CIVIL SERVANTS are gearing up for a major pay battle. More than 100,000 members of the PCS union are voting to take strike action over their appallingly low pay.
Their ballot ends on Tuesday of next week and the union plans for the first set of strikes to take place on Thursday 29 and Friday 30 January.
Civil servants showed the depth of their anger over their pay offer when they voted overwhelmingly to reject it last year. Now people are flocking to join the union. Over 2,000 people have applied to join the PCS since the fight started in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This is the department covering job centres and benefits offices.
Claire Donnelly is a member of the PCS branch committee for the DWP in Sheffield. She says, "For workers in the civil service it has just been one blow after another. Management have brought in a strict sickness policy, are trying to enforce a ridiculous performance and development system and they have imposed a rubbishy pay offer on us.
"Even with the new pay offer the lowest grade in the DWP is on just over £10,000. The next grade is on £12,000. I've never seen so much anger, even among management, about the offer. People who you think would normally keep quiet aren't willing to this time. The strike will have a lot of support. Many people will be prepared to go further than the two-day strike if it is necessary to win."
Dave Vincent is the branch secretary of Greater Manchester Department for Constitutional Affairs. The department's 7,220 members, who do the administrative work in the courts, are also balloting for strike action.
Dave says, "We normally get fairly crappy pay deals that our union recommends and are accepted three to one by the members. This year things are different. Management pissed people off this year. They imposed a terrible pay deal on us. They thought this would depress people and force them to accept it.
"Instead it just incensed people. I have visited every office in my area and the dominant mood is outrage. We voted ten to one to reject the deal. Thirty people have joined the union just in my branch. Across the department we picked up around 500 new members when we were balloting to reject our pay offer.
"Now we're balloting for action even more people will join. Six months ago we had 6,700 members in the department. Now it's 7,220. People are joining because for the first time in years the union is doing something. Court service staff, some who are conservative with a small c, are talking about picket lines.
"The pay here is crap. Most people in my department are paid between £12,950 and £16,198. The ushers, who call people into the court, get between £11,000 and £13,500. A lot of them are on less because they're part time. A lot of court service staff are part time. Around two thirds are women. Many have childcare responsibilities.
"Working for the government, we have the hardest employer in the country. We have had 20 years of pay restraint. All we get is inflation and pay restraint while the department give outside consultants £31 million. There is a combative mood. People are not going to give up after two days of strike. I've waited years for this. It's bloody great this fight's finally here."
Clayeon McKenzie is the national branch chair of the PCS Home Office branch. He works in central London. Clayeon says, "One of the big illusions is that civil servants are on good wages. Some 80 percent of civil servants earn less than £20,000. The average income in my department is between £11,000 and £13,000.
"Management imposed the pay offer so it appeared in our January pay cheque. But transport fees in London have gone up by double-figure percentages. The pay offer is six months late. We just haven't noticed it. It's swallowed up by cost of living increases.
"A lot of union members have to rely on state benefits to survive because their pay is so low. In my branch about one in five rely on the state. There are many other issues angering people-the plans to increase retirement age, clamping down on sickness, career prospects. There is a lot of resentment."
'Hit the employers hard and quick'
By PHIL PARDOE, Central London civil servant and member of the PCS group executive in the Department for Work and Pensions (personal capacity)
WE CAN win this ballot by a significant margin. We can win this fight. The mood is there. We have had a massive rejection of the pay offer and there have been unofficial walkouts.
People are joining the union hand over fist. The union leadership needs to have the faith in members to argue for the serious action that we are going to need to win.
Any action needs to be coordinated to involve the largest number of union members possible. That means that workers in the DWP, the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Prison Service and the Treasury solicitors should all be called out on the same day. All the departments are being hit by the same policy, one imposed by Gordon Brown and the Treasury.
To be successful we have to beat the Treasury pay cap. This is a central part of government policy, not just for the civil service, but for the public sector as a whole.
This means that Brown and government ministers are not going to make the concessions we need without being put under massive pressure. We have to hit the employers hard and quickly. That means strikes called quickly and a rapid escalation of the dispute.
Figure it out
39% - Well over a third of civil servants earn less than £15,000 a year. The average for other groups of non-manual workers in Britain is 22 percent. Civil servants in east London walked out over pay last year