Behind the Civil Service unrest

Less than a quarter of the total Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union membership voted for action. Was that a strong enough number to strike?

Without a doubt. Turnout was 43 per cent, which is a very credible return. It’s more important to focus on the fact that 113,000 people voted – that is the biggest ballot return in the history of civil service trade unionism.
If you look at what has happened this year with the PCS, every single strike has seen more people striking than the combined ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes in the ballots. There is a tradition in trade unionism in the Civil Service that people who haven’t voted still respect the majority decision.

Why have the Government and the Tories been targeting so many job cuts?

At its most basic, it’s crude party politics. It’s clear that this obsession with headcount reduction is nothing to do with efficiency or finances. It’s about party politicians being seen to be tough on waste in the run up to a general election. In an election that will be fought primarily around public services, we will be making it clear that it’s a strange contribution to public services to axe more than 100,000 public servants with the inevitable effect that will have on reduction in service delivery.

So you see no genuine link between job cuts and improved efficiency?

We have lots of anecdotal evidence where social security offices are not delivering what they are meant to deliver. We have chapter and verse to relate about failed IT projects. We believe it’s an enormous gamble to cut staff services in the hope that computers will be better.

Having spoken to senior mangers in both the public and private sectors, none of them run their business on the basis that you decide which jobs go first and then try to find the savings.

This approach is the wrong way round. So the cuts aren’t evidence-based, they are politically motivated. That means you’re now left in the extraordinary position, for example, in the Department for Education and Skills, where we have the Tomlinson report advocating wholesale restructuring of the qualifications system, yet the department is shedding a third of its staff. I’d also point to the fact that the PCS made substantial submissions to Sir Peter Gershon’s review [of public sector efficiency] where we felt there were efficiencies to be found, because our members are taxpayers and we are for efficient public services.

What is your view on the Government’s employment practices – do you think they are shoddy?

For a government that has indicated to business what it thinks is right, it is not practising what it preaches.
It can’t be right that you tell everybody else how to treat the workforce with respect and dignity, when the Government – a direct employer of about half a million people – does the exact opposite. I’m not using the word shoddy, but I am saying the Government should practice what it preaches.

We believe the Government should be an exemplary employer, but at the moment it is behaving in a way that actually apes some of the worst employment practices we have seen.

You use emotive language when talking about the cuts – is that a specific tactic?

I’ve worked alongside people who are paid appallingly low wages – 41 per cent of Civil Service staff are on less than the EU decency threshold, a quarter on less than 13,750. Yet they are dealing with critical frontline services.

I use emotive language because we’re angry at what we think is a complete undervaluing of the contribution that the Government’s own employees make.

These people have to put up with demeaning talk of back office waste and faceless bureaucrats. It’s a tragedy that it takes unions to tell the public about their value to society when politicians are undermining them.

If that means our phrases appear passionate and emotive, it is because we are passionate and we are very emotionally attached to the value of our members.

What do you think Friday’s (5 November) strike will achieve?

The process of the ballot itself finally got the Government engaging with us. We now hope the strike will encourage it to further speed up the process of dialogue and make it more meaningful.

We’ve asked for six assurances: no compulsory redundancies, no compulsory relocations, a moratorium on privatisation, no compulsory increase in the pension age, no retrograde changes to terms and conditions, and for the whole thing to be equality proofed. So far we haven’t had any of those assurances. What we have had is the beginning of discussions around them.

How do you feel about your ‘awkward squad’ label?

I’m very relaxed about it. If it’s seen to be awkward to stand up for the rights of your members who are low paid, overworked and facing job cuts, then I’m happy to be awkward. You should be awkward; you should be on the side of the people you represent. If terminology is attached to me and that helps the union get its case across, that’s fine with me.

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