Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 49 Number 3, March 2, 2019 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers Forum

Civil Servants Aim to Break through
Government's Arbitrary Wage Freeze Policy

On February 6, the national executive committee of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) unanimously decided to hold a ballot of over 120,000 members working in government departments for strike action over pay. The ballot will open on March 18 and close on April 29.

Pay restraint had always been a part of the "social contract" between the representatives in parliament who, in exchange for ruling theoretically "in our name", were supposed to offer security, peace and good governance. In truth, this arrangement has long since gone out of the window, even in theory. Workers are now saying "enough is enough" and "not in our name", while wage freezes are no longer a matter of "restraint" but are imposed arbitrarily.

In the past, social democracy, represented by Harold Wilson's "social contract", restrained wages to support state capitalism and "curb inflation". This and other such attempts failed and were eventually smashed by workers in their struggles over pay. Today, under different conditions, conditions of neo-liberalism in crisis, the policy has been of so-called austerity. Under the banner of reducing the debt and deficit, cuts to the public sector have been and continue to be imposed through arbitrary executive powers, without care for negotiation, beginning with the Cameron coalition's shock-and-awe cuts in 2010. One consequence of this disastrous policy has been a huge widening income gap between rich and poor and a reduction in spending power by most workers.

As a key part of austerity, civil service workers have seen their average pay fall compared to the rest of the public sector by around 10% since 2010. This is not only about cuts, but also part of the restructuring of the state whereby the mechanisms of the civil service and public authority are replaced by a concentration of power in the executive with its arbitrary powers, in the service of private monopoly interests.

The civil service has therefore suffered cuts to departments, staff reductions and falling pay. Civil service pay has consistently lagged behind even local government, health and education, areas which themselves have been experiencing relentless austerity. Despite government rhetoric that that the salary limit had been lifted last year, "a de facto pay cap remained in place," said PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka.

PCS has been campaigning on pay and pensions, pointing out in its aims that a 10% increase is what is needed at present, in contrast to the 1% rise - a cut in real terms after inflation - decided on by the government this year.

On February 15, an analysis commissioned by the union showed that average civil service pay has fallen in value since 2010 by between 9% and 11%, compared to the average salary in the rest of the public sector.

Dr Mark Williams of the University of Surrey said that average annual growth in median pay in the civil service was between 1.1% to 1.9% below inflation since 2010. By 2018, cumulative real pay growth had fallen between 8.6 and 11.4 percentage points behind the rest of the public sector since 2010. The scale of the drop in pay is shown in that, by 2018, median pay in the civil service was between 8.9% and 14.5% lower than it was in 2010 in real terms. This translates to a cumulative loss in pay of between £13,200 and £16,200 since 2010 for a typical employee over this period. [1]

Yet chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, told PCS that there is only 1% available for pay increases. The union has responded to this imposition by announcing its decision to ballot in March for strike and other disruptive action short of a strike, to take place in May.

The workers' demands are for a fully-funded pay rise significantly above the rate of inflation and national pay bargaining across the civil service and related areas. If the strike goes ahead, it will be the biggest strike in the civil service for eight years, since the coordinated pensions' strike of 2011.

The ballot will open on March 18 and run to April 29, a period that overlaps with Britain's withdrawal from the EU. "Never has it been more necessary to have a well-paid and well-funded civil service than at a time of great uncertainty over Brexit," said Mark Serwotka.

The "targeted and sustained strike action will have a significant effect on key government departments," he added. "Ministers need to understand the very real anger that our members feel and seek to immediately reward their staff with a pay rise significantly above the rate of inflation."

[1] PCS, "Analysis shows civil service pay well below rest of public sector", February 15, 2019,
[2] PCS, "PCS to launch industrial action ballot in March", February 6, 2019,


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