PCS- Serious action needed

Posted: May 5, 2011 in Labour Fight

PCS- Serious action needed

Labour Fight- Len Matthews

Back in January I commented on the PCS membership ballot on changes to the compensation scheme (CSCS) which overwhelmingly rejected the new terms imposed by the ConDems and backed the union’s stance on cuts and privatisation. So what has happened since then?

With the CSCS changes now the subject of a Judicial Review, the National Executive Committee (NEC) has announced its intention to seek conference agreement in May to ballot members for industrial action on jobs, pensions and pay and to seek to coordinate this action with other unions. This follows the ConDem’s proposal in the Spring Budget to impose an additional 3 % in pension contributions on public sector workers. After the last year’s switch from the Retail Price Index to the generally lower Consumer Price Index for calculating pension payments, this is another slap in the face for millions who are also facing a two year pay freeze !

The University and Colleges Union have already taken action in recent weeks over pensions and working practices. The ATL teachers’ union, not known for its militancy is moving to a ballot on the pensions hike and the NUT, the second largest teachers’ union have also made their intentions clear following a conference motion backing industrial action. The timing is not brilliant with the Summer School holidays coming but we look all set for a coordinated strike in June to kick off a campaign that will need to be prepared for the long haul.

Last years’ battle over the Compensation Scheme, which governs redundancy payments for civil servants, was a battle over jobs as well as terms and conditions. Although many civil servants are low paid, the changes imposed were clearly to remove a barrier in the way of plans to cut thousands more jobs, in order to finance the bankers’ bail out and pave the way for further privatisation of public services.

The PCS Alternative booklet published last year was a useful tool for activists and the tax gap argument is beginning to seep through into mainstream discourse. While we may have all the arguments on our side the only thing that will defeat the government and protect jobs is a major campaign of industrial action. This is what PCS should have been preparing for last summer following the strikes in March and the High Court victory. Some branches did call on the NEC to ballot members in the autumn with a view to a national strike on October 20th as a first step. This would have in turn put further pressure on the leaderships of the other civil service unions to join the fight back and encourage the wider fight against cuts across the public sector.

The NEC also needs to be honest with members. Having said that proposals to settle the dispute had been tabled last year, no detail of this had been released. Furthermore, the benefits of the new terms to NUVOS pension scheme members- those joining the civil service since 2004- were downplayed. This could only be because the current leadership had signed up to a two-tier deal during the previous pensions dispute which left new entrants with statutory compensation terms.

The government sought to buy off staff with less service and get rid of longer serving staff on vastly reduced terms, who are effectively forced to take voluntary terms for fear they will be dismissed with even less money subsequently. We now know that the stipulation, as a result of the changes, that voluntary schemes have to be offered before compulsory redundancies and are on more favorable terms will not help to avoid compulsory redundancies. A relative trickle of compulsory redundancy has taken place so far with Government Office, Sustainable Development and Commission for Rural Communities staff all given their cards, making a mockery of the ConDem’s ‘localism’ agenda and their intention to be the ‘greenest government ever’!

It’s too late to know whether these jobs could have been saved had a job cuts campaign been ramped up earlier. But the trickle is set to turn into a flood if there is not some serious action and action that can win.

It is the potential for coordinated action with other unions, over pensions, that has pushed the PCS NEC into talking a decision that should have been made a lot earlier. However, the proposed pensions changes will not affect many PCS members who already pay more for their pensions due to 2005 deal. A fair and decent pension system must be fought for but the key issue is job cuts.

The PCS website recently reported that a third of its membership were in an official dispute with their employer. Many have taken action recently, such as in the DWP contact centres and the threat of action in the Driving Standard Agency has resulted in a victory there. It is time to unite the whole union behind a strategy that stands with the other unions where they are ready to join us but is prepared to fight alone using tactics that will win.

No one has a magic wand. But the arguments for selective industrial action and a strike levy are now on the order of the day.

A levy is not only about raising a war-chest to fund longer and/or targeted action. It would also raise issues fundamental to Trade Unionism that PCS can use to raise awareness and build a fighting spirit amongst the membership. When members join the union they sign a pledge to abide by union’s aims and objectives. The debate over a levy would strengthen this.

How would this work in practice ? There is a valid argument as to why this should be voluntary. But funding this from an increase in membership subs with better paid members paying proportionately more is in line with union principles – solidarity – and is easily achieved. At present staff at the most senior grades pay the same subs as many lower paid members due to an upper limit.

As to arguments about selective or targeted action, never really tackled by the NEC, it is quite valid to ask ‘why should a small group of members fight the battles of the whole union ?’. If this is taken at face value it is true that paying isolated groups to remain on strike for long periods over national issues is not a recipe for success.

The levy would partly address this. As to whether it is possible to win a national dispute using selective action, it has to be noted that some members have more industrial muscle than others. And getting victories at local level across the union would strengthen the struggle over the larger, general issues.

Firstly, no group of members should be ‘selected’ to take action. The will of members to fight is the first consideration. Secondly, no national or Group dispute should be fought without all-out strikes to support it. Thirdly, while members are required to make sacrifices if we can hope to protect and improve jobs, pay and working conditions, the longer they are on strike the harder it becomes to sustain it. Over half of all PCS’ members earn less than the average wage. A strike fund would help win disputes.

Members’ views will be based on their experience of the sporadic one day protest strikes that they realise, correctly, will not be enough to win, particularly against a right-wing government, despite its yellow tinting, which will be intent on not just defeating the unions on this or that issue but to smash them. We must seek coordinated industrial action wherever possible and fight at all levels across the movement to make it a reality. However, we cannot put all our eggs in one basket. The PCS leadership must give a lead and this means putting forward a strategy and tactics to win as a union.

Len Matthews

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