PCS conference votes for new strike strategy, including demand for 100,000 more civil service jobs

Union delegates at conference ignore warnings that pivot to new approach could bring pay dispute “back to square one”
PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote speaking at the conference. Photo: Andy Aitchison

By Tevye Markson

22 May 2024

Members of PCS – the civil service’s biggest union – have voted for a change in direction to the union’s national strike campaign, including an added demand to boost the civil service headcount by 100,000.

Delegates at PCS’s annual conference in Brighton yesterday rejected a motion tabled by the union’s national executive committee seeking a more introspective approach following the poor turnout in a recent ballot on strikes, instead voting for a more radical motion submitted by officials in the Home Office Yorkshire branch. 

In doing so, they swept aside warnings from PCS general secretary Fran Heathcote that the change in strategy would bring the union’s pay dispute “back to square one”.

PCS members at just four major departments backed strikes in a ballot that closed earlier this month as part of the union's national campaign over pay and conditions. The union also gained a mandate for strike action at several smaller civil service employers, but most central departments fell short of the 50% turnout needed for industrial action.

The winning proposal asked the NEC to immediately work on a plan for sustained, targeted action on areas which now have a mandate for strike action“where industrial rationale shows the potential to keep pressure on the government”, to “take all necessary action to maintain the mood for action in these areas” and to concurrently re-ballot other areas. 

It called for “the broadest possible campaign, recognising the pending likely change in government, and the need for an early fighting strategy”. This strategy should be determined by “serious analysis of our available leverage”, the motion said.

It also said the campaign should include coordination with sister unions, arguing the Cabinet Office's decision to delay this year's pay remit guidance to coincide with pay guidance for other areas of the public sector opens the door for coordinated campaign action on pay.

The new list of demands include:

  • A 10% pay rise and pay restoration, minimum pay of £15 per hour and additional money to sustain London weighting above this
  • Meaningful national pay bargaining
  • A sliding-scale wage structure that protects civil service wages from falling below inflation and stops AO and AA grades falling below the National Minimum Wage by 1 April each year
  • Halting government plans to cut 72,000 civil servant jobs, instead creating 100,000 new jobs, fighting for effective staffing levels, and setting up a national climate service
  • No office should be closed except with the agreement of the trade unions. Any closure must be “coupled to investment in local civil service offices fit for purpose”
  • Genuinely flexible hybrid working
  • Maintenance of the pre-2016 Civil Service Compensation Scheme
  • Pensions justice

Conversely, the NEC motion – led by Heathcote – had called for a continuation of national negotiations with the Cabinet Office over this year’s pay remit guidance, and the development of a plan for sustained, targeted and levy-funded industrial action based on the demands outlined in the recent ballot. It also put forward the case for retaining the option of calling unpaid strike action in the 62 areas where PCS’s recent ballot won a mandate, provided members in those areas are first asked for consent through consultation.

PCS’s national ballot of 171 government organisations, which took place from March to May, sought support for strike action over demands for a smaller but still chunky list of demands than those now demanded by its members:

  • A cost-of-living rise plus pay restoration
  • Pay equality across departments
  • A living wage of £15 per hour
  • London weighting provision of a minimum £5,000 per year
  • A minimum of 35 days annual leave per year
  • A significant shortening of the working week with no loss of pay

As well as adding to and adapting this list of demands, the approved new direction for the union’s campaign contains no reference to the demands on annual leave and working-week length.

Heathcote warned ahead of the vote that the union would not be able to both press ahead with strike action in departments that won a mandate this week and reballot others with a new demand sheet.

She said there had been a “complete misunderstanding about the lawful basis for a trade dispute today” by those advocating for the winning motion by adding new demands to the national campaign.

“Were we to introduce those new demands at this stage, our previous demands become null and void, as would the mandate we have just achieved in the 62 bargaining areas,” she said.

"We will need to set a fresh trade dispute letter containing fresh demands. We would then need to reballot every single area in the national campaign in order to secure a mandate for any sort of action to pursue those demands. That would be folly because it would take us beyond the timeframe in which any action may be able to influence the pay remit, which would certainly guarantee little progress on pay in 2024.”

PCS confirmed to CSW that it can still strike in areas where it has a mandate from the last ballot. The NEC will discuss the motion in the coming weeks.

The NEC’s defeat on this key issue reflects a growing disillusionment with the current regime, which saw the PCS faction that Heathcote is part of lose more than half of its seats and its majority. An alliance of factions and independent activists which support a change in strategy now has a majority on the new NEC.

The motion approved by conference mentioned some of the reasons for this  dissatisfaction. It stated that the failure to get more areas to cross the 50% threshold in the recent ballot was “a direct result of NEC dishonesty” in the summer 2023 consultation on how to continue with the national campaign.

During the debate, many delegates criticised the consultation, saying the wording had asked members to back both a continuation of the national pay campaign and a pause to action. The motion also accused the NEC of taking “the first thing the government offered" – the pro-rata, non-consolidated, one-time payment of £1,500 – and ending its campaign. 

The winning motion also asked the new NEC to consider how to “resist the assault on equality, diversity and inclusion in the civil service, including by opening a dispute with the government and including this as part of the national campaign”, referring to Esther McVey’s announcements last week

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