Mark Serwotka: Trade union movement must be ‘far more aggressive’ in resisting austerity

Left Foot Forward spoke to the PCS general secretary at the 2022 TUC Congress

Mark Serwotka speaking at TUC Congress

Mark Serwotka has been general secretary of the civil servants’ union PCS for over two decades. In that time, the civil service has changed immeasurably – having experienced brutal cuts and austerity since 2010. Left Foot Forward spoke to Serwotka at the 2022 TUC Congress, at a time when the new chancellor Jeremy Hunt has announced yet another wave of austerity, and as over 150,000 civil servants are being balloted for industrial action, with the union demanding an inflationary 10 per cent pay rise.

Serwotka is confident that PCS members will turn out in sufficient numbers to meet the thresholds required by Britain’s anti-trade union laws to allow industrial action to take place. He says, “Well, there’s 214 ballots, so obviously there’ll be different turnouts in different ones. But if I judge it by the attendance at meetings, the people joining the union – we’ve now got our highest membership since check-off was withdrawn by the Conservatives a number of years ago – looking at the activity levels and what members are saying – I think we have every reason to be confident that we’ll meet the thresholds in the majority of the places that we’re balloting. And that – I think – will reflect an anger of members about the way they’re being treated, but also the fact that people think there’s no alternative now than to take strike action.”

With many of the other unions currently in dispute, there is a regular interaction between the public and the striking workers – whether that be postal workers or railway staff. This has no doubt helped drive the levels of public support behind the strikes. But when it comes to PCS, the workers being balloted are often several more steps removed from obvious relationships with the public. As such, there is a risk that public sympathy will be harder to come by if members do vote to strike.

Serwotka recognises this, but thinks that there is a general recognition that workers need a pay rise. He also thinks the impact of any industrial action will be widely felt, and the wider public will recognise the importance of PCS members in keeping the country running. He says, “I think the popularity of the strikes that we’re seeing is basically because nearly everyone in this country is suffering – they’re suffering with energy prices, massive inflation, wage restraint and the most diabolical government that probably anyone has seen in their lifetime. And I think instinctively, therefore, people now support people when they’re fighting back. Your question about the civil service is a good one, because probably most people don’t think of the civil service other than they think of Yes Minister, Sir Humphreys and pinstripe suits in Whitehall. But when our members take strike action, people will see the job centre is closed, their passport doesn’t come, they can’t have a driving test, they won’t be able to get through the courts and airports in the same way, if there’s a court case it won’t be heard.”

He continued, “The civil service is one of those things that everybody takes for granted and probably doesn’t notice until it’s not there. And whilst the effect of that action will be very disruptive, we believe that people will accept that if you work in a job centre that you actually have to claim the benefits you administer because you’re on poverty pay – you deserve a pay rise, not a pay cut. So we anticipate we will get support, and in many ways the industrial action probably will make the point that a million speeches never get over – which is, you notice the civil service if it isn’t there.”

PCS members are among the workers most effected by public sector cuts and austerity. As such, Jeremy Hunt’s appointment as chancellor and his talking up of further reductions in spending on public services and in government departments is particularly worrying for Serwotka. He says, “So, I think it’s probably worth stating right from the outset: any austerity now would be directly contradictory to any promises any Conservative politician made in general election, in leadership election campaigns. And it would be, frankly, an outrage. The economy has crashed because of their mismanagement, because of their insistence on rewarding the rich. And therefore, the argument for austerity now has no credibility at all.”

He continues, “The wider effects on society of austerity, I think, are the ones that also need to be taken into account. Because I think what we will see is benefits won’t go up in line with inflation, pensions may not go up in line with inflation. Therefore people already struggling are going to find that impossible. We’ll see more pressure on our health service, where we already have people sometimes waiting 12,15 hours in an ambulance – not because of the fantastic workers, but because of under resourcing. We’ll see class sizes grow. We will just basically see areas like local government that have been cut to the bone already – 40% cuts in some Councils […] The Tories claim there’s fat to trim always – it’s always their go to line. Anyone who knows our public services knows that we are struggling at the moment, and the idea of that being squeezed further is actually pretty frightening.”

Many of these comments could have been made by Serwotka over a decade ago, when the first round of austerity was introduced during the coalition government. The trade union movement and the wider left failed to see off the cuts introduced then, and Serwotka is honest about the failure to defeat the austerity drive – saying that lessons must be learnt for this forthcoming fight. He says, “I have made a number of speeches over the years saying that when history is written, the trade union movement will have been seen to have failed in fighting austerity, and we have to learn that lesson. And part of the lessons we have to learn, I think, is leaving individual battles to be fought on their own is a mistake – not joining up the dots between people who are in work and in trade unions, with those campaigns fighting in communities ranging on everything from climate justice to keeping public services open need to be joined up. We need more unity and less division. We don’t need lots of different campaigns calling different demonstrations on different days. We need the maximum amount of cooperation. And basically we’ve got to be far more aggressive.”

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

Image credit: TUC live stream

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