private-sector" factory style practises utterly incompatible with public sector working, reduce or destroy service delivery and then claim the civil service can't deliver - the inevitable conclusion, privatisation.

This deliberate act of social vandalism underpinned Brown's announcement in 2004 of 100,000 job cuts, a massive privatisation and state asset sell-off auction (the latter totalling £30 billion. of publicly-owned property being palmed off to the government's private-sector friends).

Drive to privatise

The drive to privatise led to the obscenity of companies giving loans to Labour and unsurprisingly, landing huge private-sector contracts worth billions in return, with peerages a nice little bonus.

Now Labour wants to continue with the cuts after 2008 despite the fact Gershon, their private sector "advisor" warned that deeper cuts would do irretrievable damage

Labour's private-sector masters hate the civil and public services because they see them as a bastion of trade union strength where workers "enjoy" privileges that in the "real world" are viewed with envy. This view is shared by Labour politicians who constantly parrot the need for competitiveness to meet the "challenge" of globalisation. They claim to have no control over this, which means there must be, in terms of pay and terms and conditions of workers, a rush to the bottom.

All this, of course, to be accompanied by privatisation on a huge scale and the creation of a "flexible" labour market ie, unfettered profiteering and the smashing of trade-union rights. It is a scandal this type of thinking is uncritically repeated by some in the trade union movement.

The picture of a "feather-bedded" workforce will be ruthlessly used as PCS moves into action but it is a myth. Over half of PCS members earn less than £20,000 a year, with a quarter of members on less than £15,000. Many thousands are on the minimum wage and large numbers claim the very benefits they administer.

Pay rises have fallen way behind the private sector and the rest of the public sector and now the Treasury wants to impose strict pay limits with some members being offered as little as 1% - in effect a pay cut.

Pensions are based on pay and low pay means low pensions. The average civil service pension being £4,800 a year, hardly the "generous" entitlement portrayed by the government.

Politically driven cuts

The politically driven cuts are not based on any business case. They have caused devastation in terms of service delivery to the public. These attacks mean the reduction or outright destruction of services, attacks on terms and conditions, deskilling, aggressive management techniques and massive backlogs. These are factors causing stress and sickness and a large increase in assaults and abusive behaviour from an angry and frustrated public.

Then there is the imposition of so-called LEAN processes, a bastardisation of Taylorism [so-called 'scientific management', treating workers as machines]. This seeks to impose assembly-line techniques in service delivery operations to "increase production".

All this is accompanied by government ministers and the press colluding in a scabrous campaign of denigration against civil service workers. It is little wonder morale is at rock bottom and that many of the cuts in jobs have so far been achieved because workers decided to leave. Many incidentally, have gone to the "real world" of the private sector, where they are better paid and don't have to work in such stressful conditions.

Under the left leadership of general secretary Mark Serwotka, president Janice Godrich and the Democracy Alliance NEC, PCS members have fought back against these attacks. On 5 November 2004, PCS held a hugely successful civil service-wide strike that demonstrated the anger of workers at Brown's cuts announcement. It also showed their determination to protect jobs, conditions and services.

This show of strength and solidarity won concessions from the government, including avoidance of redundancy agreements or "protocols". The threat to paid sick leave was withdrawn, and negotiations on a national pay system were agreed. The union's departmental groups also won concessions on the back of the national action and as a result of their own campaigning and industrial action.

In 2005 PCS was at the forefront of a multi-union campaign that secured a partial but highly significant victory, by protecting the pension entitlement of existing civil servants and other public-sector workers.

While the impact of the cuts are uneven - moving at varying speeds in different parts of the civil service, significant struggles have taken place at group level that have won limited concessions.

PCS members fully appreciate the scale of the attacks facing them and understand the union's socialist leaders are totally committed to achieving negotiated settlements but will build and support whatever action might be necessary or appropriate to protect and defend their interests. There is a high degree of confidence in, and respect for the left leadership. Members experience is telling them - campaigning works - action gets results.

The recent announcement of compulsory redundancies in two departments, DEFRA and DTI marks a calculated escalation of the attacks on PCS members, particularly as they were entirely avoidable. The real message of these redundancies is simple, no civil service job is now safe. The message to PCS is equally crude, what are going to do about it?

Of all the options open to PCS, only one is unacceptable and will lead to a historic defeat and that is - doing nothing.

Civil servants have an unwritten contract with the employer, the jobs may not be the best-paid or most interesting but they offer stability - these redundancies shatter that "arrangement".

The government also wants to add insult to injury by reviewing the Civil Service Compensation Scheme to the detriment of those losing their jobs by cutting redundancy payments. In other words they want not just to cut jobs but do it on the cheap.

If this is not bad enough, they are now trying to renege on the pensions issue by forcing PCS members to shoulder the cost of future contributions rises, in effect imposing a pay cut on some of the lowest-paid workers in the public sector.

While Labour prostrates itself before private-sector company directors who are gorging themselves on obscene 30% pay rises, they are telling PCS members there is simply no money to address national pay coherence as they promised.

They intend to leave the disgraceful pay gaps that exist in bargaining areas where similar work can be paid on differentials of up to 30-40% and where progression to the pay maximum can literally take decades to achieve, the longest apprenticeship in history.

And then there is the drive to privatise civil service work that is now moving beyond so-called "support" services and into core service delivery. Successful schemes and delivery areas are being handed to the private sector, not on any business basis but because of ideology. The threat of vital social services like key benefits being delivered on the basis of profit not need is on the agenda. Over 20,000 Ministry Of Defence staff face job cuts and privatisation.

An inconvenient fact

The cuts are calculated to drive the privatisation programme by "proving" only the private sector can deliver, a mirror image of reality. The public sector consistently outstrips the private in terms of performance. But this inconvenient fact is ignored as Labour stacks the deck in favour of its profiteering paymasters.

It is now government strategy to use privatisation to enforce compulsory redundancies. Workers are being transferred into the private sector, only to be made redundant once there. The taxpayer is footing the bill for this sleazy arrangement. The private companies go along with it on the basis it will lead to more juicy multi-million government contracts.

The attacks on jobs, pay, pensions and services, along with the privatisation drive, all stem from the neo-liberal policies of the Labour government. The attacks are politically driven and represent a major assault on PCS members certainly, but also on all public service users and workers generally. The battle for the civil service is a key part of the wider battle for the welfare state itself.

PCS 's demands, whatever the political source of the attacks, are however firmly rooted in the industrial and bargaining agenda. PCS wants a fair and reasonable settlement and that is completely achievable.

PCS's demands are:

These demands are not only reasonable, they are achievable - they represent what PCS members need and deserve.

PCS will continue to use every possible opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement; it has set out the union's demands in writing and in negotiations with the head of the civil service and is seeking negotiating with chief executives of NDPBs.

A massive public advertising campaign has been launched using the national newspapers, billboards, buses and London Underground. PCS will also build on the strong links it has already established with other unions, community and service-user organisations, like the National Pensioners' Convention and is already building the campaign in the town and city committees set up in the past few years. Work with other unions and local trades councils is also crucial.

Joint campaign work around the Public Service Not Private Profit Campaign has been launched, including local rallies. The role of local activists and members cannot be underestimated in terms of delivering the action but also in lobbying MPs, particularly those Labour MPs still in denial about the destruction of services taking place under "their" government and in their own constituencies.

The PCS Parliamentary Group has in recent years become one of the most active and now operates across the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments. Elections are due next year in both countries and PCS will ensure that the cuts are an issue, no matter how much some Labour ministers, particularly in Wales, try to deceive workers the cuts are " an English problem" - nothing could be further from the truth.

PCS is also working within the TUC. Individual Group and Agency campaign will be closely linked to the national campaign maximising pressure at both group and national levels.

Balloting for industrial action is necessary if PCS is to seriously respond to the message from the employer that the attacks are not only going to continue but increase. PCS is balloting members from 2 January for a one-day national strike on 31 January, to be followed by discontinuous action and for a two-week overtime ban from 1 February to ensure there is no "catch-up" by the employer after the strike.

PCS hopes for an early negotiated settlement but is preparing on the basis that if there is none the battle goes on until we force the employer to the negotiating table.

This ballot is the most important in PCS history because it marks a departure from limited one-day civil service action, which while extremely effective in industrial terms still represents an element of "protest". This is different, a 'yes' vote to both questions, for strike action and action short of a strike, signals to the employer that PCS members are prepared for a longer haul and further sacrifice to achieve their just demands.

Labour is preparing to use their spin machine and their unprincipled relationship with the gutter press to attack PCS, its members and the civil service. Early replies from the head of the civil service demonstrate they intend to use the above-mentioned "civil servants have it easy" argument to isolate and divide.

This strategy is a dangerous one though, civil servants are part of the communities in which they work. Workers, even the "middle classes", are sick and tired of deteriorating public services. Increasingly, the root causes of this degeneration are correctly identified as stemming from government policy, not the fault of "feather-bedded" workers.

The PCS strategy also faces the government with real political pressure - industrial action will show their "policy" in sharp relief and in all its inefficiency and destructiveness.

Finally, the industrial strength of civil service workers is potentially enormous and while "toughing it out" may have its attractions to the anti-union bullies who comprise Labour's élite. Such a strategy is fraught with danger and may well come at a very high price industrially as well as politically.

PCS members can win a fair and reasonable settlement in this dispute but that means delivering a clear message in the upcoming ballot and by giving the best possible margin of support for the NEC strategy of industrial action.

A settlement in this dispute would represent a major achievement for all civil servants and in defence of public services.

The stakes are high and that is why no effort must be spared in building to win.

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In The Socialist 7 December 2006:

NHS campaigns unite

Blair's health service lies

NHS mass protests continue

Building the national day of action

ITC programme fails

Diary of events

War and terrorism

Bush and Blair still in denial

"The greatest strategic disaster in American history"

Workplace news

Strike threat forces victory

300,000 workers in PCS strike Ballot

"Merry Christmas Mr SCCrooge"

Blood service staff prepared to fight job losses

UCU: Left victory in sight

JJB workers fight sackings

Socialist Students

"Stop the rent rises!"

Campaign to Defeat Fees is building across London

CDF online petition launched!

Fight Blair's divisive academy programme

Socialism 2006

Socialism 2006

Britain's Muslims under siege - which way forward?

"Inspired and informed"

Do you have to be red to be green?

Socialism 2006 - another major step forward

Socialist Party news and analysis

200 march against Lincoln's far right

Trident - a waste of our money

Privatised rail bosses hike up fares

MPs wannabe rich

International socialist news and analysis

Chávez re-election - a set-back for the right

Balance sheet of WASG national conference

Political tensions rage in Bolivia


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