Thursday, 4 February 2010

Public sector workers can't afford not to take industrial action

As part of its agenda to make workers pay for the economic crisis, the government has been trying to push through changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS) which would, in effect, make it cheaper and easier to lay-off public sector staff. Now, the Prospect trade union reports that five unions have agreed to significant changes to the scheme;
Prospect and four other unions reached agreement on 2 February with the Cabinet Office on revisions to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. The five unions that worked together to secure this agreement are Prospect, FDA, the Prison Officers’ Association, Unite and GMB, representing 100,000 members in departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies.
According to Prospect, "the terms agreed represented a significant improvement on those rejected by all the unions in early December." However, as "it was not possible to reach a consensus to accept within the Council of Civil Service Unions" these five unions acted outside of the council "to ensure that our members benefit from the enhancements and protections that the new terms provide."

However, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has said that "it is no surprise that the other unions have accepted the proposals" as "some of them would have accepted even the original proposals and have since then argued for each new proposal to be accepted despite the detrimental effect on the majority of staff." Declaring itself "a union which stands for fairness and solidarity" it has rejected this idea and called for "a settlement which covers all our members, not just some." As they point out, "accepting such divisive cuts in so many people’s entitlements, as the other unions have done, would weaken the whole union and make job losses and compulsory redundancy much more likely at a time when we know that the major political parties are planning such cuts." Opposing the deal as it stands is not just vital in terms of union members' interests, but in protecting workers in general from promises of "swingeing cuts" to jobs and livelihoods, whoever gets in power. That "the latest proposals made by Cabinet Office were, in fact, conditional on PCS giving up its right to seek legal protection in the courts" is a case in point.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, Head of the Civil Service, has declared this "the right deal that meets the interests of all parties" and thinks it both "fair for civil servants and affordable for the taxpayer." This is, of course, exactly what you would expect him to say. He would never believe anything other than that "the decision by the PCS union to continue opposing the proposals and ballot its members for industrial action is wholly misguided" and his call for a "no" vote in the national ballot should be roundly rejected.

That said, some issues remain to be addressed. Not the least of which is the fact that five other unions urging their members to accept the latest proposals risks fracturing the bargaining power of public workers. Whilst "PCS represents almost three times the number of civil and public servants than the other unions combined," solidarity between all workers remains vital to any victory. Especially when the government and media will be roundly against them.

What workers opposed to this deal need to engage in, then, is a war on all fronts. As Steve Ryan of The Commune notes, a YES/YES vote "will enable PCS workers to fight back not just nationally but taking innovative action within their constituent groups against job losses and speed ups." At the same time, a widespread public relations campaign is vital, not only to counteract the lies and misinformation which the media will spread for the bosses, but also to tell workers from other unions why opposition to the terms as they stand is vital.

Moreover, though such efforts will be hampered by the anti-union laws Britain is encumbered with, there must be a wider movement of solidarity amongst workers. Although sympathy strikes are illegal, solidarity protests outside the confines of industrial action are not. Last Saturday's "Rally for Public Services" in Liverpool was a resounding success which drew both high turnout and a good crowd. Such actions need to be built upon so that the message of defending public sector jobs does not dissappear from peoples' consciousness. Ryan is right to say that "the sight of a large group of workers fighting back should inspire others in both the public and private sector" and "links between the disputes should be made and town committees established for mutual support."

If ever there was a time to build upon worker discontent and to build a mass movement against the bosses who make us suffer their failures, that time is now.