By Matt Wells, PCS Defra Group Executive Committee (personal capacity)
New Labour has quite clearly thrown down the gauntlet to civil servants, over 300,000 of which are organised in the Public & Commercial Services Union (PCS), Britain's sixth largest union.
A succession of below inflation pay "offers" have been made this year, held up in an unprecedented move by Gordon Brown, who was looking at them personally to ensure that wages were kept at suitably low levels. Given that departments are supposed to have their own pay bargaining systems this makes a mockery of so-called "delegated pay bargaining" and furthers the union's case for a return to national pay bargaining. This was relinquished in the early 90's leading to duplication of effort across some 200 bodies!
To add insult to injury, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been the first to test the union's national policy, by issuing 19 compulsory redundancy notices in the Wildlife Unit (WLU). This is despite some 2000 agency staff and 700 consultants being employed in the department and evidence of other opportunities within the civil service being available had the will existed to look at resettlement.
PCS has a policy of considering national industrial action in the event of a compulsory redundancy notice being issued to a civil servant who wishes to continue their employment.
The National Executive Committee (NEC) was meeting in November to consider a national ballot on this and other issues including pay, moving to a more "proactive stance". The NEC has now decided to proceed with a ballot early next year.
This is welcome. However the PCS departmental committee (GEC) were disappointed that the NEC were not geared up for a more immediate response to the issuing of these notices and lobbied hard to get November's meeting moved forward to consider action. There seemed to be some reticence from some NEC members that a dispute could be considered before the end of January. Many PCS Defra Group members felt that this could be too late considering that our WLU members would be halfway through their six months notice. As predicted, more notices were issued a few days later in the Department of Trade & Industry.
What is needed is a clear lead from the NEC on the issues affecting all PCS members; job cuts, pay and privatisation. With the increasing fragmentation of the civil service it is becoming more difficult to carry out effective industrial disputes on a departmental level.
The one-day national strike in November 2004, forced some major concessions from the government including the scrapping of plans to attack sick pay. The planned public sector strike to defend pensions in March of the following year was called off when a u-turn from the government brought the two sides back to the negotiating table.
This shows the potential of national action (and action coordinated with other unions). The PCS leadership needs to prepare itself for a protracted national dispute if members are going to wring anything out of the government. One-off protest strikes will not be enough. If the NEC provide a clear lead then it is likely that members across all departments will respond and this will make for a successful dispute.