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21 July 2021

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PCS union

Government departments move to impose pay cuts: Fightback needed

Jobcentre Plus, photo Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

Jobcentre Plus, photo Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge)

Dave Semple

Rishi Sunak's decision to impose a pay freeze on 1.3 million public sector workers, announced in late 2020, was confirmed in the budget in March 2021. UK government departments, batting aside objections by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, have one by one moved to impose the pay deal on the very workers who have helped keep the country running during the chaos of the pandemic.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the largest department, is among the latest to announce that those earning under 24,249 will receive a pay rise of up to 250 which is the only part of the offer which will be added to pensionable pay. The performance pay pot will be divided amongst the vast majority of staff to give just a 145 one-off payment before tax.

With inflation rising - 2.5% as of July, according to the BBC - the amounts announced for the vast majority of staff are not a pay freeze, they are a pay cut.

Worryingly, the union's key negotiators on DWP pay decided that they would wait until after negotiations had ended to begin any kind of campaign activity. The most recent communication to union members, signed off by DWP group president Martin Cavanagh, promises to consult with branches as soon as DWP make a final offer. This is despite clear policy carried at the group conference in June to work with branches to mount collective pressure on the DWP senior management to demand the funding from Treasury to address the pay problems.

No further indication is needed that the right-ward moving union leadership is just going through the motions and have no plan at all to build a serious campaign on pay.

On safety too, the attitude of the union leadership is embarrassingly weak. Six weeks after the results of a consultative ballot in Jobcentres was declared, not a single branch or workplace rep has been given the breakdown of how their area performed in the ballot. In those six weeks, managers have stormed ahead to expand face to face Jobcentre activity.

Denying reps such concrete information about whether or not their site had smashed the 50% turnout threshold imposed by the anti-union laws has hobbled any fightback. If the group executive committee of the union in DWP can't even handle something so absolutely basic, what hope should any rep have that they could build a fightback on pay?

For several years now, Socialist Party members in PCS have argued for a different approach to pay. While the union's national leadership insisted for two years that pay had to be a standalone issue, we argued that other issues, especially pensions, had to be built into the campaign. The union's national executive committee (NEC) later reversed their position on this.

For the same two years, the NEC, dominated by the right-ward drifting 'Left Unity' faction, argued that there could only be one aggregated ballot, meaning either everywhere would get over the 50% threshold or nowhere would. The result was that twice the union failed to secure the threshold. Worse still, there is no sign of a national 2021 pay campaign despite the fact that we are mid-way through July.

The impact of that on the union's leaders in DWP is clear; they don't believe members will fight. They are part of the national leadership who threw out the union's national pay claim at the onset of the pandemic last year. This led directly to the union's leadership in Revenue and Customs ducking a fight on their recent three-year pay deal, which resulted in detrimental contractual changes.

Socialist Party members know that there is work to do, to undo the damage of the passivity of the last several years. If we're honest with reps and members about what has failed in the past and why, what we can do differently this time around, and can lay out a credible plan to beat back this new raft of cuts, then members will respond.

There are a number of issues, all of which will require extra money from the Treasury to resolve, around which we can mobilise members to fight, such as securing permanent contracts for thousands of temporary staff in DWP. Only by fighting will we be able to secure the extra money from Treasury needed for pay and permanent contracts. This also puts us in a better position to build the resistance to stop management in their tracks on all their plans to attack members.

Our comrades holding elected positions will continue to argue for this at all levels of the union, but increasingly any hope of a serious campaign is going to come down to whether we can mobilise branches, reps and members to demand that their leaders do what they were elected to do: fight, fight and fight again to avoid another lost decade on pay.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 21 July 2021 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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Article dated 21 July 2021

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