Mark Serwotka: We can strike again

Mark Serwotka of the civil service union PCS talks to Samira Shackle.

The PCS has made headlines this year as the only one of six unions to reject the Labour government's proposed reforms to the civil service compensation scheme (CSCS), which worsened redundancy terms for many of its members. The union took strike action and called for a judicial review. Two high court rulings found that the proposed changes were unlawful, but the victory didn't last long. At the beginning of July, the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, announced plans to legislate for even less favourable terms, claiming that the PCS was responsible for forcing this action.

I put this to Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS. "It is nonsense," he says. "If that were true, Maude would have legislated for the deal that Labour did, but he didn't: he took the opportunity to go much further. This is a very shallow attempt to try and put people off the scent and buy some political cover."

So has the government now won the fight? "It will be an incredible abuse for an employer - and that's what the government is here - to use parliamentary legislation to try and get around two high court rulings. It is abusing its position to make it much cheaper and easier to sack people en masse."

At the NUT's annual conference in April, Serwotka declared that, if you judged the Labour government on its actions as an employer, it was "the worst government in this country's history". Does this still stand? "At the time I said that, it was without doubt true," Serwotka says. "No previous government simultaneously cut 100,000 jobs, ripped up people's pensions and compensation packages, and introduced pay restraints and privatisation. But from what we're being told to accept and expect of the coalition government, perhaps we will soon have moved on."

There has been acceptance across the political spectrum that cuts are necessary; the debate has centred on when to cut, and how deeply, rather than whether to cut at all. Serwotka says it is "a shame" that there's been such a consensus among the main parties. "It's economically illiterate to cut jobs in the hundreds of thousands - this stops people paying tax and insurance, and gets them claiming benefits. There is a clear alternative: reducing the deficit through income generation, not cuts to spending, and clamping down on the £120bn of evaded and avoided tax."

I ask whether any form of public service reform is justified. "There are reforms we could make, such as the £1.8bn still spent on private consultants," he says. "Lots of political decisions are inefficient and wasteful, but none of those things is on anyone's radar. When people talk about reform, what they mean is cuts and job losses. We believe there should not be any reduction in public spending at all."

Yet Serwotka fears that some of the cuts could reach 50 per cent. The PCS has proved it has no qualms about taking industrial action, so are more strikes on the way? "My view is that industrial action on a wide scale is inevitable, because people will have no choice. In parts of the country with high public sector employment - the north-east, Wales, northern Ireland - there will be an incredible impact."

Serwotka draws attention to how, in 2005, eight unions balloted for simultaneous industrial action over pension entitlements. "The result then was that the government backed down," he says. "All the unions acting together are far more powerful. There are discussions going on at the moment about, if that's going to happen, what's going to trigger it, and how you co-ordinate it and make it lawful. It can clearly be done, because we've done it before."

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right