Pay ballot: any questions?

Pay ballot: Facebook Live Q&A

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka took part in a members’ meeting in Liverpool on 20 June, which was broadcast live on Facebook.

Questions were put to Mark by members in the audience and watching online, covering strike pay, fixed-term contract workers, why the pay claim was set at 5%, pay progression, national pay bargaining, and how local Labour parties and organisations can help with our campaign.

His answers might be useful for discussions with members in your branches and workplaces:

Q: Strike levies are sometimes unpopular because members feel they have paid their union dues and are reluctant to pay more. How can we make sure members are willing to pay [into the strike fund]?

A: You’ll all remember the government tried to bankrupt this union [through the withdrawal of check-off]. Overnight the union lost income of £6m per year.

And our membership, although we have now managed to stabilise it, has suffered – we were once 320,000 members in this union and we are now 180,000 because of a combination of cuts and check-off. The union has had to do incredible things to keep the union moving forward.  

We are not Unite that has £36m in a strike fund. But we are managing to meet all our commitments and we are trying to grow. If we want to pay people to stay out on strike, and it’s clear that we can’t expect some people to lose weeks of pay on behalf of everybody else, we are going to have to sustain that.

“We sometimes want to take all-member action. But we also need to take action that the government cannot withstand.”

One of the things that maybe we should think about, and I’ll just throw this out tentatively, is that when we come back and consult people about the formal action we take, it may well be that some people will say rather than have a one-day strike to start – which will cost a lot of people money – people may say they would rather pay in a fiver a month for three months. It will cost them £15, which is less than losing one day’s pay, and will raise the union half a million pounds to sustain people who are off on strike.

So we need to perhaps think that the strike fund is not just a charitable thing but that we specifically link it so that the money people give will help a colleague stay out on strike in an area that we believe will have an immediate impact. That’s the debate that we need to have.

Obviously the union needs to show the government that everybody supports it, and that’s why we sometimes want to take all-member action. But we also need to take action that the government cannot withstand, and that’s what the NEC is going to have to weigh up.

But what we need to get across is the guarantee that every penny donated to the union’s strike fund will be used to fund industrial action in the campaign.

Q: The employer is increasingly using fixed-term contracts to fill posts in the civil service, and those people might feel reluctant to get involved in case it affects their chances of a permanent post. Why should fixed term appointees get involved in the campaign?

A: If you are on a fixed-term contract, or if you have just started, the answer to our problems is not to hope that by keeping your head down that you will get favourable treatment and that maybe things will work out well, nor to rely on the benevolence of employers who generally speaking are not being very benevolent.

It is to recognise it is the strength of the union that will determine whether FTAs get jobs, whether we will have better rates of pay for all staff, permanent or fixed-term, and whether people have a future. One of the things this union has done that I am immensely proud of, is in government departments we have won thousands of permanent jobs for people who started as casuals or on fixed-term contracts. They were won because the union pressured employers to take us seriously.

If you are on a FTC, join the union and stand with your colleagues because that’s the best way, not to just get more pay, but to have a stronger union that can fight to get you a permanent job.

Q: If we have lost 10-15% of our pay over 6-8 years, why are we only going in for a 5% rise?

A: There’s two reasons for that. The first one is that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) agreed that there should be a public sector wide 5% claim submitted, and what we wanted to do that point was to have a united stand with our colleagues everywhere else and put in the same claim as everyone else.

The second reason is this – and there’s always a judgement in this - we’ve said that what 5% would do is it would match inflation this year and it would begin, very modestly, to claw back some of what people have lost. It is the beginning, it is not the end. The reason we pitched it there, is that if we put it at 10 or 15%, the danger with that is that many members would say to us that it’s unrealistic and is the union serious because they are just going in too high.

These things are a balance. What we did is we consulted throughout the union about the claim and what we felt …was that 5% was the right place to start, but that it was only the start.

Q: One of the key issues for our members that comes up regularly is with regards to pay progression, and the fact that there are individuals sitting next to colleagues doing the exact same job and getting £4,000 less pay. How are we going to deal with that issue within the 5% pay claim?

A: I’m glad that question has come up. Let me take you back to the Scottish offer. What this union has negotiated with the Scottish government is for 3% consolidated – that’s with pay progression on top – and anyone on the max gets 3% consolidated plus 1% non-consolidated payment. And it’s absolutely right – pay progression should be contractual and should be above any cost of living increase. The union is very clear about what we have achieved in Scotland.

We know that at the moment in the civil service [every employer] is doing things differently on pay progression. We know that funding for pay progression comes out of the little bit of money they give us and we believe that there is a negotiation that needs to be had – either to say that what you should have is the rate for the job very very quickly, and not overly long pay scales, or you should have a short amount of pay progression, that pay progression must be contractual and that pay progression must be paid every single year.

The government claims that you do all get pay progression. Listen to them in parliament -– they say it’s not a 1% pay rise, because people have contractual increases that are sometimes 3 and 4%. But they know that that is not true for their own workforce.

Q: Where are we on having negotiations on civil service-wide pay, rather than in the individual departments?

A: Everyone will remember Mrs Thatcher took away national pay bargaining and introduced it into departments and we now have everybody doing different things. We see cities like Sheffield, where I used to work, where people will leave one department to go and work in another for £500 extra. It means the department loses experienced staff and people are jumping around all over the place for sometimes small differences, and differences that should not exist.

Our belief is that legally the employer is the Crown and that everybody should get the same rates of pay across all government departments, but the government doesn’t agree. In this pay claim we have said we want 5% funding for national negotiations to divvy this up across the board.

“We want your employer to get extra funding of 5% so that it can put that into people’s pay. That is what this campaign is about which is why everybody benefits.”

It may well be, if we are successful, the government will say you can have some extra funding but we are not prepared to have national pay this year and they will want to give that out to departments. Our view then is that if we can’t negotiate this nationally, then each department must use all of the funding they have got for pay and they must negotiate that with PCS in the different departments, whilst we try to move towards national pay bargaining.

Wherever you work, the simple proposition is this: we want your employer – either the Cabinet Office or your individual department – to get extra funding of 5% so that it can put that into people’s pay. That is what this campaign is about which is why everybody benefits.

We have told the Cabinet Office that national pay must be where we move, ultimately, and we are very pleased to say that Jeremy Corbyn has promised that a Labour government would introduce national pay bargaining across the whole of the civil service in its first term. We have made it clear that not only do we think that is right, we are saying to the Cabinet Office that they should start preparing their thinking for that now…. that’s the way the wind is blowing and what they should start getting their heads around.

Q: How can local Labour parties and other organisations help with the PCS pay campaign?

A: I did a public rally in Swansea city centre recently, for PCS members. DVLA in Swansea is our biggest branch, with 3,500 members. All the unions came and loads of local Labour party branches came, the leader of the council came, the local MP came.

What it did is it lifted people’s morale.

We know that no matter how many speeches I make, when people go home they still know that they are voting to take industrial action, they go back to their office and may not sometimes feel as confident, they might wonder ‘why is it just PCS?’, why aren’t any other unions doing anything?

So for me part of this is that we are seen to be getting support. So I would hope that  where people are in the local Labour Party they will raise it at their branch meetings, pass resolutions in support, go down and help if we are doing leafleting or petitioning. The more people who realise what it is we are doing and why, the greater that support will be.

“I think we can guarantee that not a single one of [our members] is going to put that 5% in the Cayman Islands and avoid tax. What people will do is they will spend it, won’t they?”

There’s not many unions in history who would have had the shadow chancellor come to their conference and say he supported our strike ballot and that if he was chancellor he was lift the pay cap and put funding in. So we’ve got to get the message across that we actually we do have a large degree of support.

The other thing I think politicians can help us with, and local party members and councillors, is I think people still don’t know what civil servants do. Despite all the campaigns we have run over the years people still often think of civil servants as Whitehall, the senior mandarins… and the reality is the bulk of the civil servants are people like you in the north west. Running major government services, on often low pay, doing frontline work. So we have got to get across the importance of what our members do and the economic impact having a 5% pay rise would mean.

It might come back to haunt me but my pledge is this – if our members get a 5% pay rise, I think we can guarantee that not a single one of them is going to put that 5% in the Cayman Islands and avoid tax. What people will do is they will spend it, won’t they? They will spend it on their families, and on things they are currently not able to think about doing. It would boost the local economy and boost people’s quality of life.

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