Murnaghan 22.07.12 Interview with Mark Serwotka PCSU & Matthew Hancock MP on planned border agency strike
ANY WUOTES USED MUST BE ATTRIBUTED TO MURNAGHAN, SKY NEWS
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Well now, five and a half thousand Border Agency staff who are members of the PCS union will strike this week but the strike was only voted for by a small proportion of the union’s membership. Now a group of Tory MPs are calling for such strikes to be made illegal and in a moment I’ll speak to one of those MPs, the Conservative Matthew Hancock but first let’s speak to the general secretary of the PCSU, the Public and Commercial Services Union, he is of course Mark Serwotka, a very good morning to you Mr Serwotka. Aren’t strikes meant to be about winning sympathy for your cause? How on earth can disrupting the Olympics achieve that?
MARK SERWOTKA: Well good morning Dermot. First of all the point needs to be made is everyone is talking as if this strike is happening today or tomorrow. We’ve still got a few days to avoid the dispute, I’ve written to Teresa May, we’ve written to the management at the Home Office, we still hope and believe the dispute can be avoided but going on strike is a last resort and I think your listeners deserve to know why we’re doing it. Eight and a half thousand jobs are being cut, 22% of staff at the border are to lose their jobs even though we routinely have queues and passenger anger is rising all the time and we have had compulsory redundancy notices issued to people in passport offices when you cannot get a passport at the moment because the service cannot cope. So these are not demands about personal gain, they are about defending important services, the security the country and ensuring that people still have the chance to work all the year round and that’s why it is disappointing that the government have failed to talk to us for the last year which is why we have had to take this last resort action.
DM: You make it sound as if they are their last legs, the issue of democracy in all this in that only a tiny proportion of the total membership actually voted in favour.
MS: Well, just to be clear, people are working at breaking point. When passengers are queuing at Heathrow for four hours they take their anger out on the frontline border staff and nobody should have to work in those conditions. We have low paid members in South Wales who have been given redundancy notices, who are losing their jobs and that is a life changing moment and these are important issues. We care about the service all the year round, not just in the couple of weeks in the run up to the Olympics but I repeat the point, we hope there isn’t a strike, we hope that the government will talk to us. We have asked, agreed for ACAS to become involved to try and find a resolution and I am still confident that if the government want to avoid the dispute they could easily do so.
DM: You rather swerved the issue of the total numbers who actually voted for the strike. Let’s bring in Matthew Hancock, I’m sure he is going to make that very point for us. Mr Hancock, you are concerned about the proportion of the total membership that actually were in favour of taking action.
MATTHEW HANCOCK: Well of course when only just over 10%, so one in ten of the people eligible voted for this strike, it’s quite clear that this is the militant union barons like Mark Serwotka rather than members of the PCS union and border staff who want the strike. Listening to that answer I just thought how extraordinarily out of touch Mr Serwotka is because he says this strike can be avoided and of course it can be avoided because he can call it off. I think it’s a grave mistake in the short term for the union bosses because everybody is behind the Olympics, everybody is excited about the Olympics, volunteers are coming from all over the country including members of my family, to work on the Olympics for free and yet Mr Serwotka, with hardly any support across the nation or even within his union, calls a strike. But it’s also a grave mistake in the long term because nobody is making the case better for reform of the rules around strike action and ballots than Mr Serwotka and this strike.
DH: Okay, come back on that, Mr Serwotka, you’re out of touch, you’re a union baron, you’re a spoilsport and in the long term you’re going to get legislation to prevent you taking action with this kind of turnout.
MS: Well I’ll tell you what would be extraordinary, if everybody looked the other way and ignored these problems and in six months’ time there was a major security breach of our borders because there aren’t enough staff to keep them safe. People would say why didn’t we do something about it? I repeat that this is not about personal gain, it is about security, it is about working in a bullying free environment and it is about trying to give a proper public service. Now I wish more people had voted in the ballot, we do need to reform our laws but not in the way that Matthew Hancock wants, what we should do is make it easier for people to vote. They should be allowed to vote in the workplace, by telephone, by internet and that’s the way that more and more people would vote. In this case the extraordinary thing was that Home Office management on behalf of the government actually threatened our representatives that there would be consequences if they did anything to encourage people to vote in the workplace and that really gives this game away. They didn’t want people to vote and they made it difficult for people to do so. I wish more people had voted but under the laws of the land a majority have voted for the action. I hope we can avoid it but I also hope that your viewers will understand these are deep seated issues of security and public service and we cannot ignore them.
DH: Okay, well Matthew Hancock, you heard that. Some of them were obstructed in voting, these are the existing laws and that at the bottom of all this is not personal gain but it is deep seated concerns about security and the way staff are treated at work, they’re bullied.
MH: Well I think if there are any queues during the strike or during the Olympics, everybody will now know exactly who’s responsible and that’s Mr Serwotka because he didn’t need to call to this strike and as he says, the strike is avoidable and of course it’s avoidable, he can call it off. But the broader point is should you have a strike when only 10% of people voted in favour of it? He says that’s according to the law of the land, I wasn’t particularly in favour of trade union reform, I wasn’t sure that any changes to the settlement that had been reached were needed but I’ve been gradually persuaded over a series of strikes that have happened when the turnout has been low and only 10, 20% of people have voted in favour. I have become convinced that we need to bring in a threshold so that only when a majority of people vote to strike then the strike can happen because that’s what voting’s about, it’s about finding out whether there is a will to make this happen. So I’ll be now pushing for that change and I don't think there is any better example of why that change should happen than Mr Serwotka trying to sabotage the Olympics in defence of the narrow interests of his members when the government is desperately trying to improve border security and the queues and deal with that.
DM: Okay, I can see you are not going see eye to eye on the issues so let me finally try a bit of arbitration. I’m sure a lot of our viewers, a lot of people will say, Mr Serwotka, okay, we listen to what you say, we hear your concerns but is now really the time? Why can’t you call this strike off until after the Olympics and the Paralympics?
MS: Well it’s a funny way for Matthew to say he worries about security when they are cutting 22% of posts but look, I repeat the point that we can avoid this strike if the government says it isn’t going to issue redundancy notices to our low paid workers in South Wales, if it says it will meet us to talk about negotiations on having proper staffing levels to guarantee security, all of this can be resolved and we will be considering very carefully in the next couple of days what Teresa May says when she finally answers the letter that I sent to her many days ago, to see whether ACAS can help us find a resolution and we will be talking to our members on the ground but I think, Dermot, we have to always remember this is not a strike about self-interest, it is a strike about people being able to come to the UK and not have to queue for four hours, not have to travel 300 miles to get a passport because their local office cannot provide a service and not have to work in an environment where people are routinely abused by angry customers. If we can all agree we want to avoid that, this strike will never happen and then we can move forward.
DM: Okay, you’ve made your point. Matthew Hancock shaking his head there but I’m afraid we are out of time. Thank you both very much indeed, Matt Hancock and Mark Serwotka there.