The PCS National Executive Committee met on Thursday 21 January for its first meeting of 2021. The topics covered by the meeting included the Covid-19 pandemic, the national campaign over pay, Conference, the strategic options for the future of the union, and elections.
The NEC received an update on negotiations and organising around the pandemic. In particular, the push to ensure that the union’s demands in relation to the latest lockdown and health, safety and welfare concerns for members.
There were no recommendations in the paper, but in light of the National Education Union’s successful use of section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to force school closures, members of the PCS Independent Left put forward the following proposal: “In future, the union will complement the option of balloting members with immediate collective use of Section 44, as per the NEU’s example if the urgency dictates, and proactively support any collective use of this provision by groups of members, as the UVW have also done and are continuing to do.”
At the outset, the General Secretary stated that he was minded to oppose this however would reserve judgement based on the debate.
In that debate, members of Left Unity called for the recommendation to be remitted. The grounds for this were that although members needed as many options as possible to defend themselves, the legal situation and the specifics of various workplaces had to be taken into account in deciding how to take this forward.
These concerns are of course valid. When looking at how we utilise section 44, the nature of the workplace, the specific risks and legal advice obviously need to be taken into account. The NEU action and the advice given by the United Voices of the World, as well as their proactive support of members who walk out under section 44, highlight a number of approaches that can possibly be taken. It was pointed out that passing the proposal wouldn’t prevent the considerations that were the rationale for calling for remission.
In right of reply, the General Secretary supported remission and tried to frame the proposal as one for a blanket approach across the civil service which falsely equated the NEU situation with our own. He reported that he had spoken to the NEU, and they had withdrawn the advice to members and had encountered a lot of the difficulties PCS had anticipated when previously debating the issue such as members who exercised their section 44 rights not being paid. He also advised that the NEU wanted to speak to PCS about our industrial action strategy.
Of course, this framing doesn’t reflect what was proposed. The points made about ensuring that the specific circumstances were taken into account and approach decided accordingly are of course ones we advocate, as stated above. The proposal was ultimately remitted. Whether this is substantively different to the proposal falling, in terms of what happens next, remains to be seen.
The General Secretary moved a detailed paper on the national campaign, built around a series of ‘fair pay days’ used to advance our pay claim and build support amongst members.
What was proposed was the product of discussions in the Organising and Education Committee and the Campaign Committee, both of which the IL have a presence on and we supported the thrust of the paper and the actions detailed in it to build the campaign. However, there were things that we felt were missing from the paper in terms of putting us in the strongest possible position to deliver action that could win and we put forward proposals to address this.
We proposed “That the NEC agrees we should tell members now that our intention is to ballot, both in order to ensure we have as long a lead in as possible to any vote and so that we can impress upon all members and activists the importance of organising so we are able to deliver action.”
The argument for this was straightforward. We already know that a ballot and action is likely to be necessary to deliver victory on pay. The paper included discussing this with activists and making sure all branches developed a ballot ready plan. There was no logic, therefore, to not making our intent clear to members and using that to clearly set out what was needed to get to that point and ensure that we could actually deliver a ballot, the legally required turnout, and action from that. Otherwise, as in the previous ballots, we risked trying to do this from a standing start with too short a lead-in, and struggling to get to where we needed to be as a result.
In addition, we proposed “That the NEC agrees that detailed plans in respect of the following aspects of the campaign should be prepared:
- What any industrial action we take would look like, and how we can communicate that to members in order to build confidence we can actually win;
- How we will use the campaign and any ballot and action to recruit additional members;
- How we can ensure the widest spread of our message through social media and other arenas, including how we can utilise the talents of lay members and activists in both our own messaging and beyond our official channels;
- How we intend to rapidly reduce the number of workplace ballot addresses held and increase the percentage of members we have mobile and email contacts for;
- How we can use this activity to transform advocates into reps, particularly in areas where we currently have no or few reps.
“These should be available for consideration at the February NEC and ready to implement urgently following that meeting.”
Again, the logic here was simple. Almost all of the above list are things that NEC members have agreed we need to do, but which have yet to concretely materialise. For example, activists during the last ballot still had members who thought the industrial action plan involved one day strikes, and despite the union formally adopting a policy of targeted action, the National Disputes Committee meeting to consider that more than once during and since the previous ballots and seeking submissions from Groups about how this would work, no plan has yet materialised. Having a concrete plan in place rather than a vague aspiration makes these things more likely to happen, as we saw from them not happening previously.
Unfortunately, these recommendations were opposed by the General Secretary. Not on the basis that he disagreed with them, but that he felt they were ‘premature.’ He did commit that the issues in the proposal would be given proper consideration in due course. However, given that he said a ballot, if it happened, was likely to be in March/April – and how quickly that time will come around – this makes it more likely than not that we will be running to catch up with ourselves in the event we reach a point where we decide to ballot for action.
This makes it all the more important that branches and activists not only engage with those things the NEC did agree on the pay campaign, but that we ensure our own rank and file infrastructure is as effective as it can be, so that we can still deliver a campaign which builds the participation, confidence and combativeness of members.
The NEC received a paper with the proposed dates of the national and Group Conferences, the proposed topics for the four sessions of national Conference, and election regulations for the block votes at Conference. There were also two branches which put in motions opposing what they see as the NEC dictating the agenda of Conference and a further five branches which made representations to the same effect. However, the paper was agreed and a briefing will be issued to branches to that effect.
Strategic Options for the Union
The NEC was due to receive a report on the submissions to the consultation over the future of the union. This wasn’t yet completed and so it was agreed it would be produced for February and issued to branches as well as the NEC, with a further round of discussions across the union to follow. Until we see the detail of the responses, it’s not possible to say the direction this will take.
The IL put forward a motion addressing the traditional low turnout and asking the senior officers to look at measures we can implement to improve turnout. It said that in drawing up these measures they should:
- review what has worked in the past to boost turnout (e.g. did more members vote after each email reminder);
- see if lessons can be learnt from other unions regarding increasing the vote;
- and explore how far the limits placed on the union by anti-trade union law can be pushed as regards the NEC election.
This was opposed by one NEC member on the bizarre grounds that it was apparently factional and opportunistic. Others engaged with the proposal honestly but also opposed it on the grounds that not much could be done in time for this year’s elections.
We were able to propose that, since most of the NEC appeared to agree with the intent, the motion could be remitted instead of voted down. This means that the proposed actions can be taken forward without any concern over stringent time limits, and as part of a longer, ongoing discussion about boosting participation in our union’s democracy.
Other items covered
The agenda for the NEC was packed, and the NEC also discussed papers on finance, motions to the Scottish and Youth TUC conferences, membership data, a donation to support the Durham Miners’ Association’s renovation of its Redhills site, and more.