There has been something of a political earthquake within the PCS Union. What happens next?
Last Thursday, with the close of the union’s Assistant General Secretary (AGS) and National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, it was announced that John Moloney had won the AGS race. The incumbent, Chris Baugh, ran a close second and PCS’s Scottish Secretary Lynn Henderson came in last.
The rift in Left Unity
The reason this was a huge shake up is that John is a member of the PCS Independent Left (IL) grouping, effectively the official opposition to the leadership of the union in PCS Left Unity (LU). Chris was the official LU candidate, but only after a re-run election within the faction.
Originally, outgoing President Janice Godrich won the race after being backed by General Secretary Mark Serwotka. Serwotka wanted rid of Chris, and caused a significant rift in LU in his efforts to achieve that aim. When Janice had to step back due to ill health, and a full time official called Stella Dennis failed to beat Chris in her stead, Serwotka tagged in Lynn as the second unelected full time official to enter the fray. Not a member of LU, Lynn stood as a candidate supposedly “without factional backing,” as though having Serwotka behind her plus half of LU (some openly, others covertly) didn’t count.
Much of what happened in the year that this all played out, between Janice announcing she would oppose Chris and John ultimately winning the election, is at best embarrassing and at worst utterly damning. It laid bare for the world the utterly toxic culture that exists within LU. It’s a culture that has long been an open secret, both those within LU who ask questions and those who dare oppose LU facing a torrent of smears, hostility and bullying. But now it was laid bare, like a flasher moving from a dark back alley to a bustling motorway.
All of this also opened the space for John to secure victory, on a platform of rank and file control and workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage. It also, hopefully, opens up the space to discuss what we need to reinvigorate the union and reorient it towards its members.
What the turnouts tell us
Those at the top of PCS like to say that it is a “member-led” union. It would be truer to call it “activist-led,” but even that’s not strictly accurate. PCS is a typical, top-down, TUC union which has a fairly lively activist culture and a degree of autonomy at lower levels for lay reps but is still ultimately controlled by unelected, paid officials.
This election marked a substantial increase in membership participation, but the turnout was still a measly 10.5%. Immediately preceding it, the civil service pay ballot achieved an impressive 47.7% turnout; yet even with well-organised branches achieving upwards of 60 or 70%, overall the union didn’t reach 52.3% of members to convince them to vote, thus once again falling foul of the turnout threshold of 50% imposed by the Trade Union Act.
The strike ballot turnout speaks of a significant improvement in the union’s organising efforts, with face to face conversations recognised as fundamental and new technology allowing reps to map the vote in real time. But still, some branches struggled for resources and support. Union staff efforts weren’t coordinated with branches, priorities were dictated by a combination of abstract targets and occasional panic, and still the union’s organising efforts are anything but systematic.
This could be improved. With more focus and effort, and learning some of the lessons, we could drag the turnout over the line with another go. But this would still be a top-down organising model, the staff substituting themselves for the membership, and how well observed the action would be after we scraped over 50% is the elephant in the room. From previously, we know the answer: resolutely strong in some areas, but undermined by appaling turnout in others. Pumping up the turnout doesn’t plug the leaks in our picket lines.
Meanwhile, the election turnout shows that the vast majority of members have no interest in who runs the union. There won’t be a singular reason for this, but we can extrapolate that whilst some members want more choice (as suggested by this year’s bump in turnout) many more simply view PCS as a service. They’re union members, but they’re not organised.
The death of the broad left model
Our decline to this point has happened under the stewardship of LU. They’re not to blame for all of it; the public sector and in particular the civil service has been under unrelenting attack from the government for a decade, whilst the trade union movement in the UK has been in decline for nearly four decades following the retreat from the successive defeats that began under Thatcher.
However, LU took power by ousting the old, corrupt right wing that used to run the union. They supplanted the kind of people who viewed certain fellow trade unionists as “enemies,” worked with the state against left wingers, sabotaged industrial action by members and made secret deals with the bosses to feather their own nests. We’re well rid of that sort of thing, but the problem is that whilst LU replaced corrupt, right-wing post holders with ones who called themselves socialists and left wing, they did nothing to tear down the bureaucracy and barriers that exist within any union affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.
In two decades, the closest we’ve come to electing more full time officials that those required by the law is to pass a motion about reviewing the situation and do nothing with it. Whilst the National Disputes Committee may be authorising more action than ever, getting to that point is neither transparent for anyone who hasn’t done it before nor particularly easy when so many steps have to be done by PCS staff and lay reps simply aren’t allowed to step in and do it for themselves. These are but two examples.
This underlines the limitations of the ‘broad left’ model of trade unionism. Simply getting nominal left wingers into elected positions may be enough to force out the right wing, but it’s not enough to fundamentally challenge the bureaucratic nature of trade unions. That’s a structural issue, no matter who is in power.
Everybody wants a rank and file now
IL, and the PCS HMRC Rank & File Network (R&F) in Revenue & Customs Group, stood on a platform of building a rank and file movement to transform the union. How we do this is a debate that all activists in PCS have a stake in, because it’s an absolute necessity if we want the union to engage with its members and to build from the ground up a version of PCS capable of seriously taking on the bosses and the government.
This discussion has to open with us clearly defining what a rank and file movement actually is, because it is clear that LU members in particular misunderstand the concept. (How much of that misunderstanding is a cynical ploy does have to be questioned, since the emergence of R&F within HMRC provoked a hostility, hysteria and panic, in Liverpool in particular, that was at least as embarrassing and damning as the LU rift over the AGS election.)
In their response to the AGS election result, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) don’t say much at all. But one thing they do say is, that “re-engaging members in the union means having to build rank and file organisation in PCS branches.” They don’t expand much on this. However, they do say immediately after that “the pay campaign saw the growth of activist networks that can be built on,” suggesting that what they’re talking about isn’t that far removed from the status quo and that by “rank and file” they simply mean the activist layer of the union.
The Socialist Party (SP), of which Chris is a member, are somewhat more coherent when they speak of “an open, campaigning, socialist rank-and-file body that is supportive but genuinely independent of the PCS leadership.” However, that they are talking about “reinvigorat[ing] Left Unity” into this form, suggests that their version of a rank and file is one which excludes most of us who argue for such a movement, since we sit outside of LU!
Some of those who allied with the SP are no less confused than the SWP on what rank and file organisation truly means. In an election leaflet, HMRC LU members from Liverpool suggest that reps collectively deciding the line they will put to management in negotiations is “rank and file trade unionism in action,” when in fact it is nothing more than bog-standard trade unionism that should already be the norm in every branch and trade union side committee.
Lynn, by contrast, makes no mention of the rank and file. Instead, she argues against “the tired accusation of “bureaucrats” from my opponents’ supporters” as PCS staff “have been recruited from among strike leaders and radical campaigners.” This again ignores that bureaucracy is structural, and that it doesn’t matter where you get your full time officials from if lay members aren’t sufficiently well organised to take the lead and act independently of them.
With them where they will, without them where they won’t
This isn’t an abstract intellectual point, arguing over definitions. It matters because it defines the substance of our organising. Do we truly want a union where the members are in the driving seat? Do we want to build real power in the workplace? Do we want a union made of participants rather than service users? If so, we have to talk seriously about these ideas.
A rank and file movement isn’t just a bigger activist layer, as the SWP seem to suggest. It’s not just normal trade union structures functioning as they should, and nor is it the SP’s reinvigorated version of LU.
What it is, is a movement that is firmly rooted in the workplace. One where members aren’t merely consulted on the direction the union takes but get a direct vote at mass meetings. Where rather than looking to reps for individual representation or to solve things through a quiet word behind closed doors, workers tackle issues collectively and use direct action. Where the membership is not simply a stage army to be mobilised when the leadership at their convenience, but the driving force behind action. Where members aren’t “independent but supportive” or the vehicle to put leaders in power, but the fire under their backsides and the force to hold them accountable should they err.
None of this will emerge overnight, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If we want to be able to elect all our officials and hold them accountable, and to win real victories over the bosses, then we need to start somewhere.
The time for broad lefts is done. Let’s build the rank and file!