PCS union: Civil service strikes will maximise disruption – but protect benefits claimants

Cabinet Office walkouts could have government-wide impact, but union promises to tread carefully at DWP
Serwotka warned of "extraordinary chaos" at ports. Photo: Stephen Power/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

15 Nov 2022

PCS says it will choose its strike targets "very carefully" to cause as much disruption as possible whilst protecting those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

After around 100,000 civil servants from 126 public bodies voted in favour of strike action last week, PCS has given the government until Friday to come up with a sufficient offer to prevent industrial action.

General secretary Mark Serwotka has warned of the potential for “extraordinary disruption" at the port of Dover, Heathrow Airport and other major ports. Speaking at a press conference following the announcement of the strike ballot, he also picked out HM Passport Office and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency as areas where strikes could have a big impact.

Civil service strikes could also include Cabinet Office walkouts whose impact would be felt across government, he added.

These levels of disruption are necessary if the strikes are to have an impact, Serwotka said.

“The purpose of industrial action is that people notice, it is designed to put pressure on the people on the other side of the table to treat you more reasonably,” he said.

“So obviously the action we're taking we want to have the maximum effect.”

However, due to the potential impact on vulnerable people, Serwotka said the union would more cautious in planning strikes at the Department for Work and Pensions, where 88% of voting members backed industrial action. He said the union has “no intention of wanting to be in a position of disrupting people who are on welfare getting payments to keep their heads afloat”.

Backlogs, benefits and national security – how vital services could be hit

The union chief pointed to two organisations that have been battling backlogs since the Covid-19 pandemic – HMPO and the DVLA – when giving examples of areas where strikes could have a big impact. The agencies have struggled to keep up with demand for passports and driving licences, respectively, since the early Covid lockdowns.

PCS previously took industrial action at the DVLA's Swansea campus last year, which the agency blamed for the September 2021 backlog peak of 1.6 million cases. Union members at the DVLA overwhelmingly backed strike action in the latest ballot, with 94% of votes in favour.

The Passport Office had a backlog in June of more than 500,000 cases and Teleperformance, which provides its customer-service hotline, was fined earlier this year for poor results. Nine in ten votes from PCS members at the Home Office, where HMPO is based, supported strike action.

Serwotka also warned that strikes in some parts of the civil service – namely the Cabinet Office – would affect other areas of government.

“There are members in the Cabinet Office who, were they take industrial action, are key to security vetting and IT processes that can have an effect across government,” Serwotka said.

United Kingdom Security Vetting, which carries out the government's security clearances,  is part of the Cabinet Office. The Central Digital and Data Office, which sets cross-government digital, data and technology strategy and standards, also sits in the Cabinet Office.

While Serwotka said the union would try to avoid negatively affecting those receiving welfare payments, he said industrial action could anyway have the opposite effect.

Industrial action at DWP can lead to “some of the stringent [hoops] people have to jump through to get their benefits” being dropped in anticipation of there being less staff available, he said – thus making it easier for people to access the benefits they are entitled to.

Quickly, carefully and in partnership – the PCS strategy for strikes

Civil service strikes will aim to show the importance of the work government officials do in a quick but careful way, Serwotka said. 

“Our members keep the wheels of this country running and yet the civil service is always the most neglected and least thought of part of the public sector,” he said.

“And it follows that if they withdraw their labour for anything like an extended period of time, it will have an effect. What we will seek to do is to roll out that action in a way that demonstrates that very quickly to the government but seeks to choose our targets very carefully.”

Serwotka said PCS's strategy will coordinating with other unions that are taking indutrial action, because having a million workers on strike, rather than 100,000, creates "a different political pressure on the government that is harder for them to ignore".

This could also mean civil servants from a relevant department joining another unions' strike, Serwotka said. For example, PCS members who work at National Highways and in the Department of Transport could join transport unions RMT and ASLEF in disruption on the rail network, he said.

Serwotka said the union ultimately wants to “make sure that if people are losing money and making a sacrifice, it's for a purpose”.

“There is no point protesting and just having one day strikes the government just ignores. We need to believe that they have an incentive to settle the dispute,” he added.

The PCS chief also revealed that the union already has £4m to support strikers and it will be asking members to help top this up so that workers on picket lines can last up to the legal limit of six months.

While the union is preparing its impact, the government is trying to do the opposite.

Last week, the Cabinet Office said it was undertaking preparations to “minimise” the impact of civil service strikes. This includes the central department taking oversight of public services such as passports and benefits to ensure “high-quality planning and preparations”. Cabinet Office ministers were “personally overseeing and coordinating the process", a spokesperson said.

Responding to Serwotka's comments, a government spokesperson said: “We regret this decision and remain in regular discussion with unions and staff.

“As the public would expect, we have plans in place to keep essential services running and minimise any potential disruption if strikes do go ahead.

“The public sector pay awards are a careful balance between delivering value for money for the taxpayer and recognising the importance of public sector workers.”

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