18 June 2022

The trade union movement: a vehicle for change

In an article from the Morning Star, Mark writes about how the trade union movement must unite to fight back against government attacks on jobs, living standards and working conditions.

Trade unions are now the bulwark against a cruel government and the vehicle for social justice.

Thousands will gather in London this weekend to demand action over the cost of living crisis and I can’t think of a better vehicle for affecting that change than the trade union movement.

Even before the demo has begun, brave union members in the RMT have voted to walk out at the end of June, in what is being described as the biggest rail strike in modern history. Over 50,000 railway staff will go on strike over multi-year pay freezes and with thousands of jobs at risk.

Judging by the media reaction to the walkout, our comrades in the RMT are going to need all the support they can get. The RMT has been attacked in the press, simply for asking that workers get a decent pay rise after over a decade of falling living standards. To its shame, the Labour Party, which was of course founded by trade unions, has failed to unequivocally support the strike. There’s nothing unequivocal about the support from PCS and we send our full solidarity to all those taking action this month.

Over the past few challenging years, it’s trade unions which have consistently won for their members. Let’s start with the pandemic as an example. The government’s response has been described as one of the UK’s worst-ever public health failures and this includes the appalling treatment of workers up and down the country. With workers facing huge uncertainty, and in many cases the prospect of being forced into unsafe workplaces, it was unions who stepped in to protect them.

Across swathes of British industries, unions were winning for members. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union ensured Greggs topped up workers’ pay during furlough so they didn’t lose out. When 1,500 casual Marriott Hotel workers were set to be excluded from furlough payments, hundreds of them joined Unite and after coming under pressure, Marriott agreed furlough pay for all workers.

PCS members working at the DVLA in Swansea faced the biggest workplace outbreak in the UK and felt that management was putting their safety at risk. In what was a high-profile dispute, PCS members took sustained action over a number of months and secured several vital concessions from the employer that made workers safer.

I’m also immensely proud of the work our movement does in fighting for a better and fairer world. PCS has united with campaigning organisations and lawyers to fight the government’s grotesque immigration policies. Working with Care4Calais and Detention Action we forced the government to withdraw plans to order Border Force staff to turn back boats in the channel. This was a huge victory for refugees and our members.

We’ve also been taking a stand against the inhumane Rwanda policy. It was brilliant to see so many different groups and organisations take a stand, from legal proceedings to direct action, to fight against such a callous plan. The first flight may have been stopped but we are more determined than ever to ensure that no plane packed with desperate refugees ever leaves British soil.

PCS public sector members are working towards a national statutory ballot in September. Our strategy was agreed at the PCS conference in Brighton, where our members were able to come together for the first physical conference in nearly 1,000 days. In the week before the conference, we found out about government plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs. This outrageous attack on the civil service came as a huge surprise, so much so that some staff only found out about the threat to their jobs via media reports.

The news of these job cuts hammered home just how much contempt the government holds them in. As well as the job losses, civil servants were offered a derisory 2% pay rise, while inflation hits double figures. PCS members are also overpaying their pension contributions by 2% per year and they’re planning on having another go at slashing redundancy pay, despite PCS defeating the government in the High Court over similar plans in 2016. The attacks are relentless and our members have had enough.

To add further insult to injury, just as our conference was about to begin, the pictures of Boris Johnson attending drinks parties in Number 10 during lockdown were published. Never has an image better defined our time: an out-of-touch prime minister quaffing champagne while thousands died and millions more made immense sacrifices.

We are now facing a ‘perfect storm’ of cuts to jobs, living standards and working conditions, and we must unite to fight back against government attacks. Our movement, if we get it right, is the vehicle for change.