PCS is at a crossroads. Having failed to break the 50% threshold in our first national ballot since the Trade Union Act came into force, we still have to deal with a government and employers on the offensive against our members. All whilst the ruling Left Unity (LU) faction digs the trenches for a bitter civil war. Where do we go from here?
When it was first announced, ahead of the union’s annual conference in May, President Janice Godrich’s decision to stand for Assistant General Secretary against incumbent Chris Baugh raised eyebrows. The Socialist Party, of which both were members but which backed Chris as AGS, was incandescent.
Others at Conference had a mildly entertaining source of gossip as the dividing lines were drawn up. Many of us wondered at the decision to put all this in the public domain right as the union was set to debate a national strike ballot over pay which would be our biggest test in recent years.
Thankfully, the spat never took off beyond a few Facebook rows and some tension at Conference. Not only would it have diverted from the pay ballot, but it would have widened the divide between the PCS leadership and members. Less than 10% vote in national elections, and there’s little reason to expect a dramatic shift from that in the AGS vote. If they don’t care who is AGS, why would the dispute over who is LU’s candidate to be AGS or the SP’s candidate to be LU’s candidate to be AGS bother them?
But with the pay ballot now a month in the past, the battle within LU has flared into life again. Support for Janice has coalesced into ‘Socialist View,’ a faction-within-a-faction. The Socialist Workers’ Party has, to nobody’s surprise, backed Janice because that goes against the SP. The SP, in their turn, have dedicated nearly 5,000 words to all the apparent shortcomings of LU’s leadership of the union. Of course, the SP valiantly tried in vain to set things right with only a commanding majority in the faction, but now have no choice to reveal it all now that it appears electorally beneficial to do so, instead of denying or justifying it as they had previously.
This utter farce may be amusing at a distance. But sadly, it’s all going on right when the union needs to regroup after the pay ballot result, when pay battles at Group and branch bargaining unit level are still going on – most notably in the Ministry of Justice, and when it’s clear that in some areas PCS needs to be entirely rebuilt from the ground up. Neither LU candidate is offering that, because LU itself is a significant part of the problem.
Not a broad left but a fighting rank-and-file
The SP is now claiming, as many of us have known for a long while, that PCS has been beset by creeping bureaucratisation and the handing of control from lay reps to full time officers. However, they were part of the problem, and their analysis of how it arose and how it can be changed misses the mark.
Despite their claims, there was never any great effort to democratise and transform PCS. The wholesale corruption of the old right wing is gone, of course, but this merely moves us back into line with the mainstream of the Trades Union Congress. The occasional left rhetoric cannot disguise that. Whilst the blame is placed upon Mark Serwotka for not acting on a motion to increase the number of senior full-time posts that are subject to election, the fact is that this motion itself only emerged late in LU’s (and the SP’s) dominance over the union structures. Other measures that should go alongside this, such as the principle of workers’ representatives only taking a worker’s wage, have consistently been resisted.
Both sides of LU remain wedded to the ‘broad left’ model of organising, trusting that putting the right people in positions of influence is enough to set things right. They can, from above, guide members to the fight and counter the pressure upon all union leaderships to reach an accommodation with the bosses. This is of course nonsense.
What we have seen in practice is that LU wasn’t the victim of creeping bureaucratisation but that from the off it transplanted its own into the pre-existing bureaucracy. Jobs for the boys/party members. Meanwhile, it cemented its own power by recruiting and expanding in the apolitical way that cults do – establishing loyalties through friendship before making membership part of that friendship, so that instead of political allegiance you have out-group hostility where disagreement is immediately taken as (and in consequence, from them often manifests as) personal attack.
Trade union leaderships, left or right, will always face pressure to accommodate the bosses. It’s part of the job – why would they give the union a seat at the table if they couldn’t keep their members in line once a deal is made? And if everything is run from the top down, as in the broad left model, there’s no counter pressure.
Negotiators aren’t able to win concessions from the employer through their wits and silver tongues, whatever some may claim. The bosses will talk and make a deal when the union has leverage – a strength of numbers and feeling that, if not assuaged, could threaten disruption. But if that leverage is controlled from the top, as in the way PCS have tended to run things with members moved like chess pieces when convenient, it’s essentially a bluff.
To go beyond that, we need a movement organised from the bottom up. Not a broad left, but a rank-and-file which can cause disruption for the bosses if they won’t bargain – and a headache for the negotiators if they give too much away or reach a compromise the workforce aren’t happy with.
This is the other piece of the puzzle. We need a change in leadership, of course – the Independent Left doesn’t exist because we think LU are doing a great job. But we also need a membership organised and confident enough to put pressure on and hold any leadership to account – and to act independently of the leadership, if necessary.
The need for a pay conference
The last meeting of the NEC agreed to discuss in September the date for an ‘event’ around pay. There was some disagreement over this, with the SP arguing for it to be held urgently in September or October whilst the rest of LU supported the idea of it being in November or January.
The date such an event is held isn’t the key issue here. It certainly shouldn’t be put off into the new year, nor held so hastily that there is no chance for all members to have input into it. Far more crucial – as the Independent Left’s member on the NEC, Phil Dickens, argued – is that branches are encouraged to hold members’ meetings ahead of time in order to properly mandate delegates so that it can be as democratic an event as possible.
Members in many areas question why we are still asking for 5%, a claim now several years old, when our pay has fallen an average of 12-14% behind the cost of living. During the ballot, it became clear that many expected a positive result to lead to a one-day strike or a series of one day strikes. A special delegate conference on pay is the chance to properly engage members on these points, amongst others, and to get the broadest possible buy in for both demands and a strategy that are far more radical than anything we’ve ever put forward before.
It is also a chance to see what other issues fit well alongside pay in a national campaign. The employer is determined to link pay to terms and conditions, and we should seriously discuss whether our answer to that is radical demands for vastly improved conditions as well.
Build the Fighting Fund
Independent Left members argued for years that the union needed a fighting fund for prolonged selective action. Now that we finally have one, it is coming up short in terms of money and no serious effort has yet been made to build it.
Part of the problem is that not enough members are paying into the levy, which does need greater take up. But as both the National Gallery and the Merseyside ISS disputes showed, this is only part of the battle. Great amounts of money can be made through crowdfunding, bucket collections, motions of solidarity at trades council meetings, and more.
On a more ambitious scale, fundraising events are a way to at once fill the coffers and build a cohesive sense of community around the union. The film Pride covers the Pits and Perverts concert organised by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whilst all the current talk in the media of reviving the Anti Nazi League should remind us of the massive carnivals that they organised to bring in money.
The trade union movement is still capable of organising such things, on both a local and national scale, and there needs to be a serious push to do it. If we put the work in, the target agreed by Conference of £2m by 2020 will appear under-ambitious.
Organise outsourced workers
Across the government estate, there are a great many outsourced workers. Those who have either been privatised or brought in as contractors are occasionally PCS members, but more often they’re not – and no serious effort has been made to organise them on a national scale.
The recent three-day strike at the Ministry of Justice by cleaners in the United Voices of the World union puts this into stark relief. Whilst the Culture Sector is ahead of the curve in this area, perhaps because their members have overwhelmingly been privatised across the board, the scenes at Petty France were unprecedented across most of PCS. The vibrancy and militancy of the picket even put the higher density areas of the civil service to shame!
The UVW’s efforts should be applauded. But PCS should not be waiting on another union to come along and do this work, it is something we need to be doing ourselves.
We know the reasons why it isn’t. When Bootle Taxes Branch were trying to get their ISS campaign off the ground, they were discouraged at every turn and the union’s organising department bluntly deemed it not worth the full-time resource. Fortunately, the branch dragged the union along with them by doing it anyway, but should we really have to fight the union to organise in this area?
A coordinated fight for better pay and conditions across in house and outsourced staff would boost the confidence of both. Victories would create an upward pressure on wages. Perhaps most crucially, a serious commitment to organising privatised staff undermines the main incentive of privatisation – cutting costs and eroding workplace rights. The task is as urgent as any in the union.
Let’s do something about it!
PCS Independent Left will continue to consistently argue for the concrete change needed to put our union on the front foot. We will stand candidates in elections on that platform, including for the hotly-contested AGS post. We will also continue to put our money where our mouth is by working to make it happen in our branches, our groups and nationally.
Do you agree with what we’re arguing for? Why not join us and get involved?