Public Service Work-To-Rule


Since the middle of January civil and public servants have engaged in a work-to-rule in an attempt to force a reversal of the pay cuts announced by the government in the December budget. Across the country workers in government offices, colleges, schools, hospitals etc. are taking action, which they hope will result in a change of government policy.Up to 300,000 public service workers have had their pay cut by up an average of 16% (‘pension levy’ + income levy + pay cut) in just over 12 months and they are rightly angry. They know that the wealthy that caused the financial crisis are getting off scot-free and that government policy is all about making ordinary workers shoulder the cost of the bank bailout, NAMA etc.

It is against this background that the current action is taking place. But while there is an obvious need for a fightback by ordinary workers against these attacks on our living standards, serious questions exist about the nature of the current industrial action.

Firstly, it appears clear that this action is very limited in its scope and seems unlikely to have any real impact on government policy. When the trade union movement took a day’s strike action across the public service on 24th November, we were in a strong position and we’d shown our potential. But this was completely undermined by the subsequent actions of the trade union leadership. (See ‘Trade unionists betrayed by leadership’ from Workers Solidarity 113

If a serious campaign of opposition to government attacks is to be mounted, it will have to involve ongoing and intensive strike action building towards a national strike of all public servants and leading on to a general strike which will unite public and private sector workers against the government and the wealthy. There is no indication that the current limited industrial action will be built upon to formulate such a campaign.

There is however a more fundamental worry about the current action. There is a huge gap between the agenda being pursued by ordinary trade unionists engaged in the work-to-rule and the agenda of the trade union leadership who appear more and more unaccountable and removed from the democratic control of the members. Ask any public servant what the objective of the current action is and s/he will be clear that it is to force the reversal of December’s pay cuts. Ask any public servant for his/her view on the so-called ‘transformation agenda’ which was ‘agreed’ in the pre-budget talks and you’ll find out that there is absolutely no support for it and that it is seen for what it is – an unprecedented attack on the rights and conditions of workers which reverses many of the gains made by the unions over several decades.

However, the attitude of the Public Service Committee of ICTU is somewhat different. Peter McLoone, Jack O’Connor et al believe that the ‘transformation agenda’ is the goal of the current industrial action. They are of the view that we should be attempting to get back to the deal, which was ‘agreed’ and then un-agreed in the days before the budget. Rather than seeing the ‘transformation agenda’ as the attack on members’ working conditions that it is, they attempt to peddle it as a modernising step forward. But what they haven’t done is put this ‘goal’ to a vote of the members and looked for a mandate for the views they espouse.

Neither do they even see the reversal of the December pay cuts as an objective of the current action. Indeed it seems as if they’re itching to get back into talks with government on the ‘transformation agenda’ in the hope that this will avoid even further pay cuts in the 2011 Budget. However if they’ve learned anything from the past few months it should surely be that even the act of participating in such talks will be an invitation to the government to put the boot in even more.

Only one thing will reverse current government policy – a campaign of strong and determined strike action. This is not the agenda being pursued by the trade union leaders so are we simply being toyed with by the current work-to-rule? While recognising that union members are taking action and that this may result in increased confidence in some workplaces, should we be telling the union leaders that we are no longer willing to be pawns in their agenda? We should be taking control of our unions and imposing our own agenda of outright opposition to all attempts to blame ordinary workers for the financial crisis.