270,000 civil servants strike - a sign of things to come?

The first civil service strike of the recession - but it may not be the last, if the CBI has its way.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

On the day that the CBI again called for the Government to take a more forceful approach to cutting the UK’s ever-growing budget deficit, there was a timely reminder today of the likely consequences of public spending cuts. More than a quarter of a million members of the Public and Commercial Services Union launched a 48-hr strike this morning, in protest over changes to their redundancy package. The chances of them attracting much public support range from slim to minimal (particularly since some staff might still get three years pay). But the upheaval it will undoubtedly cause is surely a sign of things to come…

270,000 civil servants walked out on strike today, making it the biggest industrial action in the public sector for over 20 years; courts, job centres and police call centres are all likely to be affected. The PCS’s beef is with the Government’s plan to cap redundancy pay-offs at £60,000; since these were previously calculated on the basis of a month’s pay for every year worked, that could leave career civil servants more than £20,000 worse off. And given that lots of public sector jobs are likely to go in the coming year, redundancy is obviously a big preoccupation for the union's members at the moment.

Unfortunately for the PCS, they’re unlikely to get much sympathy. Many in the private sector feel that it’s about time the public sector shared some of the recessionary pain. And it’s not like its members are being completely hung out to dry. The Government says the average civil servant earning £30,000 or under – that’s 80% of the total – could still get between two to three years’ pay, which is considerably better than a kick in the teeth. Indeed, the majority of civil servants seem happy enough with it: five of the six civil service unions have signed up to the deal. Even among PCS members, only one in five voted to strike (though that's as many as voted for the Government at the last election, as the PCS points out).

Of course attitudes may harden if the post-election cuts are particularly swingeing and painful. And that may be necessary if the Government heeds the CBI’s advice today and aims to get our house in order by 2015/16, two years earlier than the current plan (which will please the Tories – although the CBI did also warn against cutting too early). D-G Richard Lambert said the Chancellor must use the Budget to ‘set out a convincing, credible pathway for balancing the books’, with a focus on public spending cuts and productivity measures rather than tax hikes.

We can’t see Labour hammering the public sector just before the election. But whoever wins will have to make some unpopular decisions thereafter. So this strike probably won't be the last.


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