United we stay

Issue section: 

The PCS civil service workers' union conference last month may turn out to have been the most significant in the union's ten year history.

It was characterised by unity and consideration of the extremely difficult industrial and political circumstances we, and the rest of the public sector, face. Our activists have been engaged in an extended period of struggle over the past few years. We have upheld our principles of solidarity, unity and, crucially, independence from the political establishment. And we have shown that they work.

In the face of a government committed to further cuts, in a hostile political and industrial climate, PCS won, for the first time, national agreements covering the threat of redundancies and the consequences of privatisation. We have not won everything we wanted. But we kept our right (and intention) to take action should those agreements fail to protect any members. But the challenges to come, particularly over pay, will be harder.

Everywhere I speak at union and public meetings members and reps of all unions agree that joint action must be the answer to a government which attacks us across the board. On 24 April the first such joint action took place. We have been working towards that for some time. 100,000 PCS members were on strike alongside members of the NUT teachers' union and the UCU lecturers' union, as well as council workers in Birmingham and staff from Shelter.

No one who attended the rallies and demonstrations up and down the country could fail to be excited by the enthusiasm this generated. It was a taste of what joint resistance over pay would be like.

The PCS conference agreed that we must confront the pay policy which is preventing our members from keeping up with inflation with further national industrial action. We will now ballot our public sector membership on this. But we need more action of the sort seen on 24 April.

NUT acting general secretary Christine Blower and president Bill Greenshields addressed conference, committing themselves to continued collaboration. This will not be built solely at the top. Members and activists from all unions must continue to build links and campaigns in their own localities.

We are facing a prime minister who said he wants to reduce the size of the civil service to 1945 levels - a time of rationing and hardship, in a country that still had only a minimal welfare state.

What a miserable statement from a miserable prime minister - a prime minister who, in his desperation to avoid the humiliation of defeat at the hands of a bunch of lacklustre Tories, apes their policies in a pathetic attempt to sound tough.

Saying this openly is not very popular with some in the trade union movement. They say that if we criticise the government we are letting in the Tories. But our loyalty, first, second and third, is to our members. We have the right to defend ourselves from Tory policies - whoever is implementing them. We know from our Make Your Vote Count (MYVC) campaign (and common sense) that the Tories and Lib Dems would do the same, but unions can only defend ourselves by being robust (to coin a New Labour phrase).

Brown's government is in disarray after the May elections and the 10p tax outrage. This is no time to let them get up off the floor only to renew their attacks against us. It is the best time for us to press for change - the pay policy can be broken.

PCS has no political affiliations, but we are political. We need to change the political environment to deliver our aims.

MYVC mobilised hundreds of our members to counter the poisonous growth of the British National Party. It is not popular with management, and certainly not with the fascists. And disgracefully, PCS activist Eddie Fleming has been sacked for his union activities, while at the same time, in the same office, a member of staff was able to stand as a BNP candidate - with official approval. What a terrible example of distorted values under a Labour government. We will not tolerate Nazis in our membership, and we don't want them working in our public services either.

Hundreds of local councillors and candidates (including eight out of ten Labour candidates) told us they do not support the government's agenda of job cuts, pay cuts and privatisation, during our MYVC campaigns.

While little of such opposition manifests itself in Westminster, John McDonnell has continued to do a fantastic job for us. We are talking to him and a number of other non-affiliated unions about how we can coordinate our political work in parliament.

For PCS, the decision is made - industrial and political struggle will be stepped up in 2008. We must now win others to our side.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS, the civil service workers' trade union.