Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Public support and press misinformation during the civil service strike

Yesterday, members of PCS in the civil service began a two-day strike. The action is well-supported, with PCS reps on the ground telling of solid support for the strike. However, as is almost always the case in relation to workers' struggles, this has not stopped the government and the media from offering an entirely different spin on things altogether.

Despite the fact that about 200,000 workers have actually gone on strike, Tessa Jowell has tried to claim that only 80,000 have turned out. "More than 70% of PCS members have decided not to take part in today's action," she said yesterday, and "85% of all civil servants are working as normal today." News that those acting as scabs "have revealed they were told to pretend to be answering machines to cope with an overload of calls from the public" exposed this claim as utter bullshit. It also earned a hearty toast in one pub where union reps celebrated after two successful days of picketing.

As I reported in some depth back at the beginning of February, the dispute centres around government attempts to slash the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS). Essentially, this will allow them to get rid of more people for less money. The result, as people are already able to see, is severely understaffed public services from which the general public will lose out. This whilst MPs have awarded themselves a pay-rise, following the private sector pattern whereby workers face pay freezes and job losses as their company announces record profits and bonuses for its executives.

The media continue to paint public sector workers as amongst those profiting without merit as everybody else suffers. Addressing a rally in Liverpool City Centre yesterday, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka told trade unionists of the reasons that his mother pressed him to join the civil service at 16. "She told me that I would be well-paid, with an excellent pension, I would have a job for life, and people in the community would look up to me." Even before he finished with "it was hard to find out that my mother had lied to me four times on the run," the entire crowd exploded into hysterical laughter.

Far removed from a stereotype in Whitehall with a pinstripe suit and bowler hat, the reality with which these workers live is somewhat different;

  • Civil servants average earnings growth has lagged behind other sectors for 10 years.

  • Over 100,000, almost 20% are paid less than £15,000 a year.

  • In the culture sector the vast majority of staff earn between £12-£17,000 a year

  • Nearly half of the civil service or approximately 250,000 people earn less than £20,000 a year.

  • More than half the civil service earn less than the national average UK salary which is over £23,000.

  • Coastguard watch assistants who assist in co-ordinating search and rescue earn just above the minimum wage.

  • In the last three years pay in the civil service has increased by 6% whilst the cost of living has increased by 12.8%. Fuel and lighting rose by 35% last year, fares and travel went up by 10.2% and food costs rose by 10%.

  • Approximately 40,000 people working for the Department for Work and Pensions, which includes jobcentres and benefit offices received no pay rise at all.

  • Apparent differences in average earnings between public and private sector in the annual survey of hours and earnings is explained by structural changes in the public sector such as the transfer of lower paid support roles to the private sector resulting from patterns of privatisation.
These two days are just the first in what promises to be a rolling campaign of industrial action, unless the government returns to the negotiating table on the CSCS.

But on the front line, spirits remained high. Neither the seemingly long road ahead, nor the fact that most standing on the picket lines felt their toes go numb even through two pairs of thick socks, could dissuade those standing up against the government's attempts to make them pay for a crisis not of their making.The reports from picket lines around the country have been overwhelmingly positive;
  • In London and the South East, the Identity and Passport service (IPS) saw the majority of members join the strike. Appointments were down by around 75%. IPS Glasgow saw only 10 of 190 members reporting for work.
  • Some of London's biggest attractions were severely disrupted by the strike. At The Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington only two of 90 members of staff came into work. This resulted in just the ground floor of the museum being open. The National Portrait Gallery saw a full turnout and picket line, leaving the employers to hire casual staff for two days. The British Museum, Tate Modern, National Gallery and British Library also saw strong support, with pickets on both sites.
  • The Serious Organised Crime Agency's (SOCA) operations has also felt the effect of today's action, and training courses have been cancelled as a result of the strike.
  • One HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) office in the Midlands reported the best support for strike action since 2002. Another HMRC office, this time situated in the North West saw deliveries being turned away by those unwilling to cross the picket, and also saw five members recruited on the line. An HMRC office in Scotland saw 100% support, with only managers going in.
  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in Nottingham saw pickets at all sites, and reported some of the biggest picket lines ever. Branches of the DWP in the North West reported excellent support, with only 15% of staff coming in. This led to five job centres and a benefit delivery centre being closed. In Scotland, one jobcentre saw just under 80% of staff not attending. Refusal to cross picket lines was reported in different DWP offices around the country.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government reception in Carmarthen was closed due to the strike action. Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards visited the picket line. In Cardiff Bay, public access to the building was closed off, and Assembly Members would not cross the picket line. The First Minister was also unable to meet the High Commissioner of the site. Other work areas in Wales also reported a high turnout of members joining the picket line.
  • Solid support for the strike was reported at Ministry of Defence (MoD) offices across the country. Lively picket lines received a good level of coverage in the local media. One MoD office in Scotland reported a turnout of 97%.
Of course, the campaign has just begun. Issues such as the potential for a sell-out by the union bureaucracy futher down the line and the lack of a broader class perspective within the campaign itself have yet to be addressed. Nonetheless, the willingness of ordinary people to turn out in opposition to attacks on their terms and conditions is an extremely positive sign. It is part of a broader pattern of increased militancy which demonstrates that the fighting spirit of the working class is far from dead.