PCS Strike - Death by a Thousand Delays

It’s not an easy decision to go on strike. Not only will you get no strike pay from your union, leaving you a day poorer, but your work will have piled up in your absence. Normally one or two day strikes are just enough to hit you in the pocket without doing too much damage to your employer. And at a time when unemployment is rising faster than it has for decades, going on strike isn’t an easy option for anyone. So the vote by public sector workers in September to continue with the action they started earlier in the year shows how much they mean business.

Fighting Talk

Initially, of the 270,000 workers who were balloted, the majority voted for action to take place from November to February 2009. Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS, one of seven unions involved in the dispute, told the TUC conference he wanted the strike to have a big impact:

It will be targeted and it will be imaginative and cause the most disruption possible.

He went on,

Faced with pay cuts, pay freezes and increasing financial hardship, civil and public servants will not tolerate the government’s approach to pay which is disproportionately hitting some of the lowest paid in the economy.

And a couple of days before the strike he stated:

I want to appeal to workers in every trade union, but particularly those in other public sector unions, to join us on the picket lines on Monday. Our employers have made a bigger effort in the run up to this strike to intimidate people and put them off striking. That makes the question of solidarity even more important.

It would be impossible to disagree with Mark Serwotka here. Public sector workers are well behind in the pay race. Despite the fact that one in four workers earns less than £16,000 a year and more than half earn less than £20,000, with some 30,000 PCS members in government departments earning a wage that is only just above the minimum wage, nevertheless they’ve been singled out by the Government who, since 2004, have talked tough to deter other workers from taking similar action against low wages. And at the height of the banking orgy, when obscene bonuses were being handed out in the City like confetti, public sector workers were labeled selfish and greedy and their pay claim was blamed for fuelling inflation. The truth, as Mr Serwotka points out, is that many workers in the public sector are appallingly badly paid. They have had years of cut backs and job freezes resulting in tougher workloads for those left, while inflation has eaten away at their wages and the stock market crash has cut their pension funds. When the national minimum wage rose this October to £5.73 an hour, at least six government departments or agencies had to check they were not breaking the law. At the lowest pay grade, civil servants in the DWP are earning 13p above the minimum wage. The government had to break its 2% norm recently to pay watch assistants, who monitor shipping for the coastguard service, because it would have left itself open to prosecution for paying staff below the minimum wage. It’s hardly surprising, then, that local authorities have been facing recruitment difficulties, with gaps appearing in departments dealing with social services, occupational therapy and environmental health, planning and educational therapy. There is even a shortage of School Crossing Patrols. And with inflation standing currently at 4.5%, while the pay offer stands at 2%, it isn’t difficult to see who is being asked to pay for the current crisis. Food, fuel, transport and housing costs are pushing people closer and closer to the kind of hardship we were promised we would never see again. And while billions could be found to bail out a banking system rotten to its core, there has never been any money on the table to pay the workers who keep essential services running.

Wasting Time

As Serwotka said, the key to winning this strike would be for workers in other sectors to show solidarity. Local authority workers in Scotland went on strike in August and September for a 5% increase, and new strikes were set for October and beyond. And with teachers and NHS workers also set to reject pay deals, the grounds for solidarity action looked possible. And then, out of the blue, came the totally expected. Serwotka announced the strike was suspended. Actions always speak louder than words and this spoke volumes. Was it because the strikers had got cold feet? Well, there’s no indication that their anger at their dwindling pay had dissipated. And it obviously wasn’t because a better offer had been put on the table. So why suspend it, especially at a time when it looked like there could be the very real possibility of linking up with workers in other sectors? Well, the PCS has quite a good track record of this. Way back in 2005, when 1.2 million workers were due to walk out in protest at Government attacks, the PCS called off the action at the eleventh hour so as not to damage the Labour party on the eve of a General Election. Since then, it has haemorrhaged the energy and militancy of its members, many of whom have given up and left the sector altogether. And with the worst economic crash in the history of capitalism potentially upon us, you could be forgiven for thinking Serwotka and his union have handed the Government another valuable breathing space. The wonder is that workers have kept doggedly voting for action even while the PCS has done all it can over the past three years to limit or even prevent that action taking place.

TheWay Forward

It is unfair to mark the PCS out. All unions police the class struggle, delay it, cripple it with bureaucracy and delaying tactics and isolate it before imposing a ‘realistic’ solution, realistic of course to the needs of capital. At best unions have only ever existed to promote one section of the working class in a particular trade or area over another, and if the needs of their members conflict with the needs of their industry or business to survive, then their members are inevitably sacrificed. Leaving any kind of organisation to the union, no matter how militant its rhetoric, means giving away all power and any chance of success. If public sector workers have any chance of winning this fight they will have to find a way of working outside the control of their unions by setting up open and genuinely democratic mass meetings to decide what steps to take and how best to link up with other workers in a similar position. Otherwise, they’ll have to stand by and listen to Serwotka talk about the union’s militant plans while he buys valuable time for the Government to strangle the strike, and all hopes of a decent living wage.


Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.