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Interview ‘The whole system needs an overhaul’

TUC president and PCS leader MARK SERWOTKA spoke exclusively to the Star ahead of the union's conference

AS CIVIL Service union PCS meets for its annual conference, general secretary Mark Serwotka is warning the government that its battle for fair pay is far from finished.

Its national pay ballot last month backed strike action by four to one over attempts to hold civil servants’ pay award below inflation. That’s despite the value of civil servants’ pay falling by between 8.6 and 11.4 per cent since 2010.

The pay ballot gave PCS one of the strongest mandates for action in its history. But the Tories’ Trade Union Act prevents the union from acting on it. Though 91 per cent supported action short of a strike over pay and 80 per cent backed strikes, a turnout of 47.7 per cent fell just short of the government’s 50 per cent threshold.

“We have to expose the unfairness of the anti-union laws,” Serwotka tells me when we meet in his Clapham office. “That was the second-biggest ballot in Britain since the Trade Union Act came in, second to our ballot last year. The only other ballot comparable in size was the CWU’s” (on postal workers’ pensions in 2017).

“Twice in 10 months the Trade Union Act has blocked the biggest votes for action we’ve ever had.”

But the Act doesn’t mean the union has nothing to celebrate about winning such a mandate.

“At 21 employers we did beat the threshold. At the others we were very close, including at the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions.

“So we can take our fight forward. We need to improve workplace organisation in some areas and build a workplace organising culture throughout the union, with activists in every workplace.

“Where we had activists on the ground we had massive turnouts. And we raised turnout by 6 per cent on the previous pay ballot, utilising new technology to reach members with an app for reps and phone banking, for example. I think if we’d had another week, we’d have done it.”

He also notes that, for the first time ever, the leader of the Labour Party tweeted support for the strike action ballot. It signals what Serwotka calls a “much closer relationship” between Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell and the trade union movement.

“We’ve shifted massively. Under the Tony Blair government, they made massive job cuts in civil and public services and introduced widespread privatisation. The union was so disgusted with the government that we adopted a policy where we could support candidates from other parties.

“Now with Corbyn as leader, although we’re not arguing for affiliation, we do want to work for a Labour government that would restore national pay bargaining, stop office closures and scrap the Trade Union Act.”

Such a Labour government would also end the Tories’ cruel universal credit roll-out and abolish the punitive benefit sanctions that have caused such misery among Britain’s unemployed, disabled and chronically ill. Those tasked with implementing these policies are in many cases PCS members, and Serwotka is aware of the tensions this causes.

“There’s an understandable tendency to blame the person on the other side of the desk whose job it is to carry out the government policy.

“But you have to separate the policy from the overworked staff who are having to carry it out. Forty per cent of DWP staff working on universal credit will be on the benefit themselves because the pay is so low.

“The whole system needs an overhaul. When I worked in the sector I was told, your job is to help people. That’s gone. We have to change these policies and that means political change.”

Political change is within our grasp, with the Tories imploding, but Labour’s local election results were disappointing — and Serwotka is alarmed by the Brexit Party’s lead in the polls for the European elections.

“Politics in Britain is totally distorted by Brexit. Topics such as schools, hospitals, strong unions, poverty, homelessness — they don’t get a look-in because of Brexit.

“The entire issue has been divisive. I remember when I used to argue into the early hours with Bob Crow on [whether the left should back a referendum on EU membership] and my view was that the whole thing would be hugely divisive for our movement.

“Our values are that we are opposed to austerity, we’re opposed to racism, we welcome migrants and are internationalists, we want public ownership, but the binary in or out has confused those values for a lot of people.

“Now we’re on the cusp of Farage winning the Euros and Tommy Robinson possibly being elected. Don’t get me wrong, the locals were much worse for the Tories who lost 1,300 seats than Labour that lost 80, but we’re struggling to get a hearing because of Brexit. That’s frustrating because I think it’s clear that in or out, our priority should be the election of a Corbyn-led government that will end austerity.”

But if the rise of the Brexit Party and street racism are deeply worrying, aren’t there new positives on the political scene too?

“Yes, and I utterly welcome the Extinction Rebellion mobilisations, the school strikes for climate change.

“I also think that this creates an opportunity for unions to mobilise more effectively. Trade union membership has declined. The masses of people who have joined Labour recently have not by and large become active in their unions. This needs to change.

“When I think back to 2010, that’s when austerity began to bite. It was the students rebelling against the tuition fees hike who lit the touchpaper that led to unions organising a co-ordinated national strike on pensions.

“We need to co-ordinate action better and there are opportunities to do so. Take the Civil Service pension scheme.”

An automatic reduction in pension contributions should have been triggered when it became clear the cost of the pension scheme had fallen below the target cost. The government was legally obliged to refund members of the scheme if the cost was lower than forecast, and unions say staff are owed a 2 per cent refund.

But in December the Fire Brigades Union won a court ruling that changes to firefighters’ pension scheme were discriminatory, as older members could stay on the existing, superior scheme while younger firefighters had to transfer to a new, worse one.

Humiliated by the union’s victory, the Tories declared that their response would be to suspend the valuation of public-sector pension schemes in general — meaning civil servants aren’t getting the rebate they are owed.

“Whether on pay or pensions, we need to take a lead from young people as we did with tuition fees.”

PCS is already working with other unions where outsourcing companies employ members of more than one, as in its strikes over worse terms and conditions for staff employed by ISS and Aramark at the Business Department and by Interserve at the Foreign Office.

“I welcome the fact that we’re talking to other unions in ISS — whether it’s RMT cleaners employed by ISS on the railway or PCS cleaners employed by the same firm at Victoria Street, we can co-ordinate action and increase the impact.

“But the bigger solution is political. Yes, we’re taking action to win badly paid workers a London living wage. But the real answer is to bring all the outsourced workers back in house.”

The union’s conference will hear from a range of politicians this week — including Corbyn as well as shadow business and industrial strategy minister Laura Pidcock on the proposed Ministry of Labour, shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood on overhauling the benefits system and the union’s parliamentary group chair, the SNP’s Chris Stephens — on the political changes needed to make that happen. And Serwotka, who is current president of the TUC, has pledged to use the remainder of his presidential year “to campaign against austerity, for a general election and a Corbyn-led Labour government, but above all for stronger unions.”

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