PCS Scottish Government branch banner at strike rally on 1 February 2023. PCS Scottish Government branch banner at strike rally on 1 February 2023. Photo: James Black

Robert Anderson argues that the reality  of the latest pay offer is not anywhere near good enough and union members must take a stand against it

After several months of dispute over pay, Scottish civil servants in the PCS union are at a crucial juncture. We are taking action over real terms loss of pay going back years and particularly acute given the present rates of inflation. In November 2022, Scottish government ministers imposed a 5% backdated and non-consolidated pay award for 2022, which was several months late and which included workers’ pay progressions in the figures. So there was even less new or permanent money on the table than even this figure. At a time when inflation had breached 10%, this was a massive real terms pay cut, which has in fact been the norm in the civil service in recent years. The offer also only committed to extending the no compulsory redundancies guarantee until 31 March 2023.

This initial offer and the ministers’ decision to impose it, despite PCS officials rejecting the offer, led to workers across the Scottish civil service striking for the first time in several years, on 1 February and 15 March this year. 

PCS membership grew massively during and immediately after the successful ballot for strike action, with an impressive turnout across the Scottish sector. There has been a lot of energy on the picket lines, with a growing discontent over the continued mistreatment and disrespect of civil servants, who worked right through Covid to help keep the country going. 

There are many workers in the lower rungs of the civil service – overworked and underpaid – who have had to sign up for universal credit and rely upon food banks. This is utterly disgraceful and incoherent with the Scottish government’s own messaging regarding the cost-of-living crisis: how can it let down its own workers so severely?

Last week the union leadership recommended a derisory pay offer negotiated with Scottish government ministers and, then opened a ballot on the offer the very next day, before any members’ meetings had taken place to discuss it and to see a clear breakdown.

This offer itself is an affront to workers who are increasingly overworked and underpaid. The pay award itself is no more than a £400 consolidated backdated uplift for a handful of pay bands, and only applicable to people earning less than £36k per annum. This pitiable offering smacks of divide and conquer, again refuses to consolidate the bulk of the imposed offer late last year and still, ridiculously, includes pay progression.

All of this has resulted in lots of confusion, even after the proposed pay grade details were released. The proposed deal may even result in workers who currently help the organisation by carrying out Temporary Responsibility Supplement (TRS) roles owing money as a result.

Ministers have also committed to ‘draw up a detailed plan’ to deliver pay coherence for the two lowest pay grades by 2024/25, which is arguably the most insulting aspect of the offer, given PCS has just won Scottish Parliament staff a minimum wage of £15 an hour.  Naturally the Scottish sector is significantly bigger, meaning this would cost ministers more, however it shows the inconsistency of their position. 

The agreement celebrates a 1-year pilot of one hour’s ‘well-being credit’ for workers on 37-hour weeks. This can be broken up throughout the week, is to be used at the discretion of your line manager and shouldn’t ‘affect the needs of the business’. This is risible when you consider that much of the Scottish sector is already on a 35-hour week and it means nothing to workers who have lost two days’ pay on strike. Unless of course they intend to back-date the wellbeing credits and give us 52 hours extra off this year!

The only respectable aspect of the new offer is the commitment to extend the no compulsory redundancy guarantee to 31 March 2025. This, however, goes nowhere near what members need and have been campaigning for since November.

The communication of the offer by the union – conducting only a top-down overview before opening the ballot – compounded the confusing way in which the offer was put to workers by their civil service employers. The employer is attempting to coerce and threaten workers into accepting the pay offer, by stating that it will be withdrawn in part or in full if they choose to reject it. The union needs to stand up to this intimidation. 

Hundreds of members in online union meetings this week have shown their outrage and condemnation concerning claims from negotiators that the offer was ‘the best we could have achieved’. Notably, the committee of SG West and Central Scotland branch voted unanimously to reject the deal on Tuesday 11 April and helped members to break down the reality of the deal in a meeting the following day. Many feel that the union leadership has severely underplayed our hand with only two separate single-day strikes, and the rejection of various targeted action plans from local branches. Accordingly, some local branches have now unanimously recommended that their members reject the pay offer, despite the position of the SSC and NEC. 

Reject the deal: we need a reballot

In reality, the treatment of civil service workers represents a transparent attempt to hold the line on below-inflation public sector pay, with dissent growing across the public sector. Ministers always find money for their priorities, like subsidising massive highly profitable corporations and outsourcing work to thieving private consultancy firms. However they never stump up the cash to properly improve the pay and conditions of the workers that make delivering their policy possible. 

Unfortunately, it appears that the details of the so-called ‘improved offer’ for 2022/23 were not made clear by the union which wanted members to vote ‘Yes’ on the ballot, which ends on 26 April, before the deal’s full nature was divulged. If this wasn’t intentional, it seems like an attempt by negotiators to try and ‘cut their losses’, ahead of what is likely to be another big dispute on the 2023 pay award. In either case, it is a failure of members’ trust.

There are countless examples of members that voted over the offer last week, trusting the union leadership’s position and subsequently regretting their vote after fully understanding the details of the offer. It is imperative for the health of internal union democracy that this offer is reballoted, especially as the original demand for a 10% pay rise has been totally abandoned. 

The union leadership in our disputes must recognise the strength of feeling on this, make a commitment to carrying out targeted action and improving communication with members, or the danger is we will risk losing members and not taking full advantage of the wave of solidarity mustered since November. 

It is imperative now that PCS members stay in the union and press for a reballot on the deal, but, if that is not forthcoming, we must vote to reject this offer before 26 April. Crucially, too, we need many more members to get more involved in the politics of the union to ensure that their views are genuinely represented.

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