Britain: Uniting to fight New Labour’s cuts

Interview with general secretary of civil service union

PCS (civil service trade union) members are in the frontline of the Blair government’s attacks on public-sector jobs and services, with 104,000 jobs threatened. The union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, spoke to Ken Smith at the recent TUC conference.

Mark, you must be pleased with the reception you’ve had in support of the campaign to save civil service jobs. What do you now expect from the other unions after the TUC?

Mark Serwotka: We are delighted with the unanimous passing of the composite [resolution] and the fact that we had 200 delegates packed into a fringe meeting with 12 general secretaries. The key thing though is that it can’t just remain a resolution that stays on the order paper that nobody takes any notice of. The PCS must ensure that all the unions are asked to deliver on the composite.

Next week I will write to every general secretary of all the TUC affiliated unions setting out some practical measures during our ballot – ordinary stuff like writing to MPs, the letters of support, making contact with all our reps in all the towns and cities around the UK.

We are asking Labour Party affiliated unions to ensure that the matter is debated at the Labour Party conference because we want the government to be asked searching questions in its own backyard.

But on the industrial front we have made it clear that we need solidarity if we are to have any chance of winning in this campaign. And I was heartened to hear Dave Prentis (general secretary of UNISON) talk twice this week about pensions being a common issue which may involve industrial action.

So what I am looking for is the usual expressions of solidarity and practical help but particularly that the public-sector unions who face attacks on pensions, for example, are asked to co-ordinate their response with us.

It seems to me that if education workers, health workers, local government workers and civil servants are facing attacks on their pensions then our response should be a united one.

Would you envisage that happening on 5 November (the date of the proposed one-day PCS strike), or later?

MS: I would be delighted if it was on 5 November but I do understand that these things can take a while to organise. But I have been clear that if it’s not possible by the 5th and if other unions are prepared to consider action, then I would also want the PCS to consider a further strike in co-operation with others. And if that can’t be in November then maybe December or even in January. So that’s the discussion that I want to see in every union in the branches and at the leadership level.

You have mentioned that you will not accept compulsory redundancies. But even if the government were to concede that, what’s your bottom line in the provision of public services and minimum staffing levels that you could mobilise the public around? Saying to the public that this is what we want to protect and defend.

MS: We have got six reassurances that we have demanded and ’no compulsory redundancies’ is one but it has to be seen in the context of the others. I’m not interested in ’no compulsory redundancies’ in isolation, still leaving 100,000 jobs lost. That would be devastating.

Our pitch has been clear – to protect the workforce and the services they deliver. So what we have said is that, aside from no compulsory redundancies, all staffing levels must be agreed in consultation with the unions. That’s on a basis to avoid any job losses.

The logic is if you cut 100,000 jobs and you are trying to maintain a level of service, it can only be done through privatisation.

What efforts will you be making to get to agency workers and involve them in the strike?

MS: My message is if you are a casual, temporary or agency worker you should join the union. An easy way to make a quick hit with cuts is for the government to lay off all the temporary workers who don’t have proper employment rights. We don’t want those people laid off, we want them unionised and to be made permanent.

Yesterday, I was speaking to one of our reps who showed one good practical example of the problems we face. She said that in her office incapacity claims were taking so long to deal with that in many cases the terminally ill were dying before their case had been assessed and that the officers’ response had been to fast track the terminally ill claims.

That tells me these are offices which haven’t got the staff in them now to deliver the full range of services and it will be far worse if the cuts take place on top.

Many trade unionists are questioning whether their unions should continue to fund and support the New Labour government. Some unions have disaffiliated from Labour and there is the beginnings of looking for a political alternative to Labour. Where do you stand in these debates on breaking from Labour?

MS: I need to make clear that the PCS isn’t affiliated to the Labour Party. But, on a personal level I’ve been on record for a long time that there needs to be an alternative to Labour because an industrial response alone is not enough.

I’ve done the fringes at the Congress this week and I’ve spoken to the Labour Representation Committee [who hope to reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairites] and whilst I wished them well, I made it clear that they need to understand that there are thousands of people who don’t want to reclaim the Labour Party, they want an alternative.

My message to people who are working on an alternative, whether it’s people in the Socialist Party or people in Respect is that we need to work together. We need to ensure that there is a legitimate alternative voice.

If the Scottish Socialist Party can make the massive gains it has made in Scotland then it can be done in England and Wales.

I think a new political alternative is absolutely vital and I hope that those who agree with that analysis can work together to try and make that a reality.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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September 2004