Over 5,000 civil service workers struck in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Friday of last week over pay disparities in the department.
The one day strike hit the processing and payment of farming subsidies as well as the work of Defra.
The action was called by the PCS union in response to a trend towards separate pay negotiations for Defra proper and for its “executive agencies”, such as the Rural Payments Agency and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
These separate negotiations have led to pay gaps of up to £2,010 between people doing similar jobs, according to figures compiled by the union.
The PCS is calling for greater pay coherence and for a single set of negotiations covering the whole Defra “family” to resolve the growing pay inequality.
The strike was extremely solid, with picket lines set up across England and Wales. This was despite a narrow 55 percent vote for strike action.
Dave Catchpole is branch chair of London Defra PCS. He told Socialist Worker, “Staff on the same grade are getting paid much less for doing the same job as someone else.
“We want to raise the agency pay up to core Defra levels. We also want to increase London weighting pay. There is wide discontent across the department. It is being reorganised, with relocations planned as jobs are moved out of London. Staff are going to be made redundant.
“Morale is low and people are leaving. Many people have used this strike to express their discontent. The union is going to look at what our next action will be after this strike. It has been very well supported.”
The stereotype of cushy well paid jobs for life is a far cry from reality for many civil service workers. Most struggle by in low pay, high pressure jobs with little security. And chancellor Gordon Brown aims to slash 104,000 civil service jobs.
Reena Solanki is a Defra worker in London who came out on strike. “I get tax credits and I am finding it really difficult to get by,” she said.
“I should have had a pay increase of £150 a month this year. But I only see £40 of it, after tax credits and national insurance are taken into account.
“It’s diabolical that I would be better off on benefits. I’m struggling to stay in work. I have two children and when they were both at nursery I wasn’t earning enough to pay the fees. I wasn’t in debt until I started working.
“A number of people are in worse situations than me. They used to say that public sector workers were on low wages because we had job security.But that isn’t there any more. We should be given wages in line with what we do.”
Ben Drake, an activist with the Unison union in York, attended the PCS picket line there to show solidarity.
“There was a positive mood on the picket line,” he said. “Only about a dozen staff had gone in out of about 300, and they’d had two people join the union and several more take leaflets and application forms.
“It was very encouraging, as the action was primarily in solidarity with staff transferred to the new agencies rather than the remaining Defra staff themselves. There was a strong sense of resistance to the break-up of the department. Everyone wanted to maintain unity.”