The civil service’s biggest union has decided to boycott 2023-24 pay talks with departments, with its chief calling the pay process a “farce”.
PCS members voted to refuse to enter delegated pay talks with individual employers at the union’s annual conference yesterday.
At PCS’s conference in Brighton, members also agreed to try to work more closely with other civil service unions. They also decided to stick to PCS’s strategy so far of combining all-out one-day strikes with targeted multi-day action, rather than escalating it by calling three days of national strikes each month.
No talks until ‘more money on the table’
While pay for senior civil servants is set by ministers based on recommendations by the Senior Salaries Review Body, pay for all other grades is delegated to departments.
Individual employers are responsible for negotiating the annual pay remit with their recognised trade unions but must stick to the annual delegated pay framework set by central government.
For 2023-24, the Cabinet Office has said civil servants should receive average pay rises of 4.5%, plus 0.5% for the lowest paid officials.
“We felt for a long time that it’s a farce, because [employers] have no freedom to negotiate,” said Serwotka, who last week announced plans to step down in January.
“We are boycotting those talks by saying we're not interested in talking to individual employers until the government gives more money.”
Prospect, which represents specialists in the civil service including engineers and scientists, has also confirmed it is not currently engaging in any delegated pay talks with departments.
Unions working alone ‘not enough’
PCS delegates – representing members at the conference – also agreed to try to coordinate strike action with other civil service unions, as well as unions across the public sector.
Prospect members have been taking industrial action since mid-March, while senior civil service union the FDA is gearing up to ballot its members over strikes.
“There is clearly more agreement in moving forward,” Serwotka said. “And certainly if there's a chance of any coordinated action with Prospect and the FDA, we’d be very interested in talking to them.”
“We're also clear that talking to other unions is equally important,” Serwotka added.
PCS civil servants have already coordinated several national strikes with unions for teachers, doctors, nurses and rail staff. PCS and Prospect have also walked out at the same time, with both holding all-out strikes on 15 March, though this was not coordinated.
Asked by CSW why PCS is only now seeking to collaborate with other civil service unions, Serwotka said: “We’ve gone at different paces. My take is that the government has been so outrageous that unions who have [historically] been less willing to take action have now been so utterly appalled about the way that they are treated that their members have now concluded they need to do that as well."
Serwotka said PCS can, on its own, force government to give civil servants parity with other public sector workers “because they know they're vulnerable politically". He said ministers "can't justify" civil servants being offered worse conditions than other public servants, referring to the government offering backdated pay deals to teachers and health workers for 2022-23.
But he said getting the government to budge on its 2023-24 offer to raise pay by around 5% for most public sector workers will require “quite a lot of cross-public sector collaboration”.
“If you've got 11 health unions signed up to 5%, they will take some shifting. I think they can be shifted but I think one union on its own won’t do that. So we think civil service unions are important,” he said.
PCS members reject “hard hitting” escalation
Earlier this month, PCS extended its strike mandate in 106 government departments and public bodies, which means they can go on strike for another six months. Serwotka said he is confident the union can keep up sustained industrial action until Christmas.
At the conference, PCS delegates – representing the union’s more than 100,000-strong membership – backed the National Executive Committee’s motion to press on with its campaign of combining targeted and all-member strike action to keep pressure on the government over pay, pensions and job security.
The approval of this strategy meant alternative motions seeking an escalation in the dispute – such as committing to three days of national strikes every month and including action short of a strike on future ballots – were rejected.
Members calling for intensified action said the union “needs to be more hard hitting” and questioned whether it is fighting “the most effective, most vigorous campaign possible”.
But the NEC said calling three days of national action a month would “demonstrate a callous disregard to the conditions all members are finding themselves in” due to low pay and the cost-of-living crisis. And Serwotka – who is backing PCS president Fran Heathcote to be his successor – said adding ASOS to the ballot would risk reducing the number of areas backing strikes.
Any individual branch in the union is able to hold its own ballots on ASOS but only Defra has done so far. More than 3,000 PCS members in Defra and three of its agencies began action short of a strike in April.