Civil Service Pay: Can We Win?

by on 16 November 2019

By Rebecca Anderson

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Civil service pay awards have fallen short of inflation year on year. Our real income is falling – our wages simply don’t go as far as they used to. After two years of pay freezes, a 1 percent pay cap was imposed in 2012 and the Cabinet Office has strictly controlled pay ever since. If the government continues with its current pay policy, civil service pay will have fallen 20 percent in real terms between 2010 and 2020.

The pay campaign

In 2013 and 2014, PCS held a series of one-day strikes, demanding a 5 percent pay increase with an underpin of £1,200. In the wake of the defeated pensions strikes of 2011/2012, only 61 percent of members supported strike action in the 2013 pay ballot on a turnout of 28 percent. This was in the days before the passage of the Coalition government’s anti-union law, so the turnout didn’t affect our right to strike. The campaign followed the same strategy as the pensions strike – single day protest strikes spread months apart. These strikes were like warning shots for more serious industrial action, but we never delivered on that threat. After years of this tactic, first over pensions, and then pay, there seemed to be widespread agreement that one-day strikes with no escalation just meant losing a day’s pay and gaining nothing but a backlog of work.

The coordinated public sector pay strike in July 2014 offered more hope but the coordination fell apart in the same way as the 2011 pensions strikes – leaders of other unions called a single day of action to allow their members to blow off stream but had no interest in coordinating further action. PCS was left to fight alone with one further day of strike action in October 2014.

In 2016, the Trade Union Act passed through parliament, making it illegal to take industrial action on turnouts below 50 percent. This anti-democratic measure was passed in spite of the fact that local elections and by-elections regularly see councillors and MPs elected on pitiful turnouts. To make it as difficult as possible for trade unions to achieve the 50 percent threshold, the new law banned online, telephone, and workplace voting, insisting that ballots could only be submitted by post. The law also requires that 40% of members vote yes, on top of the requirement for a 50% turnout, in some areas of government e.g. border security. PCS has never achieved a turnout of 50 percent in a civil service-wide ballot so this law called into question our ability to take industrial action on a national scale.

Austerity has meant not only a real terms pay cut but also a weakening of organisation. In many departments, the loss of jobs by attrition and redundancies also meant the loss of experienced and embedded union reps. The government has made a conscious effort to rid itself of PCS. The removal of checkoff diverted activists’ and officials’ efforts into signing members up to Direct Debits and cost us thousands of members. The organising efforts to make the switch to Direct Debit did, however, mean we took a serious look at our branches and our methods of organising, systematically mapping workplaces and working through the membership lists.

Austerity and the Trade Union Bill threw PCS into an existential crisis we have yet to resolve. Despite efforts to replace those activists and rebuild branches, PCS lost two national pay ballots, the second in late April 2019. We achieved a 79 percent yes vote but the turnout fell 3,000 votes short of the 50 percent threshold. This turnout is the highest ever achieved by the union in a civil service-wide ballot and shows just how far PCS has come, but it still wasn’t enough.

Other unions have shown it’s possible to beat the 50 percent threshold – the Communication Workers Union recently achieved a 75 percent turnout in a ballot period lasting just a few weeks. In January 2018, the UCU balloted its higher education members for a strike to defend their pensions, achieving a turnout of 58% with 88% in favour of strike action. To win our own ballot and strike for better pay we need to learn from the successes of other unions. For example, during the CWU campaign, union reps organised members to line up in front of post boxes and cast their votes as a united workplace and made extensive use of social media. The UCU were upfront with members about the sort of industrial action needed to win – they took 14 days of escalating action with mass pickets despite freezing conditions. Some of those taking action were unaffected by the pension changes but UCU had made a persuasive case for solidarity.

PCS and UCU are comparable unions – before the pensions strike the UCU had never attempted anything similar. It was the longest higher education strike in UK history and involved the mass recruitment of new members and reps to build a union capable of winning alongside balloting for the strike. The CWU on the other hand has enormous collective bargaining power – everything is ruled by agreements and the reps are the first line of defence against local management breaching those agreements. If your local manager says traffic is low and staff can walk further that day, called “lapsing”, there’s an agreement governing it, just like there is for the use of trolleys, PDA data and overtime. If the rep and local manager can’t agree how the agreement applies, the rep submits a disagreement and the matter is escalated to the Area Rep in a clearly defined dispute resolution process.

By contrast, civil service collective bargaining power has been significantly eroded. We no longer even have national pay bargaining and very few agreements of any sort in place. There are some large, militant branches capable of defending themselves on a local level, but many more branches that aren’t.

Disaggregated ballots

We should aim to have the industrial power of the CWU but recognise we’re not there yet. We have tried for years to win national pay bargaining by taking industrial action as though we already have it – on aggregated ballots with the same demands for every department, meaning we either get a 50 percent turnout across all those balloted or nobody can go on strike.

This is no barrier for postal workers who know they can smash the 50 percent threshold and who have uniform pay, terms and conditions across the country. However, PCS has stronger and weaker departments, all with different pay, terms and conditions. This is a weakness that we aim to overcome, but in the fight for national bargaining we should play to our strengths – the departments that can get over 50 percent turnout in a pay ballot, the groups of workers who can cause the most disruption, and the justified anger of members over departmental and local issues.

A common argument against this sort of action is that departments could play divide and rule. They could offer HMRC a settlement but not DWP and MOJ. Or Group Executive Committees could decide to ballot their members on an offer from the employer that the NEC didn’t think was good enough. But we are already in this position – pay varies wildly between departments and is imposed on us every year.

Another argument against disaggregated balloting is that our policy is to fight for national pay bargaining, which would significantly strengthen the union in struggles over pay. If we had national pay bargaining, we couldn’t be subject to divide-and-rule tactics and would be in a far stronger position. But we aren’t in that position yet and attempts to fight as though we are have failed.

So let’s not fight as though we have the industrial might of the CWU – let’s fight as though we’re rebuilding our strength until we’re powerful enough to impose collective bargaining on our employer. Disaggregating the ballots would allow those departments who win their ballots to start action. Those who don’t could be re-balloted after being inspired by colleagues taking action across the country, like in the UCU pensions dispute. Departments could also add other burning issues to the ballot – office closures, breaks, flexible working, whatever members wanted.

Emergency Pay Conference

PCS conference in May voted to “hold a further national, aggregated, statutory ballot for industrial action on pay at the earliest possible time”. The NEC motion calling for an aggregated ballot won only narrowly against two motions calling for disaggregated ballots.

Yet the “earliest possible time” has come and gone, with no action from the NEC to initiate another national ballot. There is much speculation that the delay is related to the General Secretary election; that another failed ballot could lose incumbent Mark Serwotka the election. The only thing the NEC has done since May is send a survey to members in late September asking whether we voted in the March/April 2019 pay ballot and our reasons for doing so, in an effort to tailor future communications and organising.

Many departments have now concluded pay negotiations, with most expected to impose pay “rises” of 1-2 percent. However, staff in the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) have been offered 7.6 percent, which for some staff will mean a pay increase of 11 percent. Five months have passed with no action but we cannot afford to wait for the next Annual Delegate Conference to take forward the pay dispute, especially in light of developments in DExEU. There’s a crack in the dam and we need to bring the full force of PCS to bear on this weak government without further delay.

The DExEU pay offer demonstrates how nervous this government is about retaining Brexit staff, but the majority of Brexit staff work outside of DExEU – every department has Brexit staff and they didn’t get offered 7.6%. Boris Johnson has lost his majority, lied about funding increases for the NHS and taken even the vague commitments to workers’ right out of the Withdrawal Bill. After a decade of Tory austerity and them kicking us while we’re down, now is our best chance to score a victory. Labour have promised us national pay bargaining, so either we force a pay rise out of the Tories or we contribute to their collapse and get a Labour government. We must ensure our leaders keep up the pressure on Labour to keep their promises, not just their commitment to national pay bargaining but also to revoke the draconian anti-union laws.

An emergency pay conference is needed to bring together the activists and review our strategy to fight for the pay rises all members deserve. We need to work together as rank and file activists in PCS to win a pay rise and that means branch delegates, mandated by members’ meetings, should decide the way forward: what we fight for, what kind of ballot we have and how we organise for a “yes” vote.

Members’ control of disputes

All this raises the question of who controls our industrial action. Currently, the NEC enacts conference decisions and the conference decides our annual pay claim. We need to win conference to a different approach – that members should control the industrial action rather than handing that power up to the NEC. This should apply to all disputes, national and local.

Currently, the way PCS does industrial action is highly centralised. Branches and groups must have the permission of the National Disputes Committee to take action. The NDC has a policy of never saying “no” but to reach the NDC you must fill out forms and go through a series of other committees, only to be told you filled out the forms incorrectly. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare familiar to anyone who has dealt with the civil service.

Activists have found that even if they manage to jump through all the hoops and get permission to take action, the ballot will often receive lukewarm support from the union apparatus if the Left Unity leadership faction is not fully onboard. For example, the Universal Credit strike in DWP has stalled because the turnout in the Walsall office didn’t meet the 50 percent threshold, something activists insist could have been avoided with more support from the apparatus.

Branches should have the right to take industrial action and receive full national support – what else is the purpose of a national union? Every victory won, even by one branch on one issue, builds our industrial strength. It shows members from other offices and sections that striking works. It inspires others to fight back. The rank and file members of the union are the people suffering under an aggressive management that wants to close offices, force changes to working practices, limit toilet breaks and demand ever greater volumes of work. Rank and file members should control their own disputes, deciding when to take action and what settlements to accept.

Past disputes have shown us how a rank-and-file approach can work. In 2009, refuse collectors in Leeds organised by Unison and GMB launched an indefinite strike against pay cuts. Members insisted they should make the decisions, so the union organised a weekly meeting where members would discuss developments in the dispute, and then vote on whether to continue strike action.

Workplace reps in the University Colleges Union applied this approach on a national scale in the winter of 2017/18. Mass meetings of members were held in many workplaces, where members would discuss proposals for continuing or settling the strike and delegates would attend the national decision-making meetings. Delegates were expected to take a mandate from the workplaces they represented. The UCU fought a hard battle, picketed through blizzards and won a partial victory in the first round of their pensions battle. They are currently balloting for round two.

Rebuild the union on a rank and file basis

PCS is facing a seemingly impossible task of rebuilding its membership after years of austerity and union-busting tactics whilst also winning the pay rise its members desperately need. It’s a Catch-22. To rebuild, we must show non-members that unions improve their pay and conditions, but to win those victories we need more members and for those members to be willing to take serious industrial action. Workers and their unions across all industries are facing the same challenge and most are starting from a worse position than PCS.

Unleashing those parts of the union that are ready and willing to take effective industrial action, with the full backing of the union’s resources will bring results. It will improve the lot of those members and provide clear examples to others. Saving one office from closure opens the road to a national strike against office closures. Saving one job demonstrates how to save a hundred. Winning a 4 percent pay rise in one department shows what can be won if we fight together for national pay bargaining.

If we are to rebuild the union let’s do it on a rank and file basis where the members decide and the union provides. Let’s transform the union by eliminating bureaucratic obstacles and privileges. The NDC should exist to support and generalise disputes, not grant permission to them. All our officials should be elected by the members and take the wage of an average member, so they live the same life as those they represent, and our pay rise is their pay rise. Any official should be recallable if they fail to carry out the wishes of the members who elected them.

We should aim for the industrial strength of the CWU but wielded by accountable representatives rather than a bureaucracy. This pay campaign is our opportunity to build the union we need and win the pay rise we deserve.