Why a potential strike by the Public and Commercial Services union could have severely disrupted the London Olympic games

By:  Danielle Blanchard, Ruling Sports Intern (Twitter:  @Elle087)

Thousands of members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) threatened a strike on the eve of the Olympic games in London, which would have had a detrimental impact on the games. The PCS is the fifth largest trade union in the United Kingdom and represents thousands of workers, including operating members of the London tube and bus system, train drivers, platform guards, and the Home Office, which is responsible for passport checks at Heathrow Airport. This strike has been brewing for quite a while now, last year legislation was passed that would cut the value of public sector pensions. This prompted the biggest strike in three years in November of last year. In addition, the union was trying to get extra pay/bonuses for the workers working during the Olympic games. This was denied. Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite, spoke in February in an interview with the Guardian and said that the attacks on the public sector workers were “so deep and ideological” that targeting the Olympic games would be reasonable.  Around July 23, members that were a part of the bus and subway staff cancelled a walkout after receiving an Olympic bonus package, but members of the Home Office were still planning on a strike.

A strike during the Olympics would have had a significantly negative impact on the games, and on London as host of the games. As of July 25, 2012 the PCS has called off the strike after the government promised to create 1,100 new jobs. This figure includes 800 jobs for the border force and 300 at the passport service.  This is not necessarily a win for the union. The PCS called off the strike only hours before the court was supposed to hear an injunction application that was aimed at blocking the strike. The British government sought a High Court injunction to prevent border staff from taking strike action.  The Government believed there was a “procedural error” in the ballot of members of the PCS union. Apparently, only about ten to twelve percent of the PCS union members voted for the strike because of pay and jobs. Only about half of the members of the union even voted on the ballot and less than half of those members voted for the strike. Roughly one per every ten union members voted for the strike. This is the procedural error that the government is arguing. There are many reasons as to why the PCS called off the strike; for one, the strike was highly unpopular according to public opinion and even among members of the union. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is coordinating the Olympic games, also said that enough immigration officials could be deployed to prevent disruption if the strike happened as planned, and the government agreed to provide 1,100 new jobs within the Home Office department.

If the strike had gone on as planned, and the passport service workers failed to show, it would have resulted in chaos at Heathrow airport on what is expected to be the biggest travel day the airport has seen. The lines for checking passports to get into the country have already be two plus hours over the last few weeks, and this strike would have made getting into the country even worse.  The director of the Home Office has said, even after the strike has been called off, that it does not guarantee smooth sailing for the thousands of people trying to enter the country. In the days leading up to the Olympics some of the biggest modes of transportation that connect London with the destinations where Olympic events will be held are facing possible strike action and mechanical failures due to spending cuts. Union drivers at Stagecoach Group Plc (SGC)’s East Midlands Trains, that will be largely responsible for travel of U.K. athletes are threatening a strike, as are members Serco Group Plc (SRP)’s “Boris Bike” cycle-borrowing service, named after the mayor. The latter’s members have threatened to refuse overtime too. It remains to be seen whether these remaining strikes are just empty threats, but if not they could potentially irreparably harm the centuries-long Olympic tradition, a history icon for international sports.

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