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PCS strikes defy the Tories

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Issue 2346


A strike by 250,000 civil service workers last week reopened the debate on where resistance to the Tories can go next.

Hundreds joined picket lines across Britain.

In Nottingham and Newcastle strikers and their supporters from other unions braved the snow to rally against the government.

Job centres, offices and museums were closed. The strike closed the HMRC tax offices in Porthmadog, north Wales.

There was no Welsh Assembly as Labour and Plaid Cymru members refused to cross picket lines.

The National Museum of Scotland and the DVLA office in Brighton closed to the public.

Supportive security guards brought tea for the pickets.

They were called out by their PCS union against the bosses’ decision to cap pay and increase their pension contributions. They also opposed attacks on terms and conditions like flexible working and facility time for union reps.

Teachers took NUT union banners to picket lines and students from central London toured picket lines in Whitehall.

When George Osborne got up to announce his long list of budget cuts in parliament, hundreds of strikers outside booed in disgust.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told Socialist Worker, “Today has been a success—the strike has had a significant impact.

“We in the PCS are going to continue fighting these attacks. But we all know it’ll be much easier if other unions joined us. A general strike would transform the situation, but to get there we have to get people standing up together first.”

Striker Mona Hemmingway added, “I’m glad I came out on strike. I think we can teach the government a lesson. They look smug, but I think they’re scared about how angry they’re making people.”

In Glasgow, Derek Thomson from the PCS national executive told Socialist Worker, “This is just the first day of a programme against the government’s austerity agenda which is directly impacting not only our members but all those who rely on public services”.

The action includes a half day strike on 5 April, and a work to rule including an overtime ban.

Mark Serwotka has called for others to join the PCS in June for the biggest possible strike.

“What gives people confidence is acting, and seeing others act alongside them,” said Paul McGoay, who is on the union’s group executive at the Home Office.

“We have to make this three month long campaign by the PCS a real one, with follow up action to galvanise people.”

Some workplaces saw a higher turnout on picket lines than in previous strikes.

Activists elsewhere reported difficulties, after the collapse of the coordinated strike campaign for public sector pensions dented many members’ confidence.

Dave Franklin represents PCS members at the land registry.

He said, “Before the strike there were arguments about whether people would come out and concerns about the relatively low turnout in the ballot.


“A few people said they couldn’t afford to. we’re on strike against pay cuts and increased pensions contributions so it’s not surprising that these are hitting particularly lower paid members in their pockets.”

Despite this the strike was a success.

“We think about 80 percent of members struck,” said Dave. “It’s a slight fall, but nothing dramatic. We had good discussions with people on the picket line.”

Miguel, a picket at the Home Office, said, “It is scary to lose a day’s pay. But I still think it’s better to make a stand than have more stolen from me by them in the future.”

Nigel Prendergast, DWP east London branch organiser, said the union had to learn from the recent past.

“We made the mistake of relying on linking up with other unions,”

He told Socialist Worker. “We should link up with other unions where we can. But if other unions can’t or won’t—last year we made the mistake of being swayed by that.

“Then it’s important to do what we need to do. We can’t blame the leaders of other unions for what we failed to do for our members”

The strike raised the question for activists across the workers’ movement of how to rebuild a fight that can beat the government.

Paul McGoay said, “Every union rep every day hears how angry people are, and how concerned they are about the attacks. Union leaders need to be in touch with that anger.

“The rank and file are not a standing army, there has to be political arguments and leadership about the way forward.

“In some unions I think the bureaucracy need to get back in touch with the rank and file and start calling for action.”

Action by the PCS has led to much broader strikes before, and Paul believes it can do so again.

“We need to be building the momentum back up,” he said.

“In the run-up to 30 November 2011, it was the PCS, the teachers in the NUT and lecturers in the UCU striking that built that momentum.

“That meant that rank and file members in other unions could point to us and say to their union leaderships, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’

“That is what we need to get back to and the PCS action is part of that.”

Dave said that union activists have to “generalise from the victories we have had.

“We have to keep pointing out that the coalition is weak and divided and can be beaten.

“Even before the bedroom tax protests across the country they were forced to start backtracking.

“And in the PCS we forced the government to back down on compulsory redundancies.”

Anna Owens was part of the picket at Euston Tower.

She told Socialist Worker that the strike was, “a call to everyone else in the movement to unite against the government”.

“People were nervous before the strike,” she added.

“But the government attacks are hitting us hard. When we act we have to act together.

“People want to see the back of the Tories. It’s time we all start pushing.”

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