Coup in PCSU

In a disgraceful attack on union democracy, the rightwing majority on the executive of the 283,000-strong Public and Commercial Services Union has declared that the overwhelming election of Mark Serwotka as general secretary was "invalid" and that an unelected bureaucrat will remain in the post until 2004. Meeting on May 23, just eight days before comrade Serwotka was due to assume his full responsibilities, the newly elected executive committee rubber-stamped the proposals of outgoing general secretary Barry Reamsbottom that the election should be ignored and that Reamsbottom should continue in office for another two years. Comrade Serwotka, a supporter of the Socialist Alliance, said: "It's an affront to democracy. [Reamsbottom] did not stand in the election. He has not challenged the result over the last two years. He signed a legal agreement to go and he has given me half the union's duties over the last 18 months." Indeed, comrade Serwotka's picture has regularly featured in the PCSU magazine and the entire membership was expecting him to take over from Reamsbottom on June 1. When comrade Serwotka - standing on a fighting programme that included the pledge to accept only the average member's wage - was elected in 2000 by the members of Britain's largest civil service union, it came as a bolt out of the blue. He defeated Hugh Lanning, the candidate of the Inland Revenue Members First (IRMF) grouping, by a substantial majority, winning 40,740 votes against Lanning's 33,942. The right wing of the union bureaucracy, numbered amongst the most loyal of New Labour supporters, were determined to unseat him as soon as possible (it is more than likely that their coup had the tacit approval of the Labour Party leadership, if not its active connivance). Last week they seized their opportunity. Elections to the EC whose results were announced in the run-up to this month's conference, saw a rightwing majority - mostly National Moderate Group supporters, but with a handful of IRMF followers. By and large straight-laced civil servants, the Members First rump have formed an alliance with the Blairites to prevent the union coming under the influence of those unpleasant militants. However, Left Unity, which brings together most of the left, increased its representation from five to 12. The right has seized upon what they believe is a legal loophole to thwart the clearly expressed wish of the membership - overwhelmingly endorsed by conference less than two weeks ago - to see comrade Serwotka take up his post. The original terms of the merger of the two unions that now make up the PCSU allowed for the general secretaries of the Civil and Public Service Association (Reamsbottom) and the smaller, inland revenue-based PTC to jointly remain in post until 2004. The merger was backed by a vote of both memberships. However, in 2000 motion was passed allowing for the election of a new general secretary. Reamsbottom is now claiming that this decision was "unlawful", since under the union constitution "important decisions" are taken by the entire membership in a referendum, and the entire membership had already decided that there would be no elected general secretary until 2004 (Reamsbottom himself has not been elected by the PCSU, of course). You might have thought, if that was the case, the validity of the motion would have been queried at the time, or the union president would have ruled it out of order. Or perhaps the holding of the election later that year might have been challenged at some point. You certainly would not have expected Reamsbottom to sign an agreement to step down if he really thought he was entitled to keep his job. True, he was to be paid his full salary until 2004 by way of compensation, but surely our Blairite friend ought to have put principle first, if he was genuinely concerned about upholding the views of the 'entire membership' against the minority of activists? Appealing to a passive membership over the heads of the activists through a referendum - whose outcome is always influenced by those setting the question - is a favourite device of bureaucrats and dictators alike. In this case the members, quite correctly, voted for a merger. They did not vote for every dot and comma of the terms of that merger, as Reamsbottom well knows. But in fact they had voted subsequently for the principle of electing a new general secretary - by 62,296 to 2,768 in a full postal ballot. There were chaotic scenes at the May 23 meeting of the EC. President Janice Godrich, a supporter of comrade Serwotka, had clearly got wind of what the right planned to do. Just like Reamsbottom, she resorted to technical objections to try to prevent the executive from meeting. The general secretary had not consulted the president, in accordance with union rules, before setting a date for the EC. Insufficient notice had been given. Therefore the meeting itself was "unconstitutional and unlawful". The idea was to delay the meeting until after comrade Serwotka was in place and the right was faced with a fait accompli. When comrade Godrich refused to allow the meeting to go ahead, she was overruled by a vote of those present. Senior vice-president Ted Euers took the chair while the left objected vociferously. Despite the right's attempt to hold their meeting in a different room, in the end attempts at a discussion were abandoned and Reamsbottom's proposals were put to the vote without debate. The leftwing minority were of course quite right to object to this "affront to democracy" in the strongest possible terms. But Reamsbottom said: "This is the last twitch of the old hard left dinosaur. A brand new executive was democratically elected only last month, and Mr Serwotka appears unable to accept that members rejected his supporters' attempts to run the union" (PCSU press release, May 28). Euers whined: "The 'affront to democracy' was the far left's attempt to prevent debate and decisions being made" (Letter to The Guardian May 27). It hardly needs saying that the legitimacy of the new EC was not in question: its insistence on bureaucratically overturning the election of Mark Serwotka was. The subsequent bleatings of the right were hypocritical in the extreme. There is now a situation of dual power within the union. Reamsbottom and Serwotka have called rival EC meetings for next month. Both are still at their desks - comrade Serwotka has had more than 200 messages of support and over 100 branches have protested at his 'sacking'. The right controls the PCSU email, while the left occupies the fax. There is a three-pronged offensive for democracy. Firstly, comrade Serwotka has initiated proceedings in the high court. The first hearing was due on Friday May 31. Secondly, staff at PCSU headquarters are threatening to strike in support of the general secretary-elect, whose contract of employment has been unilaterally terminated (comrade Serwotka has been 'offered' a full-time post at union HQ - either that, or he can try to get his civil service job back). But thirdly, and most importantly, the left has already started to mobilise the membership. Comrade Godrich, as union president, has put out a circular calling for a special conference. This requires the backing of branches representing 25% of the membership - although, if the rightwing majority on the EC can see fit to overrule the members if they do not like their choice of general secretary, they are obviously quite capable of dreaming up an excuse for ignoring this demand too. All over the country meetings of PCSU members are being organised and there will be a demonstration outside the Clapham headquarters on June 5, when the Reamsbottom wing's EC meeting is due. There is no doubt that Reamsbottom's contempt for the membership has given the left a head start in this campaign. Comrade Serwotka certainly has the overwhelming backing of union activists, but his supporters must ensure that the clumsy, bureaucratic moves of the right are used to best effect in order to win over the majority of ordinary members. The right will continue to hold up the left, and the Socialist Alliance in particular, as the bogeyman. No problem. The SA must show that we are the best fighters for workers' rights, including union democracy. What a pity there is no Socialist Alliance newspaper to act as an organiser and agitator. Nevertheless, the message is clear. Support Serwotka because he supports the membership and militant action. Getting bogged down in wrangles over technicalities would be disastrous. As Lee Rock, PCSU London organiser, told me, "We need to keep the message simple: the union belongs to its members, not the bureaucrats." We must ensure that the rank and file builds a movement so powerful that Reamsbottom and co will be unable to ignore it - irrespective of what the high court decides. And for that to happen a political programme is vital. Peter Manson