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‘We’ve never had it so bad’

With the campaign against Gordon Brown's job cuts in the civil service gathering momentum, 2005 is set to be a big year for the PCS trade union. PCS leader Mark Serwotka talks to Chris Leach

December 1, 2004
8 min read

How do you counter government claims about PCS members being overpaid Whitehall mandarins in bowler hats?

‘I’d start with the facts. An admin assistant in the civil service starts on a salary of £10,300. That’s a disgrace for a government that professes support for working people. Twenty-five per cent of PCS members earn less than £13,000: that’s more than 150,000 people; 41 per cent earn less than the EU decency threshold.

‘The day of action on 5 November showed the range of important public services PCS members provide. In some areas of London there was a picket line on every other building: not just the obvious places like the Inland Revenue, but less obvious ones like the Natural History Museum.’

Tony Blair presents the relationship between public sector workers and service users as a zero-sum game in which one’s benefit is another’s loss. How does the PCS combat this?

‘The PCS has worked with the Unemployed Workers Centres on a charter of rights for workers and service users at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This year we’ll be strengthening these links.

‘In the New Year, we’ll be launching a coalition for public services. This will involve the PCS in a coalition of groups representing stakeholders in the services our members provide, including Citizens Advice, the National Pensioners Convention and Help the Aged. The coalition will work to shape a positive agenda for public services and take our case to Downing Street.

‘This is happening already. Take Weston-Super-Mare, where the local benefits office is under threat of closure. PCS members not only work in the areas that would be effected by the closure; they live there. Our campaign reflects this. We’re using the local knowledge that our members have built up over generations to involve sections of the community who use the benefits office: groups like local pensioners, mother and toddler groups and disability campaigns who would all stand to lose if the office closed.

‘The pattern that’s emerging is locally focused but within a national framework that sets out in a very positive way the case for public services.’

What you’ve described reflects a widespread disaffection towards the government. How do you view things politically?

‘I can only speak here in a personal capacity. This Labour government has been an incredible disappointment. At the moment I see no credible alternative to Labour rooted in communities in England and Wales. In Scotland, however, I think the success and rapid development of the Scottish Socialist Party is very exciting. Proportional representation has helped create a healthier political landscape up there. It is an example of how PR could work.

‘Personally, I’m very much in favour of PR. On the left I’ve heard just about every argument imaginable against it: things like, ‘you can’t be a socialist if you don’t accept that whoever gets 51 per cent wins’. Ultimately, I think that whatever your grander scheme you’d be pretty ridiculous to limit things to three choices. I have two young kids. When they reach voting age I want them to have a better choice than the one between Blair and Michael Howard, or, for that matter, between Blair and Gordon Brown. How will we get there?

‘The way I see it is in concrete terms. Take the PCS members whose jobs are threatened. Labour is talking about 100,000 job cuts, the Tories 200,000, while the Lib-Dems are talking of a process they’ve surreally titled ‘compassionate cuts’. Not much of a choice. So candidates have to have these very real political issues raised with them in very blunt form.

‘The RMT shows us how to do this: it’s built a consensus around taking the railways back into public hands by simply asking, ‘Do you support taking the railways back into public ownership and will you put the hard-working people who staff them first?’

‘Personally, I’m prepared to work with anyone who wants to participate in constructing a new positive agenda. I’m always very happy to speak to groups inside the Labour Party who want to do this: groups like the Labour Representation Committee. I tell them to turn themselves outwards and link up with progressive elements outside the party in order to win key battles within it.

‘I have an open mind about Respect and have welcomed the opportunity to speak on its platforms. I am concerned that it shouldn’t mirror some of the problems that Labour has had in the past, like an attitude of ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’.

‘Also, I’d have no problems working with the Greens. Any coming together would be welcomed. Now, of course, this won’t be without its difficulties: it’s a question of having to start with what we agree with rather than what we disagree with. There are already some good examples of this showing the way, like Weston-Super-Mare. Local Plaid Cymru people have been very good in this. If we unpack things we find that more often than not there’s a common agenda, be that peace not war, environmentalism or social justice. The key to unlocking things is to build unity around these key questions.’

How does all what you’ve described impact on the traditional Labour-trade unions link?

‘Many unions have a relationship with Labour stretching back more than 100 years. These institutionalised loyalties won’t disappear over night. Things are changing very subtly, though. Even unions that are strong advocates of the link are beginning to explore the prospect of backing different candidates. But on election day most working-class people will stick with the Labour government despite all its faults.’

What would you say to union leaders who take the position that this Labour government may be bad but a Tory one would be infinitely worse?

‘I’d say the Tories would be worse and that I don’t want them in. I’d also say that for the people in the PCS who I’m representing this is as bad as it gets, with one in five jobs threatened. I’d put a question back to them. The support the PCS has received from other unions, both at leadership and grass-roots levels, has been fantastic. But how did we manage to get all of those general-secretaries on a PCS platform at TUC Congress yet at the Labour Party conference two weeks later our struggle wasn’t mentioned in a single speech?

‘I don’t want a Tory government, but if we’re looking at the prospect of compulsory redundancies in the run-up to a general election we’d have to consider calling a strike. Obviously, this would make things very uncomfortable for the government& but, ultimately, I’ve got to put the interests of my members first and loyalty is a two-way thing.’

You view the European Social Forum as a very positive development, yet traditionally the left has been very anti-EU. Do you see a pan-European approach as being part of the new trade unionism that you advocate?

‘My starting point about the EU in general is that I’d like to be on the ‘pro’ side, but there are so many things in the constitution – its commitment to free-market principles, for instance – that are unacceptable. I think part of the problem that the left has faced in the past is that we’ve appeared to be ‘anti’ everything: anti-Common Market, anti-EU, anti-constitution. Yet we’re all passionate internationalists.

‘I also think it’s strange that people who are used to dealing with UK politics in a pragmatic way often seem to become very idealistic when it comes to Europe, so they end up dodging these very real questions because the EU as it stands doesn’t offer some form of workers’ paradise. I find it very odd that the same people often refuse to accept that some of the better directives in terms of workers’ rights, like the working time directive, are coming directly from Brussels. If you truly want cooperation between working people across Europe you can’t just pump out all of the stuff that you’re against.’

What personal opinion do you take on the euro?

‘In principle, at least, there’s some good things for workers in it. There’d be more transparency of wage bargaining, leading to more international wage bargaining by trade unions within multinational companies. It would also decrease the opportunity of capital to use exchange rates to move things from A to B and to push down wages by playing people in different countries off against each other. These are leading to more international cooperation among trade unions already.

‘The big down side is the way things are currently set up: a big central bank headed by unelected officials dictating what you can and can’t do. And I’d oppose this in Europe just as I oppose it in a UK context.’

Finally, CWU leader Billy Hayes once said that the PCS is by far the worst dressed union. How do you respond to this slander?

‘I’d say the PCS is by far the best dressed union and that Billy Hayes is by far the worst dressed general-secretary.’

www.pcs.org.uk

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