National pay campaign fatally undermined by PCS leadership

PCS is finally moving its national pay campaign in a direction that Independent Left supporters have argued in favour of for years. Yet even as it does, it has risked fatally undermining the campaign with its recommendation of the Pay and Contract Reform offer that has now been accepted in HMRC.

At its most recent meeting on 26 February, the National Executive Committee voted in favour of a national pay claim which finally put national pay bargaining and pay coherence front and centre. Rather than, as previously, a one-line demand for national bargaining that was overshadowed by the percentage rise demand, the union is now seriously pushing for coherence based on the best available across government and using sectoral pay claims as a stepping stone to that through a reduction in the number of bargaining units.

There are still issues. The claim lacks a living wage underpin, for example, at a point where the trade union movement is discussing whether the current £10 per hour standard demand should raise to £12 or even £15 per hour.

However, the PCS Independent Left has long argued for pay equality and a levelling up to the best in government as well as the intelligent use of the differing pay ranges across departments. This was part of the platform Assistant General Secretary John Moloney advocated in his election campaign. IL members on the NEC have also consistently advocated prioritising the national bargaining demands when discussing the pay claim over the years we have been elected to the committee.

Despite this positive move in terms of the pay claim, however, there are still significant flaws in the NEC’s approach to delivering on it. This includes the unwillingness to openly advocate for a ballot with a proper lead-in, to concretely set out plans for delivering increases in membership and in reps as part of our organising efforts, or to finish developing an industrial action strategy that it can sell to members.

On top of these flaws, the leadership has now managed to remove the second biggest Group in the union (and the largest Group to pass the 50% turnout threshold in a statutory ballot) from any potential action for the life of HMRC’s Pay and Contract Reform Deal. Worse, it has refused to commit to a policy of no detriment and trading off terms and conditions for pay and signalled to the employer that they believe doing so might even help them achieve their national demands.

Refusal to build for action

At the previous NEC, proposals by the IL to signal to members that action would be needed to win on pay, to develop plans on union growth and development of activists, and to finally pin down an industrial action strategy that members could buy into were rejected. The logic was that these things were premature and unnecessary.

This highlights the significant contradiction in the leadership’s thinking: at once short-termist and yet always hesitant.

Short-termist because it was clear in the contributions that they thought signalling the necessity to build towards action suggested that a ballot would have to be imminent before this happened. Ignoring the lessons not only of unions like the CWU, whose ballot for their Four Pillars campaign had a seven-month lead in, but also of our own past ballots where twice in a row events started late enough to leave staff and activists rushing to catch up with the union’s own timetable.

At the same time, the leadership’s hesitation means that the horizon is ever-shifting. Not because the heavy lifting with members is being done, and members are aware that a strike ballot is coming but only once we are organisationally ready, but because committee meeting after committee meeting takes the firm decision that there will be actual decisions made at the next committee meeting, and all of this is far removed from actual members in workplaces or the organising work necessary to make the union ballot ready.

This approach is not only why members are likely to find out a ballot is coming a couple of weeks before it starts (if they’re lucky), but also why developing and publicising a concrete plan for targeted industrial action still hasn’t happened. This despite the NEC deciding to do exactly that on multiple occasions, including before both statutory industrial action ballots several years ago.

At the NEC Campaigns Committee and the NEC itself, it was admitted that the current pay campaign is a top-down initiative, lacking the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that might otherwise be expected when an issue captures the imagination of branches and members. In some ways, this is unavoidable due to the pandemic and the current circumstances. However, it is also not particularly new that national campaign initiatives would occur at a distance from workplaces, and in many cases even workplace-based activity would be announced at incredible short notice – including appearing on the union website on the day they should be happening.

This is a symptom of a wider malaise in the union. PCS aims to be an organising union, i.e. one that involves the mass of members in activity to win collectively and shift power to the workers, but in practice is still stuck on mobilising and servicing. In other words, staff and activist-led activity with membership involvement limited to specific set pieces, and the union as a largely external body which provides services like representation.

Fixing that requires a culture change that the leadership is, being generous, nervous about broaching.

HMRC Group: In or Out?

When barracking the HMRC Group Executive Committee into voting to recommend the Pay and Contract Reform offer, the Group Secretary categorically stated that doing so would not take the Group out of the national pay campaign.

When asked at a reps meeting, the General Secretary was clear that HMRC could not be part of the national pay campaign if the offer was accepted.

The latter position was probably a more realistic reflection of what was likely to happen. Not least because many reps saw the inclusion of the DWP Group after the Employee Deal as dragging the ballot turnout down. However, if that’s the case, it begs the question: is what results really a national campaign? How do you get pay coherence and national bargaining across the Civil Service when excluding one of the biggest departments?

The IL view is that, whilst recommending the offer was a mistake and does undermine the national campaign, the answer to that is to try and bring the Group back in rather than to leave them out for the life of the offer and (in essence) hope nobody notices you have a wheel missing.

The General Secretary and NEC majority’s view is that a ballot on pay isn’t imminent anyway, with the pandemic ongoing and where the government’s roadmap out of lockdown leaves us being unclear. This is a fair enough view, but also cements the fact that there is time to do the necessary work to bring HMRC members with us – we would clearly not be trying to convince them (or anybody else) to vote yes to industrial action on national pay too soon after telling them to vote yes to a deal on departmental pay.

This means what we should be doing, and should have time to do, is build in the Group. Five thousand new members joined PCS to vote on the offer and, although the failure to organise around the issue of pay is demonstrated by the fact that membership continued to decline in 2020 whilst the secret talks were ongoing, the task now is clearly to give those members a reason to stay. Alongside that, those who feel betrayed by the offer and PCS recommending detriments need to be won around, and shown that there’s still a reason to be in the union and a fight to be had.

Demands for national pay bargaining, alongside other elements in the pay claim which the HMRC offer did not achieve (and for some actually lost) such as more leave and shorter working hours, provide an opportunity to do that. Unfortunately, the NEC majority didn’t see it that way and instead have effectively opted to exclude HMRC from the national pay campaign.

The caveat on that was that ballots over the Civil Service Compensation Scheme or pensions would of course include HMRC members. However, that doesn’t answer the issue of winning on pay nationally without all constituent parts of the national union.

The risk of future trade-offs

Aside from the role (or not) of HMRC in the national campaign, the other major concern from the endorsement of the PACR offer is what it means for similar offers in the future. Will the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence, where contrary to the HMRC position the PCS leadership opposed what was on offer, come back with deals modified to reflect what was accepted in HMRC?

The NEC paper on the national campaign said that negotiators “advise[d] the Cabinet Office that this year, we would be likely to submit sectoral pay claims alongside our national claim” and “in talks on the pay remit guidance, we would be pressing for the flexibility to allow business cases that could widen the financial scope.” This in itself is fine, as alongside national demands we absolutely should pressure permanent secretaries to make the case to the Treasury for more money. However, as proof that “this could be achieved even in the context of a pay freeze,” they cited “numerous examples where we had secured deals of this nature before in similar circumstances, notably in the Home Office, Department for Transport, Department for Work & Pensions and currently in HM Revenue and Customs.” [Emphasis added]

The nature of the DWP and HMRC deals, and that they are cited as positive examples of achieving pay flexibility, begs the question: is a fully funded pay rise with no detriment still the policy? Or is trading off terms and conditions for pay now part of PCS’s strategy?

That the NEC voted down a recommendation from the IL to reaffirm the policy of full funding and no detriment, and that in their contributions some NEC members even suggested that detriment is an inevitable part of negotiations, is very worrying.

There is an alternative

The PCS Independent Left has won the argument over a coherent set of pay demands rooted in pay equality across departments, and that a serious industrial action strategy must consider targeted action, paid for from a strike fund. However, whilst slowly adopting the ideas we have argued for, is still failing to properly develop the national campaign we need.

It is reticent to develop a strategy of action that members can buy into. It is unwilling to properly engage members on getting ballot ready, with a consistent message that action is needed and cannot be delivered at a snap of their fingers. Now, it has signalled to the employer that it may trade off conditions for pay and opted the second largest Group in the union out of the national campaign. Their approach is not one that can deliver real gains for members.

Despite the employer mobilising it’s forces towards a ‘yes’ vote, with members bombarded every working-hour with propaganda for the deal, some might say the HMRC ballot result is an affirmation of the union’s policy to advocate for the deal. As we’ve said before, we understand that many members will have been tempted by the money on offer. So desperate to make up even a modicum of the loss in pay seen over the past decade that they saw the sale of significant contractual terms to the employer as the only option to achieve that. But this desperation is not the glowing endorsement the Group leadership thinks it is. Rather, it’s an indictment of the lack of confidence they have enshrined in our membership to fight and win on pay for the 15-plus years they have been at the helm.

If they remain in leadership we should, and will, still push for our union to do better. But we stand a much better chance of doing that if we are able to both build at the grassroots and change the leadership to one that seriously supports those efforts.

For real change, and a real chance to build a winning campaign, please support Independent Left candidates in the upcoming national and Group elections.

Our candidates for the NEC:

President

Bev Laidlaw, DWP

Vice Presidents

Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Chris Marks, DWP; Phil Dickens, R&C

NEC ordinary members

Tom Bishell, DWP; Bryan Carlsen, HSE; Ralph Corrigan, PSg; Phil Dickens, R&C; Chris Hickey, MHCLG; Karen Johnson, MHCLG; Bev Laidlaw, DWP; Chris Marks, DWP; Paulette Romain, DfT; Matt Wells, DEFRA

See who we support for the HMRC GEC here and our candidates for the DWP GEC here.

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