Around 280,000 members of the PCS civil service workers’ union are receiving ballot papers this week to vote on striking over job cuts, privatisation and unfair pay.
Over two years since chancellor Gordon Brown announced his intention to slash 104,000 civil and public service jobs, key services are being cut to the bone, offices are closing and workloads spiralling out of control.
This is a crucial battle of low paid workers standing up to a neoliberal government to defend jobs and essential services. Every trade unionist and activist should back our fight.
PCS members provide vital services to the public, from delivering benefits, pensions and advice to working in customs, galleries, health and safety and many other vital services.
Our ballot is for ongoing civil service wide industrial action starting with a one-day national strike on 31 January across the civil service and dozens of government funded bodies. This will be followed by a two-week overtime ban, with more departmental and national action afterwards.
While government spending on expensive consultants has rocketed to £7.2 billion over the past three years, the majority of PCS members earn less than £20,000 a year, with one in four earning less than £15,400.
Thanks to Brown’s public sector policy of limiting pay rises to half the rate of inflation until at least 2011, thousands of workers now face permanently falling living standards. Some workers have not received a pay rise for over two years.
In November 2004, a massively supported national strike by PCS members protected terms and conditions and pressured the government into concessions to avoid compulsory redundancies.
But now Brown has escalated his jobs massacre agenda. The first compulsory redundancies were announced two months ago in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Trade and Industry (DTI).
If unchallenged, this will open the floodgates. It is no coincidence that the government has also made clear its intention to make it easier and cheaper to sack “surplus” workers by ripping up existing redundancy protection.
On top of the 104,000 job cuts we already face, Gordon Brown now wants another 5 percent cut in staff costs each year from 2008-11 in every agency, department and public body.
Many of these cuts are being achieved by smashing up the existing networks of offices and job centres that provide accessible local services where individual needs can be discussed face-to-face.
Understaffed and remote call centres unable to cope with the volume of calls are replacing them.
The resulting chaos has led to benefit claims taking eight weeks to process, severely disadvantaging some of the most desperate and vulnerable people.
Other services are being restructured with “lean” production line methods that rely on deskilling and bullying management techniques, such as placing a noticeboard behind the worker with the lowest output for each hour.
None of these changes provide a better or more efficient service. But they do prepare jobs for privatisation by stripping out expertise and personal considerations, forcing claimants and other service users into the role of call centre “customers”.
Once “outsourced”, the jobs and services are vulnerable to offshoring. The computer giant EDS is attempting this with IT jobs originally transferred from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Such reductions are incompatible with maintaining even a bare bones public service. They can only be achieved by widespread privatisation so that workers providing them do not appear in the civil service headcount.
The government’s drive is to privatise. Around 20,000 Ministry of Defence jobs are to be hived off to private contractors. Some civil service workers are being threatened with redundancy from the first day of private sector employment.
Some trade union leaders are desperately avoiding any serious challenge to the government and delude themselves that Gordon Brown will be a friendlier and more approachable prime minister than Tony Blair.
The truth is that he is as committed to New Labour’s neoliberal “reform” agenda as Blair is, if not more so.
Last year’s magnificent national action by local government workers to defend their pensions was suspended in favour of a futile legal challenge.
Union leaders dragged their feet in responding to minister Phil Woolas’s threats to the local government pension scheme.
Action by the PCS offers an opportunity to unite public sector unions and revitalise opposition to Blair and Brown’s offensive.
The government’s imposition of privatisation, market reforms and PFI in the NHS and education are unravelling.
They are as unpopular as its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the bluster and obsessive repetition of neoliberal dogma, New Labour is weak and vulnerable to effective opposition.
Whatever the shortcomings of previous campaigns in defence of jobs and pensions, the PCS, not one of the biggest trade unions, accounted for a large proportion of last year’s strike days.
It has had some limited but real results in preventing redundancies and protecting conditions. In contrast, the “big four” unions have been tardy and half-hearted in challenging the government.
It is vital that PCS members deliver a resounding yes vote to the proposed action, strike hard on 31 January and then follow it up with more effective action.
If the scale of the onslaught pushes other public sector union leaders into activity then we should seek to make common cause and take common action with them.
But we cannot wait for such opportunities and must go into 31 January prepared with a strategy to maximise the challenge to New Labour and win.
A follow up two day strike with a major national demonstration against job cuts and privatisation on the second day would provide such a focus.
The TUC national protest in support of public services on 23 January and the planned 3 March day of action in defence of the NHS deserve support from all trade unionists.
It is also vital that trade union activists and campaigners get involved in local grassroots initiatives such as the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign.
These can be a focus to push union leaders into serious activity to challenge New Labour’s attacks on all public service workers.
Sue Bond is the deputy president of the PCS. Andy Reid is a member of the PCS national executive. They both write in a personal capacity.