Civil servants’ strike ‘start of guerrilla war’

PCS union warns of further action as thousands of staff stage walkout amid ongoing dispute over pay and conditions

Tens of thousands of civil servants, including staff in jobcentres, courts and driving test offices, are staging a half-day strike on Friday afternoon in what the head of their union, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS), said was likely to be the start of a “guerrilla war” of intermittent industrial action.

Members of the PCS will start walking out from 1pm, also affecting Whitehall offices, government agencies and museums, in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, told the Guardian that while the dispute was primarily about pay restraint, job cuts and changes to pension contributions and employment conditions, the specific trigger for the strike was the government’s reluctance to talk about these issues.

He said: “In that perfect storm for us the overarching grievance that has really forced our hand is that they have refused to sit down and talk about any of it. If we were in a dialogue we wouldn’t be taking any action. The problem is there’s no dialogue and their attacks are happening. Faced with that we concluded that doing nothing wasn’t an option.”

The union was being told, Serwotka said, that any talks would have to be with the heads of specific departments and agencies, who had no power to change anything: “They’re not talks at all. They’re just about how they’re going to implement things we profoundly disagree with. Our argument is that there must be negotiation at the centre, where the decisions are made.”

The Driving Standards Agency says it is “doing everything it can” to make sure tests this afternoon go ahead, and is advising people to come along as planned.

Serwotka said he expected the strike to be well supported: “We know that in job centres they are expecting people to up and leave at 1pm, so they’ve cancelled all the appointments.”

Planned action at the Home Office and UK Border Agency were initially rescheduled after staff were told they would lose a day’s pay for even a half-day walkout, and then cancelled after a legal challenge.

Such tactics, Serwotka said, were likely to inflame tensions: “I think you’re going to see a real guerrilla war going on over the next few months, where we will target ministers visiting workplaces with demonstrations, we’ll have short walkouts that are meant to be disruptive as well as broader campaigning work with other unions.”

The decision to begin strikes was made last month after a 61% vote in favour by members, with a turnout of 28%.

The dispute was as bad as any he could remember, Serwotka said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in such a difficult situation. That’s bad enough if they talk to you about it. But if they sit in their bunker it requires a different pace of opposition,” he said.

This week the country’s biggest trade union, Unite, raised the notion of a 24-hour general strike against wider government austerity measures, which unions argue unfairly target poorer people and are causing the economy to stagnate.

Serwotka said that while the PCS shared worries about austerity, Friday’s strike was more specific. “This is a dispute with the government only in the sense of it being the employer,” he said.

The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, called the strike “futile, counterproductive and irresponsible”. He said: “It benefits no one, but threatens the services people rely on, at a time when we should all be working together to support growth and build the economy.

“I can reassure the public that the government is doing everything we can to minimise disruption today. Rigorous contingency plans are in place to limit the impact of the strike action and to ensure that affected public services operate as effectively as possible.”

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