The Pay Campaign in 2020

The National Executive Committee (NEC) met on 4 June to agree a number of initial campaigning actions in pursuit of both the national pay claim and the union’s five tests for safe working.

Though the campaigning actions set out were fairly straightforward, they were not without controversy as members of the Socialist Party (SP) proposed a motion in opposition to the main paper. They set their position out, broadly, in this article on their website. A number of things in this article worth addressing.

The Independent Left (IL) has significant criticisms of the union leadership’s approach on campaigning, which we have raised previously and will also touch on here. However, we believe that the only principle in the SP’s criticisms is reinstating their control of the union, as they were in the big tent during most of the last two decades – including “pay campaigns” that consisted entirely of bi-annual one day strikes and a number of other wholly lacklustre positions which the IL and others have used Conference and other fora to push the union away from.

Before getting onto the subject of the most recent meeting, the SP article begins with this:

Within weeks of the NEC agreeing the claim, a PCS senior officers meeting watered down the pay demand to “an above inflation increase”. This unmandated ‘interim’ claim went to the employer days before a February meeting of the NEC, which was faced with a fait accompli.

The interim demand was exactly that – ‘look, until we can have the talks about the remit and our 10% claim, give us an above inflation pay rise to recognise our work in the crisis.’ Whether you agree with that approach or not, it was always that and meant to elicit a rapid response, with negotiations when they came still focused on 10%. It is possible to agree or disagree with this approach without that dishonest framing.

Plus, alongside that the union asked for no cuts to the redundancy scheme and no job cuts, and the response there was a lot closer to what was asked for.

The SP also claim that “At the recent NEC meeting the original [pay] claim was reinstated.” However, it wasn’t that recent. It was two or three NECs ago when the IL moved an amendment which committed PCS to pushing on the full 10% claim due to the lack of response to the interim claim. It passed without controversy.

We then move towards the substance of the motion the SP raised at the last NEC, by raising their criticism of the current approach:

But with no campaign in the intervening period, and no real national campaign going forward, there is a risk of a further year’s pay stagnation.

The trouble with this claim is that we’ve had a decade of pay restraint where for most if it (with the SP in charge) the pay campaign existed in name only, so even if this was true, it would be hard to say what was new there.

As it happens though, the recommendations passed on 4 June explicitly referred to organising work and structure tests in the membership in order to build towards a statutory ballot, which Mark Serwotka signalled would potentially come in the Autumn.

The union is going to be launching a petition on the UK government website. Hardly the most revolutionary of activities on its own. However, the explicit aim of this is to use it as a tool – on the one hand to mobilise our political campaigning around, and on the other to use the Organising App to record conversations with members and their commitment to signing the petition.

If we aren’t in a position to convince ten thousand of our members to sign it in order to force a government response, and from there a hundred thousand members to sign so that there has to be a parliamentary debate, then it’s harder to be confident we can get over ninety thousand members to vote in a statutory industrial action ballot and give us a turnout above 50% as required by the law.

In opposition to this approach:

A motion put to the NEC by Broad Left Network supporters called for a campaign of opposition to the government’s pay remit (cap), leading to a consultative ballot for industrial action, and raised the possibility of a statutory strike ballot. This motion was not allowed to be debated.

The IL supported the motion being debated, though that vote was lost as the Left Unity majority were against it. However, we opposed the motion itself as it offered nothing new.

For example it counterposed the planned pay petition, with a public sector wide pay petition that largely did seem to be framed as an end in itself rather than a tool for organising. The author of the motion also framed PCS’s focus on organising as “dogmatic,” suggesting that the union is too focused on that approach. This ignores the reality that we’re actually late to the party on organising, and only slowly, haltingly turning in the right direction. It also offered no concrete suggestion of what the SP would do differently except, perhaps, not engage in the necessary organising work.

We’re not particularly interested in the two fragments of the decades-long establishment having a pissing contest for control of the union. What is important is what will actually build union power in the workplace and stand us a better chance of actually delivering effective industrial action.

The SP suggest that “There is a real sense that the 2020 national campaign is being kicked into the long grass.” They may yet be right. But this would be the eleventh year that this has happened (most of which they ran the union for) rather than the first.

If the campaign is kicked into the long grass, though, it won’t be cause of the recommendations passed.

The union is more often than not making the right sounds about organising and building from the ground up. The problem isn’t that we’re talking about that, it’s that in practice most of the leadership are late and reluctant converts to an organising approach. They may even have their fingers crossed when they say it.

As it becomes clear whether or not we’re in a position to deliver a ballot, it will be crucially important they we’re honest with members. If we cannot deliver, then we should be upfront as to why and exactly what shortfalls we need to address to fix that, and not be afraid of doing so even where it seems to go against factional interests.

If we think we can deliver, then we need to ensure that we have a good solid lead in rather than trying to win from a standing start as we have in the past. We need to clearly communicate an effective strike strategy, including targeted action, as this has something we have clearly failed to convince members of previously.

It will be impossible to do all of this, however, if just like in 2018 and 2019 the 2020 pay campaign’s main utility is as a proxy for the sectarian row between the two camps of a leadership which has mismanaged our national campaigning for at least a decade.

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