A two day strike has called for 6 and 7 December in the Department of Work and Pensions by the civil service union, PCS. The PCS leadership in DWP have rightly called for all members to receive at least the rate of inflation (currently 4.2%) as an increase in year 1 and want talks about years 2 and 3. Under current arrangements 40% of DWP staff will get no consolidated increase in year 2 and 74% will 1% in the final year.
Unfortunately the necessary preparatory work for the dispute has not happened. Two days before the strike started branches learnt there was to be a two week overtime ban! This is not good enough: branches need time to talk to those thinking of working overtime and they have to arrange pickets.
Of course the ban is welcome but it should be indefinite. Benefit centres are only meeting their targets through extensive use of overtime.
The background to the dispute is important. Massive discrepancies in pay rates have opened up between workers in different government departments. For instance in 2010 DWP workers will be paid less than what HM Revenue and Customs counterparts are now getting! The PCS should systematically issue the pay differentials to members on a regular basis. This has not happened.
Given the national pay dispute has now been effectively suspended by the National Executive, and that they are not publishing wage differentials, the time has come to reconstitute the Branch Campaign for National Pay.
The Executive are we should undertake departmental action. But that way groups with disputes are being effectively left to fight on their own with nominal promises of “co-ordination” from the Executive.
For the past three years the union has had a tactic of calling a one or two day strike every six months or so. But this has not helped us stem the jobs massacre (25,000 posts have been deleted in DWP alone) or achieve a no compulsory redundancy agreement. It has not brought us further closer to national pay bargaining.
So will this tactic work in the DWP pay dispute?
Unless the frequency at which the strikes are called is greatly increased, the national strikes are protest strikes. They need to augmented with further action.
Postal workers recently had sectional action where one part of the business was called out on one day, another part of the business was called out the following day etc. The impact of this was to prolong the disruption. Why can’t we call call out Benefit Centres one day, Jobcentres the next and contact centres the following? Or call out groups of key workers for longer periods of action and support them with a levy across the union? We don’t know whether these tactics will be successful as they have not been tried.
The Independent Left faction has been advocating these tactics for the past few years. They have been dismissed out of hand by the (dominant) Left Unity leaders, saying the tactic didn’t work in a Jobcentre Plus safety dispute 27 years ago. Then the union was nearly bankrupted supporting isolated offices for months on end. But we are talking about bringing key workers out for weeks rather than months.
Another problem has been so-called confidentiality in pay talks. There have been in total 26 days of talks over months. Yet no communication has come out from the union apart from bland statement about progress being slow. Surely we should expect a weekly report, to keep members engaged. The membership are not a stage army that can be called upon at will. The union also say that management would refuse to negotiate unless we sign up to confidentiality. But this assertion has never been put to the test.
Management have been clever about the current offer and talks, dragging talks out until November and then imposing their offer just before Christmas.
The timing of this two day strike has caused us problems. And the imposed pay deal rewards those at the bottom in favour of those at the top – classic divide and rule.
The union needs to name further dates. They should also actively consider whether rolling, regional and/or selective action can be used, and immediately ballot for an indefinite overtime ban.