Coverage of strikes is currently in vogue thanks in large part to the rail strikes. How a strike comes about however, is little remarked upon. Far from simply springing out of the ground ready for government ministers to condemn and the shadow cabinet to prevaricate over, strikes take a huge amount of organisation and thought on the part of trade unions as to when and where to launch action. To gain an understanding of what it takes to organise an effective ballot, I spoke with Paul O’Connor, Head of Bargaining at the Public and Commercial Services Union about the upcoming strike ballot in the civil service.

The PCS faces a situation not dissimilar to the one confronting the RMT, where they are nominally negotiating with each train operating company individually, but in reality, are trying to get the Department for Transport to come to the table. O’Connor explained that the dispute is complicated by the “Smoke and mirrors” of the government. On the surface, the PCS negotiates with the Cabinet Office over issues such as pensions, but pay and job issues are theoretically delegated to each department. The Cabinet Office issues a pay remit guidance each year (this year they set it at two percent) and departments do not tend to stray from it, and Ultimately, the treasury has a substantial say too. The bureaucracy is the point.  

To get the Cabinet Office to engage in meaningful negotiations, the PCS feel that strike action is necessary. While this is primarily a pay dispute, there are other issues that have aggravated the PCS membership. These are the proposed 91,000 job cuts, an attack on the terms of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (essentially a redundancy scheme). The PCS also feel that the pension scheme has been under-funded by 2% each year. Essentially, PCS members, much like the vast majority of workers, are facing the immediate consequences of the cost-of-living crisis, the medium-term prospect of losing their job, and pension devaluation for those that remain employed. 

The PCS has approximately 180,000 members and, according to O’Connor, 8,000 volunteer representatives on its books. This works out at a ratio of approximately one rep to twenty-five members, a ratio most unions would kill for.

O’Connor explained that due to U.K. anti-union laws, a union must give the employer seven days’ notice that they are conducting the ballot and the balloting window must be at least three weeks long. However, because of the size of the workforce being balloted, the PCS has decided to lengthen the ballot to six weeks. Alongside this, a union must check that all the contact details for members are up to date, as a union must be able to demonstrate that it has not inadvertently excluded any members from the ballot. 

To this end, the PCS have deemed it necessary to conduct one-to-one conversations with every member, to ensure that they have been consulted about the ballot and that their contact details are fully up to date. To do this, the PCS have used a mixture of in person conversation and virtual communications performed by a mixture of paid officers and volunteer lay representatives.

As part of “Upping our game on the digital end of our operation” O’Connor explained that, alongside the normal production of leaflets, stickers, and other advertising materials, the PCS have developed what is essentially a digital organising app that allows users to note when an individual member has been spoken to about the ballot. 

Interestingly, the hybrid working ushered in by the pandemic has brought both challenge and opportunity to workplace organising. O’Connor was keen to stress that there are many civil servants who are working in person full time, such as at the Department for Work and Pensions, which is using ‘archaic’ working practices. The drawbacks of the spread of hybrid working, other than visits from Jacob Rees-Mogg, are that the union would normally have had reps walking around the workplace talking to each of the members. However, the benefit of it has been that it has facilitated mass-meetings that can be held at times more convenient to many members.

PCS have decided to conduct the ballot on a disaggregated basis, meaning that while the dispute is national, there will be a separate ballot at each of the separate Civil Service departments or employers. The rationale behind this is that because of the varying spread of membership, the PCS may get a strong turnout (above the legally mandated fifty percent) at some branches but not others, and it would be a shame to waste a strong turnout in one part of the civil service because the national turnout was not past fifty percent. The choice between aggregated and disaggregated is one that all public sector unions will have to grapple with in the autumn.

I put it to O’Connor that the PCS is, in terms of balloting, in a stronger starting position that many public sector unions as when the union conducted an indicative ballot in March of this year (before the onset of high inflation) the PCS achieved a 45.2% turnout with 80.7% in favour of strike action. While he acknowledged this was a decent position for the union to be in, he was keen to stress that because the hurdles presented by trade union legislation are so high, he would not feel confident until a successful ballot was delivered. 

After he had explained how the PCS were planning to organise a ballot, I then asked O’Connor about what shape the action could take. He explained that one benefit of disaggregated ballots was that different departments could stage strike action at different times to better enable them to disrupt their specific patterns of work. A successful strike ballot is valid for six months. To this end, should negotiations be unsuccessful, the PCS plan to launch “Targeted sustained action” at different points in the calendar year and are “Actively speaking to our reps and members on the ground to identify where those pressure points are”, as the people who do the work will know how best to disrupt it. 

O’Connor gave the example of how the best time for members working in border services to strike would be during school holidays as this would cause mass disruption, as is demonstrated by the coverage current disruption at the border receives without strikes.

The PCS’s staggered strike action can be seen as a consequence of the artificial fragmentation of the dispute that is being imposed by the Cabinet Office. It remains to be seen if the PCS will meet the balloting threshold and, after that, if their action will be successful. Should they meet the balloting threshold, the PCS could be the first of a wave of public sector unions striking in the autumn (the NEU, RCN, and BMA have all committed to balloting). The progression of their dispute will be highly significant for the rest of the public sector, not just PCS workers. Coverage of strikes would improve greatly if more attention was paid to how they come about, not just what they disrupt when they occur.