PCS: Dishonest debates
Tina Becker reports from the May 21-23 conference of the Public and Commercial Services Union
The Public and Commercial Services Union is in big trouble. Many of the early austerity measures forced through by the Con-Dem government have been aimed at public sector workers. The aim was to reduce the number of civil servants by 20% - and they are not far off achieving it. Fourteen percent of civil service jobs - 72,400 posts - have been cut since the coalition was elected, pay has been frozen, pension contributions increased, the retirement age raised and terms and conditions attacked. Accordingly, PCS membership has shrunk by almost 12,000 in the 12 months to September 2012 and now stands at just below 263,000.1
In addition, the government has been attacking the facility time for trade union representatives. More people are being sacked on more spurious grounds - and union reps have less time to fight back. This also affected this year’s conference: no longer are delegates from several government departments allowed special leave to attend; rather, they have to take annual leave. The group conference of the department for work and pensions (DWP), in which about 30% of the delegates are employed, was markedly smaller than last year. There were a number of branches that were unable to arrange for any of their elected delegates to attend because of the new restrictions, which may well be introduced to all departments from 2014.
The union’s fightback against these attacks has been hampered by the hesitancy of other unions. Last year’s conference committed the PCS to fight - but only if, for example, Unite and the National Union of Teachers were willing to participate in joint action. However, those soon proved resistant to pressure and so the PCS decided to go it alone after all: there has been short-term “rolling strike action” by various departments, which is aimed at “disrupting the employer’s activities”. In some workplaces, PCS members walked out for an hour or two. This tactic will continue in the foreseeable future, “because it doesn’t look as if the TUC will call a general strike any time soon”, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka put it. There will be localised action throughout the year. Plus, starting on Monday June 3, the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs will call out members in two regions (about half the union’s membership) for a day each. At the end of June, it looks like there will be localised, joint action with the NUT.
But a long-term all-out strike by PCS that could actually put pressure on the government seems pretty unrealistic for a number of reasons, mainly financial. For example, the union does not have a strike fund, so members are not compensated for loss of wages. Last year, conference overwhelmingly rejected a motion to set up even a voluntary strike levy.
However, this year Mark Serwotka simply announced that the national executive committee would look into setting up a strike fund. “Not everybody in the union likes it, but I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary in order to organise effectively.” Clearly, some very painful lessons have been learnt in the last 12 months. It is just a shame that rather than openly discussing the mistakes that have been made, every conference feels like a totally new, unconnected event. Some of the motions seemed to want to skirt around difficult questions.
Merger with Unite
Take the first big debate at conference, which was “about forming a closer working relationship with Unite”, as Serwotka put it. Everybody in the hall knew that, in reality, this was about the merger of the two unions. The PCS is in dire financial trouble - chiefly because of the fall in membership the union incurred “net liabilities of £3.2 million” in the 12 months to December 2012, compared to “net assets at December 2011 of £687,000”.2
It does not help that a whopping 57% of the union’s total outgoings of £29.9 million was spent on employment - that means £17 million paid to the 271 PCS employees, or just over £70,500 per staff member (which includes pensions, national insurance contributions, etc). By comparison, the even smaller Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union RMT spends ‘just’ 40% of its income on its employees. A couple of PCS employees are on pay band 7, the maximum of which is £89,847. Still, a rather tame motion that sought to make sure that “full-time officer pay rates in PCS are much closer to the pay received by the majority of PCS members” was heavily defeated.
The union leadership has taken some measures to counter the effect of the loss of membership, but things could easily get worse. No wonder then that rumours of a merger with the mighty Unite union have been doing the rounds for a few years.
The formulation in the actual motion was curiously dishonest, however. After listing reason after reason why a merger would be a good idea, we find the following crucial sentence: “If approached by Unite, the NEC is authorised to open discussions on a merger.” In other words, the PCS would not take an active role in pursuing the merger.
Clearly, this dishonest formulation was supposed to win over the very sceptical membership. And opposition to a merger is huge, despite the obvious advantages of building a bigger union. “With almost two million members in Unite, this would in reality be a takeover, not a merger,” said one delegate. The PCS is, on the whole, more democratic and membership-driven. Unite has, for example, just closed dozens of area branches without consulting the members, as a furious conference delegate pointed out.
And there is, of course, the elephant in the room: the Labour Party. Unite is affiliated to it; PCS is not. The motion only talked about the “Tory/Lib Dem government’s brutal and damaging cuts programme”. One delegate asked: “Does that mean we would not oppose such attacks if they came from a Labour government?” A couple of others raised the possibility that the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which effectively runs the union through its Left Unity platform, supported Len McCluskey over Jerry Hicks in the recent Unite elections so as “to not endanger the merger”. It sounds plausible. Clearly, SPEW comrades are hoping that, in return for pushing the merger forward, they will keep most of their jobs and at least some of their leadership positions. We are reliably told that the PCS employs 15 members of the Socialist Party.
Rather than discussing the issue of the Labour Party properly, supporter after supporter of the NEC position merely insisted that delegates should read the motion properly, as it “does not tie us to a merger”. Coming back to defend the motion, Mark Serwotka was the only one who at least made an effort to address some of the concerns. “We have real difficulties on our own, because we are a lone voice fighting against the attacks”, he said, somewhat ignoring the fact that Unite is hardly putting up a huge fight. “But if the price paid was affiliation to Labour, if our members had to pay into the political fund, we would not go ahead,” he promised. But things change quickly and so do the principles of trade union leaders. In the end, the vote was too close to call and a card vote had to be taken: 109,620 voted in favour, 100,493 against.
For a union that is so proud of its fighting and political edge, it is curious that, when it comes to UK politics, it has been somewhat lost in the wilderness (though it has to be said that Labour MP John McDonnell has done sterling work in the PCS parliamentary group).
In 2005, PCS voted to establish a “political fund” that would allow it to intervene in “and between” elections. In 2007 it first established a ‘check list’ of “our key industrial issues” and put them to parliamentary candidates, publishing their answers online. In a ballot in June 2012, members endorsed the proposal that the union “has the authority to stand or support candidates in elections, in exceptional circumstances, where it would help our campaigns to save jobs, stop office closures and defend public services.”3
Not necessarily a bad political strategy. But the real problem is that, in reality, SPEW still wants to stick with the stillborn Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Similarly dishonest was the only other big debate at conference: what position, if any, should the PCS take in the Scottish referendum in the autumn of 2014?
The NEC had put forward a motion that argued pretty openly in favour of independence. It sought conference’s approval, for example, to “highlight the potential impact of the proposed independence model upon the employment conditions of members in Scotland”, to “promote a Scottish alternative vision of investing in public services” and “promoting a Scotland which improves workers’ rights, trade union freedoms, social justice and equalities”.4
This position would have been totally in line with the view of SPEW, which supports a ‘yes’ vote, “while campaigning for an independent socialist Scotland as the only viable solution to the fundamental issues facing the working class and young people.”5
However, in the run-up to conference it became clear that opposition to a ‘yes’ was stronger than anticipated, with various branches submitting motions to commit the PCS either not to take a position at all or to call for a ‘no’ (the latter being pushed by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty).
So the NEC decided, on rather spurious grounds, to withdraw its original submission in favour of on “emergency motion”, which turned out to be far more neutral on the issue of independence. It did, however, call for a special conference of Scottish branches, which would make a recommendation to the PCS nationally on “whether the PCS should adopt a stance for or against independence”. A cop-out, in other words.
Nevertheless, many delegates were not so easily fooled and quite rightly attacked the movers (rather than the mealy-mouthed motion) for their illusions in the prospect of socialism in Scotland. “There is nothing naturally socialist about people in Scotland,” one delegate said. Another pointed out that the referendum “will not ask if you’re in favour of a socialist Scotland; it will ask if you’re in favour of an independent Scotland on capitalist terms”. AWL member Charlie McDonald argued against leaving it to PCS members in Scotland to take the decision, “which will affect the other 90% of PCS members. This is about breaking up the historically constituted working class in Britain”. Dave Vincent correctly asked: “Have we learned nothing from Stalinism? You can’t have socialism in one country. Scottish and English workers have more in common with each other than Scottish workers and Scottish bosses.”
But support for the motion was equally vocal. A delegate from Scotland furiously told conference: “I won’t be patronised by members from England on this question.” Another one demanded that “the PCS must put internationalism at the heart of the pro-independence debate”. Sounds like a contradiction to me. Another PCS member thought it outrageous that people in England should tell Scots what to do. And, anyway, Scottish nationalists are not like nasty British nationalists: “Scottish nationalists include everybody who lives in Scotland.” After a long, fractious debate, the motion was won with about two thirds of delegates voting for it.
This might be one of the last political issues that the PCS will be campaigning on before it becomes part of the much larger Unite union. Not a great heritage.
1. National organising strategy - PCS brochure released at the 2013 annual conference.
2. PCS finance report 2013: www.pcs.org.uk/en/resources/finance/index.cfm.
4. Motion A86.