Will civil servants take strike action? PCS to launch strike ballot over pay amid threats of major job losses

Photo: Kim Mogg/NationalWorld
Liz Truss will be reliant on a demoralised and borderline-mutinous civil service to ‘deliver’ her agenda

When Liz Truss took to the stage on Monday to address the Tory faithful in the room and the wider country watching at home, she revealed what she no doubt hopes will be the key theme of her time in power.

She said the party would need to, “show that we will deliver over the next two years,” to  “deliver a bold plan to cut taxes and grow our economy…deliver on the energy crisis” and the NHS, and “deliver for all the country”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I know that we will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver” she said, “and we will deliver a great victory for the Conservative Party in 2024.”

And with the multitude of overlapping crises facing the country, Truss will of course need big solutions, but more importantly she will need them to be implemented effectively and at pace.

The development of these solutions will be down to politicians and their advisers, but tasked with delivering them, as well as the ongoing running of day-to-day government function and services, will be the civil service.

‘Hard to underestimate the anger’

But this focus on delivery seems to run counter to government plans to cut 91,000 jobs from the civil service, restoring staffing back to 2016 levels - this despite many areas of government already struggling to operate effectively, with well-publicised issues in the passport service, borders and more.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Dave Penman, general secretary of the senior civil servants union FDA, has spoken out about the inevitable impact of such deep cuts to staffing levels.

“Ultimately, the Government can decide to cut the civil service back to 2016 levels,” he said, “but it will also then have to choose what the reduced civil service will no longer have the capacity to do. Will they affect passports, borders or health?”

It will not help matters either that Truss, along with her leadership rival Rishi Sunak, spent much of the last few months trashing civil servants, with the new PM only forced into a u-turn on a controversial policy which would have reduced pay for public sector workers outside of London when ‘red-wall’ Conservatives began to grumble.

In addition, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new business secretary, has been waging a high-profile campaign against home working in the civil service, seeking to portray those workers who’ve moved to flexi-work as shirkers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Penman is among those who’ve hit back at Rees-Mogg’s criticisms, falling short of naming him but alluding to “luddites in Cabinet” who “insist on micromanaging the civil service”.

These consistent attacks, alongside a below-inflation pay offer, a cut to their redundancy packages worth more than 20% and the serial underfunding of pensions in recent years, have left morale across the civil service at an all-time-low, according to union sources.

Responding to the announcement of changes to the redundancy terms last month, Mike Clancy of the Prospect trade union said: “As the country faces economic and energy crises, that the government should prioritise seeking to reduce civil service redundancy terms says it all.

“No other employer, public or private, would propose reducing redundancy terms at the same time as savage job loss proposals and do so with the aim of reaching agreement.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Some in civil service unions hope that the incoming PM’s attacks on civil servants and threats to wield the axe may have been more a tactic to win over Conservative members than genuine priorities.

But either way, Truss inherits a civil service full of workers who are struggling with the rising cost of living, insulted by below-inflation pay offers and demoralised from being scapegoated for the chronic failures of government.

As a result they could well be ready to launch a campaign of highly disruptive strike action in the winter, with union sources reporting that it is “hard to underestimate the anger” among many workers.

Indeed, Truss almost encountered strike action within government on her first days in office, with a scheduled two days of strike action by outsourced cleaners, security guards and others at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy only averted at the last minute after PCS members won "significant" concessions from ISS, the private firm which employs the workers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Further action will take place at BEIS later this month unless a full agreement is reached, in a small preview of the kind of disruption that could spread across Whitehall and all government in the months that follow.

Civil servants skipping meals due to cost of living crisis

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, which represents around 180,000 civil servants in a variety of roles, has expressed hope that Truss will scrap the job cut plans, but stressed his unions readiness to take her on if not.

“The new Prime Minister must realise cuts have consequences,” he said, “and if she comes for our hard-working members’ jobs and working conditions, she’ll face opposition every step of the way.”

Workers are outraged at a pay offer of 4.5%, up slightly from the 2% previously put forward, but still lagging way behind inflation.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The ‘insulting’ offer comes after 11-years without a real-terms pay increase has left many workers struggling, even before the recent cost of living crisis exacerbated the issue.

A survey of PCS members found that 52% are worried about losing their home, 40% have had to use credit to pay for essential shopping and more than one in three have skipped meals because they had no food.

The impact of these cuts will not only be felt by individuals, but also in the delivery of services which Truss is set to rely on, with the survey also finding that 37% of respondents are looking for a job outside the civil service.

PCS is set to launch a ballot on industrial action over pay later this month, with the union calling for a 10% pay rise, a Living Wage of at least £15 an hour and an immediate 2% cut in worker pension contributions - which the union says have been overpaid since 2018.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

They’re also demanding a job security agreement and no further cuts to redundancy terms, which have been slashed by up to 25%.

The plans, originally pushed in 2017 but rebuffed thanks to legal action taken by public sector unions, will see payments limited to three weeks pay per year of service (down from a month) and capped at 18 months’ salary for voluntary redundancy (down from 21) or nine months for compulsory redundancy (down from 12).

The ballot will involve a major organising effort on behalf of the union, which has committed to engaging one-to-one with all members ahead of the vote, with the result expected 7 November.

Although members from right across the civil service will be consulted, ballots will be separated by employer or department, meaning turnout and support thresholds will only need to be met within each rather than as a whole in order for industrial action to take place.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The result, if workers back action in significant numbers, could be rolling strike action targeted at different times in different departments, with the aim of maximising impact around ‘choke-points’ such as the school holidays.

PCS ran a consultation earlier this year which returned a result of more than 80% in favour of industrial action with a turnout of 45%.

If the industrial ballot is successful, it will give the union a six-month window in which to take industrial action, meaning the much-touted “hot-strike summer” could well bleed into an autumn of action and a winter of discontent.

Job cuts equivalent of ‘closing ten government departments’

Both PCS and FDA have put forward motions to the upcoming TUC congress condemning the proposed job cuts and calling for support from the wider trade union movement.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In a motion which calls on the TUC’s General Council to support public sector unions in highlighting the impact of the cuts and call on Liz Truss to abandon the proposals, the FDA describes the cuts as “a cynical political stunt to generate headlines and give the impression of a functioning executive”.

And in one of several motions to be put before the congress which calls for cooperation between unions to fight against the cost-of-living crisis, PCS states that the plan to cut 91,000 jobs would “equate to closing ten government departments and mean large scale reductions in services”.

There has already been a significant uptick in industrial action in response to rampant inflation, with rail workers, criminal defence barristers and refuse workers among those launching large-scale action in recent months, and further ballots likely across many industries.

Civil servants are far from the only public sector workers weighing up strike action, with workers across the NHS set to reject a below-inflation pay offer, and ballots currently out among teachers and university lecturers.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The CWU, which is at the centre of two of the largest strikes so far this year at Royal Mail and BT, has been pushing for the TUC to take a more active role in coordinating industrial action across sectors and unions.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.