A look at recent developments within the civil service. The government's latest attacks, the response from both the union and ordinary members, and the prospects of workers taking control of their own struggles.
On Thursday 18th October, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude visited a HMRC office in Coventry. As he walked in, 200 plus workers walked out – following Maude's own advice ahead of last year's November 30 strike to hold “15 minute strikes” with “no loss of pay.”
The issue at hand wasn't just Maude's visit, of course, but the attacks he is leading on low paid civil servants. We have had our pay frozen for the past two years, which will be followed by a 1% pay cap. Our pension contributions have gone up this year, with two more rises that will see us work longer and pay more only to get less. Then what was, for many, the final straw – plans to roll back our terms and conditions.
This was first hinted at in June with the publication of the Civil Service Reform Plan. But it was only recently, with the leak of a number of Cabinet Office documents, that the scale of the attacks became clear.
Amongst the changes workers faced, there was a reduction in annual leave, drastic cuts in occupational sick pay and a mobility clause that would pave the way for more office closures and imposed transfers to anywhere in the country. Not to mention removing all benefits from new starters, allowing the creation of a two-tier workforce. These were just headlines – with a whole list of policies recommended for “review.”
The justification is the classic “race to the bottom” strategy. The civil service should be on a par with a “good, modern employer,” but should not offer anything “beyond” them. In other words, other people not having this benefit is our excuse to rob you of it, too.
Needless to say, workers weren't happy. Even sharing the link to the Guardian article on the subject around my office provoked a strong reaction – including people who weren't union members and who had let previous attacks wash over them. Anecdotally, from speaking to other reps, the news sparked a similar anger around the country. Justifiably so, since it brought home the reality of how the bosses are determined to roll back all that organised workers have won.
The trade union response was typically lukewarm. At the time of writing the two senior and professional civil service unions – FDA and Prospect – remain silent on the leaks. The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union, representing most ordinary workers, was quick to condemn the plans, but went no further than urging members to join the October 20 demonstration and hinting that the issue would be absorbed into the national campaign – the same one that has seen just three “days of action” in a two-year struggle over pay, pensions and job cuts. An internal policy brief, whilst making noises about opposing all detrimental changes, was clear that the National Executive Committee was not only committed to negotiating on these issues, but would pass said negotiations down to individual Groups, allowing for significantly different outcomes across the civil service.
Not content with this, a number of PCS reps and members from across the country started talking about acting independently of the union. Very quickly, a loose rank-and-file network emerged with the intention of taking action “with PCS where it will, without it where it won't.” This motto became a reality with the Coventry walkout, and the spirit of the action was made clear in the appeal of one of its organisers:
Today marks the beginning of the fight against vicious attacks on us all as ordinary hard working people.
To members and activists everywhere: don’t wait any longer, call your 15 minute meetings and one by one start walking out all over the country. Drive this Government to the negotiating table on our terms. We can’t always wait for the ballots and the leaflets and politics at the top of the union.
To the union leaders: take up this fight with no compromises and repay the bravery shown by ordinary members who have taken a risk today on behalf of all of us.
It is important to note, at this point, that PCS has come out in support of this action and the idea of further actions. It is a stark contrast to the Sparks rank-and-file group, who were branded “cancerous” before their momentum became unstoppable. One reason for this is that, for their limits and faults (which I'm often the first to point out), PCS are nominally the most “left” of the reformist trade unions. But the circumstances here are also quite different.
A key factor is that PCS has not been consulted at all in the changes being proposed. It is seeking to negotiate now from a position where it has been kept in the dark. Were this otherwise, I have little doubt that it wouldn't have been this easy for the union tops to swing behind rank-and-file action. It is apparent that they see anger on the ground as a useful additional lever to secure their place at the table.
The other issue is the risk of being outflanked from below. Whilst it might not live up to it in practice, a lot of PCS's street cred comes from being the “fighting left leadership” of the trade union movement. This has allowed the Socialist Party-controlled Left Unity faction to dominate the union and if a fully fledged rank-and-file movement were to emerge from this dispute it would threaten not only the NEC's control over the membership, but Left Unity's electoral position – since the rival Independent Left faction's rhetoric is more geared towards rank-and-filism. There is more to it than this, of course, and the fledgling rank-and-file includes members of both factions as well as those affiliated to neither. Nonetheless, power struggles at the top of the union cannot be dismissed entirely in this context.
Thus, the NEC has quite rapidly changed its tune in line with the mood of the grassroots, though it still finds itself running to catch up. From lobbying parliament, talking to other unions and Group-level negotiations, they are now holding an emergency meeting on 7th November with a view to balloting for a day of action in the new year.
The proposed day of action will take place two days ahead of the deadline for government departments to produce drafts of their proposed changes to terms and conditions. Following this deadline, PCS will be pushing for talks on the proposals. Even if it has been pushed to up its rhetoric, it must still show good faith as a responsible negotiating partner and move to ballot only when talks “break down.”
With no such responsibility, the aim of the rank-and-file will be to build momentum with further protests and actions. This day of action should not be the exercise in letting off steam we're used to from the union, but the starting pistol in a sustained campaign of action.
Already, from a small group of workers from different offices around the country urging action, the response has been overwhelming. Even people cynical about union activity appear to be responding positively, and the number of offices where support for this action will be moved continues to grow by the day. Through numerous past efforts to build rank-and-file activity, I have never been as hopeful of being able to effectively challenge the government's attacks as I am now.
This current struggle is barely begun and of course nothing is ever certain. There is a chance I could be writing at some later point about how and why this all fell flat on its face. However, with a bit of effort, a lot of solidarity and a shit-ton of luck, the task now is to turn that hope into something real.
The Facebook group, Resist the Civil Service Reform Plan, is here.