10 June 2005
Strike-happy leader of the 'awkward squad' or arch-pragmatist sticking up for the underdog? Mark Conrad meets PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka
It would be easy to dismiss Mark Serwotka as the outdated unionist firebrand that the anti-trade union lobby, Rightwing media and some MPs perceive him to be. But anyone who spent time with the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, Britain's largest civil service organisation, would realise that he is no self-interested 'dinosaur'.
Sitting in his south London office, an amiable Serwotka laughs off suggestions that he fronts the sort of 'strike-happy' trade union that Britain's middle-class politicos deemed outdated after the infamous winter of discontent of 1978/79.
It is true, however, that he represents the Left of the Labour movement in the twenty-first century. A self-confessed socialist, he is proud he led the PCS's 300,000 members into 800,000 strike days in 2004 (2.7 days each) – a move that drew widespread criticism from ministers and the public alike. His defence is that last year was a high point in the government's 'sustained attack' on its workforce, and he points out that the strikes were only one part of PCS's opposition to 84,000 civil service job cuts (a result of the Gershon efficiency review), public sector wage restraints, enforced pension changes, staff relocations and service delivery reforms.
'The strike-happy label is too simplistic,' he says. 'There are some people who want to believe that the PCS is only interested in confrontation because it creates a them-and-us situation that makes it easier for them to project their view. When our members go on strike, it is very much a last resort. We represent public servants on incredibly low incomes and the withdrawal of their labour is something that we take very seriously because of the financial impact. You do not go on strike without good reason when you earn just £10,000 a year. Critics and ministers need to bear that in mind and ask why so many employees have taken such action.'
Serwotka knows well the financial implications of low-grade civil service work. In 1980, aged 16, he joined the former Department for Health and Social Security in Pontypridd, South Wales. After 21 years as a clerical officer at the Benefits Agency and, later, visiting officer for the BA in Sheffield, he had secured just one promotion and left the civil service payroll on £12,500.
'You can see that I was on the fast track to success,' he grins. 'But, making a serious point, I have firsthand experience of the financial and working conditions that face hundreds of thousands of civil servants and I'm determined to improve the situation.'
This drove him towards unionism. But when Serwotka was elected PCS general secretary in 2000, he realised that his first battle would be with the union itself. The organisation was beset by internal conflicts, characterised by the refusal of his predecessor, Barry Reamsbottom, to accept Serwotka's election victory. The union found itself in court twice in three months, but the issue was finally resolved in Serwotka's favour and he set about overhauling the PCS.
Three years on, the union is beginning to make significant progress. Membership has broken the 300,000 mark – growth of 20% fuelled by what Serwotka describes as 'civil servants' desire for a collective response to government attacks'. What it now represents – a proactive and media savvy union with excellent negotiating and lobbying credentials – is a rare exception to the rule that organisations on 'the Left' must toe a moderate political line to possess clout these days.
An example of Serwotka's success in opposing the government's contentious civil service reforms came last year when, along with his counterpart at Prospect, Paul Noon, he convinced ministers to grant a last-minute reprieve to the Forensic Science Service, which had been earmarked for privatisation.
This is why the strike-happy tag irks. 'I'm clear that when you can't have negotiations or a meaningful dialogue with employers or ministers, it's quite right that members are prepared to take strike action – it's a legitimate part of the union's armoury,' Serwotka says. 'But so increasingly is the use of the law, the press, parliamentary campaigning and negotiating. We do a lot of excellent work in all of those areas now.'
Consequently, the PCS can now draw on the sort of top-level support that many mainstream lobby groups would be proud of. Its parliamentary group consists of 67 MPs, including Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats, as well as heavy backing from Labour's influential Campaign Group.
With this growing support in mind, it's no wonder that Serwotka was re-elected, unopposed, as general secretary earlier this year. He will, however, need that support in the coming months. The Labour government, he says, will continue 'demonising' its own workforce in its third term. He believes Labour has wandered into dangerous territory and there is now growing evidence that its commitment to saving £40bn by 2008 has already hit Whitehall's ability to deliver services.
'We're beginning to assemble a lot of information, from departments like the new Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, which will highlight that the government's reforms are not just about job cuts, but also about what isn't happening to services that should be,' he says.
Examples range from the failure of Revenue and Customs staff to chase bounced cheques because they don't have the time, to the persistent failure of new IT systems to deliver correct benefit or tax credit payments.
'Our fear is that all this will manifest itself in the public's eyes in a worsening of services. If you cut staff, you put at risk service delivery and that could damage this government,' Serwotka warns. 'Even the CBI agrees with us about the potential damage to service delivery.' He addressed the business lobby's conference last September, another sign that all public sector stakeholders have engaged with the 'awkward squad' leader.
However, Serwotka says he opposes the government's 'bias' in favour of businesses when reforming public services. He was also 'terrified' by a line in Labour's election manifesto that points towards extensive use of the voluntary sector to provide job seekers' services. 'It is not the voluntary sector's responsibility. Surely it's a function of the state to deliver welfare benefits funded by taxpayers? As with services provided by the private sector, lines of accountability for that money could become blurred,' he argues.
We can expect the PCS to question and oppose many of the government's third-term plans over the next few months. Serwotka has already called on new Cabinet Office minister John Hutton to make good Labour's pledge to renegotiate cost-cutting changes to civil servants' pensions. He says his members could back moves towards pensions based on an employee's average (rather than final) salary, because 'it's possible that such a system could benefit lower grade staff and assist the battle against poverty pay' across the civil service.
The PCS and other public sector unions have threatened more strike action over the pensions issue. 'We want talks, not a stand-off and strikes, but we'll see if the government is committed to the fresh start it promised.'
A committed family man, Serwotka says most of his spare time is taken up ferrying his two children to and from their various sporting activities. He's also a big Cardiff City fan, but rarely gets to visit his beloved Ninian Park now that he's based in London. Ministers seeking a quiet life during their third term will hope that Serwotka makes the trip away from Westminster more regularly – but that's highly unlikely.
Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union. He will be speaking at the CIPFA conference on Wednesday, June 15 on 'Can we deliver significant improvement in public service efficiency?'