Socialist Worker

Where now for the civil service dispute?

By PHIL PARDOE, member of the PCS Department for Work and Pensions group executive committee (personal capacity)

Issue No. 1897

THE STRIKE by around 100,000 civil servants in the PCS union on Tuesday and Wednesday showed the angry mood about low pay. Workers in the biggest civil servant employer the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the prisons service struck for both days. Colleagues in the Office for National Statistics struck on Tuesday. DWP workers struck previously in February, while the prison service struck in January.

Most civil servants are not well paid. A large majority of people working for the DWP are paid less than £15,000 a year. They do vital frontline work. They are not the civil servants of Yes, Minister stereotypes. There is not a bowler hat in sight. We are undervalued and treated appallingly by our employer.

It has become apparent over the last three months that this dispute is about a lot more than pay for this year. The employers' offer is unacceptable and if it was just about that it would be right to strike. But it is also about the future of pay and the way that management relates to the workforce in the DWP.

There is a management offensive. They want to use a new pay appraisal system to sideline the union. Pay would be determined by appraisal markings, but there would be predetermined quotas. One third of staff would get an above-inflation increase, two thirds below-inflation. In other words a pay cut.

The union is threatening legal action over this because it believes the system is a breach of contract. If it is illegal we should use the courts but it is no substitute for effective industrial action. There are plans to cut 30,000 jobs, one quarter of the staff, in the DWP and thousands others across the civil service. There are also plans to abolish local service delivery.

Work would be relocated to benefits centres and people would not be locally assessing people's benefits. There would be no face to face contact for service users. This system was trialled with pension centres. Pensioners were supposed to deal with these centres over the phone, not in their locality. It has not been a success.

They have failed to meet their targets. Staff have had inadequate training. The computer systems don't work properly. For the first time since 1945 pensioners have not been getting their pensions. The government want to introduce this for all benefits. It will be cutting jobs and pay for those that remain.

Our dispute is about the future of pay, the role of the union in negotiations with the employer, and workers being treated with respect by senior management. The employers are treating members with arrogance and contempt. The main question is, where do we go from our two-day strike? The serious nature of the attack has to be understood by the union. We need to escalate.

The DWP group executive, which runs the union in the department, so far has failed to come up with a strategy to win. It needs to call an emergency meeting. From there, it needs to call a programme of escalating action. I believe that there will have to be a ballot for all-out action as the way to win. This is an argument that will have to be had with activists and the membership.

The union's national executive also has a role. It needs to coordinate action against this attack across every government department. The government's Gershon report is out very soon. This will recommend cuts across every department and the relocation of work. The union leadership need to launch a national campaign to protect jobs and take on the issue of poverty pay across the civil service. It is campaigning over a return to national pay bargaining involving every civil service department.

Pay and staffing are two sides of the same coin. Poverty pay and the cutting of jobs are all about saving money for the government and reducing services to working class people. The union needs to step up its action. The support for the strikes shows this issue is not going to go away.

There needs to be an escalation. All the issues need to be linked together. Action needs to be coordinated and there needs to be a national response to the attacks.

The left run both the group executive and the national executive. There are staffing cuts in every government department. If every department is hit by a pay squeeze and told it has to lose jobs, it seems only right that the union's national executive should play a role and call for national industrial action.

We need a national demonstration over these issues. Let's act as a national union. Union branches need to put pressure on the group executive and the national executive. We have to take the argument out to members about how we have to escalate to win.

Activists should be putting motions to their branch meetings arguing for escalation of the action to fight off these attacks-regardless of what department they work for.


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News
Sat 17 Apr 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1897
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