By Mark Serwotka
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Raising the stakes

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
The sight of Gordon Brown greeting Margaret Thatcher warmly at the door of Number 10 must have left most Labour supporters aghast.
Issue 318

It highlighted the extent to which the hated priorities of the Tories have been adopted wholesale by the government. Sadly, criticism from within the Labour Party was muted.

But where mainstream politics, and its obsession with pro-market solutions, has failed, PCS is taking action. Our national dispute actively opposes the public sector pay freeze, job cuts and the consequences of privatisation.

Everyone (apart from that tiny group who have made fortunes from it) hates privatisation. The majority of the public want rail renationalised. It’s TUC policy. It’s Labour Party policy. And yet it doesn’t happen. It’s the same with council housing. Tenants want public housing kept in public and accountable hands. Again it’s Labour Party policy but the government remains hostile.

On key issues like war, privatisation and workers’ rights there is little to choose between the main parties. When mainstream politics consists of a tussle for what is called the centre ground (but is in reality the right), it is hard to see how change can be brought about.

But recent events show that policies can be overturned overnight. A government unable to find funds to protect public servants’ earnings suddenly found billions of pounds to prop up Northern Rock – despite Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, having attacked other central banks for doing the same only days before.

Perhaps Gordon Brown should ask John Major round for tea next time. They could compare notes on being forced into embarrassing U-turns by the very markets they worship.

Of course government jumping to the tune of big business is scarcely a new development. Operating behind the scenes is working well for the fat cats, but it is clearly not effective for trade unions. Fortunately we have other means at our disposal.

CWU members in Royal Mail have been fighting very hostile management. It threatened major job cuts, and wanted to hold down postal workers’ pay increase to 2.5 percent – well below inflation. “The money on the table is the money on the table because that is what the business can afford” Royal Mail chair Alan Leighton told the BBC.

The CWU did not accept that, and took strike action. Management then offered 6.7 percent over two years. Although this offer also included tearing up agreements with the CWU (and is therefore unacceptable) it went beyond the 2 percent public sector pay limit being pursued by Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile RMT members working for Metronet went on strike, forcing Transport for London to close nine tube lines. Their demands for guarantees on jobs and pensions for the workers (whose privatised employer had gone bust) were met.

This caused the Economist to point out that other private companies were unlikely to bid for Metronet’s contracts, thus securing their return to the public sector – in line with RMT policy. The Economist probably did not mean it as a compliment to say that “the RMT is powerful whereas the government is weak”, but the RMT should take it as one.

Just because the government seems wedded to a public sector pay freeze and continuing privatisation, it does not mean we cannot shift them. None of the savers queuing outside Northern Rock believed the government when they said that all was well in financial services.

I doubt that they believe Brown’s assertion that squeezing the pay of benefit clerks, street cleaners and nurses will control inflation. They are more likely to be concerned with the £1.3 million paid to the Northern Rock chief executive last year, or his 10 percent pay increase agreed in April.

My own union is balloting over another strike of our members in the civil service and associated organisations. We want it to have as much political impact as possible – maybe by acting alongside local government workers, and postal workers, if they have not settled.

But in any case, we will accompany national action with targeted action in different sections aimed at maximising the industrial effect. We have seen that when the stakes are high enough, the government will change direction. Our job is to raise them.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS, the civil service workers’ trade union.

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