As the crisis in Britain deepens, civil service union PCS is balloting members for national strike action. Socialist Appeal spoke with Fran Heathcote, the union’s president, to discuss what this means for the rising tide of class struggle.
All across Britain, class struggle – and with it class consciousness – is on the rise. This month, the country is seeing its own ‘striketober’, as unions in the private and public sectors down tools and fight against attacks on their members.
The rail unions and the CWU have already moved into action. And now the stage is set for PCS – the civil servants’ union – to join them, as the Tories wage war on Whitehall.
At the last PCS national conference, delegates voted overwhelmingly to enter into a national dispute with the government over pay and threatened job losses.
Ballot papers have now gone out. And with the Tory government on the ropes, and workers gaining confidence from the struggles taking place in other sectors, there is a real potential that over 150,000 civil service workers will join their brothers and sisters in the postal service and on the railways in striking.
As such, we sat down to speak with Fran Heathcote, PCS president, about the situation facing both PCS members and the wider working class.
Click here to read the latest Socialist Appeal PCS bulletin, containing articles on the Tory war on civil servants and the the NEC elections.
Socialist Appeal: PCS members preparing for their national ballot are doing so at a time of industrial resurgence. There have been a number of nationwide strikes, such as those led by the RMT and the CWU. These have gained large amounts of public support for their fight.
What effect do you think this has had on PCS members, who face similar issues in relation to job cuts and pay?
Fran Heathcote: I think it has inspired our members to see members of other unions fighting back. When I have been speaking at members’ meetings just recently, lots have referred to seeing Mick Lynch and others on the telly.
The mood, and consciousness, amongst our members seems to be changing. They see the continued attacks being made on them, and realise that there is something that we can do about it.
SA: The union struck a defiant tone at its recent national delegate conference, where the announcement of the ballot was made. How has the preparation for the ballot gone, and how much of the membership has been reached by it?
FH: I am not in any way complacent about the scale of the challenge. We know that beating the ballot threshold is tough, it’s intended to be, but preparations have gone really well.
We’ve recognised that, since the pandemic, the world of work has changed, and many members aren’t always in the workplace any more. As hybrid methods develop, we have been making use of digital means, as well as face-to-face, to engage as many members as possible.
We’ve held lots of very big members’ meetings, both virtually and face-to-face, to get the message over about what we are doing and why. Members seem really up for the challenge, and are determined to fight back.
What’s been great is the number of new activists coming through, or people who just come forward at a meeting to say “I want to get involved”. I spoke at our PCS young members’ seminar last weekend in Glasgow: most members there were brand new to union activity; this was their first event – but the atmosphere and the enthusiasm was brilliant.
That’s what gives me confidence. Members realise that we have to stand together and stick up for ourselves.
SA: The Tories have attempted to shore up their plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs by pursuing a ridiculous ‘war on woke’ agenda, in order to whip up a culture-war narrative about the civil service. How can the union overcome these attacks and cut through to the class reasons behind the job cuts?
FH: The government, and the right-wing media, have always tried to portray our members as overpaid bureaucrats, swanning around drinking tea. The reality is that many of our members are low paid; many are in receipt of in-work benefits; many are frightened about how they are going to turn the heating on and pay the bills this winter.
#PCS members begin a national strike ballot today, against a backdrop of attacks on jobs, pay, and conditions in the civil service. Truss and the Tories have declared war on Whitehall. The unions must mobilise and launch a united fightback.https://t.co/vGsYFZkrvH
— Socialist Appeal (@socialist_app) September 26, 2022
We recently surveyed members about the cost-of-living crisis. The results are heartbreaking. We are working hard to get the real story out there, and to explain why it is so important that our members play their part in what is fast becoming a cross-union campaign in response to a national crisis.
We need to continue to change the narrative.
People aren’t daft. They are seeing this government for what it is. Our job is to give our members confidence that there is something that they can do about the issues they face, and to say that the answer is to stand together and act collectively.
SA: At the upcoming TUC conference, several unions – including both Unison and Unite – are putting forward motions that call for coordinated action between unions in the coming period, in order to unify the fight against the employers and the government. What’s your stance on this question?
FH: PCS has had a socialist leadership for 20 years now. And every year since 2003, we have gone to the TUC and argued for joined-up, coordinated action. It’s a call we fully support.
We really welcome the fact that other unions are preparing to fight back – not just for their own members, but in a joined-up way, designed to put the government under as much pressure as possible.
Our general secretary, Mark Serwotka, was one of those calling for a meeting of all unions prepared to coordinate action. And we really welcome the opportunity to join up wherever possible. We don’t want any group of workers to be isolated. We recognise that unity and acting together is what will be most effective.
SA: Finally, the cost-of-living crisis has begun to bite deeply across society. Even with the so-called ‘help’ this government is offering, millions face serious trouble just paying for the necessities.
In your view, how can the labour movement rise to the challenge and lead the fightback against these attacks on our living standards?
FH: Obviously the key is to organise. We need to maximise every opportunity to build the biggest possible coalition of the willing, in order to defeat the attacks being launched on the working class. There is no room for division. We need as much unity and solidarity as possible.
At meetings I have spoken at recently, that has been very much the theme: the idea that we must join up our campaigns and make sure that we don’t allow the government to divide us.
The attacks facing our members, for example, come from exactly the same source as those facing benefit claimants. Yet it is very easy to allow division to creep in. That’s why it is so important to keep a dialogue going between unions, community groups, social movements, and service users.
The period ahead is going to be tough – I think we all accept that. But we’ll get through it, and come out stronger, if we keep talking, keep campaigning together, and keep fighting back. We owe it to our members, and we owe it to our class.