THE RECENT highly successful strike by 265,000 members of the PCS union against cuts to jobs, sick pay and pensions shocked the government.
At the end of last week work and pensions secretary Alan Johnson announced there would be a three-month freeze on compulsory redundancies in his department.
Paul Murphy, branch organiser of the north London Department for Work and Pensions PCS branch, says, “The announcement is a sign that the union’s campaign over job losses is having an impact on the government.
“But by itself Johnson’s offer is meaningless. It is only a stay of execution for three months.
“And jobs have been going for three years without compulsory redundancies. The issue is defending jobs and the service to the public. That battle remains.”
A debate is now raging in the union about where next for the dispute. Five key union activists in London took part in a roundtable discussion last week:
The 5 November strike was extremely successful. My branch is not the strongest on a rank and file level, but we took steps forward. We had more people picketing.
The march in central London was wonderful. Across the union we saw the emergence of people from the rank and file.
That’s where national action is so important. There may be sections that are not as confident as the DWP, where we’d had six days of strike action already this year.
The Inland Revenue hadn’t had a strike for 11 years. The union’s recruited faster over the staffing campaign.
The momentum’s got to be maintained. It would be a fantastic achievement if we got other public sector unions on board, but we have to recognise that there’s a general election coming up.
People like Dave Prentis of Unison and Steve Sinnott, the leader of the National Union of Teachers, aren’t going to rock the boat for Blair.
This is true despite the fact that their own members are faced with imminent attacks on pensions.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka’s right to say that if we can’t pull off joint action we should still go for it alone.
Val Pearman, PCS British Library branch secretary
We’ve got to build on the anger there is, certainly in the culture sector.
If you had told me at the beginning of September that we would close the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and all the reading rooms of the British Library I’d have said you were having me on.
There was a questioning among the activists whether we could achieve anything. The thing is people are fired up.
One of my roles as an activist is to keep the momentum going with all the things that matter individually to the members we represent.
The reality is areas like ours have suffered amazingly badly since the break-up of national pay bargaining.
There’s a groundswell of discontent to build on at the way we’re treated over pay.
It’s important to bring all these issues to the front. Like all of you I’m extremely cynical, even though Steve Sinnott gave me a box of chocolates on my picket line, about the other union leaders taking action over pensions.
Tansy Feltis, Food Standards Agency PCS branch secretary:
I think we should go for more strike action, but I think we’ve got to be careful with it. Some members aren’t quite up to speed yet.
Charlie McDonald, PCS London regional secretary Department for Work and Pensions
There’s a problem with the line that the Socialist Party are pushing at the moment, which is that the PCS on its own can’t take on the government.
We should be in favour of action across the public sector, but that’s a double-edged sword.
Some people in the union will say we’ve put out the call for public sector action, we couldn’t get it, and we can’t take on the government on our own.
Mark Serwotka was right at the TUC rally over pensions last week when he called for a day of action in early spring.
But we should be going ahead regardless.
Most members thought that the strike was much better than anticipated. Sometimes the members can be in front of the union reps.
We shouldn’t rule out selective action. Selective action won the pay dispute in Defra—getting a 10 percent pay rise.
Kevin Evans, PCS London branch executive committee Defra
Charlie’s right. There are a lot of people much further to the left than the union and it was much better in terms of the numbers coming out on 5 November than in previous disputes.
People are asking what’s next. And if we say wait until May 2005 then we’re dissipating all that anger.
In the Food Standards Agency the pay is shit. There’s no progression. It will take 30 years to get to the max.
To combat that we need a national pay claim, but we need the union to be a national union and not be divided into the different groups. The union has to act nationally.
When Blair talks about a radical third term I fear that means a lot more job cuts, attacks on the public sector and privatisation.
I feel we need to use the energy of the stop the war movement in PCS. When we’re talking about winning a public sector strike we need to reach rank and file teachers and local government workers.
That’s going to be important in winning that argument, so that workers who are Unison and NUT members can put the pressure on for action in the run-up to the general election.
We can make common cause with them in defending our pensions.
There was definitely an organised attempt from the NUT and Unison to get down to picket lines and show solidarity.
That reflects the fact that they see us at the forefront of fighting the attacks on the public sector and they want us to win. Clearly they want to be involved in that fight as well.
We need to gather how we can help them put pressure on their leaderships. It’s important for us to get into schools and councils.
There’s an awful lot of responsibility on our leadership’s shoulders because we are at the cutting edge of the class struggle.
It’s vitally important that our leadership don’t waste the momentum.
I think it was a big tactical mistake just to ballot on the one-day strike and not to have a ballot for discontinuous action.
If we go back now and have another ballot and it’s a lower turnout or we don’t win it by a bigger margin, that’s going to be used to bash us over the head. But we need to have a ballot as soon as possible.
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