“THIS IS the biggest strike ballot in a generation, involving the whole of the civil service.” With those fighting words Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, announced a ballot of 290,000 members.
The last such strike was in 1993 against John Major’s Tory government. This latest battle pits a union determined to save jobs and services against New Labour’s determination to drive through cuts.
Every trade unionist and worker should get behind the PCS in this crucial fight. Two issues are central. The first is chancellor Gordon Brown’s plans to slash 104,000 jobs.
If the government culls that many civil service workers, so many others will be in its sights.
The second big issue is pensions, an absolutely crucial question for everyone. Brown plans to raise the public sector pension age from 60 to 65, slash back on sick pay, and force through job relocations and privatisation.
The ballot will take place throughout October, and a yes vote would see a strike on Friday 5 November—Bonfire Night.
The latest attacks come as some 90,000 workers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are already in revolt over pay and working conditions. They struck firmly for six days earlier this year.
The scale of the attacks means that union leaders everywhere have pledged their backing to the PCS.
Twelve general secretaries of major unions spoke at a PCS anti-cuts fringe meeting at the TUC conference on Monday.
Other union leaders are particularly concerned about the government’s attacks on pensions.
A Cabinet Office paper due out this month is expected to propose a standard retirement age of 65 for all new civil servants, starting in 2006—and coming in for existing workers in 2013.
It may also propose an end to the final salary pension scheme that guarantees some security in old age to civil service workers.
“Unions will fight to defend pension benefits. We will negotiate, we will campaign and if we have to we will strike,” said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC.
Dave Prentis, leader of Unison, Britain’s biggest public sector union, also warned against government plans to raise the age of public sector retirement.
“If they continue down the road they’re going down, we will be leading forms of industrial action,” he promised.
Activists are now going all out to win the ballot for action over the next few weeks.
“We have to make sure we win this strike ballot and turn up the pressure on the government,” says Rob Bryson, a central London DWP worker.
“We have to pull out all the stops. The stronger PCS branches have to help the weaker branches to organise around the dispute.
“We need to get to every member and speak to them about the impact the job cuts and other attacks will have.
“The mood in the DWP is all for going on strike. The one-day strike on 5 November is a good start.
“But to win, it has to be followed up by a programme of industrial action.”
Dave Owens, PCS north west regional secretary for the DWP, says,“Everybody is angry and bitter. We’re getting organised in this area to get the message out across the region.”
For more information phone the PCS anti-cuts unit on 020 7801 2771.
Mobilise across the union
By Sue Bond, PCS vice-president (personal capacity)
WE NEED to mobilise across the union for a massive yes vote in the ballot. A one-day strike will show the government that we are determined to stop this attack on our jobs and the services we provide.
But it is only the beginning. We can win this fight. New Labour wants to leave the PCS weak and isolated.
That is one of the reasons they settled with the firefighters and are trying to get a deal in the health service.
But we have already got support from other unions and the TUC. We have got to go out to other public sector workers and explain that this is an attack on public services.
The next few weeks will be crucial for the PCS and the trade union movement. New Labour is determined to drive neo-liberalism through the welfare state.
They want to privatise and contract out. Alan Johnson, the new Department for Work and Pensions secretary, is determined to drive through job cuts and attacks on pensions.
The unions are the main defence against this. So Labour is attacking them.
It won’t stop at the PCS. If we lose, other public sector unions are next.
But Blair is in a vulnerable position, as the latest cabinet reshuffle and the problems over Iraq show.
The PCS is organising public meetings at the end of September for our members, other trade unionists and members of the community.
Activists have to leaflet outside every civil service workplace, explain the huge impacts the cuts will have and win a big yes vote for strikes.
Like worst employers
‘WE ARE not against doing things more efficiently, but cutting over 100,000 jobs will decimate service delivery, meaning poorer services for everyone, hitting essential services and damaging the very services the government has sought to improve.
The people the government are seeking to axe aren’t bowler-hatted Sir Humpheys or faceless bureaucrats. They provide vital services that touch everybody’s lives from cradle to grave.
They work as a team delivering things we take for granted, such as your driving licence, passport or child benefit. Any divide between the frontline and backline is false. The government is acting like the very worst private sector employer.
While the government and main political parties are engaging in a crude game of who can cut the most, with little thought of the impact, we are standing up for public services and the people who deliver them. The government must rethink.’
MARK SERWOTKA, general secretary of the PCS civil service union