OVER 90,000 civil servants in the PCS union are set to strike on Monday and Tuesday. The strike will hit job centres, benefit offices, pension centres and the Child Support Agency, all part of the government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The PCS union's group executive committee of the DWP pulled the 92,000 workers out of a strike two weeks ago because management wanted talks. This caused shock and anger among workers in the department. But planned strikes in other departments went ahead. Some 20,000 workers struck in courts, prisons, the Home Office and the Treasury Solicitor's Office.
Huge pressure from workers in the DWP, management's refusal to offer a decent pay rise, and its intention to impose an unfair appraisal system forced the group executive to put the strikes back on. The importance of the strikes was shown on Monday of this week. The Mirror leaked a report of plans to get rid of 18,000 job centre and benefit office staff.
This is on top of 12,000 jobs that have gone in the last year. New Labour has made it clear that it wants to keep its workers on poverty wages. Union members are determined to ensure that next week's strike is as effective as possible.
Rob Bryson, DWP central London branch organiser, said, 'Members were outraged when the strikes were called off, particularly when they saw the pittance that was on offer from management. Rank and file pressure forced the group executive to change its stance. There is a lot of hard work to do to make the action as effective as possible. Members have now got to turn their anger away from the group executive to attack management. Winning the dispute is more important than ever now. We have seen an onslaught against workers in the last two years. 'If we don't fight back over pay we can expect these job cuts and more from management.'
Claire Donnelly, a job centre worker in Sheffield, says, 'People are really happy the strike is back on. It has got a huge level of support, more than before even. People are angry that management were not ready to negotiate even after they said they were. Everyone was really angry when the strikes were called off. Around 200 people attended a meeting at two minutes notice to discuss why the strikes were called off.'
Oli Rahman, an east London civil servant, told Socialist Worker, 'I was delighted when I heard the strikes were back on. They will still be as massive as if they had taken place on 29 and 30 January. The fight against low pay is not just our fight-council workers, firefighters and others have all fought for better pay. We are just asking for the money that is there. Civil servants, and all other public sector workers, need and deserve more. If we can achieve something others can follow us'
Karen Tyre, who works in a pension centre in Cardiff, said, 'This is about more than pay. We don't want the service we provide to the public to be worsened. This would hit the unemployed, pensioners, the most vulnerable people in society. Everybody needs to back our strike. Come down to our picket lines. This is about the whole way the government treats workers.'
The pay revolt is stretching deeper into the civil service. Some 1,000 PCS members in the Driving Standards Agency are set to join their DWP colleagues on strike after a 72.6 percent vote for strikes. Admin staff are set to strike on Monday and Tuesday with driving examiners joining them on Tuesday.
Prospect union members at the Health and Safety Executive began a strike ballot this week. Workers at the Harbours Agency, the Vehicle Inspectorate, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government Offices have all rejected pay offers. The departments that struck two weeks ago are working to rule and planning their next action.
Pressure rises down below
THIS IS the most crucial dispute in the civil service since 1991. The government has launched a concerted assault on workers across the civil service. Gordon Brown and the Treasury are central to the imposition of low pay. We have to move heaven and earth to ensure the dispute is successful. The dispute is back where it started two weeks ago when the action was called off. However, the momentum and the anger are still there.
I don't think the error the majority of the group executive committee, who are influenced by the Socialist Party, made in calling the strikes off will undermine the action in the end. We need to make sure there is a strategy to win. I am hoping there will be a group executive committee after the strikes to call more action.
There is a meeting for all branch secretaries on Saturday 6 March to get the members' views. But we need to call more action before then.
Action short of a strike-the work to rule, overtime ban, people walking out of work early-will have a considerable effect, but it won't win the dispute by itself. We have to maintain the momentum by escalating rapidly. We need another two days of action before 6 March and then decide to escalate more. My view is that we need an all-out strike.
New Labour is in such a weak position in so many areas, I am certain we would win in a short period. We mustn't repeat the errors of the firefighters' dispute by having a series of discontinuous strikes with big gaps between the action. The postal workers' action before Christmas was unofficial, but the all-out strike won in London very quickly.
PHIL PARDOE, PCS group executive committee Department for Work and Pensions (personal capacity)