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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 January 2006

Magistrates courts:

Striking against low pay

ON 20 December 2005, 7,500 Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) members employed in magistrates courts took part in their first ever national strike in 800 years.

A court worker

People who'd never been on strike took to the picket lines like ducks to water. Large pickets were outside magistrates courts across England and Wales. In Hereford, 17 out of the 25 staff joined the picket.

The issue is a below-inflation wage offer of 2.2%. This unprecedented action was built upon the solid foundation of an 80% vote rejecting the offer and in favour of strike action, with a 58% turnout. Over 300 new members joined the PCS just before the strike.

In the days running up to the strike, a small minority of members started to question whether the strike would work.

They worried about being disciplined or sacked and they feared a faster pace of work on return. But after the strike the same people demanded to know when the next strike would take place!

The strike and the ongoing work to rule are ostensibly about pay. Administrative, managerial and legal staff are amongst the worst paid in the civil service and in the public sector. 55% of staff gross less than 15,000 a year.

But the anger that has burst to the surface represents two decades of accumulated resentment. Two decades marked with so-called progressive change. A period where the change managers have moved in like wrecking crews, scuttling the ship and moving on for greater reward - leaving the courts with reduced staffing, fewer resources and intensified work processes.

ON 1 April 2005 Magistrates Courts joined with the Crown and County courts in the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA).

A brighter, modern future was promised, not many believed it. The reality has been a rigid target culture and the threat of performance-related pay. Like the rest of the civil service, a harsher 'absence management' regime is on the cards.

We have a 'human resources' model imported from the USA - there is a core staff and a periphery. The periphery is drawn from agency and short-term contract staff. This leaves court staff working harder and harder, training new staff with the constant change.

For Blair's modernisation read cuts. For improvement in public services read cuts, read increased workload and stress. For improvements in work/life balance read a long-hours culture with bullying management.

Blair spoke at Labour Party conference about giving the criminal justice system a bashing but our members have shown they've had enough.

PCS members are confident but management's lack of confidence is revealed in a briefing issued in December. Their anxiety is clear: "The overall reaction from members to the offer was one of disappointment.

"The recommendation to include incremental pay increases as an integral part of the offer rather than an addition to the cost of living [payment] has been the biggest hurdle."

And contingency planning revealed how effective management thought the strike would be. They were forced to cancel courts throughout the country.

Members are asking how to win the dispute. The PCS executive in the DCA are due to meet on 10/11 January.

The pay settlement date for DCA staff not employed in magistrates courts should have been 1 August. Management has made a pay offer to these Crown and County court staff which they say is worth 3.7%.

But if you take out the small number of staff who will be getting pay increases in the top of their maximum and the small element of performance related pay, the offer amounts to 2.2%, below inflation, the same as in magistrates courts.

50% of Crown and County court staff earn less than 15,000 a year, with a startling 17% on less than 17,000. In order to win this dispute the DCA PCS executive must broaden the campaign to involve the whole of our membership across the DCA.

On the picket line in Sheffield

YOU DON'T expect solicitors to go on strike, but several were on picket lines at Sheffield magistrates court supporting the one-day national strike.

Alistair Tice, Sheffield Socialist Party

A legal adviser with 30 years experience, said: "I can't say they're singling us out - they (the government) treat everybody like this."

One union rep told us: "There's been some bullying and deception (by management) - characteristics usually associated with some of the criminals we deal with in court."

Crown Prosecution Service solicitors apologised for having to take cases, but wore union stickers to show support in court, and brought out tea and coffee. Pickets asked them to "get the word 'strike' into every case."

Neil, the South Yorkshire PCS branch chair, was pleased with members' response but expected more action would be needed. He said "See you in the new year" as we left.

Bow Street, London

Paula Mitchell spoke to Dave Lockyer, legal adviser at Bow St magistrates court, PCS branch treasurer:

"80-90% of the workforce are on strike today. The majority of members voted in the ballot and it was 80% yes vote. This issue has been dragging on since April and our members are dismayed at the government.

Until April 2005 we were employed by the Greater London Magistrates Courts Service, where there was an incremental pay system separate from the negotiated annual cost of living rise. Now we are employed by HM Courts Service, and they are insisting that the payments for increments come out of the same pot of money. So the pay increase of 3.57% is actually 2.2%, below the rate of inflation. So really it's a pay cut. That's what's put people's backs up.

We tend to be a fairly moderate lot. We're dedicated workers, we want to provide a good service to the best of our abilities. We work extra time when it's needed, we show good will. But that good will won't last.

This department has only been in existence since April and already there is the first ever national strike. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

The PCS has been very supportive. Mark Serwotka is going round the picket lines in his battle bus.

This action sends the message that we won't just roll over. No one can guarantee a favourable outcome, we just want to make our point in the strongest terms. After today, action short of a strike continues tomorrow. In other words, work to rule. If we get rolled over on this, we suspect performance-related pay is on the horizon."

Highbury, London

Jane James spoke to workers on the picket line at Highbury Magistrates Court.

They said that some smaller courts in London had been closed down and non-union workers from this courts were staffing the bigger courts like Highbury - but this would be very difficult without the PCS members.

Their last pay rise was five years ago and the last strike was in 1979 but only for Inner London courts, so they were pleased that this dispute was a national strike.

Workload is also a problem. These workers often work long hours as they have to stay until a hearing finishes, which can run into the evening.

But they rarely take time off in lieu because of staff shortages. They also have to work Saturdays.

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In The Socialist 5 January 2006:

NHS: Condition critical

'Reforms' destroying the National Health Service

Fighting back against the millionaires' system

Election divisions shows Iraq war is unwinnable for Bush

Behind the gas conflict

Striking against low pay


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