Neither clapping nor words of acclaim for public servants pay their bills, rent and mortgages

Cat Boyd eyes opportunities to put class before constitution in the coming period.

If there’s anything good to say about the pandemic, it’s that unions have been forced to rethink our strategies. The turbulence of 2020 encouraged us to contemplate how we do things. COVID-19 should force those in power to re-evaluate too, because what’s really important is health, wellbeing, time with friends and loved ones and our ability to live comfortably without fear of financial loss. So, for many unions, simply moving our usual ‘offline’ activity onto ‘online’ organising won’t be enough. Like most people, we’ve had to reflect on what really matters.

At the time of writing, most PCS members are still working from home, having decamped from offices in March last year. ‘Home working’ was once a ‘flexible’ option for many of our members, now it’s a civic responsibility. Staying at home will reduce transmission of COVID-19. But long hours, caring responsibilities, home schooling, inadequate space and the blurring of work-life boundaries bring different problems.

Despite having waned in the public imagination, demands for more free time are a cornerstone of the labour movement tradition and now more than ever, the union movement can revive it. Overwork and long hours contribute to ill-health, burnout, stress and low productivity. This has to change. Working with Autonomy, whose comprehensive research on working time provoked a debate on the post-pandemic recovery ideas, our union is looking at the possibilities of a shorter working week in parts of Scotland’s civil service. After all, even the First Minister has suggested it might be one of the solutions to rebuilding the economy after COVID-19.

But ‘work-at-home’ has a tendency to spill into our family time, leisure time or weekends, no matter how much of it we have. The edges of work and home bleed into each other and are undoubtedly harder to control. That’s why PCS wants workers in the civil service to have the right to disconnect from work servers, the right to be ‘email free’ on non-work days, weekends and holidays and the right to bring the work day to a conclusive end when they clock off.

All civil and public servants have not just faced the challenges of a global pandemic with aptitude and skill. They have done so during Brexit, potential constitutional change and increased public scrutiny. At the civil service unions’ annual meeting, the First Minister heaped praise on the civil service in particular. She told the assembled trade unionists that she ‘wouldn’t have been able to do [her] job without them’ and that the contribution the civil servants have made to keeping Scotland running continues to be invaluable. That’s why it’s doubly galling to read a public sector pay policy which caps pay for thousands below the rate of inflation.

The entire public sector response to the coronavirus crisis has been phenomenal, especially considering the harsh and often concealed cuts to services and local government. Civil servants, however, are the most hidden of public workers and, therefore, the easiest to forget when it comes to questions of pay.

Once more, this year’s public sector pay policy falls short of what our members need and deserve. Workers in the civil and public service saw their wages fall faster than any other group following the 2008 financial crisis and our message to the Scottish Government is very clear: our members must not shoulder this burden again. Barely anyone, not even the Tories, defend austerity anymore. Civil servants need a proper pay rise; we need to see the beginning of wage restoration so that post-pandemic recovery works for all.

Shifting to ‘digital’ organising isn’t easy, especially when face-to-face contact yields the best organising results. But it’s not impossible to grow unions digitally. In fact, PCS has seen membership gains this year, a record number of activists and reps have been trained online and attendance at campaign briefings and national meetings has increased significantly.

Lastly, this is a significant year for Scotland as a nation. As we head into May’s election, the possibility of a second referendum on independence resurfaces and PCS’ motion to STUC Congress 2021 recognises the challenges for our movement. The Growth Commission hasn’t just left the case for independence weakened, it has also reinforced economic orthodoxy which is refuted and deeply flawed. No matter what happens, the union movement has a role to play: we must shape the constitutional agenda with a class agenda so the things that matter most to us form the basis of our future.

Cat Boyd is the PCS National Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland