A CRUCIAL battle is coming in the civil service. The results of the strike ballot in the PCS civil servants' union was due out shortly after Socialist Worker went to press.
It was expected to show a majority in favour of action. If union leaders implement earlier plans, that could see over 100,000 civil servants take action on Thursday and Friday of next week.
The action would involve civil servants in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Home Office, the prison service, among Treasury solicitors, and in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Anger at poverty pay levels has been simmering for years. Many thousands in the clerical grades earn less than £10,000 a year, and the majority earn less than £15,000 a year.
The Treasury clampdown on pay settlements in the civil service is the last straw. It either imposes cost of living rises as low as 0.5 percent among Treasury solicitors or 1.3 percent in the Home Office, or it reneges on promised pay progression increases due this year.
The pay offer means less than £1 a day after tax and national insurance for workers in the DWP. It means a 1 percent rise in the prison service. Members overwhelmingly rejected the pay offers in ballots. Management imposed the offers before hearing the result of the ballots.
Workers in the DWP showed their anger at the imposition when hundreds joined wildcat walkouts in offices in Glasgow, Essex and London at the end of November. Membership of the PCS civil servants' union has grown rapidly in the last few months.
In the DWP alone over 6,000 new members have been recruited. The union is on the threshold of having 300,000 members. This is up from 266,000 when it was formed five years ago.
The DWP now has 92,000 PCS members, the Home Office 8,000, the prison service 3,000 and the Department of Constitutional Affairs 7,000. The disruption caused by action across several major government departments would be massive.
All of the DWP, which includes benefit offices and job centres, and the Home Office would be affected along with the law courts and the prison service.
Over 2,000 workers at the Driving Standards Agency are set to join the battle for decent pay in mid-February (see report page 14).
But two-day strikes will not guarantee success. The government will only cave in if it is forced to. A senior government official told a BBC reporter last week, 'There was no question of caving in and ministers would stand firm in the same way they did against the firefighters.'
He said the government was 'not prepared to increase' the pay offers on the table. 'What we could have here is another of those situations that we had in the firefighters' dispute, with the union battling away against the government and the government taking a very firm line.'
Some in New Labour are confident that they can ride out short term industrial action. The irony is that all-out strike action across five government departments would bring victory within hours.
The danger is that after causing big disruption in the first two days union activists are unsure of the strategy to win.
The mood among the members means that the union should be prepared to call whatever action it takes to win a breakthrough.
This dispute is an important confrontation over poverty pay-an issue that affects millions around Britain. Everyone should get behind the civil servants and support them in their dispute.