Monday, 10 May 2010

A victory for PCS and a note of caution for its members

The High Court has today ruled that attempts by the Government to force through changes to the redundancy terms of civil servants were illegal. After three days of strike action by PCS members, including one on Budget Day, this represents a significant win.

According to the report in the Guardian;
The government was today forced to abandon the new redundancy scheme for civil servants after it was ruled illegal in the high court. The Labour government introduced the amended scheme on 1 April, promising it would save £500m over the next three years by reducing what is widely acknowledged to be a generous scheme for civil servants to match levels more normally seen in the private sector.

Four unions accepted the settlement but the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) did not and mounted a two-day strike timed to coincide with the budget and embarrass Labour ahead of the election.

After a two-day judicial review hearing in the high court in April, Mr Justice Sales ruled today that the government acted unlawfully when it introduced the scheme without full union agreement.

The PCS claims the scheme reduces the staff rights accrued over time and would cost some of its long-standing members thousands of pounds at the end of their careers.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that it would immediately suspend the amendments. The Conservatives have said they want to reduce the civil service by a third as part of their effort to reduce both the size of government and its deficit, but this ruling means that any move for mass redundancies in the civil service could be prohibitively expensive.

The union welcomed the decision as a significant victory for their campaign. When PCS members took three days of strike action in March the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, described it as "misguided" and Tessa Jowell, the then civil service minister, said the "time for talking is over".

The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said today: "Our members in the civil and public services refused to sit back and watch their terms and conditions being ripped up in front of their eyes. This ruling is a huge tribute to them for mounting one of the most impressive campaigns this union has seen, in the face of some disgraceful criticism from their employer and ministers.

"We have always accepted that changes are necessary but all we ever asked is that they were fair and protected those who have given loyal service. We will now be knocking on the door of the next government to remind ministers they are legally obliged to reach an agreement with us. If they do not meet their obligations, the union will have to consider further industrial and legal action."
Obviously, this is good news.
Civil servants had, ahead of this dispute, been maligned by a vicious and transparent media propaganda campaign. The Daily Mail was particularly prolific in this, but other media outlets were equally culpable. One way they promoted the lies about "gold-plated pensions" and obscene pay was to present the conditions of senior civil servants whilst supporting attacks on ordinary civil servants earning less than the national median wage. The fact that PCS represents more members in the civil service than the four unions who supported the changes combined, and that those unions represent higher paid workers who are less affected, also went unmentioned.

The High Court judgment represents a vindication of the PCS position, and gives workers affected by redundancy changes a much stronger bargaining position. It is also a perfect rebuttal to those unions who compromised, now stuck with the same terms PCS succesfully challenged.

But the battle is not over. All that this ruling does is ensure that the government have to return to the negotiating table. It does not dictate what kind of deal needs to be reached, and it does not offer protection if a government attempts to remove the statute on which the ruling was based from the law. As such, no matter what form of government emerges from the current, ongoing wranglings, there is still a fight ahead.

This is where PCS members need to be careful, as they face danger on two fronts.

The first is most obvious - i.e. governmental attacks on any campaign to defend existing conditions, and even the right to fight back itself. The court rulings against both the Christmas BA strikes and the Easter RMT strikes offer a precedent for blocking industrial action with the courts. To challenge this, the plain fact is that workers must be willing to agitate for and engage in wildcat strikes and other direct action as a response. Otherwise, the ruling class have won and we may as well capitulate to all attacks on our lives and livelihoods in the name of profit.

The other problem is one that a lot of trade unionists and workers will not recognise instantly. It is the bureaucracy and full-time officials of their own union. Placed in a position of power and privilege, paid a salary the average worker can never hope to earn, the interests of union leaders quickly come into conflict with those of the class of people they claim to stand for. Sell-outs are inevitable. If you need proof of this, look at the recent Royal Mail deal agreed by the CWU.

The solution to this is not simply to forgo participation in the union altogether. Of course, workers must be willing to organise beyond the formal structures of a mainstream trade union, and engage in struggles not bounded by that same framework. But whilst it exists the union remains an organisation of thousands of workers and a powerful weapon against the bosses, if wielded properly. Thus, within the union workers need not only to make use of the resources on offer, but continually push a more libertarian, rank-and-file approach to workers' struggles.

In the struggles ahead, it will not be enough simply to critique union bureaucrats and build alternative structures. We need to organise so that, faced with the inevitability of a sell-out by full-time officials, the first opposition comes from the union - that is, its membership - itself.