PCSU: Conference advance

Group conferences of the civil service-based Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) took place in Scarborough last week. Lee Rock reports

 The largest was that representing members in the department for work and pensions (DWP).

There were approximately 250 branch delegates present for the two-day group conference, on behalf of some 75,000 members working in the DWP. This represents a decent majority of the 120,000 workforce, but shows in itself that there is still a lot of organising to be done.

The centre-left, around the Socialist Party-led Left Unity, started the conference on a high, having just dominated the executive committee elections. With their allies in a centre grouping - PCS Democrats - they had almost swept the board, taking 32 out of 36 seats. A heavy defeat for the right. However, the fact that only 12.9% of members returned ballot papers should be a major concern for all activists. People were elected into senior positions with 4,000 votes - just five percent of the membership! Hardly a vote of confidence.

Conference itself was relatively flat. The right wing were nowhere to be seen and the opposition to the Left Unity-dominated executive came from Socialist Caucus. Socialist Caucus is a healthy rank-and-filist grouping that has members and supporters of the CPGB, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power, International Socialist Group/Resistance, Workers Action, Socialist Alliance, Labour Party, as well as non-aligned individuals, belonging to it.

The main areas of contention came around a censure of the executive for recommending to members a poor pay deal last year and a debate over the relative merits of flat-rate and percentage increases in future pay claims.

The censure motion on 2002 pay was fortunate to be heard. The standing orders committee, which supports the executive, buried it in ninth place in the section for guillotined motions. Fortunately Socialist Caucus comrades were able to organise the floor to quickly move through the other resolutions in order for it to be heard - it was the last to be taken at the conference. It was powerfully moved by Chris Ford (West London branch) and seconded by George Thompson (North East London). Also making a strong speech in favour was Charlie McDonald (East London). All of these comrades are members of Socialist Caucus.

The comrades argued that many members were still on levels of poverty pay - tens of thousand earn less than the European decency threshold of £15,750 per year - and that the executive had broken conference policy in recommending acceptance of such an offer. The main speech defending the executive came from John McInally (Avon branch), a member of the Socialist Party. The speech from McInally was a comedy routine and, as usual for this individual, completely devoid of political content. The seven or eight Socialist Workers Party delegates made no contribution to the debate.

The role of the SWP comrades was bizarre and rather pathetic. They were unable to put out a leaflet criticising the executive on any issue. At least four of their delegates made speeches during the two days, but not one of them made any critical comments about the executive. Their policy is clearly one of sucking up to the Socialist Party in the hope of obtaining seats on the executive for themselves. Their convenor - Martin John (Sheffield Head Office) - went so far as to speak against a motion moved by Lanarkshire branch that called for flat-rate pay increases rather than percentage increases. The SWP position was that we must not alienate middle management, as they are members of the union and we need their support for our campaigns!

Speaking for North East London branch, I opposed this nonsense and argued the socialist position in support of the motion: flat-rate increases benefit the lower paid and our campaigns will be fought by the lower grade members, who make up the vast majority of the membership, not the office managers. The motion was very narrowly defeated on a show of hands. This was a very encouraging vote, taking into account that the executive and Left Unity were opposed to the motion and the SWP were providing left cover.

Another important debate was around an emergency motion from Sheffield that called for a campaign to oppose plans to lengthen opening hours for local job centres and social security offices (SSOs). Management intends to extend the hours in job centres from 4.30pm to 5pm and SSOs from 3.30pm to 4.30pm. They are also pushing for many offices to stay open until 6pm one evening a week, and Saturday mornings is also a possibility. Socialist Caucus had a well-attended fringe meeting in the lunchtime prior to the conference debate, where a campaign to oppose extended opening hours was launched.

At the conference itself the motion was moved by Socialist Caucus member Bev Laidlaw (Sheffield). I also spoke in favour of the motion and pointed out that members faced two dangers: the employer and the inactivity of the executive. I stated that branches would need to organise at an office level to oppose management plans. This organisation and campaigning would of necessity involve not just work-to-rules but also walkouts. The motion was overwhelmingly carried.

Other important motions carried included: campaigning against staff cuts; opposition to performance-related pay; defending victimised reps; opposition to management sick rules; and opposition to the proposed new facility arrangements.

Socialist Caucus had a very successful conference. It provided the only opposition to the passivity of the executive. A number of excellent activists joined the organisation, including two SWP comrades! Several quality bulletins were issued to delegates. Two well-attended fringe meetings took place (where 25 copies of the Weekly Worker were sold) and the best social of the three nights was, once again, Club Caucus, where 150 delegates and observers continued the debates in a variety of ways long through the night.

Lee Rock
PCSU DWP London regional organiser (personal capacity)