Unity in action

Issue section: 

I was sorry that John McDonnell's campaign to stand as Labour Party leader came to a halt.

It was good that he stood. His campaign threw up issues of substance, by him openly opposing both the Iraq war and privatisation, for example. It is incredible that not even the requisite handful of Labour MPs could be found to nominate him.

Instead we have been offered a pale shadow of a contest - the deputy leadership race. Just how little of an alternative is on offer can be seen from looking at the material distributed to members of affiliated unions (of which my union, the PCS, is not one, I should point out).

Only one candidate, John Cruddas, even mentioned Iraq. And even he could not bring himself to use the P word. Although privatisation is one of the key issues for trade union members, not one of the candidates offered them an end to the attack on publicly owned public services.

The growing gap between rich and poor is being mirrored by a growing gap between the Labour Party and trade union members. As the unions' influence on the party wanes, that of business grows.

A prime example is merchant banker (not, on this occasion, rhyming slang) David Freud. He has considerable experience of selling successes such as Railtrack and Eurotunnel to credulous investors.

Apparently his background in privatisation made him an obvious choice to advise on the reform of the welfare state. His report on the provision of employment services to the long term unemployed, people with disabilities and single parents recommended that substantial parts of the work currently done by PCS members in job centres should be given to private contractors and charities.

I find that when I tell people that the government plans to go back to charity to provide some of the basic functions of a civilised state they are shocked. Of course the government and the Confederation of British Industry dismiss PCS opposition as simply "producer interest".

But when we launched our critique of the Freud report we were backed up by users, like the Child Poverty Action Group, Unemployed Workers Centres and a range of groups representing people with disabilities. Working with them is one of the ways we can add political clout to our industrial work.

But if we are to turn the tide on privatisation, job cuts and the public sector pay freeze, we need to add clout to our industrial struggles too.

Given that right across the public sector workers and their unions are facing the same problems, it must increase all of our chances of winning if we take action together.

So as well as encouraging our activists to engage with campaigns on housing, the NHS and pensions, we are constantly urging them to build links with their local counterparts in sister unions. This has not always come naturally, as everyday activity in the trade union movement can tend to be very insular. But more and more we are organising joint rallies and demonstrations, and visiting each other's picket lines.

At the national level we are trying to get other unions to cooperate, and hopefully coordinate action, with us. This has clearly not gone unnoticed.

If the Freud proposals were bad, things have got worse. Jim Murphy, a Department for Work and Pensions minister, chose the TUC Disability Conference to invite trade unions to bid for work currently carried out by PCS members in JobCentre Plus.

This can only be seen as an attempt to drive a wedge between us and other unions, and shows the depths to which ministers will sink when they get worried.

I have written to TUC general secretary Brendan Barber pointing out that for any union to take up Jim Murphy's offer could only be seen as a hostile act. I hope that none will do so.

With teachers and lecturers, and health, postal and council workers all gearing up for possible industrial action over pay, the potential for joint action capable of forcing a change of direction is great. So too is the scale of the response we can expect. Unity in action is the movement's greatest strength, which is why our opponents will put every barrier they can in its way.

If we have forged strong links at the grass roots, it will be harder for them to succeed.

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