Building the union is no lottery

The leadership of the PCS have trivialised the struggle to save the union, reports Simon Wells

Struggle must be politicised

The Public and Commercial Services leadership is under severe pressure to come up with an answer to a Tory attempt to smash the union. The Conservatives invited government departments to consider removing the automatic deduction from wages of trade union subscriptions and this is already being implemented.

This comes in parallel with proposals to further restrict the right of public-sector unions to strike. If the Tories win an outright majority, they will ban strikes inthe health, education, transport and fire services unless the unions win support for action from 40% of all those entitled to vote. At present some unions would be pleased if the turnout in a ballot reached 40% and only around a quarter of recent strikes in the sectors concerned would have been legal under the proposals. For example, according to Transport for London, only 16% of those entitled to vote put their cross against ‘yes’ in a recent bus drivers’ action.

This has been coming for some time - almost since the beginning of the current electoral cycle. The Tories knew they would face stiff opposition to austerity, so they have long been planning to undermine union rights in the public services, claiming that strikes affecting key services were an attack on the “hard-working majority” and democracy itself. So the manifesto proposal represents a continuation of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws. As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “The Conservatives know that this threshold will effectively end the right to strike in the public sector.”

However, the problem stems back to proposals first put forward in the 1969 Labour white paper, In place of strife, and subsequently implemented by the Tories, for all strikes to be subject to a secret ballot. This resulted in union members receiving a ballot paper through the post asking them to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to industrial action proposals, upon which they must decide as atomised individuals. The only ‘discussion’ of the proposals for many members comes in the form of a union recommendation, on the one hand, and media propaganda, on the other.

A much more effective - and more democratic - method of decision-making would involve debating the options at workplace meetings before a decision is taken. This would allow questions to be raised about, for instance, the likely length of the strike, its objectives and the ‘bottom line’ for a settlement. Under such circumstances, doubters would be far less likely to scab - they have, after all, actually participated in the debate and would be more likely to understand the arguments. This would vastly increase membership participation in the process and be hugely more democratic - which, of course, is why the Tories would never countenance such proposals. Under such circumstances the unions would be far more likely to win an overall majority for action (ie, a majority of the entire membership). But, as any union leader will tell you, the Conservatives are not interested in genuine democracy - if the 40% threshold applied to general elections, there would be very few MPs elected.

Turning now to the situation in the civil service, the PCS has been thrown into crisis by the decision to end the deduction of union subscriptions at source - the ‘check-off’ system. The practice originated with the Labour government in the 1970s. Under Harold Wilson’s ‘social contract’, a compromise was agreed between the Labour government and the trade union bureaucracy to tame the power of the shop steward - following the withdrawal of In place of strife. The collection of dues through the employer rather than the shop steward was seen as an indirect means of weakening the latter’s power. It was the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and shop-steward power that defeated In place of strife and then saw off Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. The intention of the social contract was to undermine shop-steward power and leave the union bureaucracy more firmly in control.

As a result unions became more and more hollowed out: the union tops became complacent and the membership was left passive and atomised. In this situation the ending of the check-off system has meant that union revenue has dried up overnight. Not that the change came out of the blue - this has been just one among many attacks on trade unions in the civil service, including cuts in the time union representatives have to represent their members. But what has come out of the blue - for the rank and file, that is - has been the decision of the PCS leadership to curb union democracy. It was just before Christmas that the union announced it was suspending elections. This was one of the “bold financial decisions [that] are being taken by the NEC to ensure the union’s stability”. By suspending the national and group elections now due PCS will save around £600,000. The union admitted that the “extremely difficult” decision would be unexpected. However, it was carried out to safeguard the survival of the union.

A subsequent item on the PCS website, responding to questions about the suspension of elections, informed the membership that the union “found this a heavy responsibility”, but no other choice could be made. However, the decision will be subject to confirmation at the annual delegate conference in May, thus ensuring, the union says, that the decision will be fully accountable according to the democratic process of the union. So the people who made the decision are going to determine the agenda, and the time for debate on this important decision. PCS union members will already be aware that the duration of the annual delegate conference was reduced by one day in 2014 - also to save money.

Cliff edge

The rationale for the decisions of the national executive came to light when a confidential report to the NEC for its meeting of December 18 was published on the internet. This revealed that negotiations had been ongoing about the disposal of the Clapham Junction headquarters, with the NEC authorising the sale for £25 million to a real estate fund. The report also reveals the parlous state of the union’s finances - substantial pension liabilities that cannot be met, loss of income due to both job cuts and especially the ending of check-off, and a poor response by members to the union’s appeal to sign up to direct debit instead - currently only around 30% of members have taken up the invitation to pay their dues in this way. Essentially the PCS is living close to a financial cliff edge, having to sell its prime possession just to meet running costs.

The cancellation of these elections contravenes the union’s own rules stipulating that they must be held annually. Of course, there is a get-out clause stating that “in exceptional circumstances” the leadership can vary the time span. Now, I do not know what this means in plain English, but what the union goes on to say is that for reasons of what it calls “force majeure”, or circumstances beyond its control - in this case the need to direct all its full-time staff onto the direct debit campaign - elections can be suspended.

This is disastrous. The NEC should have insisted that the election go ahead and use it to inspire the membership by laying out what can be achieved by a strong, financially secure union with a committed leadership and fighting membership. Instead it has literally turned the issue into a lottery. If you sign up to direct debit you will be entered into a draw, where the first prize is £1,200. Instead of patronising the membership, why not try to direct their anger against a government that is out to break the union. This struggle should be politicised, not turned into a cheap version of the lottery.

Simon Wells