Socialist Worker

Walkouts show civil servants up for fight

by Matthew Cookson
Issue No. 1879

HUNDREDS OF workers in job centres and social security offices in Glasgow and Basildon in Essex held an unofficial walk out on Friday of last week. They responded magnificently to their bosses imposing a terrible pay deal on 85,000 workers in the government's new Department for Work and Pensions. This is the first serious unofficial action in the civil service in over 15 years. The mood is so angry that wildcat strikes could break out again.

Unofficial action by the Glasgow and Basildon workers, following workers at Heathrow and in the post office, shows that wildcat strikes are back. PCS union members in the civil service voted by 94 percent to reject the pay deal in a ballot on Monday of this week. The vote was 40,615 against the offer with only 2,974 for.

Union members also voted by 42,276 to 1,215 to reject the management's new appraisal system. There was a good turnout in the ballot-some 52 percent. The union's group executive was set to meet on Thursday to organise the next stage of the action. This is likely to include a ballot for strike action. It could lead to official strikes in the near future. Alan Brown is a PCS national executive member and a worker in Glasgow's Cranston Hill social security office. He joined the walkout.

Alan told Socialist Worker, 'Richard Mottram, the head of the department, sent a letter out to all staff last Friday saying they were imposing the pay deal. This angered a lot of PCS members. They demanded that we have meetings to discuss it in the Glasgow offices. The strength of feeling was such that people wanted to protest straight away. So at 2.30pm nine offices-between 500 and 600 workers-in Glasgow walked out. People wanted to do something there and then, in spite of the Tory anti-union laws. The recent unofficial action of postal workers maybe gave people the confidence that if they stand together they can take action, even with these laws. This was a protest against management arrogance. Not even under Margaret Thatcher did management impose a pay offer before a workers' ballot was over.'

The walkouts and rejection of the pay offer reflect the deep bitterness among civil servants at the state of their low pay and how managers treat them. Hundreds of civil servants in the Inland Revenue walked out for 15 minutes in May in protest at the chaos over the government's new tax credit system.

'The walkouts in Glasgow and Basildon were the right response to management's moves,' says a central London civil servant. 'The group executive meeting on Thursday must immediately move to a ballot for national industrial action. Management aren't playing by the rules-why should we? There can't be a truce while the ballot is going on. Activists should be arguing for lightning walkouts to keep the pressure up on management. We need to learn the lessons from the recent postal workers' strike-unofficial action works. We also need to learn the lessons of the firefighters' strike. They had days of limited action that, ultimately, management could cope with. That's why we need rapidly escalating national action.'

Mark Serwotka is the general secretary of the PCS union, and a key member of the 'awkward squad' of left wing union leaders. His election showed the new mood sweeping the civil service. PCS members have a great opportunity to turn that mood into action to beat the bosses, and the government.

Martin John, a PCS national executive member, says, 'Their imposition of the pay offer shows that management are out for a confrontation in the Department of Work and Pensions. 'They have enough money to pay for people to move up the pay grades, but they are desperate to use it to pay for discriminatory performance-related pay. 'We are in a very serious battle.'

EVERY MEMBER of the PCS union-some 292,000 people-began a ballot on Monday for the return of national pay bargaining and against attacks on pensions. When the Tories split up the civil service into 170 different bargaining units it devastated pay for many workers.

It also led to wide pay discrepancies between departments. The workers are also angry at New Labour's plans to raise the retirement age for public sector workers from 60 to 65.

Facts on pay

The pay offer is less than £1 a day. That's what a below inflation 2.6 percent pay rise means. It will do nothing to improve the lives of low paid civil servants across Britain.

The bonus scheme penalises workers taking maternity and paternity leave, and those taking time off to care for a sick child or relative. It would penalise a worker attending a funeral.

10,000 people are earning less than 10,000 a year. Workers in the Department for Work and Pensions get the worst pay in the civil service.

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Article information

Sat 29 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1879
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