31 January 2007 saw the biggest civil service strike in UK history when some 200,000 workers stayed away from work in protest at New Labour's slash and burn approach to public services. The turnout showed that the mood for a fight back is there amongst PCS members and PCS leadership at all levels must respond to this by channelling this into regular action to keep up the pressure.
A massive programme of job cuts is beginning to bite across the service with benefit claims taking a week longer to process and correspondence to tax offices laying in a specially hired warehouse unopened ! Consultants continue to suck money from the public purse at an alarming rate – some £ 7.2 billion in the last three years in an unprecedented pay day for the private sector.
There are now some 200 separate pay units across the civil service meaning that people doing similar work earn wildly different rates of pay from department to department and sometimes within the same department. This is also a massive waste of money as pay teams are duplicating their work every year on pay while the ever stricter parameters of Treasury Guidance are making a mockery of the system. Added to this are punitive and at times frankly bizarre approaches to management that continue to drive those not facing the sack out of the service in despair.
If members are willing to follow up the massive show of force on 31 January, then a national civil strike on 1 May could be on the cards. Many public sector workers are hoping that this could be a focal point to inspire and rally the other unions, like Unison, to link up in a generalised campaign to defend public services.
At a recent meeting of the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign Mark Serwotka outlined his hopes for the 'Make Your Vote Count' plank of the campaign. The intention is to ask all 5000 candidates before the coming local elections where they stand on Public Services and then publish their results to every PCS member. Mark explained that many within the TUC had expressed opposition to this on the basis of loyalty to Labour i.e. Tories might give a better answer than Labour candidates!
I think this is a great idea. With the current disillusionment with public services, any Labour candidate with half a brain is surely going to answer with a pro-public services answer, meaning that they can be held to account when and if they win council posts. There are also many Labour candidates out there who are disillusioned with Blairism and only too happy to stick two fingers up to Tony Blair and co. Mark expressed the hope that this would signal that the Labour Party was in revolt and shake the Parliamentary Party – another thing that he suggested scared the TUC officialdom, something I'm sure all socialists would welcome!
Some activists have challenged this plank of the campaign on the basis that this would imply that workers should (and maybe therefore would) vote Tory in cases where their candidates take the populist line and give a 'better' answer. PCS are not affiliated to any political party and not going to be recommending that members vote one way or the other. But workers are not stupid. They tend to abstain from voting where the party they are most likely to identify with is offering no solution to their problems. Whether we like it or not this party tends to be Labour.
Socialists do not support Labour blindly, out of tribal loyalty, but critically, from a working class point of view. That is why we are fundamentally opposed to Blair's pro-capitalist clique which is handing public services over to big business. And this is also why we argue that as long as the union link remains so does the potential to change the party. But this will not happen without a fight and this fight has start in the unions.
1st May will be in many activists' diaries already so let's hope that PCS' consultation with members reveals a mood for a second day of strike action on that day and that unions across the public sector can link up to fight for public services.