Over 90,000 members of the PCS civil service workers’ union in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are set to strike on Thursday and Friday of next week in the first stage of a battle to defend jobs and services.
The DWP is bearing the brunt of New Labour’s assault on jobs in the civil service.
Gordon Brown wants to cut up to 40,000 out of 120,000 jobs in the DWP. This is part of his plans to cut 104,000 jobs in the civil service.
This has had a terrible effect on services for some of the poorest people in society.
There have been a number of office closures, particularly in rural areas, millions of unanswered calls, and waits of up to two months for initial benefit payments. Yet the majority of proposed job cuts are still to come.
These attacks are central to New Labour’s neo-liberal agenda. Its intention is the wholesale privatisation of the DWP, along with other sections of the civil service.
The major parts of the DWP have been restructured along private sector lines.
All initial contact by people in Jobcentre Plus, which makes up two thirds of the DWP, is through a call centre.
An initial “work-focused” interview is then conducted at a local office, before the claim is assessed in a benefit processing centre.
This system delivers a worse service, particularly to those most vulnerable and in need. But that is of no relevance to New Labour. It cuts costs, and makes a future sell-off more enticing to big business.
A leaked memo from minister Margaret Hodge, makes it clear that New Labour has already reneged on a commitment made by the former DWP minister, David Blunkett, that there would be no wholesale privatisation.
Hodge enthuses about the opportunities for selling off large sections of DWP.
A number of districts in Jobcentre Plus have been identified for the outsourcing of advisory jobs—virtually all jobs in front line local offices.
This clearly indicates that the government’s intention is to progressively hand over all local office functions to the likes of Reed Employment and Work Directions.
Staff will be given no choice. They will be transferred to the private sector.
Given the importance of the cuts, restructuring and closure programme to New Labour’s agenda, it would be a mistake to believe this fight will be easily won.
There are areas that have already experienced the impact of the cuts, where support for the action is overwhelming.
There are others, such as in the call centres and the Child Support Agency, where in the midst of the cuts programme large scale recruitment is taking place.
This is only short term, but it is vital that the PCS union’s group executive committee and local activists take the arguments about New Labour’s hidden agenda into these areas.
Next week’s two-day strike, and overtime ban will be followed by a meeting of branch representatives on 11 February to decide on further action.
Some activists are putting forward a strategy of paid selective or targeted action as the way forward.
This would be a mistake. While no tactic should be ruled out, previous struggles have shown that it is mass strike action, rather than small numbers taking action on behalf of the larger membership, which can put sufficient pressure on New Labour to win.
It was the threat of a public sector strike that led to limited concessions on pensions last year. Carrying through with that threat, could have secured a complete victory. It was limited national action that led to concessions over pay in the DWP in 2004.
In both cases more could have been won. Certainly if we are serious about defeating New Labour this time we will need to escalate the frequency of discontinuous action.
It is right that the DWP group executive is consulting branches, but it is its responsibility to put a clear analysis and strategy for escalation to that meeting.
Senior managers in the DWP are in a state of panic about the cuts programme. New Labour is in disarray over Iraq and other issues. As a union we have never been bigger. If we take the level of action needed we will have every chance of winning.
Over 400 PCS members in the NHS Pensions Agency based in Fleetwood, Lancashire, are set to strike on Friday of this week. Workers voted overwhelmingly to take action against the government’s plans to privatise the agency.
Phil Pardoe is a member of the PCS DWP group executive committee. He writes in a personal capacity