Wednesday, 7 July 2010

PCS and the pitfalls of legalism

The Con-Dem government is keen to prove Pierre Joseph-Proudhon's observation that laws are "cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor;"
The Government is facing a growing outcry after announcing that legislation is to be introduced as soon as possible to cap redundancy payments to civil servants.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the decision to legislate had been taken "with reluctance", but it had become necessary because of the economic climate.

He also blamed legal action against the previous Labour government by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which won a High Court ruling that changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme were unlawful.

A Bill will be introduced to limit the cost of future payments by capping all compulsory redundancy pay-offs at 12 months' pay and limiting amounts for voluntary severance to 15 months' salary.
Last year, the then-Labour government tried to make it cheaper to lay off civil servants through changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS).

Despite five unions agreeing to this, two representing unaffected higher pay grades and three selling out their members, PCS - which represents more civil servants than all of them combined - challenged it. This saw three days of strike action and two unequivocal court victories.

The government is thus doing what it always does when a law is too favourable to the working class against the interests of the ruling class: scrapping the offending law.

But, of course, it's not their fault. Blame PCS for winning at the High Court. As Daniel Calder puts it in the Guardian, "one single word from [General Secretary Mark] Serwotka four months ago could have secured those hit by redundancy a deal twice, in some cases thrice, as generous as what is now being imposed." Unions should learn to accept the dogmas of the ruling class and "negotiate in the real world."

Or, more honestly: See, peasants, that's what you get for standing up for yourselves!

There were, and are, problems with PCS's campaign. Not least that, as Calder says, "if the courts ruled that the government had breached the legislation governing CSCS reform, it was inevitable that the government would simply tear up the legislation." Such is the pitfall of building a fight upon legality rather than right.

But this doesn't mean that it was wrong to challenge the changes to the scheme. The government is gearing up for massive attacks on the working class, and trying to lessen the impact with snivelling compromise won't change that.

In the words of one of the article's commenters;
So you're on the right of the Union, couldn't get any traction for your defeatist attitude within the democratic structure of the Union itself and now you've thrown your toys out of the pram and managed to wangle an article in the Guardian to crow from the sides. Nice one.
Returning to the problem at hand, the only clear answer is to continue fighting - but to do so in a way that will be effective. PCS will win no victories whatsoever with more single-day or limited-period strikes.

Greater use needs to be made of industrial action short of a strike, such as overtime bans, work-to-rules, and go-slows. And when walkouts are neccesary, they cannot be conducted within the framework of laws built not only to serve the bosses but to cripple the organised working class.

Strike action is a scary prospect for many people, understandably, and illegal action even more so. But it can have a huge impact and few negative consequences if executed properly.

There needs to be a broad campaign to build up support and solidarity. Better, and more visible, efforts to raise strike funds to support workers - and those funds being local and accessible to all, not contained by any central committee. An unbreakable commitment must be made that disciplinary action against even a single worker will merit more walkouts and tighter solidarity.

In short, the workers must be organised from below rather than simply directed from above by bureaucrats.

This is a tall order, and one beyond the remit of a top-down trade union, but it is not impossible. The workers who walked out of the Lindset oil refinery, and their comrades nationwide who walked out so as to see those who were sacked reinstated, proved that point.

The question now is whether workers can learn that lesson. We need to reject the ineffectual gesture politics on trade unionism's "left-wing" and the snivelling, grovelling defeatism on its' right-wing.

If we don't, then all we can do is duck and hope in vain as the government swings its axe.