The ayes have it: eyeing the opportunities over the coming period to surge ahead through struggle

Cat Boyd says the PCS union is developing its bargaining agenda and wants to work with others to achieve this.

When pundits and politicians say that the pandemic has changed everything, I can only hope that they are right. The global Covid-19 crisis made clear the systematic inequalities in our economies, societies and polities. The pandemic hit the poorest hardest and the richest least. As we emerge from this crisis, as inflation soars across Britain, the union movement can be at the forefront of forcing change, to make sure that we do not go back to the way things were. The changed world of work, the cost-of-living crisis and the political situation in Scotland are the three key issues.

First, since March 2020, working life has changed drastically for huge parts of the workforce. The civic duty to ‘work from home’ was adopted by thousands of organisations, and many, such as the Scottish Government and related public bodies where we have members, have continued to support working from home where possible. In January, the PM announced that workers should head back into their offices, and that the civil service should ‘lead the way’. Typical of the Westminster Governments’ callous attitude during the pandemic and towards the civil service in general, the PM’s comments infuriated. However, as circumstances change, there are opportunities for working people and their unions to negotiate a better settlement than either continuing to work from home or returning to the office like its 2019.

Working from home, like working from an office, has its benefits. But long hours without colleagues, inadequate space and the blurring of work-life boundaries bring different problems. Working from an office for some means having a richer, more social, and more interactive working life than working from home, with only digital contact with fellow staff. But the environmental and productivity impacts of home working are also undeniable. That’s why ideas like hybrid working, a blend of office time and working from home, are essential. PCS will be negotiating principles on hybrid working with the Scottish Government in the coming weeks and months. Central to our vision is that solutions be tailored to individual’s needs: that no one is forced to work in a way that is impractical, arbitrary, isolating or anxiety-inducing.

In addition to hybrid working, PCS are continuing our campaign for a significant reduction on working time, without loss of pay. Demands for more free time are a cornerstone of the labour movement tradition: now more than ever, the union movement can revive it. Overwork and long hours – both endemic in the civil service – contribute to ill-health, burnout, stress and low productivity. Working with Autonomy, whose comprehensive research on working time provoked a debate on the post-pandemic recovery ideas, our union is exploring the possibilities of a shorter working week in parts of Scotland’s civil service.

Second, the cost-of-living crisis is the gravest threat our members have faced in over a decade, and the union movement must show leadership and fight for every victory. Workers in the civil and public services saw their wages fall faster than any other group following the 2008 financial crisis. In Scotland, members have been promised a journey towards wage restoration since 2018, but none of this has materialised. Now, soaring inflation means any gains in wages will be obliterated by National Insurance rises, energy price rises and the rising cost of goods.

Civil servants, like all public sector workers, need a proper pay rise if post-pandemic recovery is going to work for workers. But this will not happen without a sustained and targeted industrial campaign, including strike action across the movement. Our job as trade unionists is to fight for improvements to wages, terms and conditions, to build solidarity in order than we can gain more financial freedom, and freedom from toil. If we do not fight for these gains now, we will not uphold our historic purpose.
Last, there is a clear political crisis in Scotland. Our current government has a questionable domestic record on nearly every important front: health, education, housing, local government funding. The bold and radical actions that were promised by the SNP after the 2014 referendum have not happened. Instead, drugs deaths soar, policies like the National Energy Company have been mothballed, private companies consult on our National Care Service and prized green assets are sold to oil companies.

And of course, there’s still the question of a prospective referendum on independence. But what we cannot accept is the use of that prospect to forestall criticism of governance failures issuing from Edinburgh. A re-politicised and reenergised union movement can make inroads to challenging these political failures as part of the broader movement. But we also need working class voices in a parliament which, on all sides of the constitutional divide, has become a byword for complacency.

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