Border staff strike called off at last minute

Thu, Jul 26, 2012, 01:00

A STRIKE by immigration control staff tomorrow, which could have crippled arrivals at Heathrow Airport on one of the busiest days of pre-Olympic Games travelling, has been called off.

However, there is disagreement on the moves that led to the decision, with the union claiming 1,100 extra staff would be recruited in the face of sharply worded denials by the UK home office.

The decision to abandon the action was taken by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union at 11am yesterday, shortly before the British government was ready to go to court for an injunction.

Insisting that the 1,100 figure was correct, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said 800 extra staff would be deployed at airport immigration desks, with 300 more in passport offices.

The home office, on the other hand, insisted that recruitment notices issued last week for 400 staff would do no more than fill vacancies caused by departures and retirements.

British immigration minister Damian Green said no concessions had been made to the PCS – one of the most vocal unions in the battle against spending cuts. He added that the union leadership needed “some kind of fig leaf” to back away from an unpopular strike.

Three-hundred vacancies exist in the home office’s passport service alone, he said, and the union had been told before strike notice was issued last week that the posts would be filled.

Last year, the British government announced that it would cut 8,500 jobs in the home office, including 1,000 staff from the UK border agency. Mr Serwotka said the union had lobbied for 18 months to stop the home office job cuts, getting backing from MPs and the national audit office.

“Sometimes it takes the last resort of the strike and the spotlight that is then shone on the issue to make progress and that appears to be what happened in this case,” he said.

Rejecting Mr Serwotka’s figure of 1,100, the home office last night said it had made “no concessions to the PCS” and was “not creating any new jobs in response to their threat of strike action”.

The reforms under way will see the home office and the UK border agency restructured, with some staff to be redeployed. Four-hundred new border officers will be appointed – not 800, as was incorrectly advertised last week.

The strike threat provoked debate on the level of support by union members that should be required before a strike is declared legal. Just 20 per cent of the PCS membership voted on whether to strike – with a small majority of them backing a walkout.

However, the PCS argues that turnouts are often low because unions in the UK are not allowed to ballot in workplaces and must do so by postal vote, which leads to lower numbers getting involved.

“The law should be changed to make it easier for people to vote, and that means they should be allowed to vote by telephone, by internet, in the workplace under supervised conditions,” said Mr Serwotka.

Reflecting Conservative MPs’ anger towards the PCS, one MP, Dominic Raab, said safeguards were needed to “prevent abusive strike powers” hitting vital services. “We’re seeing an increasing number of [cases] where militant union leaders without the backing of their own members are trying to hold government to ransom.”

The Labour Party expressed relief at the cancellation of the strike, since it would have faced anger from the trade union movement if it had been forced to condemn it.