THE 150th Congress begins this week as outrage builds over this chaotic Tory government’s attacks on workers and those most in need of support from the state. In the time-honoured tradition of our movement, we need both an industrial and a political response.
The attacks are multi-pronged and designed to divide, demonise and dampen the resistance of working people to the government.
PCS members have been targeted under this strategy by the imposition of the pay cap and then by falling foul of draconian anti-trade union laws simply for attempting to exercise their democratic right to strike.
Despite a record Yes vote of 85 per cent — the biggest mandate the union has ever achieved — our members were denied the right to strike because we were just short of the 50 per cent threshold for turnout demanded by the Trade Union Act.
As a result, PCS is planning to step up our organising work, consult with our branches and activists, and plan for another ballot next spring. In the meantime, we have decided to seek legal advice on whether mandatory postal balloting in a strike ballot is an infringement of Article 11 of the Human Rights Act — the freedom of association.
E-balloting would be secure, safe and would more than likely give a truer and more democratic reflection of whether trade union members want to withdraw their labour.
On top of pay cuts, PCS members have suffered a massive office closure programme and job cuts across the Civil Service. The huge cuts to the services we deliver include the closure of 70 jobcentres, with staff left struggling under outrageous workloads.
With the rollout of universal credit, which the union is calling to be halted, the government has created a crisis in the benefits system with devastating effect on claimants. Some of the most vulnerable people are falling into debt, losing their homes and going hungry.
In PCS we are determined to fight now with everything we have to win better terms and conditions in the workplace. And on the political front, we believe that it is in our members’ interests to elect a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government, committed to a bold vision. We need them to go on the front foot and radically transform this country when the opportunity to govern presents itself.
The social security system was originally conceived of as a collective and secure safety net for those falling on hard times but has been replaced by a system geared around individual responsibility.
Those who find themselves in financial difficulty are expected to take full responsibility for their actions and solve their difficulties themselves, or be vilified and further penalised by sanctions.
This ideological approach started under Thatcher and was entrenched by successive governments. Memories of New Labour’s capitulation to big business interests, and attacks on those claiming benefits, are still vivid for many of us.
Now, rather than Labour being merely the least worst option, it will have the opportunity to take a historic step and set out a socialist vision of a new social security system where no-one falls into poverty through unemployment or disability.
PCS is looking into how, as a non-affiliated union, we can practically support the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government.
One way would be to win the arguments for unity with all those experiencing the effects of austerity and organise them into effective action — this Tory government’s attacks have affected so many that I would guess there isn’t one trade union member who doesn’t have a relative that is unemployed, disabled, working on zero-hours contract or in receipt of some form of benefit.
Alliances of trade unions with the unemployed, disabled people and the dispossessed should now be a key strategic objective for trade unionists.
It is 150 years since the TUC was formed at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester. Trade unions were fighting on the industrial front and came together to begin the fight for working people’s interests in the political arena.
Those ideals of bringing workers and their allies under one roof to fight for fundamental economic and social change must be revitalised at this year’s Congress.
Mark Serwotka is general secretary of PCS.
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