The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has announced the result of its consultative ballot of members on breaking the 1% pay rise cap in the public sector. On a 49% turnout, members agreed by 99% with the statement that the pay cap should be scrapped and that additional government funding should be made available to provide for an above inflation pay rise. On the same turnout, 79% voted to take industrial action if the government refuses to scrap the cap.
This is the first step in the union's battle to break the 1% pay cap in the public sector. It hopes that, as with it being in the vanguard of the action taken by four unions in the summer of 2011 over pensions which led to the mass strike of 30 November 2011 by some 30 unions and some 2m members, it can help push and pull the greater number of unions into a united and more powerful strike.
Today, as a result of the Tory Trade Union Act 2016, any lawful mandate for striking or industrial action must attain the turnout threshold of at least half of all eligible union members voting. PCS has never obtained a 50% turnout in a national statutory ballot on industrial action. For example, on the pensions strike in 2011, the turnout for its ballot was 32% while two years later its strike ballot on pay, jobs and pensions had a turnout of 28%.
The union held the consultative ballot to a) road test its revised strategy of ever more intense union mobilisation and b) then be able to identify the areas of strength and weakness amongst its membership. It took the decision to hold this consultative ballot in late July 2017 and has since organised an escalating body of pay protests, starting with the HMRC (31 July), then across the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and HMRC (31 August) and then across the civil service including the DWP (29 September, 31 October). Come the statutory ballot for industrial action, PCS will now be able to pour its resources into the weaker areas as well as replicate the tactics of the stronger areas of membership to make sure it passes the 50% turnout threshold.
The significance of this overall approach is several-fold. First, the PCS union has shown it is capable of successful innovation, taking on board some of the practices of the CWU union in its recent ballot (see below). The PCS consultative ballot provides a firm basis from which to move forward to gain a mandate from a statutory ballot.
Second, this successful innovation will be critical to convincing other public sector unions like the new National Education Union (NEU, formed from the ATL and NUT unions on 1 September 2017) that it can do the same, namely, win a statutory ballot under the new thresholds imposed by the Trade Union Act 2016. A number of unions have shown some reticence to move towards national ballots for fearing of not attaining the 50% turnout threshold. In this task, the PCS can also cite the case of the UCU union in support. In mid-October this year, UCU members in universities voted in a consultative ballot by 87% on a 56% turnout to say they would be prepared to take industrial action to defend their USS pension benefits. This followed on from the CWU postal union gaining an 89% vote to strike on a 74% turnout in a statutory industrial action ballot amongst its members in Royal Mail earlier that month.
Third, a collection of unions acting together is then likely to have sufficient leverage when trying to break the pay cap imposed by an increasingly weak, divided and distracted Conservative government and where the main opposition political party, the Labour Party, supports the strikes. This contrasts with the situation in 2011 over the pensions strike where the government was much stronger (even though a coalition) and the Labour Party was against the strikes.
But the challenge, as before, is to create the political consensus among the major unions to schedule their ballots in such a way as to make joint action possible. For example, the NEU has not yet decided to hold a national ballot, consultative or statutory, for action. This presents PCS with a problem - how to maintain the momentum it has now established and how to prepare for its statutory national ballot while at the same time allowing for other unions to play 'catch up'. This problem is all the more pressing given that the lawful mandates for striking and industrial action now only last for six months under the Trade Union Act 2016.