By Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organizer
25 May 2011
The annual conference of the UK’s fifth-biggest trade union, the Public & Commercial Services union (PCS), marked a decisive turning point in the resistance movement to public sector cuts.
The delegates there, representing 300,000 members, with branch mandates behind them, voted almost unanimously to ballot for strike action and action short of strikes, on the issues of jobs, pay and pensions.
They explicitly named 30th June for a one-day strike, and are seeking simultaneous strike action by other public sector trade unionists. Teaching unions – UCU, NUT and ATL – seem firmly committed to this day of united action. Other unions – UNITE and UNISON- have signed agreements with the PCS to combine and collaborate in anti-cuts action. Their leaderships should now move without delay to ballot members in affected areas for strike action to coincide with the plans for 30 June.
Build 30th June strike
And every other union in the public sector should be pressed from its branches, union reps and membership to follow suit. Even a partial general strike of public sector workers – numbering over 600,000 in Scotland alone – would be an industrial and political hurricane that could begin to blow the axe-wielding governments off course, at Westminster, Holyrood and local council levels.
There is no shortage of reasons for united action. Most people have yet to feel the full force of the storm of cuts descending on our workplaces and communities – apart from some of society’s most vulnerable, the sick and disabled, and big swathes of council workers.
Cameron and Clegg’s cuts orgy of £81billion includes £9bn being chopped off benefits for the sick and disabled. Over 5,000 of those hammered by these cruel cuts braved all obstacles to demonstrate in London last week. Protests in Scotland are being mounted against the vulture capitalists of Atos, the company hired to hand out callous, unprofessional, cost-cutting medical judgments that throw people off slightly higher rates of benefit.
Hurricane hits Scotland
But the looming assault on jobs – with economists predicting up to 100,000 job losses in Scotland – local services, pay and pensions are a cocktail about to explode and cause terrible social and human wreckage. The generalised nature of the attacks require a generalised response – a potent combination of direct action protests, united strike action, and hard-hitting arguments that explode the lie that cuts are either necessary or unavoidable.
Everyone would welcome the pre-election pledge of ‘no compulsory redundancies’ in the public sector from the Scottish government. But nobody should have to pay the price demanded for this promise – years of pay cuts and effectively a no-strike deal.
And one of the unions whose leadership was most craven in bowing down to a pay-cutting, conditions-hacking deal with COSLA – the EIS – has been given a rude lesson in the simple fact that weakness invites aggression. COSLA now wants to increase teaching hours; lengthen the working week; wipe out time protected for vital lesson preparation and marking; slash holidays and make them training days instead; and bring in fixed-term contracts for promoted teachers. All this on top of a two-year pay freeze 9at least a 10 per cent cut in reality).
Nobody is safe
Whether it is teachers facing this warfare from their employers, lecturers and students facing wholesale course closures and job losses, disabled people confronted by closure of their centres, or civil servants hit by closure of local offices in areas officially declared to be the unemployment blackspots of Scotland, nobody is safe. And that’s even before the £3.3bn cuts demanded of the Scottish government over the next two years.
The outcome of the Scottish elections was an attempt by besieged communities to find shelter from the storm of cuts issuing from Downing St. Mostly they entrusted the SNP to stand up for Scotland. The SNP made a good job of luring people into thinking they would do precisely that, and hid from view their spineless failure to stand up in defiance of the Westminster butchers’ £1.3bn cut to the Scottish budget last October.
And they cunningly disguised their plans to carry through cuts, not by defying and refusing to implement them, but by delaying them beyond the recent elections, stockpiling them, creating the conditions for a ‘double whammy’ of cuts over the next 2-3 years.
Demand SNP resist cuts
Now the SNP are in power, with hopes and expectations of protection raised. So anti-cuts campaigners – and in particular the STUC and various mass-membership trade unions – should demand the new government fulfils the hopes invested in them, use their popular mandate, declare unequivocally that they will refuse to pass on Westminster’s butchery, and mount a mass campaign of the Scottish people demanding the powers and the money to defend every single job, service, community facility, pay packet and pension.
Alex Salmond quite rightly immediately demanded of the London government an extension of powers for the Scottish government – including control over excise duties and Corporation Tax. But instead of demanding the latter to slash tax on big business to Southern Irish levels of 12 per cent – as Salmond clearly wishes to do – the unions should demand this extension of powers for Holyrood, not to reduce but to increase Corporation Tax to its pre-Thatcher level of 52 per cent – a policy that the PCS union shares with the Scottish Socialist Party.
Tax big business and the rich
That would enormously expand the funds available to the Scottish government, in order to build the best public services and welfare system in Europe, with a vast expansion of jobs, mopping up the criminal waste of a young generation left jobless, turning talent to the use of society as a whole.
One of the best possible ways of holding the newly elected Scottish government to account, of demanding they give material reasons for the “hope” and “vision” which they astutely preached to win the election, is to build a mass strike and rallies on 30 June. Public sector workers, students, communities, disabled people, pensioners … an army of resistance to the cuts on that day showing their angry determination, would not only rattle the severely weakened and divided ConDem Coalition, but also put the SNP government on the spot – not to mention an array of council leaderships who are busy slaughtering jobs, conditions and services.
Victories through action
In campaigning for 30 June to become a mass show of unity in action, we should be encouraged by several recent victories against cuts. Cameron, Osborne and others have been spewing out bellicose, bloodcurdling class warfare against workers and their unions, with for instance Osborne advising the Institute of Directors to “get stuck in” with even worse attacks on workplace health and safety regulations and more vicious anti-union laws than even Thatcher dared to wield. But alongside that, the ConDem government is executing more U-turns than the average professional ice-skater.
A mass petition frightened them into dropping plans to privatize the woodlands – but now they want to slash one in four Forestry Commission workers’ jobs.
As the interview with Willie Telfer of PCS [see below/box] reveals, their plans to crucify the coastguard service have been thrown into rapid meltdown by a powerful community and trade union campaign. And bosses in the Driving Services Agency have capitulated in the face of threatened strike action by PCS members against a brutal array of cuts they’d planned. Action works!
Twin lessons on this theme arise from the 2-year-long battle conducted by BA cabin crews, members of the UNITE union.
These workers originally had no option but to strike against multiple attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions – including reduction of staffing levels for in-flight crews, and the introduction of new cabin crews on far worse wages and conditions, all imposed without even seeking talks with the union.
The UNITE members were driven to strike to defend union recognition, in order to defend their conditions against blatant attempts to wipe out both.
The tenacity of the cabin crew UNITE members has been remarkable, but a combination of anti-union laws and failure by the national union leadership to rapidly spread the action to the wider BA workforce left them in a dangerous stalemate, ruthlessly exploited by management, who launched a vicious press propaganda war, and meantime victimised strikers.
They disciplined and sacked UNITE union reps, ripped up union facilities previously agreed, and withdrew travel concessions from staff who had taken part in perfectly legal strikes. The battle went from defence of staffing levels and pay to one for the very survival of the union as a workers’ defence organization.
Now, faced with further strike ballots, BA bosses have conceded on most of their witch-hunt against the union, its reps and its members, restoring travel concessions to the strikers; restoring wages docked from crew off sick during the strikes; conceding union facilities again; and agreeing binding arbitration through ACAS on all the union reps who were victimized. A victory for the tenacious action of union members on those issues – but no concession whatsoever has been won on staffing levels and the galloping introduction of lower-paid new starts.
The twin lessons for other workers from this protracted struggle is that action forces concessions out of even the most hard-faced exploiters, but action in isolation from wider workforces severely weakens the chances of outright victory.
All out 30th June
Over 250,000 civil servants striking on 30 June, alongside tens of thousands of teachers and lecturers, would be a powerful body-blow to those in government hell-bent on making ordinary people pay for the bankers’ and billionaires’ wrecking ball to the economy.
But what an infinitely more potent weapon it would be if they were joined by EIS members facing the worst assault on their conditions in generations from COSLA; plus Scottish NHS staff who face 3.3 per cent cuts to health care this year and a future with redundancies, as Heath Boards seek to cut their deficits, according to new research by the British Medical Journal; and council workers who are already facing the brunt of pay cuts, work overloads and savage job losses?
Action and arguments
Every opponent of cuts, all who yearn a decent, civilized society that raises hopes fro the future and protects the most vulnerable, should work flat out to make 30 June the biggest and widest possible day of strikes and rallies.
Direct action protests against the perpetrators of cuts, combined with arguments for taxing the rich and taking wealth into public, democratic ownership, will help to raise the sights of people who otherwise despair at what the future holds.
The SSP will not flinch in helping build such actions and popularizing socialist alternatives to the cuts. We will stand up for Scotland – and demand the newly elected SNP government do the same, rather than asking for the power to cut taxes to the obscenely rich whilst sharpening the knives for the jobs, wages and public services that ordinary Scots depend upon.
Richie Venton spoke to Willie Telfer, PCS Dept for Transport Group Assistant Secretary
“There are 18 Coastguard stations in the UK. The government planned to centralize them into two super-stations.
There was huge uproar, for instance in Stornaway and Shetland, with mass community campaigns.
Coastguards tend to be ex-fishermen or seafarers, and live locally. There are also retained coastguards, with jobs ranging from the local church minister to civil servants. The service is a matter of life and death, and local communities know that. They know how absurd the government plan is, to leave only two stations, near Aberdeen and Southampton, over 600 miles apart!
So the fury was deep-rooted, with, for example, 250 at public meetings in Stornaway.
It was a mostly community-led campaign, with the scattered PCS membership (coastguards) joining in – with the open threat of strike ballots by PCS across the entire department for transport if there are any compulsory redundancies; driving examiners standing up for coastguards.
Faced with this uproar, the government has made it clear they are not going to stick to their original, crazy plan of only two stations, though it’s still unclear how many will be saved. This goes to show what pressure can achieve.
In another section of the Dept for Transport – the DSA – we have won an outright victory, this time led by trade union action.
The Cardiff DSA office does the admin for driving tests in England and Wales, and includes the Welsh language unit. DSA management wanted to close it down, to get their hands on the building, and made it plain there was no way they would back down.
PCS balloted and won a massive vote for strike action. The Cardiff PCS DSA branch led the big anti-cuts march to the Welsh Assembly; were prominent on the TUC’s 26 March demo, and won the backing of politicians from several parties.
This high profile campaign, and the mere threat of strike action, has forced the intransigent DSA management into a total capitulation, saving our DSA in Cardiff, but also winning five other union demands, including a moratorium on plans to shed 40 per cent of the Driving Test centres.
Fighting the cuts, you often run into those who say ‘it can’t be done’. These two examples prove the government and employers can be stopped – even before generalised, widespread action.
This government is a coalition, divided and weak. So June 30th is not just a show of strength, but another step on the road to halting the cuts. And within PCS, we are not just building for national action, but also encouraging action locally and within groups/departments. Whilst defending ourselves from the government sledgehammer we are not going to allow ourselves to be tickled to death!”
(Watch Willie Telfer speak at an anti-cuts rally in a personal capacity)