As strikes loom, ‘civil servants won’t ever be as popular as nurses but we hope for public support’

Union chief says most people are “supportive of people who they think are standing up for themselves”
Civil servant walking in Whitehall. Photo: Adobe Stock.

By Tevye Markson

16 Nov 2022


Civil servants may not have the "popularity" of nurses petitioning for higher wages, but the PCS union is hopeful that the cost of living squeeze means the public will sympathise with officials as they plan "extraordinary" disruption to public services in a bid to win better pay, redundancy terms and job security.

The union is set to reveal strike dates this Friday after announcing last week that 100,000 civil servants from more than 100 government departments and public bodies had voted to take industrial action.

PCS will go ahead with strikes unless the government puts offers civil servants a bigger pay rise and scraps plans to slash redundancy payments, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said. 

Asked by CSW if he thinks the public will be supportive of civil servants striking and whether he was worried there may be a potential backlash over the disruptions to services, Serwotka pointed to the reaction to the dozens of strikes that have taken place already this year in various industries.

“We’re very cognisant of the fact that all strikes so far have got an unprecedented level of public support,” he said.

“We believe what that reflects is that most members of the public themselves are going through a massive cost of living squeeze, worried about paying their mortgages and paying their rents, and are therefore instinctively sympathetic to people who are getting a raw deal.”

While Serwotka said he does not think civil servants will “ever be on the popularity scale of nurses and health workers”, he added that “most people these days are quite supportive of people who they think are standing up for themselves”.

Speaking at a press conference after the strike was announced, Serwotka said: “We would hope to get the same levels of support as others but, ultimately, the action that we're taking is a last resort and whether it's supported or not, we believe is the only thing we can do to get justice because everything else we've tried, and that includes lobbying parliament, writing to MPs, meeting ministers, has not persuaded them to change course."

Only 'concrete proposals' will avert strikes

PCS has given the government until Friday to respond before it announces strikes and wants “concrete” commitments or it will go ahead with walkouts.

“We've made it clear that we're not interested in getting a letter from the government saying they know it's tough and they want to have some discussions in the future through the Cabinet Office to try and deal with these problems,” Serkwotka said.

“The only thing that will avert industrial action will be if there are concrete proposals. The only thing that will avert industrial action will be if there are concrete proposals”.

For PCS, this means a minimum requirement of making more money available straight away and dropping plans to slash redundancy payments.

“They have to tell us more money is available, " he said. "If they do that, then I think we may well be able to get into a discussion rather than calling a strike. If they indicate there is no money available and they are not going to change their proposals then strikes will be announced next Friday,” he said.

PCS has asked for a 10% pay rise this year for civil servants, a living wage of at least £15 an hour for all civil servants, an immediate 2% cut in pension contributions that civil servants have overpaid since 2018, and no further cuts to redundancy payments. The government has offered an average 2-3% pay rise.

Serwotka said the government "must know that they are giving civil servants less than local government workers, than health workers and than teachers – and in all of those sectors, certainly teachers and in health, we know that what they're offering has already been rejected out of hand."

Nurses have voted to go on strike over the government's 4% pay offer, with their union calling for an inflation-plus-5% rise, which would be a 16.1% bump based on today's retail price index. Similarly, teachers have rejected the government's 5% pay boost and indicated they would be willing to take industrial action to get a pay rise above inflation.

Ministers ‘must intervene’ to resolve dispute

While the union can expect to mostly negotiate with civil servants on pay, Serwotka said the only way the dispute can be resolved is if “political decisions are made to loosen the purse strings”.

“There has to be ministerial involvement because civil servants and senior managers do not have the authority to settle a dispute.

“Ministers often say these are not matters for them. I can tell you categorically that when the DVLA were on strike for months over Covid health and safety, Grant Shapps, the minister for transport, directly intervened and vetoed on three separate occasions a deal that had been done between areas of the management. We know that the [transport union] RMT constantly complain about the role ministers play.”

Serwotka said the most important thing ministers can do to usher in an agreement is “give authority for whoever they choose to send to put proposals on the table”.

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