It was fair to say that opinion was split on whether this is the right way forward. On a card vote, the motion passed by a narrow margin of 62,676 to 60,991, and many branches argued for an alternative strategy with two rival motions suggesting different approaches. PCS Independent Left were amongst those who felt something different might be needed, and that committing so rigidly to a third aggregate ballot would be unnecessarily limiting.
Nonetheless, now that the debate is done this is the agreed strategy of the union. It is important that we discuss our strategy openly and robustly, but it is equally important that we win. Theresa May is going, but unless there’s a General Election around the corner she isn’t about to take pay restraint in the civil service (or any of the other horrendous policies the government is implement) with her.
To beat the pay cap, we need to beat the Trade Union Act ballot turnout threshold. If we’re going to do that, then there are a number of things that need to happen.
The campaign must begin now
One thing PCS desperately needs to improve on is its ability to build and maintain momentum. The NEC agreed a second ballot almost straight away after the first failed to pass the 50% threshold, and yet in the intervening months the delay before the campaign began was interminable.
Some might say this was due to what became a protracted and entrenched debate over whether we should have an aggregate ballot or coordinated but disaggregated ballots, the latter option allowing individual groups who got over the line to take action whilst those who didn’t regrouped to try again. We would disagree; regardless of which form the ballot took, there was plenty of organising, agitating and campaigning activity which could have begun in earnest following the decision being initially taken in July. Instead, the campaign proper began in the new year with just a few weeks before the launch of the new ballot.
That cannot happen again. With the debate on aggregation or disaggregation settled by conference, there’s now no excuse to delay. We need to be in campaign mode from this very second, laying the ground for what must be a decisive win if we are to stave off the very real threat of demoralisation.
Deep, systematic organising
Knowing that there will be another ballot coming, there’s a lot that branches with experienced organisers and organising teams can do. Many branches will be able to build upon their hard work from the last two ballots; mapping out their workplaces, identifying the areas and individuals who need to be engaged with to bring them on board with the campaign, increasing the number of activists involved in the work, and so on.
The ERS turnout data from the most recent ballot and the detail recorded in the app can help immeasurably with this and needs to be made available as soon as possible. We also look forward to the app re-emerging as a general-purpose organising tool, facilitating the one on one conversations and mapping that branches need to be engaged in.
The union centrally does need to take a more proactive coordinating role, however. Not just providing useful data to branches already well equipped to deliver high ballot turnouts, but giving branches not in that position the resources, skills and tools to get into a similar position. This means training, for those who may not be as familiar or as confident in deep organising methods. It means engagement, working with branches so they feel supported and listened to rather than put upon. Fundamentally, it means working to identify and raise up lay leaders, building the structure needed to win in the workplace rather than providing full time officials as a substitute for that.
Doing all of this and doing it well requires being systematic. The PCS Organising Department has done incredible work in identifying what needs to be done and providing the tools to enable that, but all too often in the last ballot it felt like other parts of the union cut across that. The last-minute kick off to the campaign left full time officials running around frantically, trying to deliver the vote, rather than taking their time to identify and support the workers on the ground who would deliver the vote. Targets dictated deployment; PCS staff parachuted in when the app showed a branch wasn’t doing too well, and dragged straight back out once the magic 50% was achieved.
None of this was the fault of those staff, who like lay reps should be commended for their efforts. But panic isn’t the driver of a systematic approach, and panic was the clear driver of management decisions in the regional offices. That cannot be the way we take things forward this time.
We need to win members over to our strategy
Since before the consultative ballot in 2018, the union has had a clear strategy to win on pay. National strike action to be supplemented by longer term, targeted action in strategic areas, with the wages of those taking that action paid for by the Fighting Fund.
The problem is, even now, many members still don’t know that. After the first statutory ballot involved lots of reps having conversations with members who weren’t supporting action because they didn’t think sporadic, one day strikes had any effect, the NEC agreed that the second ballot should involve clearly fleshing out and communicating the paid, selective action strategy to members. However, as you may have noticed, that didn’t happen.
Towards the end of the first ballot, there was a consultation with groups about what areas should be engaged in such action. The National Disputes Committee was tasked with drawing up a detailed strategy on the back of this. No such strategy has yet come to the NEC, and communications to members haven’t gotten this across.
This has to change. Upping our organising efforts and making them more systematic may well improve turnout to the extent that we get across the line. But to do so decisively, and then once we’ve won the ballot to win the dispute, we need a strategy that can win – and that members believe can win.
Fighting to win
PCS Independent Left members will be arguing these points on the NEC, as we believe they are vital to actually deliver victory in this campaign. At the same time, there is a lot that branches can do, and in many places they are.
Branches using town committees to link up with one another directly and share resources and best practice, the development of local leaflets, bulletins and other propaganda to agitate amongst the membership, holding public meetings, rallies, social events and so on to engage with members. All of these things will be crucial to building up real rank and file strength across PCS.
The national union cannot, and should not, seek to dictate such activity from above or substitute itself for the workers in the offices. But if central activity is more systematic, hitting the ground running now and seeking to communicate an effective strategy to win, then it can be the accelerant that turn a thousand sparks into a fire this government cannot extinguish.