Fighting the PCSU coup

A rally to defend democracy in the 280,000-strong Public and Commercial Services Union was held on Wednesday June 19. Some 250 people gathered in central London to hear speakers, including Bob Crow and Paul Foot, denounce the rightwing coup in the union that has seen Barry Reamsbottom renege on an agreement to stand down in favour of the democratically elected Mark Serwotka, a prominent Socialist Alliance supporter. A high court decision on Friday June 21 agreed entitlement to costs for both Serwotka and his ally, Janice Godrich, the PCSU president, on the one side and Reamsbottom on the other. This at least means that comrade Serwotka can press ahead with legal action without the threat of personal ruin hanging over his head. But, as the fight rages on in the high court, are the rank and file of the union being fully involved? Certainly, the June 19 rally saw determined talk and very welcome support from other unions. In particular, Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, made an excellent speech, ridiculing a letter he had received from Reamsbottom decrying the "interference" in the PCSU from other figures in the trade union movement. Perhaps betraying his background in 'official' communism - where 'non-interference in the internal affairs of other parties' was a code-phrase for the uncritical diplomatic prostitution that passed for 'internationalism' - comrade Crow reacted angrily to the charge. The comrade is clearly far more comfortable at these meetings than he normally is in front of TV cameras, and in a very effective performance he lambasted the "disgrace" of the Reamsbottom coup. More importantly, he told the audience that he did "not recognise Reamsbottom as the general secretary" and intended to demand that the TUC remove the interloper from its general council. Action in the courts was needed, comrade Crow agreed, but he decried the injustice that saw "judges now being asked to decide who is general secretary of the PCSU when the membership of the union have already decided". Picking up on this theme, the Socialist Workers Party's Paul Foot underlined the "utterly biased" nature of the courts and that it was the movement itself that should discuss who is the general secretary of the PCSU: "Don't wait for the judges!" he urged the audience. Our support for Mark must be "transformed into action", he said. However, in seeming contradiction to this militant stance, comrade Foot dubbed assistant general secretary Hugh Lanning - the defeated Membership First Blairite candidate for the general secretaryship - as "the most important person on the platform". This seems to imply that the campaign should have no overt left-right political overtones. Comrade Foot attempted to underline this idea when he referred to a recent Reamsbottom reply to an article of his. Reamsbottom had made great play out of Serwotka's support for the Socialist Alliance. In contrast comrade Foot suggested that Mark "probably hadn't heard of the SA before 2000" - not a very convincing point and surely the wrong emphasis in the first place. Hugh Lanning himself - a man, it must be said, who seems to have taken a very principled stance over this issue - was at pains to emphasise that, "This is not about Mark's politics - this is about union democracy." It is perfectly true that this battle is not just about left versus right. As comrade Serwotka has pointed out, when Reamsbottom came for him, he trampled over the democratic rights of all members of the union, whatever their political coloration. Thus, for Hugh Lanning, it is about union democracy, not Mark's politics. But we have to be clear that it is the comrade's leftwing politics that have prompted the attack, not simply Reamsbottom's apparently 'prickly' personality. Paul Foot had already reminded us that red-baiting was a standard weapon of the right and that he had actually phoned No10 to confirm reports in The Sun that Blair was "pleased" with the scandalous goings-on in the PCSU - "It's got nothing to do with us," he was unconvincingly assured. Clearly, this attack on the democracy of the union as a whole has to be seen in the broader context of the government's political unease over recent left and Socialist Alliance successes, both in union elections and in opening debate on the political fund. So, while we should pay tribute to Hugh Lanning's willingness to stand up and be counted, this is about Mark's politics. Reamsbottom himself seems pretty clear on this question. In June's issue of PCS View, the union's magazine, he writes that the union has "been saved in the nick of time from the clutches of the far left "¦ I suspect, unknown to you, unrepresentative Trotskyists, old-style communists and their allies have operated your union for the last few years." The PCSU national executive meeting of June 20 saw a staged walkout by the right wing - obviously, for all Reamsbottom's talk of "repairing the danger of the last four years of reckless behaviour" by the left, he and his supporters would prefer to see the union paralysed by civil war rather than allow the left a victory (ibid). This point was emphasised to me by Chris Ford, a leading London PCSU activist. He saw dangers in fighting a battle simply over democracy: "The campaign needs to raise its horizons, to go more onto the political offensive," he said. "It needs to focus more on using this fight to actually remove the Moderates from positions of power. Unless we broaden it, it could lose momentum, as people just wait on the decisions of the courts. "There is certainly anger in the rank and file, but it has not taken strong organisational form yet. Only the activists have been mobilised so far - June 19 was an activists' rally, not a membership rally. We need a political edge - there must have been a 'nod and a wink' from the Blairites. If they get away with it, it will mean de facto derecognition by management in many important departments." This is a general fear. If the right - in cahoots with Labour in some form or another - get away with chopping the head off the left at a leadership level, many suspect the cull will go much deeper. It could encompass others apart from the traditional targets of the right wing, a perception that many people believe accounts for the presence of people in the campaign not normally associated with the left. However, another prominent London activist I spoke to had a different take. He told me that it is vital that this fight is not portrayed as "a referendum on Left Unity policy. It is very important that Membership First are involved. We need to mobilise the centre against Reamsbottom and that can only be done around defence of democracy." Of course, the support and active participation of other trends within the union should be welcomed and actively sought. But we hardly help our fight by depoliticising it. Paul Foot is right when he points out that Mark Serwotka is being attacked because of his politics - his politics are his best weapon of defence, therefore. This PCSU militant did agree that the campaign is too passive at the moment, however: "There is a basic absence of campaign material," he pointed out. "I haven't even seen any circulars yet about the important high court decision on June 21. In particular, some of the branches have seen nothing. It is vital they are involved. This campaign is not just about democracy at the top of the organisation, but about widening and deepening it, drawing more and more members into the debate about what's going on in their own union." Mark Fischer * For more information on the campaign, go to www.voteleftunity.org.uk or www.pcsleftunity.uk7.net * Protests can be faxed to PCSU HQ on 020 7924 1847