Now that the union is on course for another national ballot in March 2019, a key question is what we need to do in order to this time beat the 50% turnout threshold imposed by the law. One element of this is considering whether a disaggregated ballot would stand us in better stead.
What does this mean?
The civil service is the largest ballot constituency in the trade union movement. Whilst other unions are larger than PCS, their membership is spread across a great many employers in the public and private sector. No other union is likely to need to take such a large number of members into a dispute at once as PCS, and certainly not on any kind of regular basis.
A disaggregated ballot, simply, breaks that massive ballot into more manageable chunks. The civil service ballot becomes separate ballots of HMRC, DWP, HSE, DfT, Land Registry, Home Office, Ministry of Justice, etc, synchronised to occur in tandem.
The UCU did this for their dispute over pensions recently and have just done it again regarding pay, balloting each university and college individually. Unlike PCS’s last ballot where it was all or nothing, in this scenario those who passed the 50% threshold were in a position to take action – and those who didn’t could regroup and re-ballot.
Isn’t our fight with the government, rather than individual departments?
Absolutely. This is why the ballots would be coordinated and on the basis of common demands over pay. There would need to be national oversight of the campaign and what a settlement would look like, and the NEC would need to use the leverage of the ballot in talks with the Cabinet Office.
In other words, the only difference in a disaggregated ballot from an aggregated ballot is in the practicalities of the vote itself.
But isn’t one department as likely to beat the threshold as another?
We all know well that levels of organisation differ starkly across the union, and this would more than likely be represented in the spread of results.
If this is the case, the entire civil service doesn’t have to be held back by the sections who still have work to do. Those sections can take stock of they don’t cross the threshold and use the results and action elsewhere as part of their efforts to agitate and inspire members when moving to re-ballot.
If it’s not, then we will see that in all sections crossing the threshold – meaning there is no difference to an aggregated ballot in outcome. There is a far greater risk of the union falling short in an aggregated ballot than a disaggregated one.
This makes a disaggregated ballot sound like a sensible practical measure. What’s the elephant in the room?
The elephant in the room is the split in the Left Unity faction. There’s a civil war on between supporters of Chris Baugh, the incumbent Assistant General Secretary of the union, and of PCS President Janice Godrich, who wants the post.
The reason this matters in the question of aggregate or disaggregate ballots is that the split is the result of General Secretary Mark Serwotka wanting Baugh gone for not being an unquestioning disciple. It’s entirely personal, and so political and strategic differences are being manufactured to disguise the fact. This in turn means that every question becomes one of which side you support rather than being considered on its own merits.
Chris Baugh is amongst those arguing for disaggregated ballots, and therefore the idea is opposed as a knee-jerk reaction by the Serwotka-Godrich axis.
None of the opposition holds up to serious scrutiny. In fact, it is all based not on disaggregated ballots in and of themselves but on disaggregated ballots combined with rolling up demands on terms and conditions into the national pay campaign. Whilst this may be what some of Chris Baugh’s supporters are arguing, it is not an approach the Independent Left favour, since we have seen the “laundry list” approach to demands in the past – usually when responding to the failure of individual disputes by lumping them together. The fact is that opposition to adding demands on terms and conditions to a dispute over pay is not a serious argument against disaggregated ballots as part of a national pay campaign with proper coordination by the NEC.
The ballot in March 2019 will be a crucial test of the union. That we may lose it on the basis of personal dislike and resultant childish spats amongst those running the union is yet another reason we need a change in leadership.