Civil servants from the PCS union have responded to Gordon Brown’s 104,000 job cuts threat with a two to one strike vote. The strike was on 5 November, just after Socialist Review went to press.
This will be the first national dispute in the civil service for over ten years, bringing together benefit workers, customs officers, museum curators, librarians, tax officers, court assistants and many more.
The fact that around 300,000 civil servants representing such a diversity of jobs are striking is an important point in itself. It gives the lie to the government’s crude and inane stereotyping-civil servants equal pin-striped, bowler-hatted bureaucrats draining public money from front line services.
This ‘public service cuts for dummies’ explanation is a rather pathetic attempt to mask one of the biggest attacks on public services ever. Who will suffer? Obviously New Labour’s usual target, the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. Job centres will close in the poorest boroughs and be merged into super-centres miles away. There will also be less staff to help pensioners claim what miserly benefits are available to them.
So the scale and nature of the attacks are clear – but what about the response? The government is hoping that the more conservative sections of the union will hold back the struggle. They calculate that a series of one-day strikes will be manageable if spread out over a long enough period. Alternatively they are hoping that future action is selective rather than united.
The unity shown so far points the way forward. Escalating strike action, involving the whole union, will knock the government onto the back foot – especially in an election year. Activists inside the PCS were determined to make the 5 November strike as lively as possible, with maximum involvement. This can lay the basis for a future strategy based on escalating the action.
The other key aspect of the dispute is the attack on pensions. This not only brings together the whole of the union but connects with millions of other workers whose pensions are under threat particularly in the public sector.
Civil service workers are also angry about the government’s plan to attack their sick pay. The government is desperate to isolate the PCS, so it is essential that activists in other unions fight to make their union leaderships’ pledges of solidarity concrete by arguing for strikes over pensions coordinated with the PCS.
A public sector strike in defence of pensions? Now that might just make the government think twice about all its attacks.
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