Ready, Set, Strike
July 24, 2012 10:34 am
Furor has erupted overseas after several UK public trade unions threatened to strike on the eve of the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Media coverage, political leadership and public opinion seem to agree that the action is beyond the pale on the workers’ part, and ministers have begun to publicly call for a change to existing laws in order to allow “sacking” of the aggrieved workers.
“Military police, Whitehall officials and retired border staff are on standby to prevent Olympic chaos this week as militant union leaders prepare a 24-hour walkout,” reports the conservative tabloid Daily Mail. But buried in the uproar is a thorough explanation of what the workers want, why they’re planning such a dramatic action and who’s to blame for the situation getting this far out of control.
Home Office staff members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), including airport immigration workers and border control agents at the UK Border Agency and the Identity and Passport Service and Criminal Records Bureau, are planning to walk off the job for 24 hours on July 26th, the day before the opening of the Olympic games. Striking workers at Heathrow and other ports and airports would no doubt effect people traveling to London for the games, a fact that has led BBC presenter Garry Richardson to call the workers’ planned action a “disgrace” and Home Secretary Theresa May to call it “shameful.”
But what are the workers striking over? “The PCS is in dispute with the Home Office on several issues,” reports Rajeev Syal at the Guardian, “including plans to cut 8,500 jobs; threatened compulsory redundancies in the passport office in Newport, south Wales; pay rises capped at 1% following a two-year wage freeze; privatisation of services; and alleged victimisation of union representatives.” The PCS says that job cuts at the Border Agency have led to extremely long lines at Heathrow, and according to the the Independent‘s Alan Jones, “PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ‘The lives of staff have been made intolerable by these cuts and they’re at breaking point. Ministers have known about these issues for a very long time and need to act now to sort out the chaos they have caused. They’re acting recklessly in cutting so many jobs and privatising services, and are provocatively refusing to talk to us with a genuine desire to reach an agreement.’”
According to the PCS website, “[a] home affairs select committee report published today criticises the UK Border Agency – the largest agency in the Home Office – for failing to tackle a total casework backlog of more than 270,000. The report points out that the immigration group, the section with the largest backlog of work, has seen the biggest cuts in staffing.” The union emphasizes that the cuts to staff have been bad for the general public, not just workers, and that (again from Serwotka),”‘Staff from casework have been transferred to passport controls in what has been a shambolic attempt to mask serious shortages in the border force that have caused chaos and embarrassment at the borders.’”
The controversial call to fire the workers over the strikes references Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike breaking, in which the former President called the strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered the striking workers to return to their posts. Of the nearly 13,000 striking workers, only 10% returned to their posts — the rest were fired and banned for life from federal service. (President Clinton lifted the civil service ban on the fired workers in 1993.) In reference to these threats, Serwotka told the BBC, “‘I think the government is whipping up hysteria about the Olympics, there’ll be no disruption to the Olympics, this is a 24-hour strike before the Olympics actually takes place.’”
Serwotka has repeatedly stated his and the union’s willingness to meet the culture secretary and home secretary in order to avert a strike.
Image from here