Public Sector Workers Are Fighting for a Pay Rise

After years of stagnant wages, public sector workers won’t take the cost of living crisis lying down – it’s time to fight for the pay rises staff deserve, writes Mark Serwotka

PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka says that public sector workers are preparing to fight for the pay rise staff deserve (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The country is facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis and this government is knowingly making it worse. Millions of people, including many in the public sector, are feeling the pinch like never before. We need to come together as a movement to end this injustice and ensure workers can live and work in dignity.  

With a catastrophe unfolding before them, this government has no intention of alleviating the pressure on household incomes. In fact, they’re hell-bent on plunging people even further into misery. Take members of my union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), as a prime example. PCS is the largest union representing civil servants and our members were recently given the devastating news they will be given pay rises on average of just 2 percent. 

Pay cuts for Covid heroes

With inflation now hitting a thirty-year high of 7 percent and certain to rise further, this is a minimum 5 percent real-terms cut to their pay. At a time when our members are struggling to feed their kids and heat their homes, this pay offer is scandalous.

Our calculations show that this cruel pay cut will see members losing out by at least £2,800 a year. This is a huge amount of money for anyone, not least hardworking civil servants who have been battered for over a decade by incessant attacks on their pay, pensions and terms and conditions. Since 2011, their living standards have dropped by an astonishing 20 percent. Far from making up for the appalling treatment our members have endured for over ten years, this government is making them suffer more.

This latest pay offer is already offensive enough were it not for the immense sacrifices made by civil servants over the past two years. During the pandemic, they went above and beyond the call of duty, often at risk to their safety, to ensure the public could use the essential services they rely on. 

From processing unprecedented Universal Credit applications, to the administration of the Job Retention Scheme, to keeping ports and airports Covid secure, our members were on the frontline alongside other key workers keeping this country going at a time of national uncertainty. To reward this dedication and commitment with a massive pay cut is contemptible.

Not content with denigrating our members with outrageous pay cuts, government ministers and senior Tory MPs went out of their way to disparage PCS members further. Efficiencies Minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has been making calls for more workers to return to offices, despite many workers demonstrating they can do their job from home. And Tory Grandee Sir Graham Brady implied that people haven’t been working when he said ‘it is simply unacceptable for so many of our public servants to continue sitting at home.’ The total disdain they have for workers is despicable. They not only relentlessly attack workers’ living standards but they throw insults at them to boot. It’s grotesque.  

You only have to look across the rest of the public sector to see that this is an all too familiar story. Pay has plummeted across the board: in the past decade, nurses’ pay has been cut in real terms by £6,000; teacher’s pay has been cut by 14 percent since 2010 and college and university staff have seen their pay fall by 25 percent and 30 percent respectively. And just as Tory MPs insulted our members, Michael Fabricant shamefully attempted to defend the Prime Minister’s lawbreaking by claiming ‘many nurses and teachers also broke the law.’

These workers, who were rightly lauded as Covid heroes, will be hoping that their efforts during the past two years will be rewarded—but they shouldn’t hold their breath. The Civil Service Pay Remit, which sets pay for the grades that PCS members are in, confirmed the 2 percent pay rise last month. This meant civil servants were one of the first set of public sector workers to have their pay offer for the next year. So if the government’s pathetic response to the crisis facing our members is anything to go by, the rest of the public sector should be prepared for the almighty pay betrayal that is heading their way.

This view is shared by the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, who in response to the civil service pay remit said ‘2 percent for civil servants in face of [forecast] 8 percent inflation and a decade of pay cuts. Probably not a good sign for other public sector workers’. Setting such a low benchmark for public sector pay amid a cost of living crisis—the likes of which many have never seen before—should galvanise us all.

Fighting back

That’s why joint campaigning with unions across the public sector will be crucial. Our members have let their feelings be known: in a recent consultative ballot on pay, they delivered the highest yes vote for industrial action and the second-highest turnout in the union’s history and we plan to move to a statutory ballot in the autumn. I do not doubt that this strength of feeling is replicated across the public sector and we need to channel it into a campaign that can win for members.

The louder our collective voice, the better. We need as many people as possible at the national TUC demo in London on 18 June. By then, the government could be in total disarray in the wake of poor local election results and the publication of Sue Gray’s report, which is expected to push the Prime Minister even closer to the brink. 

We need the commitment of bold action to include the Labour Party, which has so far offered next to nothing for public sector workers to feel even remotely encouraged by. I was recently on Question Time, where Kate Andrews, formerly of the Adam Smith Institute and the IEA, made the argument that pay should be suppressed to stave off further inflation. It was disappointing to see Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves make similar remarks when asked if she would support an above-inflation pay rise for the public sector. It goes without saying, but Labour’s would-be Chancellor shouldn’t be toeing the same line as free-market fanatics like the IEA.

After everything they’ve been through, workers are on the precipice and are facing a year like no other. The time for action across the labour movement has never been greater. If we stand together to take the fight to this abhorrent government, there’ll be no stopping us.