THE BIGGEST pay fight in the civil service for decades is on the cards. Some 89,000 PCS union members working in job centres and benefits offices, and in the Department of Work and Pensions, are due to begin a strike ballot at the start of January. The first two strike days are set for 29 and 30 January.
Meanwhile union members in the Home Office have overwhelmingly rejected their pay offer. And a ballot is on in the Department of Constitutional Affairs after management imposed a 1.3 percent pay rise with smaller offices likely to join the dispute.
There is a prospect of a united campaign over pay for the first time since the abolition of national pay bargaining under the Tories. We are currently balloting for a return to national pay so we can submit a national claim in 2004. A breakthrough on this year's pay rise would give a tremendous boost to the campaign for national bargaining. But a defeat would create severe difficulties, especially in the Department of Work and Pensions, which is the best organised and the most militant section.
It is vital that sectional differences are buried and action is coordinated across departments. There is an enormous amount to do in the coming weeks. Activists should ensure that:
We also need to begin a debate about the action needed to win. We are fighting Gordon Brown's public sector pay cap of 3.7 percent. That means we are fighting to lift wages for all public sector workers. And we need to involve all union members in discussing lessons learnt from other workers. One or two-day strikes may not be enough to win.
The lessons of the Fire Brigades Union defeat and of the success of the postal workers' unofficial action need to be learned. The left has made massive gains in the civil servants' union since the election of Mark Serwotka as general secretary. Now we are being put to the test.
Phil Pardoe is a member of the Department of Work and Pensions group executive committee and writes in a personal capacity.
Women will be worse hit by fees
IT WILL take women graduates more than half their working lives to pay back debts built up at university if the government gets its way over top-up fees.
Research based on figures compiled by the House of Commons library shows it would take a woman graduate earning £36,000 with two children 19 and a half years to pay back the fees of £3,000 for each year spent at university. That is four years longer than a man on the same wage, as women often take a break from full time work after having a child.
Most graduates get nothing like £36,000 a year, a figure that would put you in the top 9 percent of earners. Of course male and female students from rich backgrounds would have nothing to pay back, as their parents would easily cough up for the fees.
Discrimination against women is one more reason to campaign against tuition fees.
EDUCATION ministers are so desperate to sell the idea of top-up fees they have agreed to pay £180,000 to a marketing firm to bombard potential students with text messages supporting New Labour's policy.
Higher education minister Alan Johnson has brought in the company, Inkfish, to send the messages to anyone ringing up the government helpline on university funding. The firm behind Inkfish, Domestic & General, has been investigated by the government's competition watchdog over the cost of extended warranties on consumer goods.
Death by social injustice
PEOPLE IN Britain have a lower life expectancy and are more likely to die from cancer and heart conditions than those in comparable countries.
An independent study, the Wanless Report, compared health in Britain to countries with similar wealth and health systems. It shows deaths from respiratory diseases in Britain are at least 50 percent higher among women and 30 percent higher among men than in all the other countries. Britain tops the list for infant mortality. It is 70 percent higher than in Finland.
'The government has been so focused on short term measures to cut waiting lists that is has not invested in prevention,' said Professor Sian Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health. Richard Brighton of the British Medical Association says Britain's poor performance was due to wide differences in social class.
GORDON BROWN likes to pose as the chancellor who delivers on public services.
But New Labour has the lowest public sector investment since the Second World War, according to an analysis by the Observer newspaper and the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Between 1997 and the budget in March this year an average of just 0.7 percent of British GDP (the amount of wealth produced in Britain annually) has been devoted to investment in roads, railways, hospitals and school buildings.
'We've seen seven years of very low level public sector investment, by historical standards. To the end of March it was the worst on record,' said Carl Emmerson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
Starving at Xmas
'THIS CHRISTMAS if we want to find starving people we need look no further than our city streets,' says Karen Chouhan of the Coalition Against the Destitution of Asylum Seekers.
Up to 200 refugees a week in London alone are being denied any benefits because of the law home secretary David Blunkett introduced last January. Refugees can be left without food and shelter if they do not claim asylum as soon as they enter the country, however traumatised or disorientated they are.
The Home Office admits some 7,000 people were denied benefits in the first few months of the act. Now Blunkett wants to heap even more misery on these refugees by taking away their children and putting them into care despite a cross-party Commons committee asking him to shelve his savage plans.
School tests ballot
DESPITE A huge vote for action, the largest teachers' union, the NUT, will not be boycotting compulsory national tests for primary school students.
A ballot of NUT members in primary schools returned an 86 percent vote for a boycott this week. The turnout of 34 percent was above average for a postal ballot. But the union's restrictive rules state the turnout has to be above 50 percent, with at least a two to one majority, for action to be called.
Thanks to you
MANY THANKS to all the people who have sent reports to Socialist Worker in 2003.
Also thanks to the people who have taken the pictures which transform the paper's pages. These include Ray Smith, Matt Saywell, Jess Hurd, Guy Smallman, Sebastian Hacher, arbeiterfotografie.com, Richard Searle, Hannah Dee, Duncan Brown, Penny Kay, Judy Shapter, John Harris, Mark Krantz, Paul Mattsson, S O'Neill, Andrew Wiard, Douglas Robertson, Andrew McCoy, Jeff Brewster, Eddie Ianotta, John Sturrock, Martin Shakeshaft, Molly Cooper, Dave Gilchrist, and Sion Touhig.