Since 13 December, thousands of members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) have been taking rolling strike action across different parts of the civil service.
So far, the strikes have targeted critical areas of government: Defra, the Home Office, the DVLA, DVSA, and National Highways. Additionally, workers at the DWP and HM Courts and Tribunal Service have taken action in separate disputes.
Now, in an escalation of the struggle, the PCS leadership has taken the decision to call out every one of its 100,000 members that are currently authorised to strike for a one-day show of strength.
This is scheduled for 1 February – part of a wider day of action called by the TUC in protest against the Tories’ latest attacks on the right to strike.
Pickets and reballots
Reports indicate that pickets have been solid so far. These are just the opening shots of the union’s campaign of action, however. Much larger departments will soon be called up to strike.
In addition, six departments (including HMRC) representing 30,000 workers have commenced reballoting to secure a mandate for action. These workplaces previously failed to reach the threshold imposed by draconian Tory anti-union laws.
Given the impetus and inspiration provided from seeing other members taking action, there is every reason to be confident that these reballots can succeed.
Furthermore, there are still a number of departments that already have passed the threshold for action, but have yet to walk out. The potential is clear, therefore, for serious escalation. And given the Tory government’s belligerent and stubborn response, escalation is clearly a necessary next step.
Scabs and strike-breakers
In an attempt to undermine PCS members’ action, the government has called up the army as strike-breakers to cover for airport border guards. Claims from the capitalist press that airports have been running ‘better than usual’ during the strike are a complete lie, however.
According to leaked emails, due to a lack of training, soldiers have not been authorised to detain passengers. This has resulted in only 5% of typical numbers being detained on strike days. At Manchester Airport, meanwhile, reports suggest that arrivals have gone through security on other people’s passports.
It is deeply ironic that a government which has made such a song and dance about ‘taking back control’ has provoked chaos at Britain’s borders by attacking the pay and conditions of immigration and customs officials.
Having whipped up this anti-migrant hysteria amongst their reactionary base, the Tories are now forced to use one section of the state apparatus to replace another, so as to maintain their ‘Fortress Britain’ approach.
Coordination and escalation
Despite the mayhem that they have caused, the Tories have made it clear that they have no intention of budging.
Instead of conceding to workers’ demands, the government is set on further undermining strikes – whether that be through deploying the army to scab on ambulance drivers and border officials; or by bringing in new anti-union legislation to restrict workers’ right to strike.
Knowing that concessions for one union would embolden others, the Tories have clearly decided to rely on repression in order to quell the current strike wave.
These moves are aimed at the whole labour movement. This demands a unified response.
Already, the first steps towards coordination and escalation have been taken. Strike dates for PCS members at National Highways were chosen to coincide with RMT action on the railways, for example. The union’s leadership has also hinted that Border Force strikes could be extended to the key port of Dover.
In addition, discussions are ongoing with other unions currently in dispute, with the aim of coordinating action across the public sector. Bringing out 100,000 members on 1 February for the TUC’s day of action shows the way forward. This is exactly the right road to take.
Topple the Tories
The struggle is sharpening. On the one side, the Tories and bosses want to curb the right to strike altogether. On the other, workers – including those organised with PCS – are increasingly prepared to fight to the end.
Younger members, in particular, have flocked to sign up to PCS in order to join the fightback. Many are now cutting their teeth and playing leading roles in local strike activity.
It is clear that civil service workers are looking to wage a serious fightback, capable of solving their problems.
Only a mass movement of coordinated action – united around a clear socialist programme, with the aim of toppling the Tories for good and putting workers in control – can finally end the attacks on our living standards.
PCS can play a key role in this fight, linking up with other left-led unions and leading the charge.