Comrades, come rally – the cuts are Cumming

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Cat Boyd shows how the PCS union is preparing to fight further austerity

Austerity has done more to reshape Britain than any policy programme since Thatcher. Yet by last December’s election, barely a single politician was speaking up in its defence. Labour built its campaign on a promise to end it. The SNP boasted of having opposed it from the start. Even Boris Johnson, convincingly or not, told us he’d spent a decade urging colleagues to ditch it.

It’s a remarkable shift from five years ago, when anti-cuts voices could barely get a hearing in mainstream politics. During those days, parliamentary opposition to cuts was a fringe affair, and it was down to students, community groups and unions to point out the blindingly obvious: cuts were wreaking havoc in working class communities and, eventually, something was going to snap.

My union and its leaders were central to bringing the anti-cuts activism to life back in 2010. We were striking and organising when nearly everyone else had buckled to the cuts consensus. This was essential because, as civil servants, we are among the public sector’s worst paid, most hidden and, thus, most easily victimised workforces.

For us, austerity rolls on regardless, despite the undoubted shift in political rhetoric. Our members’ wages haven’t just fallen – everyone’s wages have in the public sector – they’ve also even fallen by public sector standards. On top of that, job cuts mean working harder for less pay. Our members are set for below inflation pay rises for the next five years, and more job cuts, so living standards will decline further. All of that’s happening under a PM who claims to have known since 2010 that austerity ‘was just not the right way forward’.

It was Brexit that, ultimately, served to make austerity politically toxic. Regardless of how anyone views leaving the EU, the vote represented a deep democratic deficit and an impatience with the status quo of declining services, shrivelling opportunities and soul-destroying, low paid jobs. The same could be said of the Scottish independence movement. Questions about social class are increasingly being expressed in ‘constitutional’ terms: who is in charge, who makes decisions, and does my voice really count?

Our members are keenly aware of these questions too. There’s a growing impatience with the failure of politics to offer effective choices, a problem that will worsen if Labour moves back to the right.

Just as we’re denied agency in politics, so in our workplaces. In last year’s national ballot, PCS achieved a resounding vote for striking, with the highest turnout in our history. But we still fell short of the draconian 50% threshold imposed under recent anti-union legislation. The aim of Tory governments has been to enforce a permanent, inescapable logic of hopelessness and fatalism, and often it seems to be working.

But we now know that we’ll have to fight for ourselves and for our lives. The failure of establishment politics means we must turn our union into a fighting machine again. To break the back of draconian laws, we’ve got to win super majorities through mass participation. That means we’ve got to fill the democratic void and give members the agency they lack in everyday politics.

Many PCS reps I speak to acknowledge that some things must change. Currently, PCS policy is made by UK-wide conferences, yet many legislative decisions like housing and welfare are devolved. In the coming AGM season, branches will be debating motions to tackle this democratic deficit and take on overbearing centralism in all its forms: importantly, we back the right to self-determination that Westminster denies to people in Scotland and our motion to this year’s STUC congress wants to see the establishment of an alternative to the SNP’s Citizen Assemblies.

Austerity, digitalisation, and the government’s estate strategy are fundamentally changing the British civil service. In many areas, PCS reps feel confident and branches are well organised. But with tens of thousands of workers moving into multi-employer hubs, PCS is changing tact as well. We need workplace organisation that brings our members together in maximum unity, on a local basis. We’re building a union of ‘place’ so that where you work, regardless of your employer, gives you a say in campaigning for better pay and job security.

Our members want immediate action on pay and conditions, as our ballots demonstrated. So we are launching a pro-active campaign on fair pay, pensions and redundancy terms. With Dominic Cummings re-imagining our future, we can’t afford to wait and act defensively. From helping reps recruit and retain new members to developing local action teams to bring union democracy closer to home to rolling out new digital organising platforms, we’re preparing for an inevitable showdown.

Politically, we’ll lead against the Tories, working with allies in Labour and the SNP to disrupt Johnson’s agenda. Workplace by workplace, using new technology and old lessons, the civil service will be the key battleground for the unspoken, ongoing austerity agenda of this emerging Tory government. Once again, it’s up to workers and communities to organise the fight against an all-powerful right-wing agenda.

Cat Boyd is the Acting National Officer for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union Scotland and Northern Ireland Hub.

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