The PCS National Executive Committee met via Zoom on 24 June. As previously, the meeting was scheduled for three hours. However, the agenda this time around was a lot bigger and a lot of issues didn’t get discussed as a result.
Pay and COVID-19
At this meeting, the decisions to be taken on pay and COVID-19 largely amounted to practical implementation of strategic decisions taken previously.
On the pay campaign, the NEC previously decided to run with a government petition and use both the Callhub and Organising App to record conversations with members, their commitment to signing the petition (or not) serving as a structure test to help determine our ballot readiness. Now it was just a question of the steps necessary to make that happen.
The Five Tests for Safe Workplaces have also been previously agreed and publicised, with the Organising Committee working on ways that branches could use these not just “behind the scenes” but to engage with members and build participation and workplace power as a way to enforce agreements. The outstanding question therefore was on how we approached the relaxation of the two-metre social distancing rule in England. Taking a stance that it should apply in all departments, not least those with offices in the devolved nations, was unanimous.
Despite this, the debate still saw a retreading of the row between the Socialist Party-dominated Broad Left Network and their former comrades in Left Unity over supposed rival strategies. As we have previously written, there is no actual alternative strategy at play in the SP/BLN’s opposition, nor do LU have the perfect strategy bottomed out.
There is still a long way to go to bridge the gap between our rhetoric on organising and a reality where we have branches broken and stripped of activists by office closures (as in HMRC), other branches closed off from their own members by those who primarily value their own place in control, and yet others still who feel a desperate lack of support from the wider union. Not only is the union leadership unwilling to acknowledge and address these things (as in some cases it would mean discomfiting their own comrades) but to a great degree our union is still entrenched in a culture of mobilising rather than organising.
Until our union can address this honestly, or we can build an independent rank and file movement capable of forcing the necessary culture change, we will face the same uphill struggles in every campaign.
Following on from the attacks on the union by the government in 2014, including the wholesale withdrawal from collecting union subscriptions through members’ wages (check off), the NEC of the time set out a Strategic Review and following that period Conference in 2018 agreed Strategic Objectives in order to ensure the survival of the union both financially and organisationally. The SO period ends in December this year.
In some cases, it is evident that we are better off than we were in 2014. The union’s finances have stabilised. The heroic effort by reps and members to effectively re-recruit the entire union membership by signing them up to direct debit prevented the financial devastation intended by the removal of check off. However, where we had a goal of increasing membership to 200,000, the number in the union is less now than it was in 2018 despite the civil service growing in size over that period.
The NEC has agreed to a full analysis of the reasons for this and a special meeting to decide next steps, including democratic accountability. The IL position in regard to the latter point is that fresh NEC elections and a Conference (even if it is of necessity virtual or some kind of physical-virtual hybrid) must happen this year as part of that process. We put up motions to that effect, but they weren’t heard, though we understand the question will be considered at the next NEC.
We also believe that there must be no “no go areas” in terms of possible options to resolve the current situation. Previously, the union has restructured in the sense that it has shed staff and consolidated its estate, and of course the standard response to trade union shrinkage is mergers into “super unions” which have large amounts of members but not necessarily any substantive industrial power due to how widespread and disparate that membership is.
Our point was that any solution to the current situation must not merely be about securing PCS as a business and financial concern, but primarily focused on PCS as a collective as members. Reforms which increase democracy in the union, particularly shop floor direct democracy, and help us to build union power will be the kind of reforms which help us to build the union, where as a purely technical reform which shores up our finances at the expense of democracy and the resources to support organising will likely be a disaster in the longer term.
Similar concerns exist around mergers with other unions. Not least because, beyond PCS’s specific situation, the TUC as a whole is facing a generational shortfall in membership which raises questions over how much of it will remain in a decade’s time.
What the guillotine felled
The NEC has been meeting roughly fortnightly across the present period. Each time, the centre of the discussion has been the coronavirus pandemic and the national campaign. This is correct, of course, as the pandemic has defined how we are currently operating and generated enormous amounts of work for reps at all levels to deal with whilst the national campaign demands – particularly our stagnant pay – have been brought into stark relief with the government’s recognition of us as ‘key workers’ despite us not being paid or treated as such in any meaningful sense.
However, it is no longer true to say that everything else has ground to a halt. Whilst COVID-19 remains a central issue, particularly with the easing of the lockdown and re-opening of workplaces at a time when many fear a second spike in deaths, there’s still plenty else going on.
Arrangements need to be made so that the NEC can discuss a full agenda. That may mean having a series of three-hour meetings across the weeks when, without the pandemic, the NEC would have met anyway so that the usual full variety of papers can be discussed. (We would not be so masochistic as to suggest an entire day, or days, on Zoom in one burst.) We could then still have the more frequent meetings fortnightly to discuss the most urgent issues, whilst preserving the broader functioning of the executive.
Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter protests across the country and the world have happened largely independent of the trade unions, despite racism in and beyond the workplace being a trade union issue. The NEC was due to debate this, and in particular our attitude to the protests.
Whilst the union has put out statements in support of the movement, there are those who believe that we should not encourage attendance due to the pandemic. The Independent Left members of the NEC believe that whilst the risks of COVID-19 cannot be ignored, and attendance is an individual choice, we should both support those who wish to attend and encourage social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.
The narrative that BLM will be in any way responsible for a second spike in deaths is a right wing one, meant to draw attention from the re-opening of pubs and shops and the crowded scenes in parks and on beaches due to the government’s mixed messaging and poor policy choices. It also fails to recognise that the risk of transmission in the open air, with masks and social distancing, is minimal compared to crowding enclosed spaces like pubs.
Beyond that, there is a larger point that the best guarantee of physical safety at anti-racist demonstrations, particularly with fascists coming out in opposition as “statue defenders,” is large numbers. Face masks also then serve a dual purpose to prevent identification and targeting by either the far-right or the police. It is a dereliction of duty for the trade unions to ignore all of this and instead simply say they cannot encourage attendance – in practice, actively discouraging it.
The government’s intent to scrap reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, which PCS has policy to support, will have a clear impact on trans members in PCS and wider. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, the changes were purely administrative. Allowing trans people to self-declare their gender would have had a huge impact for them, letting them get on with their lives with far less bureaucracy and hassle, whilst having not impact on other existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 or the rights of women.
By contrast, the other measure which emerged with the scrapping of GRA reform would have a huge impact on wider society. Proposals to ban anybody with “male genitalia” from women’s spaces such as bathrooms and refuges are a clear signal to reactionary, transphobic sentiment that the government stands with them. What it means in practice is enabling transphobes to police women’s spaces on the basis of gender presentation and gender suspicion, meaning cis women who “look like men” will face as much harassment as any trans woman – whilst it will be far easier for transphobes to achieve their longstanding goal of morally mandating trans people out of existence.
The IL put forward a motion for the NEC to oppose these developments and produce practical guidance for reps and negotiators at all levels to protect members in the workplace. We hope that it can be heard and passed in the near future.
As communities across the world struggle to contain the pandemic and deal with the upheaval caused by it, the Chinese state is using the disruption as cover to brutally repress Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The National Security Law is currently being imposed on the Hong Kong people. It allows dissidents to be charged and imprisoned under Chinese law for sedition, treason and secessionism – the same methods that are used to suppress dissent elsewhere in China.
Trade unions have been at the forefront of the Hong Kong democracy struggle – founders and key activists of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and the Labour Party have been charged with offences of illegal assembly and other charges from last autumn’s protests – facing sentences of up to 5 years. If the Chinese government succeeds in its clampdown in Hong Kong, other union activists will be at the front of the line for attack.
A motion from the IL called for PCS to declare its solidarity with our trade union comrades in Hong Kong, primarily organised in the HKCTU and liaise about practical aid that we might be able to provide to them. Given the urgency of the issue and the principle of internationalism in the trade union movement, this is also something our union cannot wait until things are “back to normal” to take a view on.