Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The need for rank-and-file led militancy in the public sector pensions dispute

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has announced that it is looking to ballot its members for strike action. It will seek approval at its annual delegate conference to take industrial action over attacks on pensions, jobs and pay. However, at this point it is unclear whether the strikes will achieve anything.

For quite some time, it has been apparent that unions would be unwilling to bring their members out against the cuts until pensions were on the table. At the time, there was a hint of recognition (on this issue at least) that some form of unified response was needed. Hence the vow, largely tokenistic though it was, to coordinate strike action where possible. PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka's speech at the March for the Alternative, urging that the next step was "t[aking] strike action together across all of our public services," struck largely the right note with a membership demanding militancy.

However, this strategy had its limitations. Not least as the fact that, though some over-enthused Trots were having wet dreams about a public sector general strike, this was still very much within the restraints of the toughest anti-union laws in Europe.

If you're going to play by the other side's rules no matter what, it quickly becomes obvious that they need only change the rules to suit them if they want to stay ahead. The new government's bill to change the law, following PCS's victory on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS), is a case in point. Not to mention the fact that every time mass strike action is muted by the unions, tightening the law even further is immediately muted by the state in response.

Even without this hurdle, the government had on its side the fact that separate unions will quite happily hang members of other unions out to dry if it is in their own members' interests. Just as they will hang their own members out to dry if it is in the bureaucracy's interests. Postal workers see this whenever post managers in Unite cross CWU picket lines. (This being just one example of union scabbing.) PCS, again, got personal experience of this when the five much smaller unions in the council of civil service unions agreed to changes to the CSCS because their members weren't adversely affected by it. Unlike the lower-paid civil servants PCS represents.

Hence, with tougher laws as a backup, the government can derail the prospect of coordinated strike simply by staggering the pensions changes. The University and College Union (UCU) has already come out, and although there was a considerable show of practical solidarity across the country from students and others, there is a sense amongst the rank-and-file that they were "going through the motions with a symbolic strike."

Serwotka insists that PCS "are talking to other unions and will seek to ensure that any action we take has the widest possible support," but there is no indication on the ground that it will be any different than UCU. Though with members in DWP contact centres walking out this month, a possible strike at the EHRC, and members in HMRC balloting over a draconian new sick absence policy, it will be easier to gauge the level of militancy amongst members.

What is clear is that, regardless of the actions or intentions of the PCS national executive, on the ground there needs to be a push for more radical action.

This means solidarity from other militant workers on the picket lines, but also - more importantly - attempts by PCS members on the ground to take control of their own struggles through mass picketing and independent strike committees. There should also be no illusions that exercising our economic power effectively will require breaking the law, from wildcat strikes to occupations of workplaces.

None of this can happen within the parameters of the trade union hierarchy - even with a "left" union such as PCS. To take the struggle forward, workers also have to recognise the limitations of the bureaucracies that claim to lead us, and go beyond them.