The future of PCS – where are we heading?

On 30 September, the National Executive Committee met to discuss the strategic options for the future of PCS.

The NEC had previously agreed to commission scoping papers on the options for the union going forward. This was on the back of the news that not only had we not met our target of 200,000 members by 2020, but we actually had less members than when we set that target. We were also spending over 50% of subscription income on servicing the machinery of the union, including staff costs and a legacy pension deficit, rather than on members. In General Secretary Mark Serwotka’s eyes this left us only two options – to restructure, including the likely reduction of staff, or to merge with another union.

The debate at the NEC

With the date of the meeting set over a month in advance and the subject of the debate not likely to radically change at a moment’s notice, the papers were promised at least a week in advance. In the end, they came just like all NEC papers; two days before the meeting and with a 24-hour window for any proposed amendments. This didn’t bode well for the notion of a full, informed discussion at all levels of the union.

The General Secretary asked the NEC to endorse the draft scoping paper as the basis, with NEC members’ comments, for a final version to be agreed at our October meeting. He also recommended that the document was issued to branches, in line with the amendment that IL NEC members successfully moved previously to ensure that the debate happened openly rather than behind virtual closed doors at the top of the union.

His final recommendation was for “meetings of reps and members are held virtually in groups, regions and nations and equality forums, and encouraged in branches, to discuss the document, and a report of the meetings is provided to the NEC in January 2021.” We proposed an amendment, which was agreed, to make the involvement of branches more explicit rather than an optional extra.

We also put forward an additional recommendation that members, reps and branches were encouraged to submit additional or alternative options and that any submissions or discussion documents received be circulated to the whole union. The rationale of this was straightforward in that it sought to ensure the official position of the NEC didn’t monopolise the debate and all contributions to the discussion would have equal reach.

The objection to this from the General Secretary was that, whilst he agreed that submissions should be encouraged on as open a basis as possible, distribution of these across the union would be unwieldly. Our suggestion that a dedicated page on the website to publish contributions to the debate would suffice didn’t allay the opposition, and some NEC members voiced a more general discomfort at the idea of members and branches engaging in this debate on a horizontal basis even though it would still in this arrangement be mediated by the NEC.

There was also a suggestion made that there were, ultimately, only two options and nobody had clearly articulated a third. However, the debate shouldn’t be about a simplistic “option A or option B” choice, but about looking at the various strands where we can improve things – culturally, in lay structures, and in the machinery – with the ultimate aim of building real workplace power as the route to grow.

Ultimately, the block opposition by Left Unity meant that the amendment wouldn’t pass. The General Secretary did, however, agree to at least take on board the spirit of the amendment in terms of encouraging submissions and that once they were received the question of publishing them across the union might be revisited. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen, as there is clearly not a great mood on the NEC to allow for branches to relate to each other except by going through the centre, but it at least leaves the door open to continue making the argument.

Beyond this, the bulk of the debate was members of Left Unity rebuffing a motion put forward by the Broad Left Network. The BLN motion argued that the scoping paper “attempts to push for particular policy aims” by “prejudicing a debate before it has been had.” This is certainly a view that is held wider, though in most instances the consensus was that the General Secretary supports a merger but wants to steer the debate in a very careful way, aware of the opposition to such a move. The BLN motion, however, appeared to suggest that the agenda was “weakening Group structures, of expanding multi-employer branches regardless of industrial logic and of the end of universal constituency elections in favour of fragmenting our election process.”

However, all it proposed was a further meeting of the NEC which would receive reports from consultations, costings and a financial paper, and a more detailed analysis of where we are. It was pointed out in response that the next meeting of the NEC would receive the final version of the scoping paper including a more fleshed out narrative from the organising committee as well as a financial paper from the Assistant General Secretary.

Scoping what, exactly?

One of the points that we raised was that the scoping paper didn’t actually scope out the options available in any detail. After four and a half pages of preamble, which was less an analysis of how we got here than a simple timeline, the paper finally got to the subject of restructure.

Here, rather than set out the possibilities in terms of the union’s staffing structure – how and where staffing resource could be redirected, what that could mean for organising capability, the possibilities for democratising the machinery of the union, and so on – the paper simply asserted that staffing reductions would be necessary. It then sidestepped the question of full-time structures to look at lay ones. Again, there was no attempt to set out the various possibilities and what they could mean but rather a set of open questions that hinted at the intent behind them but refused to spell that out or offer a rationale.

The section on a possible merger was even less substantive. It asserted that a merger could give us more industrial muscle whilst improving union services and amplifying our political voice but gave no rationale for why this might be the case. It then went on to insist on the transparency and democracy inherent to any merger process, clearly seeking to dampen down potential opposition early. The section ended by simply asking whether the exploration of a merger would be beneficial, the vaguest possible question since the paper offered no attempt to set out which unions could make industrial sense, the pros and cons, and the challenges we might face.

For the broad debate that the leadership claim to want among members, the draft scoping paper offered no substantive information. It is difficult to believe that this isn’t intentional; after all, it is far harder to set out what you think is the best way forward if you aren’t aware of all the possibilities and their various benefits and pitfalls. If all you can respond with is vagaries, then those running the consultation have much freer rein to interpret the answers in a way that suits them.

In response, it was suggested that this kind of detail would be drawn out of the responses to the initial paper, and that to offer it earlier would open the NEC to accusations to leading the debate in a certain way. This suggests, however, that only the options the NEC want will be detailed – meaning that the concern about responses being steered and interpreted in a way that best suits the leadership remains.

The Independent Left position

PCS Independent Left members on the NEC have made the point before that simply responding to the current circumstances on the basis of the union as a business doesn’t solve any of our problems. Over decades, unions have pursued top-down merger after merger, creating super unions such as Unite who can boast millions of members. It has done nothing to arrest the trend of declining trade union membership overall, a trend which is reflected in a generation gap – with workers on the cusp of retirement far more likely to be in a union and workers in the first decade or so of their working life overwhelmingly un-unionised. This is reflected by workers’ power, or lack thereof, in nearly all workplaces.

In PCS, 60% of union activists are over the age of 50. Our membership is overwhelmingly concentrated away from the areas of the civil service which are growing. Outsourced work, a considerable constituency across government, is in most cases effectively a greenfield site untouched by the union. Even in our areas of ‘strength,’ reps are buried under mountains of casework and there is no ingrained culture of grassroots organising and collective action to speak of. These things are fixable, but a merger will not fix them.

There are structural changes that we think will potentially make the union more accessible, democratic and dynamic, and that goes for the lay structures as well as the full-time structures. But if there is no attempt to sketch out the concrete rationale for this, then it will not be supported by reps. Whatever the benefits of the proposed branch structure changes that came out of the Strategic Review, trying to pass them through Conference as a revised model branch constitution engaged nobody and guaranteed that attempt to failure. The vagaries and unspoken agenda in the draft scoping paper is likely to fare no better. And if the structure of the full-time apparatus is off-limits, the idea of (for example) extending the election of paid officials not even thinkable, then what hope for a genuinely reformed union?

Almost unmentioned in the paper the NEC received was the question of the organising culture in the union.

An annex from the Organising and Education Committee offered a range of statistics and figures which should be of extreme interest, but there is still a substantive discussion that isn’t being had. To take one example, 52% of reps surveyed said that their involvement in organising was high or very high, yet 65% said competing priorities meant that they rarely had the time to speak to members face to face. This shows that ‘organising’ is primarily thought of as an administrative or executive function, and that the most basic building block of union power – face to face conversations with fellow workers – is something the culture of our union directs us away from. We are swamped with personal cases, or have a succession of meetings to attend, so simply don’t have the time.

The kind of change that the IL supports and has long argued for in PCS broadly falls into three strands:

  1. Reform of the union machinery. This means things like extending the election of full-time officials, a recall mechanism, transparent internal processes, rank and file control of industrial action, lay control of staff deployment, and so on.
  2. Lay structural change. There is a serious case for organising on an industrial rather than sectional basis, so that every member in a workplace is part of the same branch regardless of employer, whilst at the same time ensuring that negotiations with individual employers are led by democratically-elected lay reps as is currently the case with Groups and National Branches. This can’t be done without bringing the activists who populate the existing structures with us, and ensuring we protect what works and is effective. At the top of the union, the NEC is far less lay-led than most GECs, and there needs to be a serious conversation about how we can reverse that dynamic. Conference can also undoubtedly be made more accessible and inclusive in a way that ensures more business is done than currently.
  3. Building a real organising culture. Ultimately, the most effective way to grow the union is to build real power in the workplace. This means back-to-basics organising in a way which is only superficially reflected in the official stance of the union, and in many cases actively discouraged across PCS because “it’s not the way we do things,” or “we have to follow the correct procedures and escalation routes,” and so on. Building union power means encouraging genuine member participation in a way that shows them they are the union – identifying winnable issues in the workplace and taking them on through collective direct action. As long as the very notion of this is anathema to the culture in PCS, then we cannot hope to achieve the change we need.

These ideas can be greatly expanded upon, and this is something that the IL will be looking to do in the coming period in order to help shape the debate over the future of the union.

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