Your disobedient servants

Since the beginning of March, Britain’s civil servants have been engaged in a campaign of selective strikes in order to win an increase in the government’s seven per cent wage offer. A group of “white-collar” workers, not normally regarded as militant, find themselves embroiled in the longest national industrial dispute since the General Strike of 1926.


There may have been a time when civil servants, like others who work behind a desk rather than a lathe, considered themselves “middle class” and so above such nasty proletarian vices as trade unions, work-to-rules and strikes. Redundancy, unemployment and wage-cuts might affect the working class, but would never penetrate the cosy inflation-proofed-pension world of the Whitehall bureaucrat. This was never true, of course: in 1931, for instance, a reduction in civil servants’ wages figured prominently in the government’s spending cuts.


Nor is it any truer nowadays. Government ministers have in the same hypocritical breath spoken of civil servants’ supposed job security and of the need for civil service redundancies.


The current dispute is a fight against a wage reduction (any pay “increase” less than the rate of inflation represents a cut in real wages). Like university lecturers, civil servants are finding that they are in no way immune from the ups and downs of capitalism. Like all workers, they are forced to sell their energies (mental or physical) to an employer in return for a wage; if the time comes when the employer has no more use for their labour, they will be dismissed. Working with a pen rather than a spanner makes no difference to a worker’s class position.


But there are ways in which working for the government does make a difference to the course of any dispute. For one thing, state employees, in 1981 as in 1931, must bear the brunt of any government policy on wage “restraint”. Working for the state is no guarantee of favouritism in pay offers. Importantly, too, the resources of the government are so vast as to put them in a far stronger position in any dispute than all but the largest private capitalist concerns. A larger employer has greater resources to fall back on, and is more able to alleviate the losses caused by a strike.


This is not to say, however, that the civil servants’ dispute is having no impact. The unions have, rightly, decided to hit the government where it hurts, in its wallet, by stopping the flow of tax revenue to the Exchequer. It is claimed that over five billion pounds has so far been blocked from getting to the government’s coffers. Selective strike action by air traffic controllers has meant that British Airways has lost forty million pounds. It is financial pressure of this kind that is most likely to force the government to give in.


Unfortunately, financial pressure on the workers may cause them to give in too. The Council of Civil Service Unions consists of nine separate unions, whose tactics so far have been to hold selective strikes, among different branches of the civil service and at different times. Anyone on strike in these circumstances is receiving strike pay from their union. The unions however have inadequate strike funds, and are having to appeal for voluntary strike levies from their members. Even with these, they are paying out more in strike pay than they are getting in. Some union officials believe the government is deliberately suspending some civil servants, thus increasing still further the financial strain on the unions. The alternative would be an all-out strike—without strike pay at all.


The government has appealed to civil servants to call off their action pending the report of the recently announced “independent” inquiry into civil service pay. Like arbitration—another much-favoured solution intended to settle disputes—such inquiries cannot be independent. The members of the inquiry (this one is to be chaired by a retired appeal judge) cannot but take account of government policies and indeed of the entire economic context when they draw up their recommendations. Only the naive would contemplate a “fair and unbiased” outcome in the context of a society where a minority class monopolises the means of production and forces the overwhelming majority to work for a wage in order to live.


The workers involved in any specific industrial dispute must decide for themselves how to conduct it. However, we strongly urge that all action be decided on democratically, by the workers and not by their leaders. In particular, decisions whether or not to strike and whether or not to accept an offer ought to be taken by ballot (we should say that the civil service unions generally are balloting their members on what course of action to follow next). And it should be realised that, during a depression, the odds must be on a victory for the government in any war of attrition. Recognition of this fact is not acceptance of working-class impotence but acknowledgement of one of the basic facts of capitalist life.


Paul Bennett