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PCS picket line interview

March 24, 2010

Over a quarter of a million workers in the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) have been out on strike this week, with futher walkouts expected. We caught up with a picket in Brighton to find out more about the dispute.

What’s behind the strike?
The government wants to slash the civil service compensation scheme. This is what determines redundancy payments if you get laid off. They say that this will save £500m – but the only way that cutting redundancy pay can save large amounts of money is if they’re planning big lay-offs. So this seems like the first round of attacks, and if we don’t beat it back there will be much worse to come.

There is this stereotype of civil servants being all fatcat salaries, pinstripe suits and bowler hats, but that’s completely outdated. In any case, senior civil servants have separate terms and conditions and are not members of the PCS union, which is only for the admin grades. In reality, civil servants are often low-paid admin staff. In the past, people have put up with that in return for an element of security both in the job and the redundancy package, but that’s all set to get taken away under the government’s plans.

How’s the strike been?
Pretty solid. At the DVLA, union membership is 100% and management simply locked up and went home without the need for picket lines! At the Job Centre, management opened the building, went in, came back out and announced it was closed. This counts as having been ‘open’ in the official statistics, and what’s been reported in the media. At the Crown Prosectution Service the strike was also pretty solid. This is the biggest action of its kind since the cuts under Thatcher.

The media coverage has been massively biased. They’ve been saying 5 out of 6 unions have accepted the government plans, implying we’re an unreasonable minority. In actual fact the vast majority of unionised workers in the civil service are in the PCS (around 270,000). Some security and cleaners are in the GMB, but the other 4 ‘unions’ are all non-striking managers/lawyers unions. Of course senior management accept their own plans!

That said, public support has been pretty good. Even on the Daily Mail site, all the comments slating ‘greedy civil servants’ are being voted down on the comments system while all the ones that are supportive are getting voted up, and there’s been a good level of support from passing cars and pedestrians, with only the occasional oddball actually opposed.

What next?
We are now working to rule, pending further strike dates which could be as soon as next week. That means we’re working only our contracted hours, withdrawing goodwill and boycotting new management initiatives. The civil service relies heavily on goodwill from staff, so this could be as disruptive as the strikes.

What else has been going on?
In the background there’s the usual ‘modernisation’ schemes being pursued with the normal New Labour zeal. In the public sector, ‘modernisation’ is usually a euphemism for privatisation. There are various attempts to parcel up and separately cost different ‘business units’ which could be a precursor to part-privatisation. Tht’s how it’s gone in the health service anyway.

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