[Update: this post was originally published before PCS confirmed its national strike date as 15 October. However, even with that one day of action now in the past, the points about strategy remain valid for the future.]
A number of unions have announced that they will be going out again over pay on 14 October as a follow up to 10 July. This has led to rumours among members that PCS will be taking action on the same date. The National Executive Committee has yet to confirm this, though not doing so seems unlikely. But what should we be doing in the national campaign?
Across the membership, views on what sort of action we should be taking vary. On the one hand, some members argued when the 30 July strike for the Jobs & Staffing Campaign was announced that the union was taking too many strike days too close together. On the other hand, there have been members who have argued that we should have joined Ministry of Justice staff in their six day strike, or that instead of odd days here and there we should go out for a full week.
However, it should go without saying that what we need to do in order to win a dispute is a matter of strategy and tactics rather than personal preference. Therefore the questions that need to be asked are not only what approach do we take, but also how do we build for such an approach if it is outside the comfort zone of most members?
Demands and coordination
As things stand, the demands of the PCS national campaign are:
- A pay increase of £1,200 or 5%, whichever is greater;
- An end to the pay freeze/cap;
- A living wage on all government contracts;
- No detrimental changes to terms and conditions;
- No increases in pension contributions;
- No job cuts.
These are necessary demands, given the attacks that civil servants face from the current government. However, it could be argued that they do not go far enough, as members of one branch (PCS Bootle Taxes) did when they supported a motion to Conference which called for the union to demand:
- A pay rise for all civil servants in PCS grades of at least 10%;
- The reversal of all pension contributions increases implemented since 2010;
- The best available terms in all areas (leave, flexi, sick pay, etc) before the recent changes to form the baseline of a new, genuinely progressive, offer;
- All fixed term staff to be offered permanent jobs;
- No further job cuts, to be supplemented with specific recruitment claims for each under-resourced department.
Sadly, however, this motion was guillotined before it could be heard. The year before, another motion calling for clearer and more focused demands put forward by a DWP branch fell due to NEC opposition.
Instead of focusing our demands and drawing red lines, what demands we did have were buried behind a slogan of “if they don’t talk, we must act,” and getting the government to engage in talks – rather than using said talks to force concessions based upon clear demands – became the focus.
Such an approach is not wise in any union campaign. At Group level, this branch successfully argued against the promise of talks on their own being enough of a concession to call off action, as that has been used to derail disputes more than once in the past. Of course we want the employer to talk, but we want them to talk because we want them to respond to our demands, not because we fancy a chat or because having a seat at the table is an end in itself.
Moreover, in a campaign that supposedly involves ‘coordination’ with other unions, such an approach is a recipe for the kind of surrender and fragmentation that we saw after the pensions strikes in 2011. If the various unions involved do not have common aims and an agreement or understanding that we need to stick together until we all win, then we are not talking about coordinated strikes but simultaneous strikes. It could be argued that since this government came to power the public sector unions have not had a single genuinely coordinated strike.
One day warfare
The other problem that the national campaign has suffered from is a continual, almost obsessive fall back on the one day strike as the weapon of choice.
For three months after last year’s ballot result, things looked different. There was a one day strike on budget day, but this was followed by a number of different tactics such as rolling regional action, rolling action by employer in the Home Office Group, shorter walkouts and walk-ins, and so on. These meant that PCS was on strike virtually every single week between Budget Day and mid-June, while members only lost three days of pay at most.
However, with the decision to hold a summer of consultation any momentum and disruption that this period may have been credited with was quickly jettisoned and there was no further action until a year later – when once again the one day strike was the form chosen.
Supposedly, this will be supplemented by more sustained, targeted action thanks to the much-belated launch of the fighting fund levy. However, after three years where the NEC resisted having such a levy, and then months passing between them agreeing to set it up and actually doing so, the question has to be asked how long it will take until this fund will actually be in a state to fund such action.
There is also a distinct lack of creative industrial action short of strike in this campaign, as well as other direct action which could bridge the gap between strikes rather than members being treated to single day spectacles with months in between.
So what’s the way forward?
If what we’re doing at the moment isn’t making gains, and it isn’t, what is the alternative?
Firstly, it’s worth looking at what the NEC are doing right:
The Fighting Fund – belated though it may be, establishing a fund for longer term action is definitely a welcome move. The only question is why this move was so long resisted and why it took so long to get into motion even once it became policy at Conference 2013.
Targeted and rolling action – because the trade union movement isn’t what it was, it is not currently an option for PCS to simply call out the entire civil service indefinitely. This should be an aspiration, undoubtedly, rather than dismissed out of hand. But while we can’t take such a course, it is better that we find other ways to maximise disruption to the government and the employer, rather than limiting ourselves to protest action.
The union probed at the possibilities in the three month tranche of action from March to June 2013, by taking out different employer groups out at different times and staggering the action so that not a week went by without action even though members lost no more than three days’ pay, all told. Unfortunately, such action stopped there and no effort was made to evaluate how best we could utilise different forms of action as part of a continuing campaign.
So what else could the union be doing?
Coordination from the ground up – ‘Coordinated strike action,’ in practice, is little more than simultaneous action. There are no agreed aims and demands, and as we saw after the 30 November day of action in 2011, there is nothing to stop the government dividing the unions by offering boons to some and scorn to others so that any coalition of unions quickly disintegrates.
At the top level, there isn’t much that can be done to mitigate against this. Union leaders aren’t wont to put their necks on the line for their own members half of the time, much less for another union’s members. So, instead, we need to build pressure from the rank-and-file by coordinating action from the ground up.
When a simultaneous strike happens, the unions involved organise mass rallies and encourage everyone to attend. These are often big shows of strength and can be fun at the time, but what do they practically achieve? They bring workers together from different workplaces, but in a very specific way: we are all looking up and listening to the ramblings of bureaucrats instead of talking to one another.
As an alternative, we need local strike committees coordinating activity between workplaces. These should increase member involvement by having decisions made at mass workplace meetings and being willing to challenge the union tops when they back-pedal. Obviously, we would encourage such an initiative either way, but given the professed socialism of those at the top of our union, the NEC ought to be supporting them as a matter of principle too.
Building the fighting fund – We have already said that the establishment of the fighting fund is a welcome development, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t further to go. To be able to take targeted action seriously in the immediate future, the fund needs to be built fast and that can’t be done through a levy alone.
What fundraising events and activities will bring in money? Can we tout for donations and support online? What do we need to do in cities and regions to get local communities donating to striking workers in their midst? These questions deserve serious consideration if we’re serious about having the money for sustained action.
On the job action – An overtime ban for the rest of whatever month we have a strike in does not constitute a viable action short of strike strategy. We need an ongoing ban, across the board, until this fight is won. But we also need to find creative ways to slow down work and disrupt production in all parts of the civil service throughout the duration of this dispute.
Work to rules and go slows, perhaps low level most of the time and spiking around deadlines, are a must between walkouts as well as to supplement any targeted action.
Involving the private sector – PCS members in the Commercial Sector often work right alongside civil servants. They have the same concerns and frustrations, and perhaps even worse grievances as regards pay and conditions. This is recognised by the demand for a living wage to underpin all government contracts, but not by the industrial action ballots we hold or our industrial strategy.
We need to be organising so that when civil servants fight for better pay and conditions, cleaners, security staff, IT support and other contractors are fighting right alongside them. This can only add to our industrial strength, increase the likelihood of workplaces closing entirely on strike days and empower those members who are often the most vulnerable and precarious.
An injury to one is an injury to all, so let’s organise and strike on that basis!
Creative protest and direct action – PCS has stated that alongside industrial action, publicity and political lobbying should be a key part of the national campaign. We agree, but why stop there?
If a particular MP (cough, Francis Maude) is creating problems for us or refusing to negotiate, then they ought to be targeted. Phone blockades, mass emailing, picketing their constituency offices, picketing their homes, etc.
If a particular employer is victimising reps, threatening lock outs or excessive pay deductions for strike action, or other actions that we’ve seen throughout this dispute, then picket and occupy their public facing offices. How much harder would it have been for the Passport Office to get rid of Jon Bigger, for instance, if protesters not employed by them made it impossible for them to do business for hours at a time in response?
This is alongside more routine and mundane activities like marching in London or visiting MPs to ask for their support in a campaign.
There are probably many more examples of things that we can do to keep our national campaign in the spotlight, maintain momentum and routinely disrupt the smooth running of business. If any spring to mind, feel free to mention them in the comments and add to the debate.
But the point is a simple one: if we organise and campaign effectively, we can force concessions from the government and the employer rather than just having a platform to grumble about something that is otherwise inevitable. But to do that we need to be willing to break the cycle of one day warfare and seasonal, fixture protesting.