To SWP comrades: where’s the politics?

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have decided to back Janice Godrich in the upcoming AGS (Assistant General Secretary) election within Left Unity. Of course this puts them in opposition to Chris Baugh and the Socialist Party (SP).

You can find the SWP’S reasoning for their decision here.

Once you get past what can only be described as political verbiage you get to the meat:

It is the SWP’s assessment that Mark Serwotka has been a driving force behind all of the national industrial action taken by PCS in recent years.

This does not mean we would never criticise Mark Serwotka’s leadership of the union. It is true that there has been an increasing reliance on officials rather than lay structures over the years when PCS has come under attack but has not managed to launch a national fightback. However this is a criticism that could equally be levelled at all of the senior officers of the union and is reflected in the operation of Left Unity as a whole.

However we think that of all the national officers of the union, Mark Serwotka’s policies are the ones that are most likely to lead the union to successfully fightback against the attacks we face. 

We believe that Janice Godrich is the candidate who is best able to work with Mark Serwotka to implement these policies. We also welcome her commitment to work to revitalise Left Unity.  It is on this basis we have decided to back Janice as the Left Unity candidate for AGS.

Boiling all the above down, the SWP’s position is that we don’t want to fall out with the General Secretary and so we will support Janice Godrich.

Note that they don’t demand as part of their support that there be less reliance on officials and more on lay structures; they don’t demand that Janice stand on a worker’s wage; they don’t demand that Janice should be recallable; in other words they don’t put any of their own politics forward.

Instead of demands and making their support conditional on those demands being met, they say:

We will argue within her campaign that it is necessary to renew the left in the union based on relating to the political movements outside of the union, combating racism and all forms of discrimination and at the same time re-building workplace based organisation and the most militant possible action to defend our members both locally and nationally.

Of course, Janice Godrich knows that she can ignore the SWP’s arguments as they have pledged their support already.

Their position is more akin to court politics rather than class politics. They see that the King wants one candidate rather than another. Instead of independently, in terms of their own politics, evaluating the candidates, putting demands on those candidates, or even standing their own candidate in LU, they go along with the King’s preference. All this whilst acknowledging that Mark Serwotka has not managed to launch a national fightback for years – which if course is true of Janice Godrich and Chris Baugh.

In contrast the IL will stand a candidate on a worker’s wage, who will argue for a bottom up transformation of the union where members are really in charge and led the union. In other words our candidate will be much closer to the formal politics of the SWP than Janice Godrich. So comrades in the election you have a choice; the King’s choice or backing someone who actually will try and deliver what you say you want in the PCS. So whose side are you on?

The tasks ahead for PCS

PCS is at a crossroads. Having failed to break the 50% threshold in our first national ballot since the Trade Union Act came into force, we still have to deal with a government and employers on the offensive against our members. All whilst the ruling Left Unity (LU) faction digs the trenches for a bitter civil war. Where do we go from here?

When it was first announced, ahead of the union’s annual conference in May, President Janice Godrich’s decision to stand for Assistant General Secretary against incumbent Chris Baugh raised eyebrows. The Socialist Party, of which both were members but which backed Chris as AGS, was incandescent.

 

Others at Conference had a mildly entertaining source of gossip as the dividing lines were drawn up. Many of us wondered at the decision to put all this in the public domain right as the union was set to debate a national strike ballot over pay which would be our biggest test in recent years.

Thankfully, the spat never took off beyond a few Facebook rows and some tension at Conference. Not only would it have diverted from the pay ballot, but it would have widened the divide between the PCS leadership and members. Less than 10% vote in national elections, and there’s little reason to expect a dramatic shift from that in the AGS vote. If they don’t care who is AGS, why would the dispute over who is LU’s candidate to be AGS or the SP’s candidate to be LU’s candidate to be AGS bother them?

But with the pay ballot now a month in the past, the battle within LU has flared into life again. Support for Janice has coalesced into ‘Socialist View,’ a faction-within-a-faction. The Socialist Workers’ Party has, to nobody’s surprise, backed Janice because that goes against the SP. The SP, in their turn, have dedicated nearly 5,000 words to all the apparent shortcomings of LU’s leadership of the union. Of course, the SP valiantly tried in vain to set things right with only a commanding majority in the faction, but now have no choice to reveal it all now that it appears electorally beneficial to do so, instead of denying or justifying it as they had previously.

This utter farce may be amusing at a distance. But sadly, it’s all going on right when the union needs to regroup after the pay ballot result, when pay battles at Group and branch bargaining unit level are still going on – most notably in the Ministry of Justice, and when it’s clear that in some areas PCS needs to be entirely rebuilt from the ground up. Neither LU candidate is offering that, because LU itself is a significant part of the problem.

Not a broad left but a fighting rank-and-file

The SP is now claiming, as many of us have known for a long while, that PCS has been beset by creeping bureaucratisation and the handing of control from lay reps to full time officers. However, they were part of the problem, and their analysis of how it arose and how it can be changed misses the mark.

Despite their claims, there was never any great effort to democratise and transform PCS. The wholesale corruption of the old right wing is gone, of course, but this merely moves us back into line with the mainstream of the Trades Union Congress. The occasional left rhetoric cannot disguise that. Whilst the blame is placed upon Mark Serwotka for not acting on a motion to increase the number of senior full-time posts that are subject to election, the fact is that this motion itself only emerged late in LU’s (and the SP’s) dominance over the union structures. Other measures that should go alongside this, such as the principle of workers’ representatives only taking a worker’s wage, have consistently been resisted.

Both sides of LU remain wedded to the ‘broad left’ model of organising, trusting that putting the right people in positions of influence is enough to set things right. They can, from above, guide members to the fight and counter the pressure upon all union leaderships to reach an accommodation with the bosses. This is of course nonsense.

What we have seen in practice is that LU wasn’t the victim of creeping bureaucratisation but that from the off it transplanted its own into the pre-existing bureaucracy. Jobs for the boys/party members. Meanwhile, it cemented its own power by recruiting and expanding in the apolitical way that cults do – establishing loyalties through friendship before making membership part of that friendship, so that instead of political allegiance you have out-group hostility where disagreement is immediately taken as (and in consequence, from them often manifests as) personal attack.

Trade union leaderships, left or right, will always face pressure to accommodate the bosses. It’s part of the job – why would they give the union a seat at the table if they couldn’t keep their members in line once a deal is made? And if everything is run from the top down, as in the broad left model, there’s no counter pressure.

Negotiators aren’t able to win concessions from the employer through their wits and silver tongues, whatever some may claim. The bosses will talk and make a deal when the union has leverage – a strength of numbers and feeling that, if not assuaged, could threaten disruption. But if that leverage is controlled from the top, as in the way PCS have tended to run things with members moved like chess pieces when convenient, it’s essentially a bluff.

To go beyond that, we need a movement organised from the bottom up. Not a broad left, but a rank-and-file which can cause disruption for the bosses if they won’t bargain – and a headache for the negotiators if they give too much away or reach a compromise the workforce aren’t happy with.

This is the other piece of the puzzle. We need a change in leadership, of course – the Independent Left doesn’t exist because we think LU are doing a great job. But we also need a membership organised and confident enough to put pressure on and hold any leadership to account – and to act independently of the leadership, if necessary.

The need for a pay conference

The last meeting of the NEC agreed to discuss in September the date for an ‘event’ around pay. There was some disagreement over this, with the SP arguing for it to be held urgently in September or October whilst the rest of LU supported the idea of it being in November or January.

The date such an event is held isn’t the key issue here. It certainly shouldn’t be put off into the new year, nor held so hastily that there is no chance for all members to have input into it. Far more crucial – as the Independent Left’s member on the NEC, Phil Dickens, argued – is that branches are encouraged to hold members’ meetings ahead of time in order to properly mandate delegates so that it can be as democratic an event as possible.

Members in many areas question why we are still asking for 5%, a claim now several years old, when our pay has fallen an average of 12-14% behind the cost of living. During the ballot, it became clear that many expected a positive result to lead to a one-day strike or a series of one day strikes. A special delegate conference on pay is the chance to properly engage members on these points, amongst others, and to get the broadest possible buy in for both demands and a strategy that are far more radical than anything we’ve ever put forward before.

It is also a chance to see what other issues fit well alongside pay in a national campaign. The employer is determined to link pay to terms and conditions, and we should seriously discuss whether our answer to that is radical demands for vastly improved conditions as well.

Build the Fighting Fund

Independent Left members argued for years that the union needed a fighting fund for prolonged selective action. Now that we finally have one, it is coming up short in terms of money and no serious effort has yet been made to build it.

Part of the problem is that not enough members are paying into the levy, which does need greater take up. But as both the National Gallery and the Merseyside ISS disputes showed, this is only part of the battle. Great amounts of money can be made through crowdfunding, bucket collections, motions of solidarity at trades council meetings, and more.

On a more ambitious scale, fundraising events are a way to at once fill the coffers and build a cohesive sense of community around the union. The film Pride covers the Pits and Perverts concert organised by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, whilst all the current talk in the media of reviving the Anti Nazi League should remind us of the massive carnivals that they organised to bring in money.

The trade union movement is still capable of organising such things, on both a local and national scale, and there needs to be a serious push to do it. If we put the work in, the target agreed by Conference of £2m by 2020 will appear under-ambitious.

Organise outsourced workers

Across the government estate, there are a great many outsourced workers. Those who have either been privatised or brought in as contractors are occasionally PCS members, but more often they’re not – and no serious effort has been made to organise them on a national scale.

The recent three-day strike at the Ministry of Justice by cleaners in the United Voices of the World union puts this into stark relief. Whilst the Culture Sector is ahead of the curve in this area, perhaps because their members have overwhelmingly been privatised across the board, the scenes at Petty France were unprecedented across most of PCS. The vibrancy and militancy of the picket even put the higher density areas of the civil service to shame!

The UVW’s efforts should be applauded. But PCS should not be waiting on another union to come along and do this work, it is something we need to be doing ourselves.

We know the reasons why it isn’t. When Bootle Taxes Branch were trying to get their ISS campaign off the ground, they were discouraged at every turn and the union’s organising department bluntly deemed it not worth the full-time resource. Fortunately, the branch dragged the union along with them by doing it anyway, but should we really have to fight the union to organise in this area?

A coordinated fight for better pay and conditions across in house and outsourced staff would boost the confidence of both. Victories would create an upward pressure on wages. Perhaps most crucially, a serious commitment to organising privatised staff undermines the main incentive of privatisation – cutting costs and eroding workplace rights. The task is as urgent as any in the union.

Let’s do something about it!

PCS Independent Left will continue to consistently argue for the concrete change needed to put our union on the front foot. We will stand candidates in elections on that platform, including for the hotly-contested AGS post. We will also continue to put our money where our mouth is by working to make it happen in our branches, our groups and nationally.

Do you agree with what we’re arguing for? Why not join us and get involved?

 

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IL will stand AGS candidate

At its summer general meeting the Independent Left (IL) made the decision to stand a candidate for the Assistant General Secretary (AGS) election, which will take place next year.

This is to allow members a real choice between the status quo (as represented by Janice Godrich and/or Chris Baugh) or radical change in the union.

Our candidate will stand on a worker’s wage – they will not accept the £90K that is on offer.

Both Janice Godrich and Chris Baugh are content for PCS to remain a typical TUC union.

So full time officers (FTOs) are paid wages that many PCS members can only dream of,  there are no elections of FTOs beyond those required by law and there is top down organisation where branches and activists have to ‘go’ to FTOs to get things.  Most conference motions passed remain unactioned and the members are there to do the things that the leadership wants; to be switched on when needed (to vote in the strike ballot) and to be switched off when not (as between the end of the consultative ballot and the beginning of the ballot campaign proper – our only role being to arrange increasingly pointless pay day demos).

Neither candidate recognise the state that the union is in. Unfortunately failing to reach the legal threshold in the pay strike ballot does not seem to have acted as ‘wake up’ call to either of them.

In contrast we want all FTOs on wages that are the same of those they serve; all FTOs who represent members to be elected; for PCS to be really a membership lead union; for the union to back members and activists who want to fight, rather than act as a brake; for the union to be open so members are told in detail what the union is doing; for lay officials to lead all negotiations and for democracy to be more than just annual elections and conferences.

We recognise that losing the strike ballot demands a fundamental re-think of how we organise and work. We truly do ‘get it’.

Electing our candidate will not be enough but we have the choice; more of the same or a start towards radical change.

For freedom in the work place

During the recent balloting period, the state, in the guise of the Civil Service effectively banned freedom of speech and freedom of association in the work place.

PCS members weren’t allowed to officially hold strike ballot meetings in offices, we couldn’t use work emails to argue for a Yes vote or distribute official union material in the workplace. Indeed the Civil Service guidance went so far as to effectively ban members talking about the ballot in the workplace. In recognition of this, PCS in DWP issued guidance telling activists to carry out all strike ballot activity outside the office.

No doubt some branches got around these restrictions but the point is that the majority did not (thus reducing voter turnout) and more importantly we shouldn’t have to – there should be no such restrictions.

The union over the years instead has adapted and accepted these constraints rather than fight them. So we collect private emails and numbers; stand outside handing out leaflets to those coming into work etc.

We must begin to campaign to change this. Members must be allowed the freedom to associate together in the work place by holding meetings; to talk to each other and to be given material in work – to exchange information and ideas – which is just another way of saying to be allowed freedom of expression.

We to make a big deal of all this with members. It must be raised with MPs and legally challenged. The Labour Party should be asked to agree that if in power they will lift all restrictions on association and free speech. We should defy the restrictions, where we can, and with the full, open backing of the union.

Firstly though we must regain our sense of outrage that the state can tell ‘citizens’ what they can talk about and what they cannot!

For a real pay conference

The NEC is considering whether to hold a pay conference. In principle we are in favour of such a conference as we are in favour of allowing activists and members to have a real say in how a pay campaign is run.

Whether to hold such a gathering though has lead to a split in Left Unity; with some of the Godrich faction saying no and the Socialist Party (SP) arguing for it.

In posting on its website the SP argue:

We argued for an early special delegate conference in the autumn to take stock and determine the way forward.

Counterposed to our proposal and agreed by the NEC was an event planned for the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019.

Socialist Party PCS members are concerned that this is too late and means the NEC and senior full-time officers will make decisions without fully consulting reps and members who are responsible for delivering the ballot turnout in our workplaces.

We are concerned that if a special conference is not organised as soon as is practically possible, the pay campaign will be stalled until several months into the new year and momentum will be lost in preparing for the 2019 pay campaign.

We take all of the above with a big pinch of salt. Never in the past has the SP been worried that the NEC and senior full-time officers will make decisions without fully consulting reps and members; indeed it has been the SP’s normal practice for years not to  fully consult reps and members – or indeed to consult them at all. Only now have they started to worry about such things; only since the split with Janice Godrich; only since losing its majority on the NEC and only since Mark Serwotka  started voicing his criticisms of Chris Baugh.

In contrast our belief in democracy is not a matter of political calculation; something to believe in when convenient.

The SP and Janice Godrich are content to ‘run’ or it may be more accurate to say ‘manage’ the union. Orders come from the leadership and the activists/members’ job is to implement them.  This treats members as an inert body to which things are done to, and done for.

In contrast we want the members to be the active ingredient, for them to show local initiative; where activist and members actually do lead. So yes to a pay conference but that conference has to be part of persuading members/activists into self activity.

 

Don’t mourn, Learn!

PCS’s national ballot for strike action over pay failed to meet the 50% turnout threshold imposed by the Trade Union Act. This despite the most intensive period of activity in the union’s recent history. What do we learn from this? And what comes next?

The first thing to say is that despite the tangible sense of disappointment felt by all of us as activists, we can be proud. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but the commitment and effort of everyone who leafleted, who canvassed members in the workplace and who gave up their own time is not in doubt. But that commitment is also why this will be scant comfort, and many will want to know where we went wrong, and what we can do better.

Let’s focus on the positives first.

The activist training schools that ran ahead of the launch of the ballot, the first of their kind in PCS, were an extremely welcome development. They showed that at least parts of the union were beginning to re-orient towards the kind of organising we need, and a recognition that building from the ground up is vital. We need more of this, and a wider effort to teach all reps how to organise and build campaigns in the workplace.

Obviously, having an NEC that learns the lessons as well is vital.

Likewise, it was heartening to see not just the level of activity in terms of leafleting and so on, but also the amount of support given to branches by the union apparatus. The cooperation between branches, through town committees and similar, as well as the deployment of full time staff to enable local organising efforts both represent developments that PCS needs to maintain now that we have left the ballot period.

These efforts paid off in the level of engagement of members with the campaign, in the recruitment of new members (some 2,000 according to the General Secretary’s recent YouTube message) and activists, and in helping many branches improve their density and organisation levels. We need to ensure that the improved organisation is maintained, and the new activists are encouraged and supported in getting more involved.

In terms of lessons to be learned, the most vital one will be identifying where we are weak as a union and addressing that.

The consultative ballot last year gave PCS a breakdown of the turnout by office and branch which showed where our areas of strength and our shortfalls were. This was referenced in the efforts this time around, with more full-time staff and senior lay reps encouraged to leaflet in those areas. But there needs to be more than this now, that is a forensic examination of where the union is coming up short and a concerted effort not just to mobilise the next time a campaign requires it but to actively rebuild the union from the ground up. That must start now, as a matter of urgency, to lay down a foundation we need that can pay off in the future.

Which also highlights the lull in activity between the close of the consultative ballot and the decision at Conference to run a statutory ballot. The monthly pay protests continued, but little else from a national perspective.

There can have been no doubt that the consultative ballot turnout would lead to a statutory ballot. In the intervening seven months, we had ample time to lay the organisational groundwork for a decisive result. More activist schools, and earlier, covering not just what was needed during the ballot period but how we made the most of the lead up. Using the workplace mapping and organising skills those schools could teach to take a more deliberate and painstaking approach to getting ballot addresses, grade information and more that we needed absolutely correct. Building and maintaining the momentum of the campaign.

In some branches, these things were already being done as a matter of course. This is because amongst our lay activist base PCS has a number of skilled and experienced organisers who have been assets to the pay campaign. Co-opting such activists full time to the ballot effort would have undoubtedly made them even more effective, and it is something that PCS needs to seriously consider.

Where we are now is that we didn’t get the result we needed from the ballot. It is easy to take that as a defeat and call it quits, or (perhaps worse) to simply take it on the chin and try again in a few months and hope that it works out better then. Both approaches are wrong.

The union needs to be honest and transparent in its analysis of what happened. Where we did things right, we need to assess how we can make those things even more effective than last time – and, just as importantly, how in the meantime we can maintain and build upon the foundations they have given us. Where we got things wrong, we need to be willing to admit that, learn from it, and do things differently.

There are different challenges in this respect at different levels. The NEC will be discussing where we go from here, but similar conversations need to be happening in workplaces, branches, regions and groups as well. Learning from what we did wrong as well as what we did right, and addressing any hurdles or pitfalls we may face – even where ‘politics’ may dictate it is difficult or less than tactful to do so.

We can win this fight, and we can smash ballot thresholds in the future. Key to that is rebuilding the union and re-orienting it towards organising the workforce from the ground up.