We have been taking action over industrial matters – pay offers below inflation, job cuts, compulsory redundancies, attacks on conditions, the damaging effects of privatisation and outsourcing. But the problems public servants face (and not just PCS members, by any means) are the industrial relations consequences of decisions made by politicians.
They have decided that there must be a business case for everything. They consider that the pursuit of social benefit no longer justifies policy. There has to be a potential for profit to make any activity worthwhile to them.
The disgraceful gaps between private sector bosses’ top pay and of those who do the work are mimicked in the public sector as though this was in some way a mark of efficiency rather than greed.
So the PCS campaign has to involve a combination of political as well as industrial action. PCS has been blazing a trail in the run up to the May elections in Scotland, Wales and England. Alongside the industrial action we have organised the Make Your Vote Count campaign.
This meant contacting every candidate to ask for their attitude to privatisation, job cuts and office closures in their locality, to the fragmented pay system which is failing to match price rises, and will now emphasise regional pay disparities. Having received the candidates’ responses, we have passed them on to our members.
Unions have always accepted that there is a political side to their activities. But our campaign is different from others. We are not starting from any position of tribal loyalty to New Labour – given its record in attacking PCS members’ jobs, pay, pensions and the services we deliver.
We are not beholden to any party. We are giving the same opportunities to the Greens, Solidarity, Respect and the Socialist Party as to Labour Party candidates. We are not, however, approaching the fascist right; in fact we are participating in campaigns against them wherever they are standing.
We do not see our members as passive providers of contributions and votes. We are engaging them in activity, suggesting that they ask canvassers and candidates questions, put up PCS window posters listing our demands and attend local hustings that we organise. Hundreds of new activists have come forward to act as branch coordinators. But most importantly we are not telling our members how to vote. We are enabling them to draw their own conclusions by giving them the local candidates’ responses.
The fact that this is seen as remarkable is in itself remarkable. It should not be controversial to simply ask candidates questions in an election and publish their answers, but in the British trade union movement old habits die hard. When I outlined the campaign at the TUC General Council, a senior official described it as “destabilising Labour”.
If this is destabilising Labour, it can hardly be our fault. Publishing the answers is seen as the problem – either the answers will deter members from voting for Labour candidates or they will be at odds with national party policy. But in fact the same applies to all of the main parties.
Merchant banker David Freud’s proposal to contract out Jobcentre Plus work to the private sector and charities was welcomed by New Labour (not surprisingly, since that was doubtlessly what they wanted him to suggest).
But the Tories also welcomed it (and claimed to have thought of it first) as did the Lib Dems. It is not welcomed by our members in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), or by organisations representing the unemployed, single parents and disabled people.
After the elections we will look at successful candidates’ favourable views and commitments, and ask them to act on them. We will then look at the next round of elections in England and Wales in 2008, and the European elections in 2009.
The voice of organised workers must be heard again in open political debates – and we are helping it to do so.
Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS, the civil servants’ trade union
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