PCS left backs off from strikes

Dave Vincent calls for joint action with other unions

This year’s conference of Left Unity, the controlling faction in the Public and Commercial Services union dominated by the Socialist Party, is being held in Manchester on Saturday December 6.

PCS long ago routed the right and has a leftwing president, general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and a left-controlled national executive. This leadership, allied to the fact that PCS is not affiliated to the Labour Party, explains why it is the most militant union today, forthrightly defending public services and fighting back against low pay, under-resourcing and privatisation. However, it is clear from the conference agenda that it now views strike action as unrealistic.

This conference will decide, via motions sent in from Left Unity regions, the direction and policies LU is to take over the coming year - both for itself as a union tendency and to be argued for at the PCS national conference in May 2009. It also determines - first via nomination from regions, then by individual votes at the conference - LU candidates for the PCS 2009 NEC and certain officer positions to be elected in April-May.

With the departure from Left Unity of most members of what was Socialist Caucus to the rival Independent Left, there seems to be no conflict now between any of the 28 motions submitted. Probably all will be carried overwhelmingly, making LU look very unified, but it is worth examining what political ideas are dominant.

Let us leave aside the fact that many motions are drafted in a way that confuses whether Left Unity is expected to implement them by itself or through the NEC or PCS. Often they are grandly worded statements that do not actually instruct anybody to do anything (worthy, but posturing for the audience), have an incredible range of (sometimes conflicting) demands, or cover many subjects that should all be separate motions in themselves. Most should have been X-marked. This may seem pedantic, but badly worded motions will not make it to PCS conference or will attract a lot of opposition and be voted down when there are some good aims buried within.

There are three motions under ‘World economic crisis’, which are all likely to be carried. Motion 1 calls for complete nationalisation of the entire banking sector, along with all public utilities and transport, an end to the employment of consultants and to work measurement (and lots more that space precludes me from setting out), for national pay bargaining, the ending of the treasury pay remit system … oh, and for the PCS 2008 pay claim to be met in full. Finally there is a call for a national demonstration to be called by the TUC - apparently against bankers and workers being made to pay for their crisis (the motion is that vague).

Motion 2 is in similar vein - nationalisation of the banks and another nine-point list of worthy yet disparate measures, such as a windfall tax on energy multinationals, housing repossessions halted, supporting groups of workers taking action to defend pay, pensions, jobs, a TUC national demonstration - this time against pay cuts and increasing unemployment “in line with the motion passed at this year’s TUC conference” and a plug for the People Before Profit charter (with yet another nine-point list of their aims included!).

Motion 3 is much shorter - it mentions job losses, poverty, repossessions, the need for vital public services and more civil servants, and manages to tie this into pushing the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign. It also opposes the “bosses’ bonus culture”, privatisation and job losses.

So there is no call for industrial action on any of these issues - just TUC national demonstrations and campaigns (to back up existing policies that are ignored by most affiliated unions). This, under the section entitled ‘World economic crisis’, no less. I don’t think the capitalists are fearing a revolution just yet.

Moving on to ‘Pay, public services and the national campaign’, motion 4 sings the praises of the PCS leadership’s strategy. But there is no questioning of why the ballot for strike action was 54% - the lowest in memory. Motion 5 instructs the NEC to build a national campaign of public sector workers, and calls for a national demonstration (what, not organised by the TUC?) in defence of public services. No mention of industrial action.

Motion 7 focuses on the ministry of justice £1 billion savings requirement, with the consequent expected 10,000 job losses and 100 court closures. And to fight all this is there a call for industrial action? Er, no - for a strong communications network between the justice and law organisations (MOJ, Metropolitan Police, home office, etc). With concerns over ID cards, the police DNA database and loss of confidential records, I think we need less communications between state agencies, not more. It also calls for the lobbying of MPs (including Labour MPs who are voting through these cuts?)

Motion 8 calls for the government to halt its cuts programme and “to invest in public services that can meet the need of the people”.

On‘The far right’, there are two motions calling on Left Unity to undertake more anti-fascist work alongside organisations such as Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight and, in both motions, yet more calls to employ the PCS Make Your Vote Count campaign. Comrades seem really rattled by my calling this campaign into question at this year’s PCS national conference. Once again I ask, how do you make your vote count? By voting Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, for instance? PCS never says.

There are the usual tokenistic statements and commitments under ‘Equality’ calling on PCS to involve more young workers by campaigning around ‘young people’s issues’ (get them young into the Socialist Party?) and the demand for equality matters to be given higher priority. Another motion details the type of venue we must use for meetings, with a list of considerations - wheelchair access facilities, timing, nice safe area, etc - to cater for all possible diversity requirements. All very well, but it completely misses the point: most people are not interested in attending meetings of the left and will not even think about the suitability of the venue. How on earth did the suffragettes, the Chartists or anti-slavery movements ever get off the ground without this careful PC choice of meeting place?

There are more worthy motions under ‘Welfare reform/child poverty’, with more lists of disparate demands. Again there are no proposals for industrial action - just more campaigns to be mounted and the call for the drafting of “an alternative vision of what the welfare provision should be” (with no suggested ideas).

I was gobsmacked to see a motion suggesting the Make Your Vote Count campaign should allow members to use the PCS political fund to support candidates that stand for PCS policies on privatisation, welfare, public sector pay and trade union rights (but no stipulation that they should also be anti-war and anti-fascist). Readers of the Weekly Worker may recall I put forward a very similar (but better) motion at the 2007 PCS conference which the left voted down!

This motion is only proposed by one region, so it may well be quashed again. Nevertheless, someone has either been reading the Weekly Worker or heard me try this previously.

Last year I questioned the continuation of the supposedly temporary pact between Left Unity and an odd body calling itself PCS Democrats, packaged under the cynical, bland-sounding ‘Democracy Alliance’ name last year. Now a two-page paper has been sent out justifying the pact once again.

The threat of the right gaining control of the NEC is real, however. This year three rightwingers were elected, seven more were only displaced by departmental limitations and another eight were just 1,000 votes away from winning a seat on very low turnouts.

The Independent Left came third, but were way off the votes needed, with some non-faction-backed independents doing better. IL has just held its annual conference, which went unreported in the Weekly Worker. I do not know its strategy for 2009 yet, but I am sure IL will contest the NEC elections again.

PCS has three reserved seats for black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates - who have to be in Left Unity to get elected. Anyone falling out of favour gets nowhere. There are a couple of non-SP BME comrades challenging for the Left Unity NEC places, but, given they are only backed by one region, they are sure to fail in their bid to win LU backing.

The Left Unity conference takes place against the background of the cancellation of the national strike set for November 10. The National Union of Teachers decided not to go ahead with its own strike after winning just 51% for action (PCS had been prepared to go ahead with just 54%). Now healthworkers have voted for industrial action and look set to strike in the new year. Their union leaders lauded the recent pre-budget report, however - which gives you an idea of how determined they will be to take action against the Labour government.

In these circumstances, if the PCS NEC makes the wrong tactical decision over pay, it could face unprecedented criticism at the annual conference in May 2009 and even allow the right to win control of the executive. It seems to me that the members’ mood for a battle over pay is fading and will not be on unless we can mount joint action with other unions.